Wilson DVD Review: A Forgotten Classic About the 28th U.S. President

There is much, much more to Wilson than I had ever anticipated
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As superficial as this may sound, I actually learned a lot from watching Wilson (1944), part of Fox Cinema Archives. It is a fairly straightforward biography of Woodrow Wilson, and there is no question that it is something of an old-fashioned movie, but there was a lot more to it than I had expected. Wilson was the 28th American President and served two terms from 1912 to 1920. For various reasons, his presidency seems to have been practically forgotten over time, and that is a  shame because his accomplishments were significant.

It is not the intention of this column to be political, but for the sake of understanding the film and my reactions to it, I need to make a couple of points. The main reason that I believe Wilson’s presidency has been somewhat “glossed over” was because of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His New Deal policies have been discussed ad infinitum, and he was the only president to have been elected to three terms. I believe that for these reasons, (for good or ill) he is considered by many to be the “father” of the modern Democratic party.

After watching Wilson, I believe it is he who should get the credit (or blame as the case may be). As President, he signed the acts that founded the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Reserve Bank, the anti-monopoly Clayton Act, and designated a workday as being eight hours, among other “progressive” policies. As one might imagine, he was hated by big business.

Before I go any further, let me just say that Wilson is not some dry history lesson. I only mention these points because they are so important to his legacy. The film presents all of this information in a highly entertaining way. In fact, these facts are not really even the main point of the movie, although they are significant.

The following is speculation, but I think I am on solid ground with it. Considering the amount of time that is spent on Wilson’s attempt to get the League of Nations going at the close of World War I, it seems as if that was producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s main objective. The film never comes right out and says this, but one gets the distinct impression that if Wilson’s enemies had not stymied his idea of a “world police,” that the then-current second World War might not have happened.

I find this unstated, but pretty strong undercurrent fascinating. For all I know, it may have perfectly reflected the mood of the country at the time. Zanuck was the head of 20th Century Fox Studios, not some activist filmmaker. All he wanted to do was to sell tickets to the movies.

If that is the case, then Wilson shows us a side of World War II America that is never discussed. And it actually makes a lot of sense. No matter how good and just the cause, especially after Pearl Harbor, there had to have been some second guessing as to how the country and the world got to the place it did. There is a real subtext of “If we had only listened to Wilson 24 years ago, this might never have happened.”

I am absolutely certain that at the time nobody thought of Wilson as being any more of a time-capsule than what it was intended to be. In 1944, it was a film about relatively recent history. Seventy years later, it unintentionally shows us a great deal about the world of 1944, as well as the Wilson years.

So those are my deep thoughts about Wilson, but they are actually kind of a side issue to the movie itself. Oddly enough, it reminded me of another film released in 1944, Meet Me in St. Louis. The storyline is very different of course, but the look and feel of the two are strikingly similar. Meet Me in St. Louis takes place in 1904, and Wilson begins in 1909 with his successful run for governor of New Jersey.

Who knows how close the filmmakers got to presenting what turn of the 20th century America really looked like in their respective movies, but their visions look a lot alike. So does the music. Meet Me in St. Louis is most definitely a musical, while Wilson is not. But Wilson contains a great deal of musical segments, mostly with people sitting around the piano singing. Since radio had not really come into vogue yet, it makes sense.

I think it is fair to say that Wilson is a forgotten film. Its belated appearance on DVD testifies to that, as does the MOD (manufactured on demand) format. There are any number of potential reasons for this, but let me just bring up one more element in my argument that this film has been unfairly dismissed.

When the United States enters World War I under Wilson, the movie goes from brilliant Technicolor to vintage black and white. “Vintage” is not even the right word; it is the black and white film stock of the silents, complete with title cards. People think of Steven Spielberg’s presentation of World War II in Schindler’s List (1993) in black and white as being brilliant. And it was the perfect choice, without question, because in the popular mind, WWII was the “black and white war.” Probably 90% of the footage I have seen of it is in black and white.

Just to show how little of WWI that remains in the popular culture though, one only need to see these silent representations of the home front in the lead up and aftermath of it. Why of course it was the “silent” war. Talkies were not around yet. This would have made perfect sense to an audience in 1944, and today it looks like an incredibly incisive decision.

There is much, much more to Wilson than I had ever anticipated. The film only covers an 11-year timespan, from 1909 to 1920, but it does so in 153 minutes. So even with a 1,000 word review, I have only scratched the surface. In many ways, this is a forgotten classic, and one that I learned a great deal from.

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