The Presidency on Film
by Beth Rowen
Eight of the first nine American presidents —Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Jackson, and Harrison— were born British subjects. Van Buren was the first president born a U.S. citizen.
The most common religious affiliation among presidents has been Episcopalian.
Nine U.S. presidents never attended college.
The president's original salary was $25,000. The chief executive now makes $200,000 a year.
James Buchanan was the only president never to marry. Buchanan's niece, Harriet Lane, was hostess at the White House during his term.
Presidents Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe all died on the 4th of July; Calvin Coolidge was the only president to have been born on that day.
The scandalous presidential film is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, films about our country's chief executive have mostly been reverential and have tended to steer clear of the president's personal life. But during the past several years, particularly during Clinton's administration, Hollywood has shattered the president's squeaky-clean image and has grown increasingly skeptical of the leader of the free world and his formerly sacrosanct office. Here's a look at some of the most memorable films about presidents, from hagiography to exposés of presidential peccadilloes.
Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
Director: Gregory La Cava. Cast: Walter Huston, Karen Morley, Franchot Tone, Arthur S. Byron
In his first of several presidential roles, Walter Huston plays President Judson Hammond, a lackadaisical chief executive all too willing to tow the party line and ride out his term with little concern for a constituency mired in the Depression. That's until his miraculous recovery from a car accident leaves him a changed man. He wakes from a coma, dissolves Congress and institutes a series of sweeping social programs à la FDR. Is this leader's transformation from lackey to fascist something to admire or dread? Who's to say, but he did get the job done.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Director: John Ford. Cast: Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, Donald Meek
Though John Ford's character study doesn't chronicle Honest Abe's years in office, the film does trace his political rise, from down-home merchant to lawyer to politician. And Henry Fonda's Abe is ever honest, with all the homespun virtues Americans could ever want in a leader.
Director: Daryl F. Zanuck. Cast: F. Alexander Knox, Charles Coburn, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Vincent Price
This forgotten biopic wouldn't be considered earth shattering by today's standards, but at the time, it was a revealing portrait of a vulnerable man. The film charts Woodrow Wilson's rise from president of Princeton to his governorship of New Jersey to the presidency and follows his active social life after the death of his first wife. Wilson won five Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture.
or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)
This masterful Cold War black comedy remains timeless as it speaks volumes about the power machines wield over men. Peter Sellers's bumbling, impotent President Merton Muffley (one of three roles he plays in the film) struggles to avert a nuclear disaster spurred on by a maniacal Air Force general who wants to decimate the Soviets because, he believes, they are out to "pollute the precious bodily fluids" of Americans.
All the President's Men (1976)
Though they essentially brought down Tricky Dick, Woodward and Bernstein can also lay claim to ushering in a new generation of prying and spying journalists driven by their thirst to unearth the next scandal that will change the world. The film about the Washington Post reporters' crusade to lay bare the facts of Watergate did open the Oval Office to public scrutiny, both in real life and in celluloid.
Is there anyone out there who actually bought the Warren Commission report that concluded Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone? It's doubtful. And JFK makes the commission's conclusion all the more dubious. Despite criticism that he has attempted to rewrite history, Stone, who has never been known for his subtlety, has crafted an important, compelling docudrama that's jam-packed with fact, and yes, some fiction. JFK was released nearly 30 years after the assassination of Kennedy, and its major revelation is that the time is the greatest fertilizer for the human imagination. Stone's film did not set the record straight; he simply served to cloud the fuzzy images of that fateful day in Dallas even further.
An unexpected hit, the Capra-esque Dave won bipartisan praise. Though Kevin Kline's president initially recalled George Bush, he's beginning to show more shades of Bill Clinton. Presidential fill-in Dave Kovic assumes the job full time when a stroke puts the president in a coma. Dave warms the cold heart of the First Lady and pushes through a compassionate agenda.
Air Force One (1997)
Harrison Ford's President James Marshall is the chief executive that only Hollywood could create: a no-nonsense leader, steadfast in his resolve to suppress terrorists and dictators and a dedicated family man. When Air Force One is taken hostage by a group of Communist fanatics, the prez single-handedly saves the day.
Wag the Dog (1997)
The story is much the same as the one that has been dominating the headlines for the past year, but the fictional account is a hilarious satire, while the non-fiction story is satirically hilarious. The president's in deep when a Firefly Girl (someone along the lines of a Girl Scout) accuses the prez of getting a little too touchy feely in the Oval Office. A presidential aide calls in a fix-it guy to enlist the aide of a slick movie producer, who "produces" a war in Albania. Dramatic footage and heart-warming songs suitably distract the public long enough for the president to be re-elected.