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Ratifying Greatness: Franklin D. Roosevelt in Film and Television


Scholars rank Franklin D. Roosevelt as a great President, and Hollywood agrees. During his presidency and in the decades that followed, Roosevelt appeared in various film and television productions, emerging as an idealized leader who overcomes physical disability, inspires the public, and pursues wise policies. The origins of, reasons behind, and manifestations of this tenaciously consistent image are the subject of this article. The process began with FDR's own successful leadership and media (including film) savvy. It was sustained by the influence of Roosevelt's family and admirers in the entertainment industry. It seldom has been challenged, even as portraits of FDR widened across of a variety of film and television genres from the 1970s onward.

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1 “The Outrage, Part 2,” 27 Nov. 1980, The Waltons: The Complete Ninth Season (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2009), DVD.

2 The History Channel, FDR: A Presidency Revealed (A&E Television, 2005), DVD.

3 See Altschuler, Bruce E., Acting Presidents: 100 Years of Plays about the Presidency (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 160; and Morgan, Iwan W., “Introduction,” in Morgan, ed., Presidents in the Movies: American History and Politics on the Screen (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 126, 2.

4 Frame, Gregory, The American President in Film and Television: Myth, Politics and Representation (New York: Peter Lang, 2014), 36.

5 Leuchtenburg, William E., In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to Barack Obama (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), viii–xi.

6 Frame, 18.

7 Hamby, Alonzo L., Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 172.

8 Leuchtenburg, William E., The FDR Years: On Roosevelt and His Legacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 13; White, Graham D., FDR and the Press (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), 162.

9 Winfield, Betty Houchin, FDR and the News Media (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 118.

10 Leuchtenburg, The FDR Years, 13.

11 He hosted major studio chiefs only four times in twelve years. “FDR Day by Day: The Pare Lorentz Chronology,” Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (FDRL), Hyde Park, New York.

12 Jackson, Robert H., That Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, ed. Barrett, John Q. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 153.

13 Goodwin, Doris Kearns, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 39.

14 Sperling, Cass Warner and Millner, Cork with Warner, Jack Jr., Hollywood Be Thy Name: The Warner Bothers Story (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1994), 161.

15 Koppes, Clayton R. and Black, Gregory D., Hollywood Goes to War: Patriotism, Movies and the Second World War from Ninotchka to Mrs. Miniver (New York: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2000), 191.

16 Kotlowski, Dean J., “Hollywood's West Wing,” Literature/Film Quarterly, 32, 4 (2004), 311–14, 313.

17 Keyishian, Harry, “The ‘Confidence’ President: Franklin D. Roosevelt in Film,” in Morgan, Presidents in the Movies, 109–31, 118.

18 Confidence (1933), at, accessed 24 Dec. 2015.

19 Keyishian, 117.

20 Hamby, Man of Destiny, 147.

21 Keyishian, 115.

22 Neve, Brian, Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition (New York: Routledge, 1992), 73.

23 The Road Is Open Again (1933), at, accessed 25 Dec. 2015 (quotations). See also Sperling and Millner with Warner, 161.

24 The Fighting President (1933), at, accessed 26 Dec. 2015.

25 Leuchtenburg, The FDR Years, 35–75.

26 Holiday (1938) (Culver City, CA: Sony Picture Home Entertainment, 2006), DVD.

27 Leuchtenburg, William E., Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal 1932–1940 (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 115; Mitchell, Greg, The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics (New York: Random House, 1993).

28 Eyman, Scott, The Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 206, 219.

29 Sperling and Millner with Warner, 235, 240.

30 Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2014), DVD.

31 Frame, American President in Film and Television, 4.

32 Rosenzweig, Sidney, Casablanca and Other Major Films of Michael Curtiz (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1982), 2.

33 This Is the Army (1943) (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2014), DVD.

34 Koppes and Black, Hollywood Goes to War, 193, 196.

35 Mission to Moscow (1943) (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2006), DVD.

36 Koppes and Black, 196–209; Kotlowski, Dean J., Paul V. McNutt and the Age of FDR (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 412–13.

37 Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to “Family,” c.14 June 1943, Box 297, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Papers, New York Public Library, New York.

38 Boylan, James B., “Fireside Chats,” in Graham, Otis L. Jr. and Wander, Meghan Robinson, eds., Franklin D. Roosevelt, His Life and Times: An Encyclopedic View (New York: Da Capo Press, 1985), 137.

39 War Comes to America, in Why We Fight: The Complete Series (Louisville, CO: Gaiam Americas, Inc., 2009).

40 Scott, Ian, “Populism, Pragmatism, and Political Reinvention: The Presidential Motif in the Films of Frank Capra,” in Rollins, Peter C. and O'Connor, John E., eds., Hollywood's White House: The American Presidency in Film and History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003), 180–88.

41 Kotlowski, Dean J., “Selling America to the World: The Office of War Information's The Town (1945) and the American Scene Series,” Australasian Journal of American Studies, 35, 1 (July 2016), 79101.

42 Neely, Mark E. Jr., “The Young Lincoln: Two Films,” in Carnes, Mark C., ed., Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), 124–27, 124.

43 Scott, 186.

44 Deborah Carmichael, “Gabriel over the White House (1933): William Randolph Hearst's Fascist Solution to the Great Depression,” in Rollins and O'Connor, 159–79, 172.

45 Leuchtenburg, In the Shadow of FDR, xi.

46 Lash, Joseph P., Eleanor: The Years Alone (New York: Norton, 1972), 155, 210–11.

47 Scott, Ian, American Politics in Hollywood Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 171.

48 Commager, Henry Steele, “Twelve Years of Roosevelt,” American Mercury, April 1945, 391401; Keyishian, “The ‘Confidence’ President,” 119.

49 Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. to Anna Roosevelt and John Roosevelt, 8 May 1946, Folder 9, Box 67, Anna Roosevelt Halstead Papers, FDRL.

50 “Barrymore Dead on the Coast at 76,” New York Times, 16 Nov. 1954, 29.

51 The Beginning or the End (Burbank, CA: Turner Entertainment Co., 2015), DVD.

52 Lash, 33; James Roosevelt to ER, 4 April 1946; Anna Roosevelt to James Roosevelt, 13 April 1946 (first quotation), and ER to James Roosevelt, 2 April 1946 (second quotation), Box 67, Halstead Papers, FDRL.

53 FDR Jr. to Anna Roosevelt Halstead and John Roosevelt, 8 May 1946, Folder 9, Box 67, Halstead Papers, FDRL.

54 ER to Anna Roosevelt Halstead, no date, Box 67, Halstead Papers, FDRL.

55 John O'Donnell, “Capital Stuff,” New York Daily News, 22 July 1947, Box 67, Halstead Papers, FDRL.

56 Anna Roosevelt Halstead to James Roosevelt, 22 July 1947, Box 67, Halstead Papers, FDRL

57 FDR Jr. to Anna Roosevelt Halstead and John Roosevelt, 8 May 1946, Box 67, Halstead Papers, FDRL.

58 FDR Jr. to “Family,” 19 June 1946, Box 67, Halstead Papers, FDRL.

59 ER to James Roosevelt, 2 April 1946, and ER to Anna, James, Elliott, Franklin Jr., and John Roosevelt, 12 Dec. 1956, Box 67, Halstead Papers, FDRL.

60 Lash, 172–73.

61 ER to FDR Jr., 15 April 1957, Box 67, Halstead Papers, FDRL.

62 Schary, Dore, Heyday: An Autobiography (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), 317; “‘Sunrise’ Fee Denied by Mrs. Roosevelt,” New York Times, 25 May 1962, Box 32, O'Connor-Farber Papers, FDRL.

63 Schary, 327.

64 Walter Reilly to Nettie L. Wetzel, 23 Oct. 1958, Box 52, and Notes from Eleanor Roosevelt (11 April 1957), Anna Halstead (17 April 1957), and James Roosevelt (17 April 1957), Box 49, Dore Schary Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS), Madison.

65Sunrise at Campobello,” 28 May 1957, pp. 2-1-6 and 2-2-46, Box 49, Schary Papers, WHS.

66 Friedel, Frank, Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Ordeal (Boston: Little, Brown, 1954), 100, 191.

67 Schary, Dore, Sunrise at Campobello (New York: Random House, 1958), 7879.

68 Schary, Sunrise at Campobello, 67–68.

69 Anna Roosevelt Halstead to Schary, 1 Aug. 1957, Box 51, Schary Papers, WHS; Pottker, Jan, Sara and Eleanor: The Story of Sara Delano Roosevelt and Her Daughter-in-Law, Eleanor Roosevelt (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2005), 341.

70 Bob Laurence on Sunrise at Campobello, 13 Jan. 1958, Box 49, Schary Papers, WHS.

71 “Broadway Postscript,” Saturday Review, no date, Box 2, Vincent J. Donehue Papers, NYPL for the Performing Arts (PA), Lincoln Center, New York.

72 “Bellamy Portrayal Exalting,” Los Angeles Times, 9 Dec. 1959, Box 2, Donehue Papers, NYPL-PA.

73 “F.D.R. as Invalid,” New York Times, 1 Feb. 1958, Box 2, Donehue Papers, NYPL-PA.

74 “Questions by Dore,” 6 Sept. 1960, Box 50, Schary Papers, WHS.

75 Sunrise at Campobello (1960) (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Home Video, 2010), DVD. “Screen: Intimate Portrait,” New York Times, no date, 32, Box 1, Ralph Bellamy Papers, WHS (quotation).

76 Washington Post, 7 Oct. 1960, C6; “Screen,” New York Times, no date, 32, Box 1, Bellamy Papers, WHS.

77 “Sunrise at Campobello: Corrected Final Script,” 11 April 1960, 28, Box 51, Schary Papers, WHS.

78 “‘Sunrise at Campobello’” Hollywood Diary, 3 Oct. 1960, 3.

79 Washington Post, 7 Oct. 1960, C6.

80 Frame, The American President in Film and Television, 31.

81 Altschuler, Acting Presidents, 60.

82 Marlene Marks to Beth Abel, 12 Jan. 1967, Folder 6, Box 115, Schary Papers, WHS; Altschuler, 49; Ralph Bellamy Oral History, 18 May 1977, 15, Ronald Davis Oral History Collection, DeGloyer Library, Southern Methodist University (SMU), Dallas, Texas.

83 Keyishian, Harry, Screening Politics: The Politician in American Movies (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006), 151.

84 Daniels, Jonathan, The Time between the Wars: Armistice to Pearl Harbor (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 208–9; Daniels, Washington Quadrille: The Dance Beside the Documents (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), 143–48.

85 Lash, Joseph P., Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship, Based on Eleanor Roosevelt's Private Papers, Introduction by Roosevelt, Franklin D. Jr. (New York: Norton, 1971), xiiixiv, 220–27; Nancy F. Wechsler to Ronald S. Konecky, 15 May 1975, Box 384, Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. Papers, FDRL.

86 FDR Jr. to Wechsler, 28 May 1975, Box 384, FDR Jr. Papers, FDRL.

87 Edward Herrmann to FDR Jr., 20 May 1975, and FDR Jr. to Wechsler, 3 July 1975, Box 384, FDR Jr. Papers, FDRL.

88 Eleanor and Franklin: The Early Years (HBO Home Video, 2007), DVD.

89 New York Times, 11 Jan. 1976, 27.

90 New York Times, 9 Jan. 1976, 46.

91 Baltimore Sun, 9 Jan. 1976, B1.

92 Ibid.

93 New York Times, 13 Feb. 1976, 50.

94 Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (HBO Home Video, 2007), DVD.

95 Joseph P. Lash to Harry Sherman, 15 Sept. 1976, Box 384, FDR Jr. Papers, FDRL.

96 New York Times, 11 Jan. 1976, 27.

97 Lash to Sherman, 15 Sept. 1976, Box 384, FDR Jr. Papers, FDRL.

98 Washington Post, 12 March 1977, B1.

99 New York Times, 11 March 1977, 69.

100 New York Times, 15 May 1980, C25.

101 Washington Post, 15 May 1980, F1.

102 Bishop, Jim, FDR's Last Year: April 1944–April 1945 (New York: William Morrow, 1974), ixxiii.

103 Reilly to Wetzel, 23 Oct. 1958, Box 52, Schary Papers, WHS. See Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr., The Age of Roosevelt, Volumes I–III (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957–1960); Friedel, Frank, Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Apprenticeship (Boston: Little, Brown, 1952); Friedel, Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Triumph (Boston: Little, Brown, 1956); and Friedel, Franklin D. Roosevelt: Launching the New Deal (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973); Burns, James MacGregor, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956); and Burns, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom, 1940–1945 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1970).

104 Auerbach, Jerold S., “New Deal, Old Deal, or Raw Deal,” Journal of Southern History, 35, 1 (Feb. 1969), 1830.

105 New York Times, 27 May 1970, 41; Altschuler, Acting Presidents, 61–63.

106 Bellamy Oral History, 18 May 1977, 53, SMU; Herrmann to FDR Jr., 20 May 1974, Box 384, FDR Jr. Papers, FDRL.

107 Keyishian, “The ‘Confidence’ President,” 127.

108 Harris, Thomas J., Bogdanovich's Picture Shows (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1990), 146–47.

109 Paper Moon (1973) (Hollywood, CA: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2003), DVD.

110 The Homecoming (1971) (Hollywood, CA: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2005), DVD.

111 “The Boondoggle,” 9 Oct. 1975, The Waltons: The Complete Fourth Season (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2004), DVD.

112 “The Bunkers and Inflation, Part One,” 14 Sept. 1974, All in the Family: The Complete Fifth Season (Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2002), DVD.

113 “Cousin Maude's Visit,” 11 Dec. 1971, All in the Family: The Complete Second Season (Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2003), DVD.

114 Keyishian, “‘Confidence’ President,” 122.

115 The Way We Were (1973) (Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2005), DVD.

116 Annie! (1982) (Culver, City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2003), DVD.

117 Keyishian, “‘Confidence’ President,” 123.

118 David Paul Kuhn, “The Enduring Mommy–Daddy Political Divide,” Real Clear Politics, 2 March 2010, at, accessed 1 Feb. 2016.

119 Backstairs at the White House (Acorn Media, 2005), DVD; Zelizer, Julian E., “The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal: Fiscal Conservatism and the Roosevelt Administration, 1933–1938,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 30, 2 (June 2000), 331–58.

120 Terkel, Studs, “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Pantheon, 1984); Brokaw, Tom, The Greatest Generation (New York: Dell, 1998). See also Bodnar, John E., The “Good War” in American Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

121 Kaye, Harvey J., The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (New York: Simon and Schuster), 113.

122 “Part Six: ‘The Changing of the Guard,’” The Winds of War (1983) (Hollywood, CA: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2005), DVD.

123 “Part Six,’” War and Remembrance (1988) (MPI Home Video, 2008), DVD.

124 Ibid., including the quotation.

125 World War II: When Lions Roared (1994) (Port Washington, NY: KOCH Entertainment LP, 2006), DVD.

126 New York Times, 19 April 1994, C20.

127 Washington Post, 19 April 1994, D2.

128 New York Times, 3 June 2001, WK17.

129 Pearl Harbor (2001) (Burbank, CA: Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2001), DVD.

130 Warm Springs (2005) (Home Box Office, 2005), DVD.

131 Kotlowski, “Hollywood's West Wing,” 313; Path to War (2002) (Home Box Office, 2003), DVD.

132 Hyde Park on Hudson (Focus Features, 2013), DVD.

133 New York Times, 14 Dec. 2012, C19.

134 Hamby, Alonzo L., For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s (New York: Free Press, 2004), 419, original emphasis.

135 Keyishian, “The ‘Confidence’ President,” 123.

136 Leuchtenburg, William E., The White House Looks South: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2005), 44.

137 Leuchtenburg, William E., The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 806.

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