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Wednesday 31 January 2024

Wilson (1944)

Director: Henry King
Writer: Lamar Trotti
Stars: Alexander Knox, Charles Coburn, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Thomas Mitchell, Ruth Nelson, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, William Eythe and Mary Anderson

Index: The First Thirty.

Henry King was an important filmmaker, a man who directed his first Hollywood picture as far back as 1915, co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and even landed the inaugural Golden Globe for the Best Director. That was for The Song of Bernadette, the first of two Henry King films to feature in Vincent Price’s First Thirty. I enjoyed that one greatly and its running time of over two and a half hours felt a lot shorter indeed.

Here we are again with King’s next film and Price’s next but one, a pet project for Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox. It was a critical success, nominated for ten Oscars and winning five, including for its screenplay. The public, however, stayed away in droves and it went down as King’s first notable flop.

And, quite frankly, that’s fair. It lasts three hours long and feels like twelve. It’s a biopic of such mind-numbing proportions that it makes Brigham Young, an earlier Vincent Price biopic, seem like a frolic in the park.

That’s because it isn’t merely a biopic, it’s a political biopic, of a politician who never even wanted to be a politician, being as happy as a clam as the president of Princeton University, writing about government in his spare time.

However, he was talked into running for the governorship of New Jersey and won, against the odds, and kept on winning until he became the 28th president of the United States.

He’s Woodrow Wilson, not likely to be in the top forty presidents on your list to be given a biopic. The worst thing of all is that his claim to fame is that he was an honest politician, as the most cinematic politicians are the crooks.

He’s played by Alexander Knox, a character actor of serious talent who delivers his lines in clever fashion. When Sen. Edward Jones, a.k.a. Big Ed, a corrupt politician whose story might make a decent biopic, asks if he’d think over a suggestion that he run for governor, he states, deadpan, “I’ll do better than that. I’ll have my wife think it over.” He gets a lot of good lines.

He’s not young here, but it’s where we start and so it’s soon time to listen to speeches and learn about factions and watch the insanity of the nomination process in action. None of that sounds remotely interesting and it isn’t. Most of it is equivalent to watching paint dry, but it has to be said that the Democratic Convention of 1912 is truly something to see.

This is where the Democrat parties of each state in the union get together to choose their candidate for the presidency. This could be an entirely routine matter, as it is in 2024, if one candidate does well enough in primaries to be guaranteed the nomination. However, it was along way from that in 1912. Champ Clark of Missouri, the Speaker of the House, had the majority, but a slim one that didn’t reach the two thirds needed to cement his nomination, so the states had to knuckle down and whittle through the various candidates to get to one.

And, if that still sounds like watching paint dry, I’ll point out that it’s utterly impossible to not pay attention, even if you don’t remotely care about the politics of it all. Everything is showboating and pageantry. These candidates have marching bands like WWE wrestlers have entrance themes and they try do outdo each other. It’s loud and obnoxious and it makes for powerful cinema, almost the only part of this picture that does.

It’s here that we meet Vincent Price, half an hour into the movie, because he’s playing the unfortunately named William G. McAdoo, with slicked back hair that makes his head look the wrong shape. At this point, he’s the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, but he joins Wilson’s campaign, serves for six years as his Secretary of the Treasury and even marries Wilson’s daughter, Eleanor, in a White House ceremony a year into Wilson’s first term.

You’d think we’d see a lot of him, given that, but we don’t really. We’re too busy looking at what Wilson accomplishes as president, things as tedious as the Federal Reserve Bank Act, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and the Adamson Eight Hour Law, not to forget setting up the Federal Trade Commission, playing an active part in the Paris Peace Conference and promoting the League of Nations.

To a student of politics, it’s fair to say that these are big deals. Wilson was a progressive president in many ways and he got a lot done in his time in office that we should be thankful for today. However, not a single moment of it makes for good cinema.

Of course, being a hagiography, there’s no mention of him imposing segregation on the government, ousting many African Americans from federal posts and actively opposing the suffrage of women. Those would be hard sells even in 1944 and they’re major stains on his legacy today.

The best moment in the film is when Wilson gives a speech to a Nazi, Count von Bernstorff, and it’s a heck of a speech. It’s clear that it was why the film was made when it was made, but it’s one glorious moment in a film that’s bereft of them generally. We even shift to newsreel footage for a while, as if King had given up on having mere actors try to convince us. What’s more, like The Song of Bernadette, it just keeps on going, to the point that we start to wonder how Wilson is going to respond to the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Knox is very good as Woodrow Wilson, but nobody else gets enough screen time to make their presence known. Even Ellen Wilson, who ought to have eight years as First Lady, dies a year into his first term, so that’s it for Ruth Nelson and nobody else has more, supporting actors like Charles Coburn, Thomas Mitchell and Geraldine Fitzgerald popping in once in a while to remind us that they’re still there. All of them get more opportunity than Price.

It was fun watching Eddie Foy Jr. play Eddie Foy on stage. It was good to see William Eythe again, who seemed to be in every picture with Vincent Price, and George Matthews, who was so good as Sgt. Ruby in The Eve of St. Mark, back to play a different sergeant. It was also fun to hear songs of the period, along with big stars in the newsreel footage such as Mary Pickford, Marie Dressler and Douglas Fairbanks.

Mostly, though, this is a slog. It feels rather like Hollywood paying five million bucks to dramatise three hours of CSPAN footage, in a wartime year where only Going My Way made that much at the box office. Avoid at all costs.

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