Tennessee Johnson (1942)

100 mins | Biography | 1942

Director:

William Dieterle

Cinematographer:

Harold Rosson

Editor:

Robert J. Kern

Production Designer:

Cedric Gibbons

Production Company:

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp.
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HISTORY

The working titles of the film were The Man on America's Conscience and Andrew Johnson . A written prologue to the film reads: "The Senate of the United States in 1868, sat as a High Court in judgment upon Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Abraham Lincoln as President. In the only great State trial in our history, President Johnson was charged with violation of a law which forbade him to dismiss a member of his Cabinet. In 1926, the Supreme Court pronounced this law unconstitutional--as Johnson had contended it was. The form of our medium compels certain dramatic liberties, but the principal facts of Johnson's own life are based on history. In the Spring of 1830--in a Tennessee Valley--our story begins."
       According to pre-production news items in HR , Laraine Day and Martha Scott were both considered for the role of "Eliza McCardle," and Franz Waxman was supposed to score the film. News items and HR production charts include Lewis Stone and Grant Mitchell, but they were not in the released film. Although Porter Hall and Sheldon Leonard were included in the CBCS list, their roles were cut from the released film. According to a 2 Oct 1942 HR news item, Albert Godderis, a famous chef, was to portray a Senator, but his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Irving Asher's name appears on all HR production charts as the film's producer, but screen credits and various news items list J. Walter Ruben as the sole producer. Ruben died of pneumonia in early Sep 1942; Tennessee Johnson was his ... More Less

The working titles of the film were The Man on America's Conscience and Andrew Johnson . A written prologue to the film reads: "The Senate of the United States in 1868, sat as a High Court in judgment upon Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Abraham Lincoln as President. In the only great State trial in our history, President Johnson was charged with violation of a law which forbade him to dismiss a member of his Cabinet. In 1926, the Supreme Court pronounced this law unconstitutional--as Johnson had contended it was. The form of our medium compels certain dramatic liberties, but the principal facts of Johnson's own life are based on history. In the Spring of 1830--in a Tennessee Valley--our story begins."
       According to pre-production news items in HR , Laraine Day and Martha Scott were both considered for the role of "Eliza McCardle," and Franz Waxman was supposed to score the film. News items and HR production charts include Lewis Stone and Grant Mitchell, but they were not in the released film. Although Porter Hall and Sheldon Leonard were included in the CBCS list, their roles were cut from the released film. According to a 2 Oct 1942 HR news item, Albert Godderis, a famous chef, was to portray a Senator, but his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Irving Asher's name appears on all HR production charts as the film's producer, but screen credits and various news items list J. Walter Ruben as the sole producer. Ruben died of pneumonia in early Sep 1942; Tennessee Johnson was his last film. The film also marked the last appearance of actor Charles Ray (1891--1943), who was a popular leading man in the 1910s and early 1920s. A 20 Jul 1942 HR news item noted that Van Heflin was suffering from appendicitis, necessitating the production to be shot around him, but his illness apparently did not require a temporary halt of filming.
       Andrew Johnson (1808--1875) was, as depicted in the film, a tailor's apprentice and self-educated man. After serving in Congress and other government positions, Johnson became Vice-President under Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and followed Lincoln into the White House after Lincoln's April 1865 assassination. Johnson's policies on Reconstruction after the Civil War were opposed by powerful Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (1792--1868). At the end of the Civil War, Stevens, who had been a strong abolitionist, championed the rights of the newly freed slaves. His opposition to some of Johnson's Reconstruction policies led to his advancing articles of impeachment against Johnson.
       Although a 9 Sep 1942 HR article indicated that Tennessee Johnson fell into the OWI "Issues of War" category and that the OWI would welcome more films of its ilk, a 24 Sep 1942 article in the Los Angeles-based, African-American newspaper California Eagle reported that the OWI had "moved against the M-G-M film Tennessee Johnson ...Lowell Mellett, director of the Bureau, told Louis B. Mayer...that the film, as currently planned, would be injurious to national war morale and especially that of the country's Negro population." The article went on to state that M-G-M studio head Mayer had flown to Washington after "agitation from trade union and other progressive organizations" which had protested to the OWI that the film distorted the life of Thaddeus Stevens (portrayed by Lionel Barrymore in the film). It further noted that "The action marks a milestone in the battle of Negro people to break the Hollywood tradition which has to date completely distorted the history of our heroic people in American life" and that the studio planned to "reshoot a major portion of the picture, softening up the anti-Stevens libel and generally sidestepping 'controversial' history."
       Additional shooting did take place in early Oct 1942, under William Dieterle's direction, although the California Eagle article noted that Dieterle had written a defense of Johnson in DW and "Since $250,000 worth of reshooting will go forward under his supervision, there is little hope that an honest reflection of the historical facts will be rendered." There is no information on this controversy in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library. Very few comments on the script or completed film were included in the file, aside from an admonition from PCA head Joseph I. Breen to Mayer: "We call your attention to the following detail...p. 51 [of the script]...to Stevens' referring to Abraham Lincoln as 'the old ape' as being highly derogatory--particularly in this time--and request that it be changed." The "old ape" line was not included in the released film. Whether additional changes in the film's characterization of Johnson and Stevens were made has not been determined, but Johnson is portrayed sympathetically in the film, while Stevens is portrayed in a rather unsympathetic, adversarial light.
       Most reviews highly praised Heflin's portrayal of Johnson. According to news items, there was a scheduled premiere of the film on 18 Mar 1943 in Washington, D.C. that was to be sponsored by the Tennessee State Society, but this "premiere" was actually two months after the film opened in New York. The film was in release Dec 1942-Feb 1943. More Less

BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
19 Dec 1942.
---
California Eagle
24 Sep 42
p. 1.
Daily Variety
16 Dec 42
p. 3, 8
Film Daily
16 Dec 42
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
3 Mar 42
p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter
27 Apr 42
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
21 May 42
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
8 Jun 42
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
12 Jun 42
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
15 Jun 42
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Jun 42
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
9 Jul 42
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
10 Jul 42
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
20 Jul 42
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
23 Jul 42
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
14 Aug 42
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
19 Aug 42
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
8 Sep 42
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
9 Sep 42
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
9 Oct 42
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
10 Oct 42
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
16 Dec 42
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
3 Mar 43
p. 2.
Motion Picture Herald
19 Dec 1942.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
19 Dec 42
p. 1065.
New York Times
13 Jan 43
p. 18.
Variety
16 Dec 42
p. 16.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
Noah Beery Sr.
Bernard Zanville
Cy Jenks
James Davis
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
WRITERS
Based on an orig story by
Based on an orig story by
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Assoc
COSTUMES
Men's cost
MUSIC
Mus score
SOUND
Rec dir
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
MAKEUP
Makeup created by
PRODUCTION MISC
Tech adv
Scr clerk
DETAILS
Alternate Titles:
Andrew Johnson
The Man on America's Conscience
Release Date:
1942
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 12 January 1943
Production Date:
early June 1942--17 August 1942
addl scenes early October 1942
Copyright Claimant:
Loew's Inc.
Copyright Date:
15 December 1942
Copyright Number:
LP11802
Physical Properties:
Sound
Western Electric Sound System
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
100
Length(in feet):
9,295
Length(in reels):
10
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
8802
SYNOPSIS

In the spring of 1830 in the Tennessee Valley, Andrew Johnson, a young stranger, falters into the small town of Greenville and thirstily drinks from a water trough in the yard of the village blacksmith, Mordecai Milligan. As Andrew begins to methodically stitch his torn trouser leg, he looks up and sees Mordecai and his companions, Mrs. Fisher and Blackstone McDaniel admiring his mending abilities and staring at the leg iron binding his ankle. When Mordecai tosses him a file, Andrew offers to patch his britches in gratitude and explains that he is a tailor's apprentice who is running away from his servitude. Moved by Andrew's plight, Mordecai uses a hammer and chisel to break the shackles. By enduring the pain of the pounding hammer, Andrew wins the respect of the group, and Mrs. Fisher urges him to stay on as the town tailor. Also witnessing the incident is latecomer Eliza McCardle, Greenville's librarian. Andrew sets up shop, and when Eliza comes one day to pick up a dress she had left along with written instructions. Andrew, an unschooled and inarticulate man, shamefully admits that he cannot read or write and offers to tailor her clothes in exchange for tutoring. Although he proves to be a swift learner, Andrew is embarrassed by his humble beginnings as a non-landowning "mudsill" until he reads the Bill of Rights and is inspired by its precepts that all men are created equal and therefore should have the right to vote. Prodded by Eliza, Andrew enters village politics and finds himself at odds with the property owners represented by Sheriff Cass, who believes that ... +


In the spring of 1830 in the Tennessee Valley, Andrew Johnson, a young stranger, falters into the small town of Greenville and thirstily drinks from a water trough in the yard of the village blacksmith, Mordecai Milligan. As Andrew begins to methodically stitch his torn trouser leg, he looks up and sees Mordecai and his companions, Mrs. Fisher and Blackstone McDaniel admiring his mending abilities and staring at the leg iron binding his ankle. When Mordecai tosses him a file, Andrew offers to patch his britches in gratitude and explains that he is a tailor's apprentice who is running away from his servitude. Moved by Andrew's plight, Mordecai uses a hammer and chisel to break the shackles. By enduring the pain of the pounding hammer, Andrew wins the respect of the group, and Mrs. Fisher urges him to stay on as the town tailor. Also witnessing the incident is latecomer Eliza McCardle, Greenville's librarian. Andrew sets up shop, and when Eliza comes one day to pick up a dress she had left along with written instructions. Andrew, an unschooled and inarticulate man, shamefully admits that he cannot read or write and offers to tailor her clothes in exchange for tutoring. Although he proves to be a swift learner, Andrew is embarrassed by his humble beginnings as a non-landowning "mudsill" until he reads the Bill of Rights and is inspired by its precepts that all men are created equal and therefore should have the right to vote. Prodded by Eliza, Andrew enters village politics and finds himself at odds with the property owners represented by Sheriff Cass, who believes that non-land owners should be denied the vote. When Cass comes to ask Eliza, now Andrew's wife, to persuade him to cancel a rally calling for the vote, Andrew, infuriated, pockets his pistol and brusquely proceeds to the meeting. When Cass tries to interfere, a fight ensues and Mordecai is killed in the mêlée. Mrs. Fisher and the others call for retaliation, but Andrew pleads for reason and adherence to the law. With the support of the town, Andrew is elected the new sheriff. With the approach of the Civil War in 1860, Andrew, now the U.S. Senator from Tennessee, opposes succession, arguing that the Union must be preserved at all costs. When succession is declared, Andrew refuses to join his Southern colleagues in their exodus from the Senate chambers and is declared a traitor. As a general in the Union army, Andrew is credited with saving Nashville for the Union. After the war, Abraham Lincoln moves to appoint Andrew his Vice-President over the objections of Thaddeus Stevens, a Pennsylvania congressman who seeks vengeance on the South. Nevertheless, Andrew is appointed as Lincoln's Vice-President, and on inauguration day, Andrew, sick and unused to drinking, imbibes some celebratory brandy, and as a result, is drunk by the time he is sworn in. Andrew believes that he has disgraced his country, but Lincoln, understanding the circumstances surrounding the incident, sends him a letter of forgiveness. When word comes of Lincoln's assassination, Andrew ascends to the presidency, vowing to uphold Lincoln's policy of reconciliation with the South, even though he secretly suffers feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Soon after, Andrew is visited by Stevens, Congressman Hargrave and Senator Jim Waters. Stevens, desirous of subjugating the Southerners by confiscating their lands and denying them representation in Congress, offers Andrew a guaranteed second term if he agrees to support his exclusionist policies. When Andrew rejects the offer, Stevens threatens him with impeachment and reminds him that with no Vice President in office, Waters would succeed him. Losing his temper, Andrew denounces Stevens and puts his faith in the people. Upon discovering that one of his Cabinet members has been spying for Stevens, Andrew dismisses the man without consent from the Senate, thus violating the law that prevents a President from dismissing a Cabinet member appointed by a previous President who died in office. Stevens, disabled and suffering from ill health, is invigorated by Andrew's transgression and pulls himself out bed to visit him. Rankled by Stevens' threats, Andrew signs a proclamation pardoning all those who fought in the war between the states. When Stevens offers to halt impeachment proceedings if Andrew rescinds the pardon, Andrew refuses. Contemptuously dubbing Andrew the "tailor," Stevens convenes an impeachment hearing, charging Andrew with being a drunk and violating the Tenure of Office Rule. Following his lawyers' advice, Andrew does not appear at the trial, until one day, Blackstone, now a Senator from Tennessee, informs Andrew that his witnesses will not be allowed to testify. Furious, Andrew bursts in the hearing to defend himself and is greeted by the jeers of the onlookers. Stevens expects Andrew to lose his temper, but instead, he eloquently defends himself by reading Lincoln's letter of forgiveness and accusing Stevens of trying to tear the nation apart, the very antithesis of Lincoln's ideals. As the vote for impeachment is called, Senator Huyler, one of Stevens' minions, faints and is carried out. Aware that he needs Huyler's vote to win, Stevens stalls for time until Huyler can be revived. Disgusted by Stevens' tactics, the Chief Justice ousts him from the hearing. When Huyler, barely conscious, is dragged back into the room, he raises his head and votes not guilty, thus acquitting Andrew. Andrew serves out his presidency, and years later, when he is re-elected to be the senator from Tennessee, he welcomes his colleagues from the South, whose readmittance into the halls of government he helped shepherd. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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