Hollywood Flashback: FDR's Virus Battle Inspired 'Sunrise at Campobello' in 1960

ONE TIME USE ONLY - On the set of the film 'Sunrise at Campobello' - Getty - H 2020
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The movie tells the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracting polio at 39, 11 years before he became president in 1932 — and gave the president a happy ending.

In 1960, Warner Bros. made a virus movie with a happy ending.

Sunrise at Campobello tells the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracting polio at age 39, 11 years before becoming the U.S.’ 32nd president in 1932. It was based on Dore Schary’s 1958 Tony-winning play, which made a star of Ralph Bellamy, who reprised the lead in the film. (The drama also marked the Broadway debut of James Earl Jones.) THR’s film review said "the play was an excellent job and has been improved upon." Bellamy, who died in 1991, said it was about "the indomitability of the human spirit — the courage and will to survive."

Dore was Hollywood’s widest-spectrum multihyphenate: playwright, screenwriter, producer, director and president of MGM. He also was a major Democratic Party supporter and got a blessing for the film from FDR’s wife, Eleanor. Campobello grossed only $3 million ($27 million today), but Greer Garson, who played Eleanor, received an Oscar nom. The film’s upbeat ending has FDR, though paralyzed from the waist down, able to stand with leg braces and give the speech nominating Al Smith at the 1924 Democratic convention. In real life, his polio led to its eradication.

"The president created a foundation that eventually became the March of Dimes, and nine years after his death [in 1945], its funding allowed Dr. Jonas Salk to develop the polio vaccine," says FDR Presidential Library director Paul Sparrow. "That’s why President Roosevelt’s profile is on the dime."

This story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.