The Magnificent Yankee
Cast & Crew
Novelist Owen Wister, tells the life story of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and begins his tale in 1902, when Holmes, at the age of 61, left his home in Boston to serve as a Supreme Court justice in Washington, D.C.: After they settle into their new home, Holmes and his wife Fanny Bowditch Holmes visit the site of the 1864 Union attack against the Bloody Angle, a Civil War battle in which Holmes bravely fought as a union soldier. Holmes revels in the idea that he will be serving on a court with confederate soldiers he fought against in the war, but his optimistic wife encourages her husband to look to the future and continue to fight for his country. The cynical congressman Adams, the great grandson of President John Adams, regularly visits the couple and warns Holmes that, though President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Holmes to the court, Roosevelt is a detriment to the country. One day, despite the success of their marriage, Fanny tells her husband that she sees herself as a lesser wife because she is unable to bear him any children, but Holmes lovingly assures her that he has little interest in producing heirs. Running his office from his home, Holmes hires the top graduate of the Harvard law school as his secretary each year. Both Fanny and Holmes agree that these men, over the course of their year of tutelage under Holmes, might give them the pleasure of parenthood. Following his swearing-in ceremony, Holmes and his fellow jurists debate the significance of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and later hear arguments both for and against the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. When Holmes indicates his opposition to the anti-trust act, Roosevelt, a supporter, launches a personal attack on Holmes, saying that he could "carve a judge with more backbone out of a banana." Although the act is voted into law by a majority of five to four, Roosevelt continues his grudge against Holmes and vows to have him thrown out of the White House if he ever catches him there. Managing his staff with unyielding authority, Holmes issues an order prohibiting his secretaries from marrying while in his service. The edict is put to a test when Baxter, one of the judge's secretaries, resigns so that he can marry his sweetheart. Fanny, who believes that "a lonely heart is not the best heart to serve the law," urges Holmes to reconsider his rule and reject Baxter's resignation. Holmes eventually concedes that Fanny is right and decides to keep Baxter. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson nominates Holmes's friend Judge Louis Brandeis to a seat on the court, the first Jewish judge to be considered. During the six months of congressional hearings and fierce debate over the nomination, Holmes defends the nominee and facilitates Brandeis' confirmation. Holmes is soon dubbed "The Great Dissenter," but together with Brandeis, he builds a reputation for progressive judicial thought. Their friendship deepens as they defend legalizing labor unions and help define freedom of speech. While the majority of the court often votes against him, over the years Holmes enjoys the privilege of seeing many cases reversed in favor of his original vote. In 1921, many years after his arrival in Washington, Holmes, now a distinguished justice, celebrates his eightieth birthday with his many secretaries, whom he calls his "sons," but the celebration is soured by the fact that Holmes, despite his seniority, is passed over for the appointment of Chief Justice. In 1929, just before her death, Fanny secures a promise from her husband that he will continue his work on the court after her death. Holmes remains on the court until he reaches the age of ninety. Soon after Holmes retires, the stock market crashes, forcing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to close the country's banks for the first time in the nation's history. Roosevelt makes an appointment to visit Holmes to consult with the departing justice after the crisis. As Holmes proudly prepares to receive the president, he rehearses the only advice he knows to give the president, that in times of war one must "fight like hell" for one's country. As a final tribute to his faith in jurisprudence and his country, Holmes bequeaths the majority of his estate to the United States government.
John R. Hamilton
Robert E. Griffin
A. Arnold Gillespie
Jack D. Moore
William J. Tuttle
Edwin B. Willis
Best Costume Design
The Magnificent Yankee
Up to this point, Calhern was most often a supporting player, although certainly key to many fine films for his ability to play a range from dark drama to broad comedy. He was the flustered Ambassador Trentino in Duck Soup (1933), Cary Grant's superior in Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), Buffalo Bill Cody in the musical Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and the crooked businessman with a mistress (Marilyn Monroe) in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950). But Calhern also had a long and distinguished stage career, and it was that which landed him this plum movie part. In 1946 Calhern had a great success on Broadway in the story of Holmes' life from his appointment to the high court by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 (incidentally, the year Calhern began acting) to his final years under FDR (Holmes died in 1935). His performance won him a number of theatrical honors, and after its successful Broadway run, Calhern toured with the show for ten months. When MGM bought the film rights, Calhern was the only logical choice for what he always considered his favorite role. He subsequently played the part on radio and television as well.
The part of Holmes' long-devoted wife Fanny was played on Broadway by Dorothy Gish (sister of Lillian). But when casting began on the film, Calhern requested his old friend Ann Harding, with whom he had appeared on stage. In fact, Calhern was the best man at Harding's first wedding, in 1926. An acclaimed stage actress, Harding had a very successful Hollywood career in the early 1930s, starring in film adaptations of such popular plays as Holiday (1930), in a part later played by Katharine Hepburn, East Lynne (1931) and The Animal Kingdom (1932). She moved back and forth between stage and screen, but her film stardom didn't last long and, like Calhern, her movie roles in the 1940s were largely supporting characters in such films as Mission to Moscow (1943) and The North Star (1943). Before the two were given the leads in The Magnificent Yankee, MGM cast them as comic foils for onscreen daughters Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds in the musical Two Weeks with Love (1950).
Their work in the Holmes bio was highly praised, as was Emmet Lavery's adaptation of his hit play, which was based on a book by former U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle (one of the judges at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials). The story also depicted other famous people, including Holmes' colleague Justice Louis Brandeis (for whom the university is named) and, as narrator, Owen Wister, author of what is often considered the first Western novel, The Virginian. Although it was not a huge box office hit, The Magnificent Yankee fared well with reviewers. The only real criticism was reserved for the glaring fact that although all the other characters aged more than 20 years, Edith Evanson, as the Holmes' housekeeper, remained exactly the same throughout the story.
Director: John Sturges
Producer: Armand Deutsch
Screenplay: Emmet Lavery, based on his play and the book Mr. Justice Holmes by Francis Biddle
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editing: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Arthur Lonergan, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: David Raksin
Cast: Louis Calhern (Oliver Wendell Holmes), Ann Harding (Fanny Bowditch Holmes), Eduard Franz (Judge Louis Brandeis), Philip Ober (Owen Wister), Edith Evanson (Annie Gough).
BW-89m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon
The Magnificent Yankee
The order of the onscreen cast credits that appear at the end of the film differ from the opening credits, which list the stars of the film, Louis Calhern and Ann Harding, first. According to a December 1950 Los Angeles Times news item, the film was originally scheduled for a February 1951 general release, but had its premiere and limited release in December 1950 to qualify for the 1950 Academy Awards. Louis Calhern recreated his role from the Broadway production of Emmet Lavery's play which co-starred Dorothy Gish as "Fanny Holmes." Contemporary sources note that Francis Biddle, the biographer who provided the "source material" for the play, served as one of Justice Oliver Wendell Holms, Jr.'s young Harvard Law School assistants.
Material in the M-G-M Story Department's Index Films contained at AFI's Louis B. Mayer Library indicates that in 1943, M-G-M producer Voldemar Vetluguin wrote a screen treatment of Biddle's book of essays, Mr. Justice Holmes, and submitted it to the Hays Office for review. According to a 1947 ^LAEx news item, United Artists producer Benedict Bogeaus purchased the screen rights to Lavery's play with the intention of casting "a younger actor" than Calhern in the leading role. A July 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Bogeaus had actor Gregory Peck in mind for the title role at the time he purchased the film rights.
A June 1949 Daily Variety news item stated that Twentieth Century-Fox writer and director Shepard Traube optioned the film rights to the play. A New York Times article noted that on October 29, 1947, Lavery was replaced on a "contempt list" of the HUAC and was called to testify against Hollywood figures purported to be Communists. Lavery refused to "name names" and questioned the committee's Constitutional right to ask such questions. After assuring the committee that he himself was not a Communist, Lavery suggested that a better approach to curtailing the rise of Communism in the United States might be to "dramatize the American way of life," like showing "how good Mr. (Justice Oliver Wendell) Holmes was than how bad Mr. Stalin is." (For more information on the HUAC hearings, see the 1940's catalog entry for Crossfire." A Hallmark Hall of Fame television production of Lavery's play, which aired on February 4, 1965 and starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, received a Gavel Award from the American Bar Association. Calhern was nominated for a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Academy Award. Walter Plunkett's costumes were also nominated for an Oscar. Calhern and Ann Harding reprised their roles for a Lux Radio Theatre version of the story, which aired on May 19, 1962.