Sometimes a President’s rise bears more drama than his tenure in the White House. Though Franklin Delano Roosevelt experienced his share of drama in office, his personal trials form the basis of SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO (1958). The story begins on the day Roosevelt is struck down by polio in 1921 and ends three years later at the Democratic National Convention as Roosevelt re-enters politics with his “Happy Warrior” speech in the nomination of Al Smith for President.
When it came time to film Dore Schary’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Jack Warner urged Schary to cast Marlon Brando as FDR. But Schary insisted on Ralph Bellamy, who had not missed one of his 857 performances on Broadway, as well as the play’s director, Vincent J. Donehue.
The Los Angeles Mirror-News reported that there were “many raised eyebrows” over the casting of Greer Garson as Eleanor. The Beverly Hills Citizen proclaimed, “Leave it to Hollywood—they’ve got an Eisenhower Republican playing Eleanor Roosevelt!” But the role “had intense, personal meaning for me,” said Garson. “I consider portraying her to be a great privilege.” She considered it to be “the greatest moment of my career.”
The talky film definitely belies its stage origins, but it allowed the country its first glimpse into the origins of Roosevelt’s disability, which was kept a secret from the public during his tenure in office. Bellamy is FDR, and Garson, unfortunately saddled with prosthetic buck teeth and Eleanor’s vocal tics, earned an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. The best scenes are the quiet moments with the chemistry between Bellamy and Garson creating a loving couple, even as Schary’s script glosses over historical evidence to the contrary. One of the strongest elements of the film is Franz Waxman’s excellent score.
Two main themes are built off the same four notes. FDR’s theme sets a noble string melody over a punching, syncopated accompaniment in the brass. The moving love theme bears a resemblance in its orchestrations and harmonies to Waxman’s excellent work on PEYTON PLACE.
At just under 30 minutes, Waxman’s brief score to SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO captures the emotion and drama of the story with economy and a welcome lack of sentimentality. A six-minute suite was recorded on the Preamble label, but the full score is worthy of a proper release.
I keep my fingers crossed that Waxman’s excellent score sees the light of day.