As the midterm elections gather speed, bearing down on the electorate that’s been collectively tied to the railroad tracks, the temptation to retreat into the past gets stronger. Not that it isn’t strong for me every minute, but a few hours spent with Christine O’Donnell’s occult dabbling and the brawl at the Sharon Angle/Harry Reid town hall meeting is enough to make anyone nostalgic, even if you were born in 1992. When you’re ready to switch off the cable news (give it about five minutes), a documentary like The Eleanor Roosevelt Story is a godsend.
Richard Kaplan’s documentary opens with footage of Roosevelt’s funeral at Hyde Park, NY in 1962, attended by President and Mrs. Kennedy. The connection to the martyred president, dead scarcely two years when the documentary was made, signals immediately that this is no debunking. It is a valorization of an American heroine, worshipful in a way that has all but disappeared from biographical movies.
Mind you, now and during her lifetime, there were people who despised Eleanor Roosevelt; you get only a small suggestion of that from this movie. And it was made before the name Lucy Mercer, the woman with whom Franklin Roosevelt had a affair, was known to the public, let alone suggestions of Eleanor’s possible liaisons with bodyguard Earl Miller and reporter Lorena Hickok. Nor does the film mention the son born in 1909 who died shortly after birth. Different times, of course, times when a polite silence could be maintained over matters deemed private. It’s worth noting, though, that something like O’Donnell’s date-on-an-altar was revealed by the candidate herself. Roosevelt would no more have indulged in intimate revelations than she would have tried to sing Il Trovatore.
Despite ticking off the omissions in my head, I didn’t miss them. Winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1965, this is a quiet, simply directed film, of a kind familiar to anyone who watches The American Experience, and it breaks no new technical ground. At times it feels a bit stuffy, something its subject never was. And yet the film gains power through Eleanor Roosevelt, and the accumulation of detail about one of the most wholly admirable women this country ever produced.
After the funeral, Kaplan moves to Roosevelt’s childhood, her mother’s disappointment in her daughter’s plain face and the hurt the girl suffered in a family renowned for its beauties. The camera lingers over photographs of young Eleanor, preternaturally sad and wounded-looking. She adored her alcoholic father, and was devastated when he simply disappeared from her life when she was about eight. Her mother died in 1892 from diphtheria, her father died from alcoholism in 1894, her brother died also from diphtheria. She went to live with her maternal grandmother, and was sent to school in London. When Eleanor returned to New York, like any other girl of her time and class she began preparations for her debut, to make an eligible marriage and disappear into life as a society matron. Then she met and married Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
She had six children in 10 years, and despite FDR’s burgeoning political ambitions there was still little to show she was anything different from the usual run of political wife. The film suggests two watersheds. One was her encounter with the treatment of shell-shocked World War I veterans at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital outside of Washington. Appalled by their treatment, and the lack of even basic equipment, she intervened with officials and eventually managed to improve conditions. The film doesn’t mention the fact that Roosevelt’s compassion was aroused despite the common belief at the time that traumatized soldiers were simply malingering.
The second defining moment came when Franklin contracted polio in 1921 and was left paralyzed from the waist down. A struggle for FDR’s future ensued between Roosevelt and her mother-in-law, the terrifying Sara Delano Roosevelt. Sara wanted Franklin to eke out his days as a privileged invalid; Eleanor and Franklin’s friend, Louis Howe, would not hear of it. Somewhere she found the nerve to battle Sara.
Thereafter Roosevelt spent her life facing down one gargoyle after another. She fought the Daughters of the American Revolution, who would not let Marian Anderson perform at their hall; Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, creating an indelible image of prejudice rebuked. There is awestriking footage of Roosevelt in a crane swung high over a TVA dam, visiting one of FDR’s signature New Deal projects. When war breaks out she visits soldiers and once more fights for their better treatment; when war ends she becomes internationalism’s most eloquent advocate, a United Nations ambassador who truly believed in the UN and helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This movie brooks no criticism of Eleanor Roosevelt, and after seeing it you are ready to take arms against anyone who would. The downside is that you will mourn the absence of this woman, and anyone who could even be compared with her, more than ever.
Farran Smith Nehme blogs about movies at The Self Styled Siren.