Thursday, July 31, 2014

Zanuck's Factually Challenged Presidential Tribute

"Now I know why the Democratic Party chose a jackass for a mascot."

Professor Henry Holmes (Charles Coburn)

Being something of a historian, I guess I hold historical movies — depending upon the subject, some are also known as "biopics" — to a high factual standard.

Most historical movies can't live up to those standards — but I'll cut such a movie some slack if it is generally faithful to the spirit of the truth.

I learned early in my life that truth really is stranger than fiction so I generally think that true stories rarely, if ever, need to be embellished. Hollywood is all too willing to sacrifice accuracy for drama, as far as I am concerned, but, as I say, I'm willing to overlook some discrepancies.

The movie "Wilson" — which was the story of America's 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, and made its debut 70 years ago tomorrow — had several such errors, but they were the kinds of things most people wouldn't necessarily know.

For example, in scenes showing Washington, D.C., on the day of Wilson's first inauguration as president, the city was shown with the trees and grass in a lush springtime green with flowers blooming. That wouldn't be possible in just about any part of the country today because modern presidents take the oath of office in January. In Wilson's day, presidents took the oath in March — by which time flowers may well be blooming here in Texas, but it is unlikely in D.C., where the average high in March is about 56° and the average low is just below 38°.

And I read in a biography of Wilson that the day of his first inauguration was cold and breezy — with snow.

Once I become aware of one factual error in an historical movie, I start consciously watching for others. And they certainly were there to be found in "Wilson." Woodrow Wilson was president from 1913 to 1921, and he died in 1924, but, in the part of the movie that covered his national campaign for his League of Nations proposal, numerous car models could be seen that probably didn't exist until the 1940s.

There were several details like that. For example, there is a shot that was set on that same inaugural day showing the Washington Monument's reflection in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. That is certainly the kind of scene that almost any modern American would recognize as the nation's capital — but the reflecting pool did not exist until a few years after Wilson left office.

But let's go back to the inaugural day. There was a scene in the movie in which Wilson and his family were being shown around the White House after he had taken his oath of office, and they came across a portrait of Wilson's predecessor, William Howard Taft. It didn't just appear in passing on the screen; the Wilsons pointed it out and talked about it.

My understanding is that the official portrait of a president is neither completed nor hung on the day that president leaves office.

Now, having said all that ...

I understand that producer Darryl F. Zanuck was a great admirer of Wilson, and Zanuck wanted to make a film tribute to him. But it was a flop at the box office, and Zanuck was plunged into a deep depression by that. For several years, no one mentioned the movie in his presence.

That seems like a shame to me because, other than its profitability, the movie appears to have been a success. It was nominated for 10 Oscars and won five. Director Henry King and Canadian–born actor Alexander Knox (who, in an unusual leading role for him, played Wilson) were both nominated but lost to "Going My Way."

And, while it had its share of factual errors, as I have already established, it was faithful — by and large — to the spirit of the historical record.

I don't know if the factual errors affected the movie's box–office receipts. Probably didn't. But if Zanuck was that careless about the details, if he was in too much of a hurry to get the movie into the theaters to worry about its accuracy, that could have adversely affected the movie's box–office performance. Not immediately, of course, but possibly quite soon after its release. Many of those who saw it in 1944 would have been old enough to remember Wilson's presidency, and major issues with the movie about his life were bound to spread by word of mouth.

Actually, there's an interesting story about the premiere of "Wilson." Zanuck decided to unveil his homage in his hometown of Wahoo, Nebraska. Wahoo's population was probably less than 3,000 in 1944.

Anyway, apparently there was a pretty good–sized crowd for opening night, but, on the second night, Zanuck observed that there was practically no one in the theater. He asked the theater owner why that was so, and the answer was that the folks in Wahoo never cared much for Wilson when he was president, and they weren't going to pay to see him in a movie.

Reportedly, Zanuck left his hometown, which had been a big disappointment for him. In the days before the premiere, he had gone on a kind of sentimental journey to visit all the places he remembered from his childhood, but each had been a letdown. The people and places from his childhood were nothing like he remembered.

Then he found out that his hometown didn't share his admiration for Woodrow Wilson. That must have been the last straw.

I guess it's true. You can't go home again.

And, apparently, Zanuck didn't for the remainder of his life.