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Burns Makes 'Roosevelts' A Family Affair

24 Sep, 2014 By: Stephanie Prange

As the United States faces unrest at home and abroad, acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns suspects “it would not look unfamiliar” to Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, who faced turmoil themselves as they guided the country through economic upheaval and World Wars.

How would they face today’s challenges?

“They would roll up their sleeves and say, ‘Let’s figure out how to make the situation better,’” Burns said.

Burns’ 14-hour documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History spans from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962, profiling two of the most noteworthy presidents of the American century and arguably the most well-regarded and influential First Lady to inhabit the White House. The boxed set is available now on DVD and Blu-ray with two hours of bonus materials.

Not only were Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin connected in their devotion to political action, but they also were related by blood. Eleanor was Franklin’s fifth cousin in addition to being his wife. She was also the niece of Theodore, and Teddy gave her away at her wedding.

“This family touched more American lives more than any other family,” Burns said. “They are history running on all cylinders. This is kind of an American ‘Downton Abbey.’”

Although all three were born into great wealth, Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin nevertheless were not content to spend their lives in the idle pursuits of their class. Each faced personal challenges and tragedies that affected his or her outlook.

Theodore wasn’t expected to live past childhood, and throughout his life battled depression. His wife and mother died the same night on Valentine’s Day.

“He spent his whole life outrunning his demons,” Burns noted.

Eleanor’s parents died young, and alcoholism plagued her family. Her beautiful mother treated her with disdain and called her “granny.”

“I can’t believe she survived her childhood,” Burns said. “Long before Franklin said, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’ Eleanor was facing fear every day.”

Franklin suffered from infantile paralysis contracted at 39 and was never able to walk again. Despite starting life as a “pampered but very, very lonely only child,” the experience transformed Franklin into a gregarious president, Burns noted.

“They all learned to deal with their wounds — tragedies that happened to them on a personal level — and transform them into political action that helped others overcome tragedy,”’ he said.

The three have created policies and institutions that last.

“Their world is what we have inherited today,” Burns said. Despite coming from different political parties (Teddy was a Republican, and Franklin and Eleanor Democrats), they were “progressives within their own parties.”

“In many ways Franklin and Eleanor completed or tried to complete the agenda first postulated by Theodore,” Burns said.

As noted in the film, they certainly had their critics, and were “called socialists and dangerously radical.”

“This is a very balanced film, balanced without being mediocre and boring, that just shows that in their time they had earned the [scorn] of the very class that they came from,” Burns noted. “In fact, Franklin Roosevelt was called a traitor to his class.”

Despite the criticisms of the past, some of which continue today, there can be no doubt that the actions of these three Americans touch our daily lives.

“If you really doubt the extent to which they’ve influenced our lives, you only need think if you’ve ever flown out of LaGuardia Airport, driven through the Lincoln Tunnel or on the Blue Ridge Parkway or Skyline Drive, ridden on the elevated trains in Chicago, turned on a light switch in the Tennessee Valley,” Burns pointed out. “You’ve probably traveled on thousands of bridges built during the New Deal.”

Their policies, too, have lasted.

“If you like cashing a Social Security check … like National Parks, these are just a few of the things that the world of Franklin, Eleanor and Theodore helped to usher in,” Burns said.

Extras in the boxed set include a making-of documentary and deleted scenes.

Visit the Baker & Taylor website at for an extended interview with Burns about The Roosevelts.

About the Author: Stephanie Prange

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