William Dieterle’s Tennessee Johnson focuses on the life and presidency of Andrew Johnson. Johnson was born in North Carolina and moved to Greenville, Tennessee in his late teens. It was here that he settled down and started a family as well as where he began his political career (Hall, 21). This connection to the state of Tennessee effectively made him the first Appalachian president and he is well-known in the region because of this. Johnson also served terms as a Tennessee Senator and as Governor of the state, further connecting him to the region.
The film begins by focusing on Johnson’s arrival to the state of Tennessee and the story of how he met his wife, Eliza McCardle. Johnson is inspired to pursue politics after noticing with disgust the behavior of the landowners in power in his home state. Eliza encourages this and Johnson is seen to rise to the position of Senator. The film highlights his connection to Tennessee’s working class and his lack of approval among the wealthy and corrupt politicians. After the onset of the Civil War, Johnson flees Tennessee due to his disagreement with secession, going on to be chosen as Abraham Lincoln’s running mate for his second term. The film’s antagonist is the threatening and cold Thaddeus Stevens, who begins the impeachment proceedings after he cannot convince Johnson to reach a compromise with him. Johnson is persuaded to stay away from the trial, but shows up at the end to give a rousing speech on the importance of a unified stance among Americans in order to restore peace after the Civil War. Stevens is unable to sway enough of the Senate to vote against Johnson, leaving the trial down to one swing vote which Stevens must dramatically wait for. The verdict is not guilty and Johnson is left to finish his presidency. The film ends with Johnson finishing his term and returning to serve in the Senate.
Tennessee Johnson stirred up controversy due to its historical inaccuracies, most notably Johnson’s presence and speech at his impeachment trial. The film begins with a disclaimer letting viewers know that liberties have been taken with some aspects of the story. The film was protested at the time of its release and, despite an impressive cast, was unsuccessful at the box office, earning back only slightly more than half of its budget. One main issue addressed by the film’s critics was its downplaying of Johnson’s attitudes toward slavery and African-Americans, including his opposition of abolition (AFI). Nevertheless, the film was meant to serve as an inspiration for political unity in wartime and seemed to serve the purpose well.
Hall, Clifton R. Andrew Johnson, Military Governor of Tennessee. Princeton UP, 1916.
“Tennessee Johnson.” AFI Catalog. https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/moviedetails/709. Accessed November 19, 2019.