Tennessee Johnson: Dieterle’ Biopic of the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, 17th US President

Directed by William Dieterle, MGM’s Tennessee Johnson is a biopic of Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the U.S., written by Milton Gunsburg, Alvin Meyers, John Balderston, and Wells Root.

Van Heflin plays Johnson, Lionel Barrymore his foe Thaddeus Stevens, and, and Ruth Hussey as first lady Eliza McCardle Johnson.

The film depicts the events around Johnson’s impeachment, presenting him as Lincoln’s worthy successor who runs afoul of vindictive Radical Republicans.

An on-screen preface acknowledges that “liberties” have been taken with the facts. Its positive portrayal of Johnson and negative portrayal of Reconstruction activism are at odds with historical notions.

Like most historical films during WWII, Tennessee Johnson contains agit-prop elements, especially the importance of national unity.

The movie idealizes Johnson as a visionary capable of healing the rift between North and South, despite obstacles from his political enemies.

In a climactic scene, he delivers an impassioned speech to the senators who judge him, warning them that failure to readmit the former Confederate states will leave America defenseless vis-a-vis overseas foes. In actuality, Johnson never appeared in person at his trial.

Despite a modest budget–this was not one of Hollywood’s prestigious production–Tennessee Johnson was a commercial flop, perhaps due to the fact that its cast consisted of second-tier, largely character actors.

Release date: December 5, 1942

Running time: 103 minutes