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Unfortunately, I almost didn't make it through the first thirty minutes
set in Tennessee, complete with a Marjorie Main variation of her "Ma
Kettle" schtick. The town of Greeneville actually has some beautiful
colonial architecture, is NOT near Nashville, and was not a backwoods
mud pit in the mid-1800s - it is the second oldest town in the state,
and was the capital of the former State of Franklin. (Johnson's home
and tailor shop are standing today, as museums, and part of the
National Park Service. A web site provides a history, and photos.)
30s/40s Hollywood would always "whitewash" history, except apparently,
when it came to small towns in the South....then they'd falsely
exaggerate the yahoo image for "atmosphere."
The final impeachment proceeding scenario is indeed rousing, but loses it's punch when one knows it is a fabrication. I usually prefer my history lessons to come from books or documentaries, although the latter can obviously be as biased as a narrative film.
"Senator" Johnson's final scene in the film occurred a mere six months before his death in East Tennessee. (Interestingly, the guest home in Carter County where he took ill, later became part of a roadside tourist trap in the 50s, but has recently been sold for relocation, and one hopes, restoration.)
Regardless, Heflin is great, as is the always reliable Barrymore. Worth a viewing, IF you learn the actual facts beforehand.
I doubt if a film made in 2004 or after about Andrew Johnson would be as
kind as this 1943 film. Johnson did support the North in the Civil War (he
was the only Southern Senator to remain in the U.S. Government during the
war, and would be appointed Governor of that portion of Tennessee from 1863
- 64). Lincoln, in order to have a strong National ticket in her 1864
election chose Johnson (a Democrat)as his running mate. So Johnson became
Vice President. And then John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, and Johnson became
Johnson was illiterate, until his wife taught him to read and write. He educated himself, and rose in the legal and political world of Tennessee (and then the nation). But he was a piece of "po' white trash", and remained so with all it's cultural baggage. He supported the North because he (rightly) distrusted the Southern plantation aristocracy (epitomized by Jefferson Davis). However - he hated slaves and free Black people. Hence his willingness to be soft on the South. Lincoln would have been soft too, but Lincoln had great gifts at managing his adversaries and probably could have arranged a compromise. Johnson was pig-headed. He antagonized the Radical Republicans controlling Congress. They waited for him to make a mistake, and he did (technically he violated the Tenure of Office Act, by firing Secretary of War Stanton without getting Congressional permission - this act was declared unconstitutional in the 1880s). Then followed his impeachment and the saving of his skin by seven Republican Senators who voted not to remove him. And those men all lost their Senatorial seats.
In 1943 Johnson was considered a hero, for saving the Executive Branch from becoming a rubber stamp for Congress. Actually, there was nothing to show that some Radical Republican President could not have restored power to the Executive Branch if Johnson had been removed. He gets high grades for his grit and courage, but his pig-headed stupidity and racism sink his historical rating.
Still Van Heflin, Lionel Barrymore, and the other actors (like Charles Dingle) make the film interesting and enjoyable enough. Good film making but mixed history. Two final points: Edmond Ross was in good health when he voted, but James W. Grimes of Iowa also voted for acquittal, and he had a paralytic stroke a few weeks earlier (he died within a year). Second: Andrew Johnson is the second Vice President of the name Johnson (and Lyndon Johnson the third Veep). The first was Martin Van Buren's Vice President, Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, whose career as a politician might make a diverting comedy.
Though Tennessee Johnson boasts fine performances by Van Heflin, Ruth
Hussey, and Lionel Barrymore as Andrew Johnson, Eliza McCardle Johnson,
and Thaddeus Stevens respectively, the wrong story about Johnson was
The accepted historical view of Andrew Johnson's presidency now is that had he been a bit more of a politician and also had been able to rise above the prejudices of his poor white class, the whole impeachment would never have happened. His actions through the use of the presidential veto in stalling the Reconstruction set racial equality in the USA aside for a century. Men of good will on both sides had they been willing to give a little might have settled on a compromise Reconstruction policy without all the rancor that characterized it and U.S. politics for decades.
The real story is Andy Johnson's rise to the presidency. As is showed here young Johnson arrives in Tennessee escaping a kind of slavery of his own. He was an indentured servant to a tailor and learned the trade, but after differences with his employer in his native North Carolina, Johnson escapes to Tennessee.
Andrew Johnson is the only United States president who never spent one day inside a school classroom. He was taught to read and write by the woman who later became Mrs. Johnson. There's was a real love story, one of the most romantic in our history.
Johnson's real moment of courage was after a slow rise up the political ladder that saw him elected as Mayor of Greenville, Tennessee, the state legislature, the House of Representatives, governor and then senator from Tennessee. In 1861 he was the only southern Senator to not walk out of the Senate when the south seceded. He became military governor of Tennessee when the Union Army captured enough of it to set up a government. Johnson's very life was in peril every minute from the firing on Fort Sumter to Lee's surrender at Appomattox. That's a story worth telling.
Unfortunately Johnson represented the poor white class in Tennessee and saw freed slaves as a rival labor force. He had all the prejudices of his class and wasn't hesitant to voice them. That part of the story is not told in Tennessee Johnson.
I did like Charles Dingle's performance as Senator Waters, why he wasn't given his real name in history of that of Ben Wade of Ohio is beyond me. As President Pro Tempore of the Senate with no sitting Vice President, he was first in line of succession had Johnson been impeached. From what I know of Ben Wade, Dingle fitted the role well.
Though it made good cinema, Andrew Johnson never addressed the Senate personally during his impeachment trial. There was an ill Senator who cast a deciding vote that saved Johnson's presidency. But unlike William Farnum's character of Senator Valley, James Grimes of Iowa had been felled by a stroke and no one expected him to be in the Senate that day. But he was carried in and voted not guilty.
The real story of Andrew Johnson is one of the most dramatic about one who turned out to be one of our worst presidents. Too bad it wasn't told in Tennessee Johnson.
OK, so it's not that accurate a portrait of the era and the writers may have
fabricated "history" but that's Hollywood. Let's not under estimate Van
Heflin. The guy was one of my favorites and terribly underrated. You can see
all kinds of emotion in his eyes. He was not a very energetic actor like
Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power nor did he have the matinee idol looks of a
Robert Taylor but the guy was cerebral. He was brilliant in "Johnny Eager"
and all but stole every scene he was in in "Santa Fe Trail". He excelled at
I wonder what kind of career he would have had if he had lived longer.
Watch this movie with an open mind and really enjoy Heflin's acting.
When I showed this movie to a Civil War specialist, he said it was almost
comedic because of the many historical errors. For example, Johnson
actually stayed away from the Senate Trial. In the movie, however, he
a wonderful speech in his own defense. Also, the Senate President Pro
Tempore, next in line to be President, was Benjamin Wade. In the film,
however, he was James Waters. In reality, Senator Edmond Ross, who was
healthy, cast the acquitting vote. In the movie, however, a dying senator
named Huyler did this.
"Tennessee Johnson" canonizes Andrew Johnson and demonizes Thaddeus Stevens. I prefer a more nuanced interpretation of history, for I find good and bad in both men. Ambiguity was not the order of the day (1943), however. Instead, the film reflects the dominant historical interpretation of the day--the Dunning Thesis.
FYI, I hold a M.A. in American History.
That letter Lincoln was supposed to have sent Johnson has kind of
puzzled me. After all, it is read out loud twice. It SOUNDS like
Lincoln's prose style, but I'd never heard of any other reference to
it. So I posted the question on a Civil War news groups. Here's one of
"Robert Maxwell" wrote> It's generally agreed that at the second inauguration, Andrew Johnson was skunk drunk when he took the oath and tried to make his speech. I just watched the movie, "Tennessee Johnson," and it appears that Johnson was ill during the inauguration and that Lincoln later sent him a letter saying something like, "If you took a drink more often, you would know better than to take brandy on an empty stomach because you are ill. I know you only were there because I asked you to be."
Does anyone know if this letter ever existed?
Reply. "Having worked for three years as an assistant editor with The Papers of Andrew Johnson and as a member of the Board of Directors of the Abraham Lincoln Association, which is engaged in supporting projects to edit the papers of the sixteenth president, I can safely say that no one I know has ever claimed such a letter to exist."
Anyone interested in the impeachment of Johnson might watch the first 20 minutes of Blight's lecture on the subject, on open courses from Yale. Don't be intimidated by "college" or "Yale". (I went there and it's not that demanding.) Blight gives an informative, objective, and lively presentation of the material -- interrupted briefly by somebody yelling "Let my people go," to which Blight replies, "You're free to leave...I hope that guy doesn't have a gun."
Please eliminate the space between "academic" and "earth". It's only there because IMDb.com doesn't allow words that are too long, like floccinaucinihilipilification.
Never heard of this film until yesterday 7/15/03..and I am a film buff Thanks agaim to TCM... not sure of the historical 100 % accuracy but the main story is history: re: Andrew Johnsons Impeachment /came up during the Clinton impeachment trial... never knew this was filmed.. Van Heflin is brilliant..as the maligned president... as is the rest of the cast...Lionel Barrymore is especially excellent as he hams up the screen. Missed the first few minutes..cant wait till TCM schedules again!! Lost in the shuffle of great films released in late 30s early 40s ! Not to be missed
The name of this film is called " Tennesse Johnson " and relates the story of the 17th president of the U.S. Van Heflin stars as Andrew Johnson and Lionel Barrymore plays his chief adversary, Thaddeus Stevens. Having studied the life of Andrew Johnson and then watching this Black and White film, I found it to be a shoddy and haphazard biography of Lincoln's successor when the great man was assassinated in 1865. Still Van Heflin's performance produced a superior piece allowing the audience to glean a more sympathetic view of the often fiery and very vocal V.P. Ruth Hussey and Marjorie Main as well as Noah Berry Sr. add to this historical and memorable film. Although a bit flawed, the movie is worth viewing by anyone interested in studying the 17th President of the U.S. ****
The story of the first US president to be impeached gets the Hollywood treatment. It is superbly acted although glossed up quite a bit. Some of Johnson's flaws are exposed, but not nearly as many as are excused. Barrymore's Stevens is terrifyingly brilliant. This is an art that Hollywood used to excel at -- telling history in an interesting and mostly factual matter without the need to flaunt the director's abject cynicism.
VAN HEFLIN as Andrew Johnson and RUTH HUSSEY as his wife both give
earnest performances and the screenplay, while fictionalizing certain
points for dramatic license, is a good one. But, as usual, history
buffs are going to nitpick the inaccuracies to the point of dismissing
the film as fiction. Not true. What it does do is make anyone who
watches it want to consult the history books--and that's a good thing
if you want to know the whole story behind Johnson being the first
president in history against whom impeachment charges were made.
As his adversary in the impeachment process, LIONEL BARRYMORE delivers another one of his more restrained performances without overdoing the ham. He and Heflin share some pretty dramatically effective moments, both of them in fine form. Heflin takes the character of Johnson from his humble beginnings as a tailor to his marriage to Hussey and his gradual emergence as a spokesmen for the people of Tennessee. For the sake of running time, it skips most of the years leading up to the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination, compressing all of those events and managing to keep the screenplay a tightly knit focus on the impeachment process itself. Only quibble is it fails to make clear the strongest point of the impeachment.
VAN HEFLIN plays most of his role in appropriate age make-up (as does Hussey) and they're both terrific. In lesser roles, MARJORIE MAIN, REGIS TOOMEY and CHARLES DINGLE provide colorful support.
Summing up: May not be a complete history lesson, but it will certainly cause viewers to probe more deeply into the detailed background of historical interest. And it does serve to remind us what a fine actor Van Heflin was in a demanding role.
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