Producer Darryl F. Zanuck had high hopes that Wilson would immortalize him in the manner that Gone With the Wind did for David O. Selznick. The notion of bringing the life story of Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States, to the big screen was a labor of love for Zanuck, and accordingly the producer lavished all the technical expertise and production values he had at his disposal. Though Alexander Knox seems a bit too robust and overnourished for Wilson, his is a superb performance, evenly matched by those of Ruth Nelson as Wilson's first wife Ellen, Geraldine Fitzgerald as second wife Edith, Thomas Mitchell as Joseph Tumulty, Sir Cedric Hardwycke as Henry Cabot Lodge, Vincent Price as William Gibbs McAdoo, Sidney Blackmer as Josephus Daniels, and the rest of the film's enormous cast. The story begins in 1909, a time when Wilson is best known as the head of Princeton University and the author of several books on the democratic process. Urged into running for Governor of New Jersey by the local political machine, Wilson soon proves that he is his own man, beholden to no one-and that he is dedicated to the truth at any cost. From the governor's office, Wilson is nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate, an office he wins hands-down over the factionalized Republicans. The sweetness of his victory is soured by the death of his wife Ellen, but Wilson ultimately finds lasting happiness with Edith Galt. When World War I breaks out in Europe, Wilson vows to keep America out of the conflict, despite pressure from such political foes as Henry Cabot Lodge (who is depicted as a thoroughly unsympathetic power broker). After being elected for a second term, however, Wilson finds it impossible to remain neutral, especially in the wake of the Lusitania sinking. Reluctantly, he enters the war in April of 1917. Deeply disturbed by the mounting casualties, Wilson decides that, after the Armistice, he will press for a lasting peace by helping to organize a League of Nations. Unfortunately, the isolationist congress, urged on by Lodge and his ilk, refuses to permit America's entry into the League. His health failing, Wilson nonetheless embarks on a whistle-stop tour, imploring the public to support the League of Nations and Wilson's 12-point peace program. During this campaign, he is felled by a stroke, whereupon Mrs. Wilson begins acting as liason between the president and the rest of the country (the commonly held belief that Edith Galt Wilson virtually ran the nation during this crisis is soft-pedalled by Lamar Trotti's script). All hopes for America's joining the League of Nations are dashed when, in the 1920 election, the Republicans gain control of the White House. The film ends as the ailing but courageous Woodrow Wilson bids farewell to his staff and walks through the White House doors for the final time. Idealistically ignoring the negative elements of the Wilson regime (notably his attitudes toward racial relationships), Wilson is not so much a biography as a paean to the late president. Though too long and overproduced, the film survives as one of Hollywood's sturdiest historical films of the 1940s. However, audiences did not respond to Wilson as Zanuck had hoped; the film was a terrific flop at the box office, so much so that it was for many years forbidden to speak of the project in Zanuck's presence. Still, Wilson garnered several Academy Awards: best original screenplay, best color art direction (Wiard Ihnen), best color cinematography (Leon Shamroy), best sound recording (E. H. Hansen), best film editing (Barbara McLean) and best color set decoration (Thomas Little).
by Hal Erickson synopsis