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Friday, May 26, 2017

WILSON (1944)

Passion-project for 20th/Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck and one of his biggest busts. (Allegedly, the priciest pic since GONE WITH THE WIND.) The idea was to use the presidential life of Woodrow Wilson, with emphasis on his doomed post-WWI League of Nations start-up, to push the ONE WORLD theories of Zanuck pal (and failed Republican Presidential candidate) Wendell Wilkie. Zanuck even optioned Wilkie’s book, but couldn’t find a way to dramatize it. Exactly the problem here! There’s incident aplenty: Princeton academic rises from Jersey governorship to Prez taking down the ‘Party Machine’ along the way; progressive initiatives won; lovely wife lost/lovely wife gained - gossip be damned!; World War to international statesman but with hopes dashed by a stroke. If only Lamar Trotti’s script dramatized & dialogued as much as it speechifies; a waxworks parade that might have been played by Disney Auto-Animatronic figures. Maybe if Wilson's faults & feet of clay were brought into the light? The man, a Southern ‘Gentleman’ by birth, all but singlehandedly returned Jim Crow race laws to D.C.*; then ruined his life’s work (and his health) thru stubborn self-regarding arrogance. Cedric Hardwicke finds something to play as nemesis Senator Cabot Lodge, but the rest of a huge cast is largely wasted on flights of exposition, while underrated director Henry King can do little but monumentalize small action on huge sets. There’s a nice WWI montage using newsreel footage (hey!, there’s Marie Dressler selling War Bonds with Doug Fairbanks & Mary Pickford) and lenser Leon Shamroy gets some spectacular TechniColor depth effects in the big convention sequence. Otherwise, a dud.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Ironically, the studios with the most memorable musical fanfares, Warners & 20th/Fox, often dropped them to telegraph that a film was out of the ordinary.  Here, we get a special DFZ logo like a Medallion-of-Merit signifying worthiness.  (It might have come from the same bag the Wizard of Oz finds achievement tokens for Scarecrow, Tin Man & Lion.)  Small recompense for Alfred Newman’s bold brass signature flourish.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *It’s apt that Wilson is shown enjoying real-life vaudeville star Lew Dockstader doing an impersonation of Teddy Roosevelt in BlackFace! And that Geraldine Fitzgerald, as his second wife, wins him over with a race-inflected punchline. Alas, both are meant to humanize him.

CONTEST: Eddie Foy Jr, seen here as his vaudevillian pop Eddie Foy Sr, played the part in how many feature films at how many studios? Hint: He doesn’t play Dad in THE SEVEN LITTLE FOYS/’55, Bob Hope starred in that bio-pic though Foy did play the role in a ‘60s tv remake produced by Hope. But we’re only counting feature films here.

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