Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Sunrise at Campobello


A lot of the discussion at the IMDb was about Greer Garson’s teeth. No kidding. She’s wearing a dental appliance that makes her slightly buck-toothed, like Eleanor Roosevelt actually was. Most seemed to think it made her grotesque. What idiots. It would take a lot more than that to make the fabulous Greer look bad. And let’s face it, though Eleanor was a great woman, about the nicest thing you could say about her face was “homely.” And so what?

Both Garson and Ralph Bellamy give good impressions of the Roosevelts, without overdoing it. Garson’s voice is high and warbling, as Eleanor’s was, and Bellamy does a reasonable job on FDR’s accent, and has his mannerisms, like the tilted-back head, down pat. This is always nice, though not necessary, in a biopic.

Because this production had the approval of the various Roosevelts, there is no mention of Lucy Mercer and his long-time affair with her (she was present when he died). That’s okay, as she wasn’t around at the time (though the secretary we do see, “Missy” LeHand, was rumored to be one of his mistresses), and what this movie deals with is Franklin’s contraction of, and fight with, polio, which is called infantile paralysis here. Nobody was making that sort of exposé in those days, anyway. We would have to wait for Hyde Park on Hudson in 2012—which I have not seen yet—to get some of the dirty laundry. So since it was such a loving portrait of the great man, the filmmakers were allowed to shoot exteriors at both Hyde Park and Campobello. In fact, Eleanor was present for some of the shoot. There’s a picture of her with Greer and Ralph at Wikipedia.

It’s based on a popular play by Dore Schary, who is probably the only person to head a major studio (MGM, 1951-1956) who could also write. The play won five Tony Awards. He also penned the screenplay, and produced it. The pic was helmed by Vincent J. Donahue. The movie is good, without being outstanding in any way. It follows FDR through the difficulties of, first, accepting that he would never walk unaided again, and then, his determination not to let it stop his political career.
I’ve never been sure if things really were all that different back then, or if the people around FDR, and the man himself, only feared that his disability would make a big difference. I mean, people in this country have elected triple-amputees, Viet Nam vet Max Cleland to the Senate and Iraq vet Lieutenant Colonel Tammy Duckworth to the House. We have elected a blind man, David Paterson, as governor of New York. Would there really be a problem in electing a disabled person president today? Anyone who suggested so would be savaged, from left and right. Only a sub-human like Ann Coulter, who belittled Max Cleland’s injuries, would dare do so.

Another thing that leads me to believe it was much ado about nothing is that it wasn’t exactly a secret that FDR couldn’t walk. Everybody knew it. But they went to great lengths to have him never be seen or photographed in a wheelchair. I think only two such photos are known to exist. It was that way from the very beginning, when he was first taken from Campobello on a stretcher and then a boat and then a train, hoodwinking the press until they could photograph him sitting jauntily in a train seat, teeth exposed in his big smile as they clenched his trademark cigarette holder. And in fact, a large part of this story is of his relationship with close friend and political advisor Louis Howe (well-played by Hume Cronyn), who managed the news around him and got him elected governor of New York.

Missy LeHand is played by Jean Hagen, a very versatile actress who is best known for the brainless, screeching twit in Singin’ in the Rain. She couldn’t be more different here. Lee unearthed a sad bit of trivia concerning Zina Bethune, the girl who played the Roosevelt’s daughter, Anna. She was killed a little over a year ago by a hit-and-run driver in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, as she was trying to help an injured possum. She was almost 67. She was also a dancer, despite having scoliosis and hip dysplasia.