Film poster
Directed byHenry King
Written byLamar Trotti
Produced byDarryl F. Zanuck
StarringAlexander Knox
Charles Coburn
Geraldine Fitzgerald
Thomas Mitchell
Ruth Nelson
Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Vincent Price
William Eythe
Mary Anderson
CinematographyLeon Shamroy
Edited byBarbara McLean
Music byAlfred Newman
Color processTechnicolor
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • August 1, 1944 (1944-08-01)
Running time
154 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2.995 million[1]
Box office$2 million (rentals)[2]
Alexander Knox and Ruth Nelson

Wilson is a 1944 American biographical film about the 28th American President Woodrow Wilson produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by Henry King. Shot in Technicolor, the film stars Alexander Knox, Charles Coburn, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Thomas Mitchell, Ruth Nelson, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, William Eythe and Mary Anderson.

The film was a pet project for distributor 20th Century Fox president Zanuck, who deeply admired Wilson, and he personally oversaw production. Character actor Knox was given one of his few chances to play a lead.

It was critically acclaimed, earning 10 nominations at the 17th Academy Awards and winning 5, including Best Writing, Original Screenplay. Despite this, it was a box office bomb due to its unusually high budget.[3] This upset Zanuck to the point that for years, he forbade his employees from mentioning the film in his presence.[4]


In 1909, Woodrow Wilson is best known as the President of Princeton University and the author of several books on the democratic process. The local Democratic Party political machine convinces him to run for Governor of New Jersey. By the time of his successful election in 1912, Wilson has shown that he is his own man, not a functionary of the machine, and that he will fight for the truth at all costs.

As the U.S. is going through a progressive change in national politics and a split is developing in the opposing Republican Party, Woodrow Wilson is nominated in Baltimore and wins the Presidency in 1912. He pushes through a series of programs, called 'The New Freedom'. As World War I is breaking out in Europe in 1914, President Wilson tries to keep the U.S. neutral. At this same time, his wife Ellen dies of Bright's disease.

Overcome with grief and loneliness, the president carries on. Early in 1915, at around the same time of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, he meets Edith Bolling Galt, a Washington D.C. widow. A courtship develops and they find themselves in love and are married in December 1915. The next year of 1916 brings The President to reelection to a second term. Many feel that he is going to be defeated, and the result is so close that the balance hangs on the returns from California, which goes for President Wilson.

As he starts his second term, the war finally comes to America. The Zimmerman note (Mexico and German alliance) is enough finally to put the U.S. in the war. The Yanks are coming, and in 1918 victory is on the side of the Allies. President Wilson travels to France to have a hand in the Paris Peace Conference, but many Republican senators, including Henry Cabot Lodge, feel the President is leaving them out of the process, and make a decision to kill whatever treaty he brings back, or saddle it with reservations.

President Wilson takes the issue to the people in a multi-state tour, but his health is broken on the trip and days after returning to Washington, has a stroke. Edith shields the President and screens visitors, and takes on a role that is controversial. But President Wilson recovers enough to make an orderly transition to President Warren G. Harding in 1921.

On February 3, 1924. President Woodrow Wilson has died aged 67. He was interred in a sarcophagus in Washington National Cathedral and is the only president interred in the nation's capital.



The film was initially meant to be a historical drama about a fictional American family living during the Progressive Era before being rewritten into a biopic about Woodrow Wilson by Lamar Trotti.[3] Wilson's daughter, Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, served as an informal counselor.[5] Journalist Ray Stannard Baker, an authority on Wilson, served as an adviser.

Before the casting of Knox as Wilson, Ronald Colman and Frank Conroy were considered for the part. Claudette Colbert was also considered to portray one of Wilson's wives.[3] Dwight Frye was to be in the film as Secretary of War Newton D. Baker but died of a heart attack on November 7, 1943, a few days prior to his filming start.[6] Ernest Palmer was hired as the film's cinematographer but had to be replaced by Leon Shamroy after falling ill, while James Basevi quit as art director due to disagreements with the rest of the crew.[3]

With a budget of $5.2 million, Wilson became 20th Century Fox's most expensive film ever produced at that time. Much of these costs went to constructing accurate sets for White House locations such as the East Room, the Blue Room, the Oval Office, and the Lincoln Bedroom. Scenes of the Democratic National Convention were shot at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles while scenes set at Princeton University were shot on-location in Trenton, New Jersey. Other scenes were shot at the Biltmore Theater in Los Angeles; Pueblo, Colorado; and Midwick Country Club in Alhambra, California.[3]


Box office

The film was promoted by the NBC Blue Network radio show Hall of Fame Broadcast with a radio adaptation of sections of the script.[3] The film lost a reported $2 million for Fox.[7] The film's performance was hurt because the U.S. War Department prohibited it from being shown on U.S. Armed Forces bases during World War II under provisions of the Soldier Voting Act against the screening of political material that could influence elections such as the ones about to be held on November 7, 1944.


Though the film was mostly critically acclaimed[8] and won five Oscars (see below), it was a big financial failure at the box-office.

Film critic Manny Farber in The New Republic was particularly unenthusiastic, calling the production "costly, tedious and impotent" while writing: "The effect of the movie is similar to the one produced by the sterile post-card albums you buy in railroad stations, which unfold like accordions and show you the points of interest in the city ... The producers must have known far more about the World War, the peace-making at Versailles, and Wilson himself, but that is kept out of the movie in the same way that slum sections are kept out of post-card albums ... About three-quarters of the way through, a large amount of actual newsreel from the first World War is run off and the strength of it makes the film that comes before and after seem comical."[9]

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a protege of Wilson's, screened the film for guests at the Second Quebec Conference in 1944. British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, however, was no fan of Wilson's. He excused himself in mid-film and went to bed.


Despite the negative press and lackluster box office, it was still nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning five:

Wilson was also nominated in the Academy Award categories for:

American president Franklin D. Roosevelt screened the film at the September 1944 Second Quebec Conference with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill was unimpressed, however, leaving during the film to go to bed.[citation needed]


The Academy Film Archive preserved Wilson in 2006.[11]


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey (1989). Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, p. 242, ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1.
  2. ^ Solomon, Aubrey (1989). Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, p. 221, ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Wilson". AFI Catalog. Retrieved 23 November 2021.((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  4. ^ a b Erickson, Hal (2013). "Wilson (1944) – Review Summary". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2013-11-12. Retrieved 2014-02-22.
  5. ^ Knock, Thomas J. "History with Lightning": The Forgotten Film Wilson. American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 5 (Winter, 1976), pp. 523–543
  6. ^ Mank, Gregory William (2009). Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, with a Complete Filmography of Their Films Together. McFarland. ISBN 9780786454723. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
  7. ^ "You Can Sell Almost Anything", Variety 20 March 1946
  8. ^ Codevilla, Angelo (2010-07-16) America's Ruling Class Archived 2011-02-25 at the Wayback Machine The American Spectator
  9. ^ Farner, Manny, The New Republic, August 14, 1944
  10. ^ "The 17th Academy Awards (1945) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-08-15.
  11. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.