The Magnificent Yankee
Director: John Sturges. Cast: Louis Calhern, Ann Harding, Eduard Franz, Philip Ober, Ian Wolfe, James Lydon, Richard Anderson, Herbert Anderson, Edith Evanson, Dan Tobin. Screenplay: Emmet Lavery (based on his play).


People use the movies for the funniest purposes. The Magnificent Yankee, John Sturges' brisk 80-minute movie about the early 20th-century Supreme Court justice Oliver Windell Holmes, is so inoffensive and so insignificant, it makes you wonder why a film version of Emmet Lavery's play was either desired or delivered. As a trial lawyer might say, there's just no apparent motive.

I don't mean that you throw your hands up the way you do when watching, say, Independence Day or Bad Boys 2, wondering why so many people have spent so much time and money to yield so little. There is nothing garishly overdone about The Magnificent Yankee, nothing that connotes the kind of indulgent excess which Hollywood so often exemplifies in its hyper-produced, hyper-advertised products. This is a different kind of wonderment. Almost nothing happens in this movie. Lavery hasn't even attempted a full biography of Justice Holmes, nor a probing inquiry into any especially riddlesome case or complicated professional dilemma. The first time we meet Louis Calhern as Holmes, in 1902 (a dutiful narrator tells us over the image, "This is what Washington looked like in 1902"), he is checking out a townhouse in Washington, D.C., that he means to buy as a home upon accepting his new seat on the high Court. His wife Fanny, played by Ann Harding, pops in and reveals she's already bought it. Nothing is at stake in this exchange: he is a little miffed but not really, the move is already underway, and the house, after taking center stage in this opening bit, immediately becomes backdrop, nothing more than the site where most of the ensuing movie will transpire.

Essentially, The Magnificent Yankee progresses exactly like this. Tiny, mundane little vignettes from Holmes' daily life that are absolutely non-dramatic and barely even cumulative as a story. Many of them wouldn't register at all if we didn't know that the slim, avuncular fellow at the center of them happens to be Oliver Wendell Holmes; some of them don't register even then. Louis Calhern, who was the toast of Broadway in the play and an Oscar nominee for the film version, is affable and decent. Harding is also fine in a genteel sort of way, though rather preciously forced to speak in absurd little homilies, like, "This is love, and I think it's wonderful!," and, "Now Wendell, there's nothing quite like a good cup of tea." The couple are happily married, though the sadness of having no children is a constant shadow in their life. But then twenty minutes or so into the movie, Holmes decides that the male secretaries he hires as temporary assistants (presumably as some kind of stepping stone on their way to greater legal glory) will serve the role of the couple's children. And so they do, and that's fine. Story layer established, story layer resolved. The movie just shuffles along, its characters age, they have similar conversations over the years until Mrs. Holmes, and then Mr. Holmes, meet their maker. The movie ends.

It's never clear why you'd make a movie about Oliver Wendell Holmes, a fascinating judicial mind working in extraordinary times, but elect to center the film around how nice it would have been for him and his wife to have had toddlers. Not that reproduction isn't a wonderful thing, but why in this particular story? It's sort of like making a movie about Clarence Darrow and focusing it around how he always liked chocolate more than vanilla, or filming a biopic about Hillary Clinton that begins on the day she moves to Westchester County and features at least four scenes where she and Bill decide what pet to buy next. Is the whole objective to show that Holmes was a "real person," for all his celebrity still a homebody who came home to his wife, liked to have a pretty view from his bedroom, felt fondly toward young people who worked for him? Do we really need such a movie? John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln with Henry Fonda, or John Cromwell's Abe Lincoln in Illinois with Raymond Massey are similar films in that they emphasize the individual, humane, day-to-day qualities of their famous protagonist over his fêted engagements with history. But with a character like Lincoln, who is so massively mythologized within the culture, the act of showing him as just another guy, gawky at dances, unlucky in love, and as surprised as anyone by his dates with destiny carries some real weight.

By contrast, I am not aware of any vast contingency out there for whom Oliver Wendell Holmes is such a protean, controversial figure that a movie about how he, like all men, enjoyed the comforts of friends and of a warm living room, is a startling recontextualization. And yet the movie seems almost parodically intent on privileging the banal over the epic. As the narrative wends its way into 1916, Holmes' fourteenth year on the bench and the beginning of America's involvement in World War I, the movie finally seems braced for real tension or massive incident. Instead, the narrating friend/historian calmly reports, "But Holmes had seen other wars, and life was for the living, so the dining out continued," at which point Ollie and Fanny go out for a nice supper.

The Magnificent Yankee emerges, then, as resoundingly unremarkable, almost unreviewable. Its bashful distance from the real scene of politics doesn't seem quite naïve, and I wasn't aware of any particulary pernicious exclusion or white-washing taking place (though people who know more about Holmes than I do, which is almost everybody, may feel otherwise). Ultimately, having finished the movie, I was astonished that it was made in 1950; except that the film stock is so superior, it seems to belong much more to that mid-1930s tradition of biopics like The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Émile Zola (in which Calhern also appeared), where the fame of the protagonist is a total given and any specific directorial point of view is strictly undesirable. Who knows why people bother to make movies that don't fail to say anything so much as they radiate a concerted preference not to say anything, just be pleasant. You've probably met people like this in your life: very polite, nothing wrong with them, but as plain and undemonstrative as it's possible to be. I suppose since here are angry movies, funny movies, sad movies, profligate movies, didactic movies, schizophrenic movies...I guess there should be some plain ones, too. Or maybe not. Who can know? Let's just forget the whole thing and go have a nice supper. C


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor: Louis Calhern
Best Costume Design (Black & White): Walter Plunkett

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actor (Drama): Louis Calhern

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