My Reason to Watch WILSON (20th Century Fox 1944)

Normally I wouldn’t watch something like WILSON, producer Darryl F. Zanuck ‘s 1944 biographical box office flop about the 28th President of the United States. It didn’t sound like my cup of tea. But when I turned TCM on last night, there was Ben Mankiewicz introducing the film, so I decided I’d watch a little. I ended up watching the whole thing, and while it’s not very exciting, I did get engrossed in the movie, but not for the story.

The film itself follows the life and career of Woodrow Wilson, and his rise from President of Princeton University to Governor of New Jersey to U.S. President. How much is truth and how much fiction, I couldn’t tell you. I can tell you that character actor Alexander Knox is a dead ringer for Wilson, and pretty much carries the film with his statesmanlike manner. Ruth Nelson plays first wife Ellen, who dies a tragic movie death, and Geraldine Fitzgerald is quite good as Wilson’s second bride Edith, who takes charge when the president suffers a stroke.

The main reason I stayed up to watch WILSON was the marvelous supporting cast of character actors, a veritable Who’s Who of Classic Films! There’s Thomas Mitchell as Wilson’s trusted aide Joe Tumulty, Charles Coburn as economic advisor Dr. Holmes, a very young Vincent Price as Treasury Secretary McAdoo, an almost unrecognizable Sir Cedric Hardwicke as political rival Henry Cabot Lodge, Thurston Hall as Jersey Senator “Big Ed” Jones, Eddie Foy Jr. as Eddie Foy Sr. (who else?), plus Sidney Blackmer, Three Stooges nemesis Symona Boniface, Francis X. Bushman, Gino Corrado, Marcel Dalio, Francis Ford , Reed Hadley, Charles Halton, John Hamilton, Cy Kendall, George Macready, Edwin Maxwell, Isabel Randolph, Roy Roberts, Dewey Robinson, Ian Wolfe, Will Wright, and a host of other Familiar Faces. Keep a sharp eye peeled for quick cameos from James Cagney and Robert Cummings. I didn’t spot Bess Flowers, but I’m sure she’s in there somewhere!

At around the movie’s midpoint, we get vintage newsreel footage of America preparing for World War I (the war to end all wars, remember?), and history buffs can get glimpses of historical figures like King George V, General Blackjack Pershing, and Teddy Roosevelt, along with silent stars Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Mary Pickford, Marie Dressler, and Al Jolson pitching in for the war effort. So while WILSON the movie didn’t exactly hold my interest, staying up to play “Spot the Classic Stars” certainly did. If you’re a classic movie buff like me, you’ll have yourself a ball!

 

Cheers for THE LAST AMERICAN HERO (20th Century Fox 1973)

lah1

The world of NASCAR racing takes center stage in THE LAST AMERICAN HERO, a fictionalized biopic of legendary driver Junior Johnson. But this isn’t just a film about stock cars; it’s an extraordinary character study of a young man from the backwoods of North Carolina who discovers himself and what’s important to him. Jeff Bridges is outstanding in his first full-fledged starring role, demonstrating at age 24 the acting chops that have carried him to a long and prosperous film career.

lah2

Junior Jackson hauls moonshine for his Daddy on the winding backroads of  the Carolina hills, his tactics eluding the cops at every turn. He’s cocky and confident, and pisses the local law off so much they bust up Daddy’s still and send him back to prison. Junior decides to use his only marketable skill to raise money for the family while Daddy’s away – driving. He enters a demolition derby, using an illegal railroad tie to batter his opponents, and badgers promoter Hackel (Ned Beatty in another fine performance – why hasn’t this man ever won an Oscar???) into letting him enter a ten-lap preliminary race, which he wins.

lah3

Junior knows how good he is, and his talents take him to the top of the sport, encountering along the way characters like stock car groupie Marge (Valerie Perrine) and macho driver Kyle Kingsman (a swaggering William Smith). But the center of his universe is his family. Daddy Jackson (Art Lund) doesn’t know any life other than making moonshine, and wants better for his son. When Junior expresses his desire to race, he tells his son, “Damn foolishness to one person is breath of life to another”. Mom (Geraldine Fitzgerald) worries about the dangers of the racing life, and brother Wayne (pre-stardom Gary Busey) is both antagonist and supporter, as most brothers are. The Jackson family isn’t portrayed as just a bunch of hillbilly moonshiners, but real flesh and blood people, and it’s refreshing to see.

lah4

Director Lamont Johnson is another of those that had more success on television than film. He did eight TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, including the classics “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can”, and won Emmys for WALLENBERG: A HERO’S STORY and LINCOLN. His big screen output ranged from okay (YOU’LL LIKE MY MOTHER, CATTLE ANNIE AND LITTLE BRITCHES) to atrocious (LIPSTICK, SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE). THE LAST AMERICAN HERO is without question his finest feature. The exciting action on the oval is well captured by DP George Silano, and skillfully edited by the tandem of Robbe Roberts (BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) and Tom Rolf (TAXI DRIVER, THE RIGHT STUFF). William Roberts (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ) based his screenplay on an Esquire Magazine article by Tom Wolfe.

lah5

THE LAST AMERICAN HERO doesn’t make many critical discussions about great films of the 70’s, but I believe it deserves to be in the conversation. Not just another slice of Americana pie, it’s a well-constructed story expertly told, with exciting action, a great ensemble of actors, and a star turn by Jeff Bridges. It should be on your watch list. As a bonus, the movie’s theme is “I Got a Name” by the late, great Jim Croce, which didn’t even get an Oscar nomination, but should have (“The Way We Were” won that year), so to close this out, here’s Jim Croce: