Presidential History

First published in Film Score Monthly Online
November 2008, Vol. 13, No. 11

Political films rarely make money, so it is not surprising that only a handful of movies have been dedicated to the lives of the 43 Presidents of the United States. Most films relegate the presidents to bit parts and cameos or focus on isolated incidents during or prior to the presidency, taking whatever dramatic license is necessary. Though I prefer my future and past presidents singing and dancing (a la the Tony Award-winning 1776), following my friend Cary Wong’s gracious shout out to me in last month’s “Wong’s Turn,” I thought it only fair to offer up this trio of Golden Age presidential nuggets.

Abraham Lincoln
The ever-popular Honest Abe has starred alongside such unlikely co-stars as Shirley Temple (The Littlest Rebel, 1935) and Keanu Reeves (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 1989). Though the character of Lincoln had already appeared in silent films, Walter Huston was the first actor during the sound era to portray the 16th U.S. President, in D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930). Griffith’s first sound picture also marks the only feature film to date to attempt to portray Lincoln’s days in the White House.

Raymond Massey’s Oscar-nominated reprise of his celebrated stage performance in Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) may be the most recognizable portrayal of Lincoln on celluloid. But John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) is a far more satisfying film. With large doses of fiction, the film focuses on Lincoln’s early years as a lawyer. Henry Fonda imbues Lincoln with a humanity missing from what author Mark C. Carnes calls Massey’s “statue hiding in homespun.” But Fonda originally turned down the part.

“I didn’t think I could play Lincoln,” Fonda said in an earlier interview. “Lincoln to me was a god.” The studio persuaded him to do screen test wearing a false nose and a wart. When he saw his image onscreen, he thought, “‘Well, I’m a son of a bitch! It looks like Lincoln!’…Then he started to talk, and my voice came out, and it destroyed it for me. I said, ‘I’m sorry, fellows, it won’t work.” Ford would have none of it: “You think you’d be playing the Great Emancipator, huh? He’s a goddamn f-cking jake-legged lawyer in Springfield, for Christ’s sake!” (A far more sanitized version of the exchange was supplied to the press.)

Alfred Newman’s moving score occupies only the first half of the film leading up to the trial. Newman identified four themes in the score. The lovely main theme, “Lincoln’s Destiny,” may sound familiar to Golden Age fans. Newman used the “Destiny” motif again in numerous films, including the Shirley Temple vehicle, The Blue Bird (1940); A Man Called Peter (1955); and in the Civil War segment of How the West Was Won (1963), with Raymond Massey once again playing the doomed president.

Other themes include an upbeat “Funny Lincoln,” a plaintive English horn solo for Alice Brady’s “Mrs. Clay,” and a delicate love theme for Lincoln’s romance with “Ann Rutledge.” “Generally, I hate music in pictures—a little bit now and then, at the end or at the beginning,” Ford later told Peter Bogdanovich, “but something like the Ann Rutledge theme belongs.” It also “belonged” in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

Woodrow Wilson
Full-fledged biopics of the presidents are few and far between. Darryl Zanuck’s 1944 biography of Woodrow Wilson, entitled Wilson, was one of the most ambitious and one of the riskiest, as it focused on an unpopular president whose theories of internationalism didn’t exactly sit well with the isolationist sentiments found in much of the country once the tide had turned during the last year of World War II. But Zanuck’s riskiest move may have been his casting of obscure Canadian stage actor Alexander Knox in the lead role. Wilson was the longest male role in screen history and it was anyone’s guess as to whether or not Knox would be up to the challenge.

Zanuck felt great affinity for the subject matter, having worked for Wilson once when he was an army private during World War I. “You might ask why I’m doing Wilson,” Zanuck said in an interview at the time. “First off, I am doing it because I think it is the right thing to do at this time. I think that it will serve a tremendous purpose for our company, for our industry, and for our country, and furthermore, I will not start shooting it until I am completely satisfied that I have the opportunity of making it a popular entertainment. I will at least be compensated by making an important contribution that has the advantage of being significant and important.” He went on to say that unless Wilson was “successful from every standpoint, I’ll never make another film without Betty Grable.”

Though Henry King was signed on to direct, Zanuck was definitely in charge, appearing on the set, writing memos, rewriting the script, and “micromanaging” the project. Lamar Trotti’s script had 148 speaking parts and Zanuck had to secure permission from the heirs of 96 historical figures. Budgeted at $4 million (though later estimates raised the figure to $5.2 million), Wilson was the most expensive motion picture to date. Though the film received mostly glowing reviews, once the picture moved off the coasts and opened in the middle of the country, interest in the film lagged. “Why should they pay seventy-five cents to see Wilson on the screen when they wouldn’t pay ten cents to see him alive?” said Zanuck’s old family physician. By February 1945, an estimated 10 million people had seen Wilson at advanced price, yet Zanuck’s “thinking man’s blockbuster” lost $2 million.

Alfred Newman’s challenge was to weave 30 years of American popular and political tunes into the musical fabric of the picture. The music budget topped $250,000, an unheard of sum in those days, and the money helped secure a 125-piece orchestra, a chorus of 80 voices, and a 78-piece brass band. In the film’s pressbook, Newman wrote that “the 20th Century-Fox music department did an intense research job, unearthing the music that set every mood of the exciting Wilson era. Months more were spent in planning the lifelike presentation of each song. It all added up to a tremendous cavalcade of native American music—music that was unabashedly American, setting a ‘tone picture’ of an era.” Four dozen songs made their way onto the soundtrack (though press notices claimed 87), more than half of them sung or played onscreen. The newsreel montage offers an excellent example of the extent to which Newman incorporated these tunes into the score.

Of the 115 cues in the score, only 31 involve original Newman’s compositions. The crux of the score is Wilson’s theme, in which “I sought to express the man as straightforwardly as the tunes of the times express the America of a short generation ago,” said Newman. My favorite cue, featuring Edward Powell’s gorgeous orchestrations and those inimitable Newman strings, is a tender setting of “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” that hovers over the sick bed of the first Mrs. Wilson (Ruth Nelson).

Wilson was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won five, but lost the Best Picture prize to Going My Way. When Zanuck won the Best Picture Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947, he said, “Many thanks but I should have won it for Wilson.” The film occasionally shows up on the Fox Movie Channel, but it is still relatively unknown except among cinema buffs.

Under today’s Academy rules, with its use of pre-existing tunes, I’m not sure Newman’s contribution would have qualified for an Original Score nomination. Still, Wilson is a stunning, flag-waving musical achievement (and I mean that in the best way) by a master of the Golden Age.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
In 1958, Ralph Bellamy created a memorable FDR on Broadway in Sunrise at Campobello. The story begins on the day Roosevelt is struck down by polio in 1921 and ends three years later at the Democratic National Convention as Roosevelt re-enters politics with his “Happy Warrior” speech in nomination of Al Smith for President. When it came time to film Dore Schary’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Jack Warner urged Schary to cast Marlon Brando as FDR. But Schary insisted on Bellamy, who had not missed one of his 857 performances on Broadway, as well as the play’s director, Vincent J. Donehue.

The Los Angeles Mirror-News reported that there were “many raised eyebrows” over the casting of Greer Garson as Eleanor. The Beverly Hills Citizen proclaimed, “Leave it to Hollywood—they’ve got an Eisenhower Republican playing Eleanor Roosevelt!” But the role “had intense, personal meaning for me,” said Garson. “I consider portraying her to be a great privilege.” She considered it to be “the greatest moment of my career.”

The talky film definitely belies its stage origins, but it allowed the country its first glimpse into the origins of Roosevelt’s disability, which was kept a secret from the public during his tenure in office. Bellamy is FDR, and Garson, unfortunately saddled with prosthetic buckteeth and Eleanor’s vocal tics, earned an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. The best scenes are the quiet moments with the chemistry between Bellamy and Garson creating a loving couple, even as Schary’s script glosses over historical evidence to the contrary.

One of the strongest elements of the film is Franz Waxman’s elegant score. Two main themes are built off the same four notes. FDR’s theme sets a noble string melody over a punching, syncopated accompaniment in the brass. The tender love theme bears a resemblance in its orchestrations and harmonies to Waxman’s excellent work on Peyton Place.

At just under 30 minutes, Waxman’s brief score to Sunrise at Campobello captures the emotion and drama of the story with economy and a welcome lack of sentimentality. A six-minute suite was recorded on the Preamble label, but the full score is worthy of a proper release.

* * *

From George Washington to George W. Bush, the American presidency has always inspired film composers. And like many film score fans, I am eagerly awaiting John Williams’ score for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, starring Liam Neeson and a rumored Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, due for release in 2010. It should prove a worthy musical addition to these three Golden Age presidential nuggets.

Hail to the chiefs!



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