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The play, "The Magnificent Yankee," opened at the Royale Theater in New York on January 22, 1946, and ran for 159 performances, with Louis Calhern in the lead role. While other Hollywood actors were eligible to play Oliver Wendell Holmes, MGM decided to let Calhern reprise his Broadway role in the film, to thank him for his many years of service as a supporting player at their studio. See more »
Oliver Wendell Holmes:
It's a free country. Everybody's entitled to his opinion... even the President of the United States.
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Louis Calhern was a good all around actor. Besides playing villains like De Villefort in THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO opposite Robert Donat, he played comic villains against Wheeler and Woolsey in DIPLOMANIACS and "Ambassador Trentino" against the Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP. He had vast stage background, and Vincent Minelli used him as an adviser in THE BAND WAGON in staging the sequence of OEDIPUS REZ with Jack Buchanan as Oedipus, and as the voice of Lana Turner's famous actor father in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. He only had one lead role in any film he appeared in - it was as Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in THE MAGNIFICENT YANKEE. He had been appearing in it on Broadway, and MGM bought it for him to star in as a reward for all of his great journeyman work. It is for that reason that his stage performance was preserved.
I can't say if it is his greatest role. His moment of truth in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE is far more gut wrenching, but he shares the honors with Sterling Heyden, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, Marilyn Monroe and the rest of the cast there, not to mention the direction of John Huston. But his is a steady, likable, and intelligent Holmes (who ages from 61 to 91: he was on the court form 1902 - 1932). He is not shown to disadvantage - the typical problem of "classic biography" from Hollywood's golden age. A biography in that period showed the basic achievement of the hero or heroine, but none of the bad points of their characters: Henry Stanley in STANLEY AND LIVINGSTON is shown as the brave and determined reporter/explorer who finds Livingston and is converted to his attempt to bring Christianity to the continent - actually Stanley would be a great explorer, but helped exploit the natives for profits. Thomas Edison is shown as the great inventor in EDISON THE MAN, but they fail to discuss his patent fights and his stealing credit from some of his co-workers (or employees).
In Holmes case they do not mention BELL v. VIRGINIA, where he supported sterilization for idiots ("Three generations of idiots is enough!"). Fortunately that moment is captured by Maximilian Schell in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBURG, when he reads part of Holmes decision (not a dissent, by the way, but the decision) to show Nazi policy on sterilization was common in other countries. Another odd decision was one where Holmes came out in favor of a state statute allowing peonage to pay off debts. He could make peculiar decisions occasionally.
But most of his famous dissents are the ones we do recall him for. He and Brandeis would craft the law of the middle and late 20th Century with their dissents to the predominantly conservative brethren. Oddly enough not all the dissents by Holmes are always "liberal" in spirit either. In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt was angered when the court's decision in the "NORTHERN SECURITIES" Case that destroyed a railroad monopoly was met with a dissent by Holmes, who could not see how the creation of a large holding company proved to be an interference with commerce as envisioned in the Sherman anti-trust act. Most people probably feel that the decision by Rufus Peckham was important in helping destroy the use of business trusts in this country, but Holmes was willing to look into the reality of the situation. Roosevelt did not care for that, and suggested he could have carved a man with more backbone out of a banana (or a chocolate éclair, according to some accounts of the statement - it has also been attributed to former Speaker of the House Thomas Reed regarding President McKinley).
On the whole, though, the film is quite good in recapturing a great jurist's career. But I find it significant that since 1950 no other film biography about a Supreme Court justice has been made. We still have none about John Marshall, Earl Warren, Felix Frankfurter, Joseph Story. A television movie about Brown v. the Board of Education, starring Sidney Poitier as Thurgood Marshall, was made (Burt Lancaster was the lawyer for the Board of Education of Topeka, John W. Davis), but Marshall was not a justice on the court at the time. Henry Fonda appeared in a film about Clarence Gideon, GIDEON'S TRUMPET, but Gideon was the appellant in that case that helped determined the right to counsel in a criminal case. Cases could be subject to films, but not judges. I find that sad.
Calhern was nominated for an Oscar for best actor in THE MAGNIFICENT YANKEE, but lost to Jose Ferrer as CYRANO DE BERGERAC. But he got roles that were more in the quasi-lead rather than support category from then on, like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, his money-man snared by his plans in EXECUTIVE SUITE, and his performance in the title role of JULIUS CAESAR. He was playing Col. Purdy III in the film version of TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON when he died in 1955. He was in demand until the end of his career, which was the end of his life.
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