BR: President’s Lady, The (1953)

October 22, 2019 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: August 20, 2019

Genre:  Biography / Historical Drama

Synopsis: Fictionalized version of the romance between future U.S. President Andrew Jackson and Rachel Donelson.

Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Mike Finnegan / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




This compact, efficient adaptation of Irving Stone’s best selling novel may seem a little precious to contemporary audiences, but the charisma of its stars and superior script by John Patrick (Three Coins in the Fountain, High Society, Some Came Running) are still quite affecting. A fictionalized bio-drama based on the relationship between attorney general and future U.S. President Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) and Rachel Donelson (Susan Hayward), Patrick’s screenplay traces the pair’s unlikely meeting on a barge and their magnetic romance which ruffled upper-crust society: Donelson was a married woman, and although husband Lewis Robards (Whitfield Connor) granted them a divorce, the severance proved non-binding, causing a scandal in the couple’s social circle in Nashville.

Even after Donelson’s unhappy union became null & void, her reputation as a home wrecker endured, yet she and Jackson remained close; neither his departure to fight in the Creek War nor long periods of absence due to a burgeoning political career seemed to test their union, and although Jackson would become the 7th President of the United States, Donelson’s health failed, robbing her of the opportunity to both attend his inauguration, and become the country’s First Lady.

Patrick’s prose is tight and never cloying, and director Henry Levin (April Love, Journey to the Center of the Earth) seemed to push the cast into portraying historical characters with a slight lightness, perhaps to make the production more family-friendly. Jackson’s side career as soldier and ‘indian fighter’ are restricted to short montages, a tact that keeps the story firmly on Donelson coping with his absence and the tough trials of maintaining farm.

There is some fiddling with historical facts: the couple’s second adopted son is scrubbed from the story, and their only child is the adopted aboriginal boy Jackson ‘saved’ when his surviving postwar relations ‘relinquished’ any responsibilities – a weird moment that’s a portent of his controversial position in history, especially the Indian Removal Act.

Some narrative material was undoubtedly snipped to keep the pace tight and the focus exclusively on the couple, of which their adopted son’s sudden death is most affected: after taking ill in one scene, the boy dies off-camera in the next, with no explanation given by the family doctor, nor mention of the tuberculosis that claimed his life.

Jackson presenting their adopted child to Donelson is also jarring because there’s no mention of his wife being barren. Dated and cleansed elements excepted, the film works as tight melodrama because of the natural chemistry between Hayward and Heston. The latter was always solid playing historical figures, and his version of Jackson is of a firm but tender-hearted man who could laugh, dance, and fight to preserve law & order; all the Hestonian mannerisms are there, but the actor must have enjoyed playing a man of many skills and emotions.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a good transfer of a clean print – some DNR was applied to stabilize noisy grain and shifts in print contrast – and a clean mono soundtrack. Alfred Newman’s score is presented in light stereo on an isolated music track, which enables fans to hear the finer details buried in the mix. Newman’s iteration of the couple’s love theme is heavy, but it’s a gorgeous score with more than a few inventive passages, including the ever-so-subtle use of a theremin in one cue.

The included trailer is packed with spoiler material, and a vintage radio show features Heston and Joan Fontaine reprising the roles of Mr. & Mrs. Jackson in 1953. It’s a tight compression of events, and Fontaine is very good as Donelson. The drama runs a few mins. under an hour, and Paul Frees’ magnificent voice provides bridge material and narration.

Mike Finnegan’s notes laud the film’s genuine virtues, which include some stirring sequences: the obvious barge attack during the day and later night flight is beautifully crafted for action and mounting sexual tension; and an exciting horse race clearly shows Heston riding at fast speed. Hayward may be the star, but the film must have further boosted Heston’s persona as an agile and physical actor who could handle a variety of dramatic scenes and physical requirements.

Also of note is the solid cast of character actors, including a young-ish John McIntire (Psycho) as Jackson’s legal colleague, unbilled James Best (TV’s The Dukes of Hazard) playing Rachel’s young brother, Willis Bouchey (The Horse Soldiers) as a judge, Ralph Dumke (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) getting a sizable role as a raft captain, and Jim Davis (TV’s Dallas) as Rachel’s vengeful ex-brother-in-law.

TT’s cover art is, if not an improvement over the original film poster, a more accurate distillation of the film as a dramatic tale of an adventurous romance that lasts the length of the couple’s onscreen lives. (The original poster, reproduced on the booklet’s rear, resembles a campaign for a Mario Bava thriller in which a nobleman falls for an occult-steeped temptress!)


A Bavaesque retelling of the involuntary seduction between a straight-laced General and Rachel, the demonic swamp woman of New Orleans!


Several of Irving Stone’s novels were adapted into memorable films, including Lust for Life (1956), and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), starring Charlton Heston. Heston would also reprise the persona of Andrew Jackson in the 1958 remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Buccaneer.



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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