Tennessee Johnson

Tennessee Johnson is a 1942 American film about Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was directed by William Dieterle and written by Milton Gunzburg, Alvin Meyers, John Balderston, and Wells Root.

Tennessee Johnson
Tennessee Johnson.jpg
Directed byWilliam Dieterle
Written byMilton Gunzburg (story)
Alvin Meyers (story)
John L. Balderston
Wells Root
Produced byJ. Walter Ruben
Irving Asher (uncredited)
StarringVan Heflin
Lionel Barrymore
Ruth Hussey
CinematographyHarold Rosson
Edited byRobert Kern
Music byHerbert Stothart
Distributed byMGM
Release date
  • December 1942 (1942-12)
Running time
103 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$684,000[1]

It stars Van Heflin as Johnson, Lionel Barrymore as his nemesis Thaddeus Stevens, and Ruth Hussey as first lady Eliza McCardle Johnson. The film depicts the events surrounding the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and "presents its title character as Lincoln’s worthy successor who runs afoul of vindictive Radical Republicans."[2]

Like most U.S. historical films made during World War II, Tennessee Johnson has a strong underlying theme of national unity. The film depicts Johnson as a visionary who heals the rift between North and South despite the efforts of his shortsighted foes. In a climactic but fictional scene, he delivers an impassioned speech to the senators sitting in judgment of him, and warns them that failure to readmit the former Confederate states will leave America defenseless before its overseas foes. In fact, Johnson never appeared in person at his trial.


Runaway tailor's apprentice Andrew Johnson (Van Heflin) wanders into the Tennessee town of Greeneville. He is persuaded to settle there. He barters his services to the librarian, Eliza McCardle (Ruth Hussey), in return for her teaching him to read and write, and eventually marries her.

Stung by the injustice of the monopoly of power by the landowners and with the encouragement of his wife, Johnson starts organizing political meetings. One is broken up by the powers that be; in the resulting fighting, one of Johnson's friends is killed. He dissuades the others from resorting to violence. Instead, he is talked into running for sheriff and is elected. By 1860, the eve of the American Civil War, he has risen to the United States Senate.

When war breaks out, Johnson breaks with his state and stays loyal to the Union. As a general, he becomes a hero defending Nashville against a siege. Abraham Lincoln chooses him for his vice president in part because they share similar views on reconciling with the South after the war is won, unlike powerful, vengeful Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Lionel Barrymore). When Lincoln is assassinated, Johnson succeeds to the presidency.

After he refuses to accept a deal offered by Stevens, the latter starts impeachment proceedings against the president, with himself as chief prosecutor. Johnson stays away from the trial on the advice of men who fear he would lose his temper. With his cabinet members denied the right to testify, however, Johnson appears at the very end and makes a stirring speech—an event which never actually occurred. The vote is close, with 35 judging him guilty and 18 not, but Senator Huyler is unconscious and unable to vote. Stevens, who is counting on him, delays the final verdict until Huyler can be roused and brought in for the deciding vote. To his dismay, Huyler votes not guilty. The film ends with Johnson, his term as president over, triumphantly returning to the Senate.


Controversy and inaccuracyEdit

Critics complained that the film soft-pedaled Andrew Johnson's prejudice toward black people. Actor and comedian Zero Mostel, who was then just becoming a well-known name in show business, took part in protests against the movie.[3]

According to paleoconservative writer Bill Kauffman, Tennessee Johnson is notable for the campaign of repression waged against it. Vincent Price, Mostel and Ben Hecht, among others, petitioned the Office of War Information to destroy the film in the interest of national unity. Kauffman surmised that Manny Farber had written the most intelligent opinion on the matterThe New Republic when he said: "Censorship is a disgrace, whether done by the Hays office and pressure groups, or by liberals and the OWI."[4][5]

Although the film portrays Johnson delivering a speech at his impeachment trial, in actuality, Johnson did not appear at the trial on the advice of his legal counsel.[6]


According to MGM records, the film made $570,000 in the U.S. and Canada, and $114,000 in other markets, resulting in a loss of $637,000.[1]


  1. ^ a b c The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  2. ^ Kauffman, Bill (2011-12-02) Redford Goes Ron Paul, The American Conservative
  3. ^ Zero Mostel: a Biography (1989), Jared Brown, Atheneum, NY (ISBN 0-689-11955-0). Pp. 35-36.
  4. ^ Kauffman, Bill (October 1998). "The Hollywood Ten(nessean)". Chronicles. pp. 39–40.
  5. ^ Farber, Manny (January 25, 1943). "History and Hollywood". The New Republic. p. 119.
  6. ^ "Digital History". www.digitalhistory.uh.edu. Digital History (University of Houston). Retrieved 4 September 2022.

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