Tennessee Johnson

Tennessee Johnson
Directed by William Dieterle
Produced by J. Walter Ruben
Irving Asher (uncredited)
Written by Milton Gunzburg (story)
Alvin Meyers (story)
John L. Balderston
Wells Root
Starring Van Heflin
Lionel Barrymore
Ruth Hussey
Music by Herbert Stothart
Cinematography Harold Rosson
Edited by Robert Kern
Distributed by MGM
Release dates
  • December 1942 (1942-12)
Running time
103 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,042,000[1]
Box office $684,000[1]

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.

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]

The movie contains several historical inaccuracies, and an onscreen 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 current historical opinion, but such attitudes were more common when the film was made.

Like most U.S. historical films made during World War II, Tennessee Johnson has a strong underlying theme of national unity. The movie shows Johnson as a visionary who heals the rift between North and South despite the efforts of his shortsighted foes. In a climactic 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. The scene is pure fiction; 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.


Some liberals 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, Zero Mostel, and Ben Hecht, among others, who petitioned the Office of War Information to destroy the film in the interest of national unity. Kauffman summarized that Manny Farber in The New Republic had written the most intelligent opinion on the matter, when he said, "Censorship is a disgrace, whether done by the Hays office and pressure groups, or by liberals and the OWI."[4][5]



According to MGM records the film only made $570,000 in the US and Canada and $114,000 elsewhere, causing the studio to lose $637,000 on the movie.[1]


  1. 1 2 3 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. Retrieved August 14, 2015.
  5. Farber, Manny (January 25, 1943). "History and Hollywood". The New Republic. p. 119. Retrieved August 14, 2015.
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