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In written onscreen credits, the actors and the characters they portray are introduced in the following manner: "Charles Coburn as Professor Henry Holmes," "Geraldine Fitzgerald as Edith Wilson," etc. Alexander Knox, although the star of the film, is introduced last. The film opens with the following written prologue: "Sometimes the life of a man mirrors the life of a nation. The destiny of our country was crystallized in the life and times of Washington and Lincoln. And perhaps, too, in the life of another president. This is a story of America and the story of a man. Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States." Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856 and died on February 3, 1924. He was inaugurated as President of the United States on March 4, 1913 and served until his defeat by Warren G. Harding in 1920. Under Wilson, a new era of government regulation was instituted, especially in the areas of banking, anti-trust and fair trade. Wilson presided over the Presidency during World War I, initially keeping the U.S. out of war and later, brokering peace with the Germans and proposing the establishment of the League of Nations as a part of the Versailles Peace Treaty. Although his proposal of the League was rejected by the U.S. Senate, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in late 1920. Unlike the film, in which "Ellen Wilson" dies before Germany declares war on France, war was actually declared several days prior to Ellen's death. The character of "Professor Henry Holmes" was a fictional composite of several men who advised Wilson during his political career.
Materials contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, disclose that Wilson was first conceived in April 1942 as a story about a family living during the early twentieth century. The treatments for that story, all written by Norman Reilly Raine, were variously titled Yankee Cavalcade, Goodbye Nellie Gray and Goodbye Dollie Gray. By January 1943, these treatments were superseded by a screen story titled Woodrow Wilson by Lamar Trotti. According to a March 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item, Trotti's script was based on Wilson's "private papers, a personal diary and unpublished letters."
Hollywood Reporter news items yield the following information about the production of Wilson: In early August 1943, producer Darryl F. Zanuck talked to Walter Huston about playing the title role. By mid-September 1943, Ronald Colman was being considered for the role of "Wilson" and Claudette Colbert for the part of "Mrs. Wilson." Although a October 26, 1943 item adds that Frank Conroy tested for a role, his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. A December 22, 1943 news item states that cinematographer Ernest Palmer was forced to withdraw from the picture because of illness, and was replaced by Leon Shamroy, who at the time was filming Greenwich Village. According to a January 31, 1944 item, James Basevi resigned as art director over a disagreement about the production.
According to a April 25, 1944 item, the picture cost over $4,000,000 to produce, making it the studio's costliest production to date. Eighty-four key sets were built, occupying seven sound stages, according to a November 16, 1943 item. Studio publicity contained in the Production files on the film in the AMPAS Library states that the picture cost $5,200,000 and included a total of 162 sets. An October 1943 item adds that all the sets were based on detailed accounts from authoritative reference works. The studio went to great lengths to duplicate the White House rooms as they looked in Wilson's day, according to a May 5, 1944 item. Studio publicity adds that architects authentically duplicated the East room, the Blue room and the Oval office in the White House. Also duplicated were the Lincoln bed, Wilson's desk and numerous other pieces of historical furniture. Artist Hector Serbaroli was hired to make copies of paintings that hung in the White House. To achieve the proper colors, cinematographer Shamroy had to add shades of gold, blue, orange, yellow and purple to white light. An February 18, 1944 item notes that the Democratic convention scenes were shot at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and the Princeton backgrounds were shot in Trenton, NJ, according to a October 28, 1943 item. Other backgrounds were shot in Pueblo, CO, according to a November 30, 1944 item, at the Midwick Country Club in Alhambra, CA, according to a December 7, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item, and at the Biltmore Theater in Los Angeles, according to a December 23, 1943 item.
A September 5, 1943 item notes that Twentieth Century-Fox film editor Walter Thompson went to Washington to secure 12,000 feet of newsreels shot during the Wilson and World War I era. Some of that footage was eventually incorporated into the World War I segment of the film. The music scoring for the film cost over $425,000, according to a June 29, 1944 item. The score included over 90 different tunes from the era of the picture. Among the songs used were "Oh, Susannah," "On Moonlight Bay," "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet," I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier," "I'm Giving My Boy to Uncle Sam" and "Old Nassau," the Princeton alma mater.
In 1943, before the film began production, a cast of 75 radio actors and the Gordon Jenkins orchestra, all under the direction of veteran radio director William Bacher, recorded the entire script of Wilson, marking the first time in motion picture history that a complete script was done on records before shooting, according to a September 27, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item. The film's New York premiere was attended by Mrs. Edith Wilson. Throughout the first year of its release, the picture was distributed on a reserved seat basis that required the purchase of an advanced admission. It did not go into regular price release until August 1945, according to a March 16, 1945 item. In August 1944, the War Department Board of Morale Services forbade showing the film in Army camps on the grounds that it violated the provisions of the Soldier Voting Act. That act prohibits the distribution to the armed forces of any material that May influence the results of a national election. The studio protested the board's ruling and it was overturned by late Aug, according to a August 21, 1944 news item.
To pre-empt plagiarism suits, the studio bought the screen rights to the 1944 book Woodrow Wilson by Gerald W. Johnson. The book was not incorporated into Trotti's screenplay, however. In 1945, Anthony Richard Pinci sued the studio for pirating his 1929 play Woodrow Wilson, according to a January 4, 1945 news item. The outcome of that suit is unknown. The film was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Alexander Knox), Best Director, Best Special Effects and Best Musical Score. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Best Color Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing and Best Sound Recording. The film garnered enthusiastic reviews. The Variety review gushed "[Wilson] can be its own Yankee good-will-getter abroad, perhaps of a value transcending statesmanship or lend-lease. For domestic consumption, it's a must."
Although a September 1943 Daily Variety news item noted that the film's screenplay was to be broadcast as a radio play before filming began, this has not been confirmed. Other productions based on the life of Wilson include a March 20, 1944 Hall of Fame Broadcast over the Blue Network that featured a condensed version of the film script; a May 13, 1961 NBC Our American Heritage teledrama titled Woodrow Wilson and the Unknown Soldier with Judson Laire and Humphrey Davis, directed by James Lee; and a October 3, 1962 NBC documentary titled The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, directed by Robert K. Sharpe.