Posted by Susan Doll on November 26, 2012
Given Daniel Day Lewis’s heralded performance and the stellar work of a bevy of character actors, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln will undoubtedly sweep the acting categories during this awards season. The fanfare surrounding the film reminded me that Honest Abe has been the president most often depicted on film, and it prompted me to investigate other cinematic depictions of iconic presidents. The result is a two-part series, Reel Presidents. Next week I will focus exclusively on celluloid Lincolns, including the axe-wielding action hero in one of my favorite movies of the year, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Killer. This week, I offer a run-down of other movie presidents and the actors who played them.
Not surprisingly, those presidents who steered our country through traumatic or nation-defining events have become icons onscreen—Lincoln, JFK, FDR. It is not unusual for biopics or briefer interpretations of these presidents to appear at times of national crisis, though that is not the only time iconic presidents show up in movies. In 1942, at the beginning of WWII, Franklin Roosevelt, played by Jack Young, must have been an inspiring presence for a wartime audience in Yankee Doodle Dandy as he tells George M. Cohan, “Today, we are all soldiers. We are all on the front.” However, Jack Young’s Roosevelt is more of an impersonation than an interpretation. He is filmed only from behind or in an over-the-shoulder shot, while vocal impressionist Art Gilmore provided the nasal voice and patrician accent of Roosevelt. Apparently, the filmmakers did not want to risk offending Americans by having an actor interpret a living president on the screen. The New York Times complimented the film’s handling of the situation, calling out “Captain Jack Young’s tastefully restrained and surprisingly realistic impersonation of the President.”
Young made something of a career with his impersonation of FDR, appearing in uncredited cameos throughout the war years, specifically in films directed by Michael Curtiz. Young shows up briefly as FDR in Mission to Moscow (1943) and This Is the Army (1943), while his voice is used in Edge of Darkness (1943) and Action in the North Atlantic (1943).
After the war, Roosevelt does not show up as a character again until the end of the 1950s, perhaps because he was so closely associated with the Depression and WWII. In 1958, film producer Dory Schary wrote a Tony-Award-winning play titled Sunrise at Campobello about Roosevelt’s struggle with polio during the 1920s. The play was turned into a film in 1960. Polio had been the scourge of the 20th century, with every parent fearing the summer months when polio epidemics became expected events. So, it’s no accident that the long-running play and well-received film occurred on the heels of the development of a polio vaccine. The first vaccine was developed in 1950 and was used throughout the 1950s in Africa and Eastern Europe. Developed by Jonas Salk, the second vaccine was announced in 1955 and administered through shots. Albert Sabin then perfected an oral vaccine that was selected in 1958 by U.S. Institutes of Health to be the primary vaccine to eradicate polio. The story of FDR’s struggle to overcome the disease in Sunrise at Campobello was timely, reminding viewers that the disease could affect anyone, even a future president. It also served as a testament to the fortitude of an American leader who did not let polio interfere with his duty.
In the post-Watergate period, after a president shattered the public trust and resigned in disgrace, several biopics about Roosevelt, a president who inspired trust by holding the country together during two tumultuous events, were released. Edward Herrmann starred as FDR in Franklin and Eleanor (1976) and Franklin and Eleanor: The White House Years (1977) then reprised the role for a cameo in the musical Annie. In 1979, Jason Robards starred in FDR: The Last Year. Dan O’Herlihy appears as FDR in MacArthur, the biopic of the controversial and cantankerous general. Recently, a comedy drama about Franklin Roosevelt has been making the rounds of the festival circuit. Hyde Park on Hudson is a British film directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill; Morning Glory) about the 1939 visit of King George VI and Queen Consort Elizabeth to FDR’s country estate in New York. The storyline focuses on both FDR the president, who hopes to bolster American support for England on the eve of WWII, and FDR the private man, who grows closer to distant cousin Margaret Suckley during the course of events. In a surprising bit of casting, Bill Murray stars as Roosevelt. Sadly, given the pathetic state of distribution and exhibition, in which distributors and cineplex theaters prefer to tie up three or four screens with the latest blockbuster rather than devote one to a low-budget indie, Hyde Park on Hudson may not open in a theater near me.
I was surprised at the number of films over the years that have featured Andrew Jackson, whose image as a Tennessee frontiersman reflected a pioneering toughness while his role in the Battle of New Orleans branded him a popular hero. Nicknamed Old Hickory, he was considered a man of the common folk who prized democracy as defined by frontier politics. The character of Andrew Jackson appears in a variety of films throughout the Golden Age, including historical romances involving his scandalous affairs. In The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), Lionel Barrymore played a cantankerous, avuncular Jackson opposite Joan Crawford as disreputable Margaret (“Peggy”) Eaton, who had Jackson’s ear in the White House after Jackson’s beloved wife Rachel died. Though Barrymore had a lock on playing cranky, crotchety characters, he lacked the outdoorsy quality of a man born and bred on the frontier. Still, he managed to reprise his role in Lone Star, a 1952 adventure tale starring Clark Gable as a Texan sent west by Jackson to assist Sam Houston’s bid for Texas statehood.
In contrast to Barrymore, Charlton Heston was the perfect actor to play Jackson. Tall and lean, the square-jawed Heston looked like a rugged frontiersman. Like Barrymore, he played the seventh president twice. The President’s Lady (1953) recounts Jackson’s relationship with his wife Rachel. In the early 1790s, Jackson married divorcee Rachel Donelson Robards, which was something to talk about in the 18th century, but their situation turned downright scandalous when it was discovered the divorce was not finalized before their marriage. Later, her marital history became campaign fodder when the real-life Jackson ran for office. Heston returned to the role for The Buccaneer, which is my favorite slice of Old Hickory history. The Buccaneer tells the story of pirate Jean Lafite who teamed with General Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans to defeat the British. Not only does Heston suit the role but who wouldn’t want a president who is not above cavorting with dashing pirates?
And, then there is The Remarkable Andrew, a 1942 comedy fantasy starring Brian Donlevy as Andrew Jackson’s ghost. I have not seen this particular film, but apparently, Jackson descends from heaven to help Andrew Long, played by a young William Holden, fight political corruption. He feels compelled to help Long because of a promise he made to the young man’s ancestor, who saved Jackson’s life at the Battle of New Orleans. The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo from his 1941 novel of the same name, which supposedly advocates the isolationist policy of discouraging America’s involvement in Europe’s troubles and war. Given Trumbo’s leftist politics and the fact that he was blacklisted for so many years, I wonder if that is why this film has been largely forgotten. While the isolationist subtext would be interesting given the release date, I am more interested in seeing how the film makes use of the ghosts of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, John Marshall, and Jesse James to help Long fight political corruption.
After Lincoln, John Kennedy is likely the American president most often portrayed, particularly on the small screen. So many mini-series and made-for-TV movies have been produced about the Kennedy saga that they constitute a subgenre. The majority of them are romantic melodramas focusing on his troubled marriage and extramarital dalliances, which was information revealed long after the assassination. His betrayal of Jackie, who was so strong and stoic after her husband was murdered in the national spotlight, is replayed over and over in these substandard mini-series. It is as though American can’t quite reconcile Kennedy the heroic leader who steered the country through the most dangerous days of the Cold War with JFK the wily womanizer who dallied with movie stars and mob queens. The exception is the made-for-TV drama The Missiles of October, starring William Devane as the strong-willed JFK who managed to get America through the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I prefer the big-screen Kennedy, who is most often portrayed as a heroic leader. For example, PT 109 (1963) is a mostly fictionalized account of JFK’s WWII ordeal as a PT boat captain whose crew is stranded after their ship is attacked by the Japanese. My favorite Kennedy film, however, is Thirteen Days, director Roger Donaldson’s drama about the Cuban Missile Crisis. A behind-the-scenes look, the film is shot mostly in close-ups to capture the intimacy and clandestine conversation among the characters—JFK, RFK, and advisor Kenny O’Donnell. Unsung actor Bruce Greenwood stars as JFK, with the much-maligned Kevin Costner holding his own as O’Donnell. For me, the most touching scene chronicles the mission of Captain William Ecker, a US Navy pilot who led a low-level reconnaissance flight over Cuba to take photos to prove that Soviet missile bases existed there. Christopher Lawford, JFK and RFK’s real-life nephew, portrays Ecker. Lawford had long since moved on from acting to pursue a career in public service, but he agreed to appear in this film in what must have been an homage to his uncles.
Besides the iconic (JFK, FDR, Lincoln, Washington) and the notorious (Nixon, George W. Bush), there are dozens of presidents who sleep in the shadows of history. Are there any cinematic representations of these presidents whose names are remembered only on game shows? I was surprised to discover there were. Martin Van Buren, who was blamed for the Depression of 1837 but helped execute Jacksonian Democracy, a style of democracy aimed at the common man, appears as a character in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. William Henry Harrison, who served only one month in office before dying of pneumonia, is represented in three films, Tecumseh (1972), Brave Warrior (1952), and Tecumseh (1994). Ironically, all of them are versions of the story of legendary Shawnee Indian leader Tecumseh, who repeatedly opposed the U.S., particularly during the War of 1812. Franklin Pierce, who ran for president under the slogan “We Polked you in 1844; we shall Pierce you in 1852!,” is a character in 1944’s The Great Moment, which tells the story of the dentist who discovered ether as a painkiller. “Polked” by the way, refers to President James K. Polk’s win in 1844. Zachary Taylor, who was nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready,” proved not to be so when he died in office after serving just over a year. He can be found in two movies, Rebellion (1938) and One Man’s Hero (1999) as the military leader of the American forces during the Mexican-American War.
Finally, Millard Fillmore, who assumed the office of president after Zachary Taylor died, and whose name became synonymous with dullness after repeated jokes on the old Tonight Show, is a character in The Monroe Doctrine, a two-reel short that chronicles the impact of the doctrine in American foreign policy. Unbelievably, Millard Fillmore was portrayed by an actor named Millard Vincent.
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