NPR

Life Imitates Art In Little-Known Election Movies

Independent producer John McDonough explores a handful of early, mostly little-known movies about presidential elections. It is uncanny how some old, obscure films capture moments that later on became real life political moments.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The "Manchurian Candidate," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "The American President." There's a vast store of movies drawn from Hollywood's political imagination. As the real presidential campaign plays out, producer John McDonough reminds us of some of the more obscure films on the subject.

JOHN MCDONOUGH, BYLINE: Running for office in America is an engaging mix of principals on parade and deals done behind closed doors. Perfect for Hollywood. Let's start with Theodore K. Blair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT")

GEORGE COHAN: (as Theodore Blair) Theodore K. Blair, a good American name, a good American self-made businessman.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) But no good American showmanship.

MCDONOUGH: A businessman without showmanship was the centerpiece of "The Phantom President," which saw a presidential election as a show. It should be better remembered than it is. Released a month before the 1932 election, it's the only sound film ever made by Broadway's greatest showman, George M. Cohan. He played a double role. As Theodore Blair, Cohan was able, presidential, but boring. As Doc Varney, he was Blair's exact twin, but loaded with charisma. Together, they made a very considerable candidate.

It was a story device revisited by Kevin Kline 60 years later in the film "Dave." It also offered an observation on American elections that still resonates.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Theodore Blair) We're conducting a presidential campaign, not a musical comedy.

GEORGE COHAN: (as Doc Varney) Ah, you're wrong, sweetheart. That's what the voters want.

(as Theodore Blair) What?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Doc Varney) A musical comedy presidential campaign?

MCDONOUGH: To prove it, Cohan sang his acceptance speech to a Rogers and Hart score.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

COHAN: (Singing) She's a grand old flag, and don't let her drag.

MCDONOUGH: If "The Phantom President" viewed politics as comic opera, "Gabriel Over the White House," saw it as Wagnerian fantasy of an American strongman in power. Walter Huston was a tempting and populist presidential vision at a moment when desperation embraced fanaticism. A lot of the speeches sound quaint today, but some still have a familiar ring.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE")

WALTER HUSTON: (As President Judson Hammond) I propose to safeguard the homes of American citizens by a law to prevent the foreclosure of mortgages. I propose a national banking law, which will protect our people's money in the banks.

MCDONOUGH: Houston was as benevolent in his purposes as he was iron fisted in his means. The message was, if you can't win power, take it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as Character) Mr. President, this is dictatorship.

HUSTON: (As President Judson Hammond) I think, gentlemen, you forget that I am still the President of these United States. It is within the rights of the President to declare the country under martial law.

MCDONOUGH: Eight years later, Hitler and Tojo had half the world under martial law. In 1941, Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe" warned that with enough money and media power, it could happen in America too. Gary Cooper's John Doe was an anonymous everyman who became symbol and leader to a network of John Doe clubs. But their earnest decency was politically naive. A hidden power pulling their strings was media baron D.B. Norton, a Napoleonic plutocrat with his own private SS corps. Norton had his own ideas about democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MEET JOHN DOE")

EDWARD ARNOLD: (As D.B. Norton) These are daring times, Mr. Barrington. We're coming to a new order of things. There's too much talk been going on in this country. What the American people need is an iron hand.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Right.

MCDONOUGH: The John Doe clubs would become Norton's wedge into the White House. In one of the great drunk scenes, a well-snookered James Gleason told Cooper that he was mixed up with a fifth column fascist conspiracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MEET JOHN DOE")

JAMES GLEASON: (As Connell) All right, now suppose that a certain unmentionable worm whose initials are D.B. was trying to use that to shove his way into the White House so he could put the screws on. What would you say about that, huh?

GARY COOPER: (As John Doe) Nobody's going to do that, Mr. Connell.

MCDONOUGH: And nobody did. But in 1941, no one was certain that they couldn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STATE OF THE UNION")

KATHARINE HEPBURN: (As Mary Matthews) Well, Jim, what's the state of the union?

MCDONOUGH: After the war, Capra turned to more immediate election material, the race for the 1948 Republican nomination. "State of the Union" reveled in the smoke-filled room talk that no politician would dare speak publically. Cynicism became a foil for sentiment in which the king makers, not the kings, had the power. GOP boss, Adolphe Menjou explained.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STATE OF THE UNION")

ADOLPHE MENJOU: (As Jim Conover) The people have darn little to say about the nominations. You're both lived in this country all of your lives. It's about time you got that through your heads. You're not nominated by the people, you're nominated by the politicians. Why? Because the people are too darn lazy to vote in the primaries. Well, politicians aren't lazy.

MCDONOUGH: "State of the Union" was also fact masquerading as fiction. Spencer Tracy's Grant Matthews was actually based on Wendell Willkie, the Wall Street industrialist who had been the real Republican nominee in 1940. Capra's cocktail of fact and fiction not only looked back, it was prophetic too. In the final scene, as Tracy reclaimed his integrity in the middle of a nationwide TV broadcast, the party bosses tried to shut him down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STATE OF THE UNION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as Character) Ladies and gentlemen, this is Grant Matthews. I am sorry to interrupt.

SPENCER TRACY: (As Grant Matthews) Don't you shut me up. I'm paying for this broadcast.

MCDONOUGH: Sound familiar? Thirty-two years later, probably the only man who remembered that scene was Ronald Reagan who masterfully reenacted it in New Hampshire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHN BREEN: Would the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan's mike off?

MCDONOUGH: There are students of American political history who will tell you that what Reagan did next put him into the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I am paying for this microphone.

MCDONOUGH: Speaking of movie moments come to life? Remember Bill Clinton's big applause line in 1988?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: In closing.

MCDONOUGH: Who knew that it had been the work of George S. Kaufman and Charles MacArthur 40 years earlier in "The Senator Was Indiscreet."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SENATOR WAS INDISCREET")

WILLIAM POWELL: (as Senator Melvin G. Ashton) And now, in conclusion. (Applause)

MCDONOUGH: Here is a forgotten but canny satire that stumbled with uncanny precision into much of our political future. If the visions of dictatorship imagined in the '30s never materialized, this remarkable little film put its finger on a kinder and gentler subversion - marketing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SENATOR WAS INDISCREET")

PETER LIND HAYES: (as Lew Gibson) Boss, I was in the advertising business once, so believe me, if you can sell the American public the idea that one cigarette is different from another, that one toothpaste is better than another, you can sell them anything - even Mel Ashton.

MCDONOUGH: William Powell's Mel Ashton, was a senator whose incompetence was exceeded only by his ambition, which was to be president. The party boss dismissed it all, until...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SENATOR WAS INDISCREET")

POWELL: (as Senator Melvin G. Ashton) Would you be interested in the fact that I keep a diary? I've kept it every day now for something like 35 years. I put everything in it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (as Character) About?

POWELL: (as Senator Melvin G. Ashton) Everything.

MCDONOUGH: Good satire imitates realism, then adds a silly twist of improbably imagination. After all, what politician would be foolish enough to put everything in a diary? Or on tape? Or on camera phone?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SENATOR WAS INDISCREET")

POWELL: (as Senator Melvin G. Ashton) Owning a nice little diary is like owning a nice little atom bomb. Even if you don't do anything with it, it's a comfort just to know it's there.

MCDONOUGH: When it blew up, parody prefigured prophecy and gave us a glimpse of Richard Nixon, Bob Packwood, Anthony Weiner and a procession of all too real politicians to come, all to be hoisted on their own diaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SENATOR WAS INDISCREET")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (as Character) You've got to resign.

MCDONOUGH: Resignation is easy, of course. It's the practicalities that can be complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SENATOR WAS INDISCREET")

POWELL: (as Senator Melvin G. Ashton) How am I going to live?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (as Character) The interest on your capital.

POWELL: (as Senator Melvin G. Ashton) What capital?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (as Character) You say you've been in politics for 30 years and haven't any capital?

POWELL: (as Senator Melvin G. Ashton) How did I know that that income tax bill meant me too?

MCDONOUGH: There were other tart little political epigrams, too, still suitable for framing. Unbecoming a candidate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SENATOR WAS INDISCREET")

POWELL: (as Senator Melvin G. Ashton) I am not a candidate for the presidency. But...

MCDONOUGH: On influence...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SENATOR WAS INDISCREET")

POWELL: (as Senator Melvin G. Ashton) There's an old saying in my state, if you can't beat 'em, bribe 'em.

MCDONOUGH: Mischief is nothing new in politics, of course. Plato noted it 2,500 years ago in Greece, which may make it the original sin of constitutional democracy. And no one has found more fun with political sin than Hollywood.

For NPR News, this is John McDonough.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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