Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Tonight's Movie: Tennessee Johnson (1942) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

Van Heflin stars as our nation's 17th President, TENNESSEE JOHNSON (1942), available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive.

The film traces Johnson's life from his days as an illiterate young tailor, taught to read and write by his future wife, librarian Eliza Cardwell (Ruth Hussey).

Johnson becomes a local activist and soon rises through the electoral ranks. As a Southerner loyal to the union, he was chosen as Abraham Lincoln's Vice-Presidential nominee for his second term in office, replacing Hannibal Hamlin.

Of course, Lincoln's second term was tragically cut short, and Johnson found himself President, presiding over angry Washington debates on Reconstruction and how to treat the conquered South. Johnson was impeached and acquitted for violating a law forbidding him to fire Cabinet members; the law was later declared unconstitutional.

As with any film of this type, it's best to view it as "inspired by true events"; the broad outlines of the story are true, but it's historical fiction. However, a good movie like this will often inspire the viewer to dig further into history and discover some of the actual facts; that's been the case with me, as I've found myself doing quite a bit of reading on Andrew and Eliza Johnson this week!

I particularly note that while most of the film was set in the 1860s, I found it surprisingly relevant. Though I don't wish to turn this into a political discussion, I'd be remiss not to mention that a modern-day viewer watching TENNESSEE JOHNSON may have a bit of the feeling that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." One will find echoes of our own recent politics in the story of a rough-edged populist outsider at odds with Congress. This gives a film which is itself nearly 80 years old, depicting events another 80 years previous to that, quite an interesting kick.

Van Heflin is compelling as Johnson, in what I thought was a rather "different" performance from him. In his early years especially, Heflin's Johnson is uncertain and almost weak, but with Eliza's encouragement he works hard to better himself and gains confidence.

Johnson's life had a mixture of unfortunate moments, such as his swearing in as Vice President while inebriated -- a painful scene to watch -- along with gallantry; the scene where he learns that Lincoln has been shot and overrides attempts to keep him from going to Lincoln's side is quite moving.

I have always found Hussey a delightful actress, and she's very appealing here as Andrew's steadfast wife.

Curiously, the film portrays only one of the Johnsons' children, eldest daughter Martha (Lynne Carver). Their other four children are not mentioned.

It's interesting that Heflin and Hussey appear in the majority of the film's 103 minutes in old age makeup; their younger selves disappear at just under the half hour mark, when the film suddenly jumps forward three decades in time.

This was not hinted at in the film's publicity stills, which focus on the early scenes, and it was a bit disappointing to me; although the makeup created by Jack Dawn is good, it might have been better to have another set of actors portray the young Johnsons and then have more age-appropriate actors for the bulk of the film. That said, I suppose older character actors wouldn't have had the same box office pull.

Speaking of older character actors, Lionel Barrymore is highly effective as Johnson's Washington nemesis, Thaddeus Stevens. The deep supporting cast also includes Marjorie Main, Regis Toomey, Morris Ankrum, Grant Withers, Noah Beery (Sr.), J. Edward Bromberg, Russell Hicks, Montagu Love, Robert Warwick, and Russell Simpson.

There are even more familiar faces in the deep cast, including small parts played by up-and-coming actors Dane Clark and Jim Davis.

TENNESSEE JOHNSON was directed by William Dieterle. It was filmed in black and white by Harold Rosson. The script by Wells Root and John L. Balderston was based on a story by Alvin Meyers and Milton Gunzburg.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray looks very good, with a crisp, clear soundtrack.

Blu-ray extras are a July 1943 radio broadcast of the story with Gary Cooper and Ruth Hussey; a Tom and Jerry Cartoon, "Baby Puss" (1943); the short Heavenly Music (1943); and the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger barrylane said...

I know and like this film, your review is a good one, but my taste goes to Heflin and Hussey , not players.

6:06 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Well, you have a good point there, as I really like both Heflin and Hussey. I guess perhaps what I would have liked most would have been the best of both worlds, them in the leads but not having to play the film for 75 minutes or so in old age makeup!

I'm glad you have also enjoyed the film!

Best wishes,

6:10 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer›  ‹Older