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We Used to Believe: Fantasies of Institutional Democracy in 1960s Hollywood by Steven Goldman

By Yasmina Tawil

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During the last months of his life, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered that the mantelpiece in the White House’s state dining room be inscribed with John Adams’ prayer: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”

Adams, the second president but the first to inhabit the Executive Mansion, as the White House was more often called in those days, couldn’t have known how much urgency we might attach to such a prayer in an age of terrorism, global warming, and nuclear weapons. Nor could he have anticipated the way that the passage of time might alter and sometimes outright distort our perception of presidential honesty and wisdom; our definitions of both might be radically different from his. Our films on presidential politics are a snapshot of our hopes and fears, a way to work out our anxieties through fiction. Two films that emerged in reaction to the election of 1960, Advise & Consent¸ directed by Otto Preminger, and The Best Man, written by Gore Vidal, reflect those anxieties as acutely as any ever made. 

Like Freud’s cigar, sometimes a film is just a film, of course, and not every presidential portrayal on celluloid betrays a hidden wish or worry—maybe Bill Pullman’s fighter-flying Thomas Whitmore in Independence Day (1996) or Harrison Ford’s combat-veteran James Marshall in Air Force One (1997)—both chief executives who take matters into their own hands—have a subtext in partisan gridlock during the Clinton years, but more likely they’re just action heroes going with the flow in outlandish films. Sometimes, though, the relationship is on the nose, such as in the 1933 fascist fantasy Gabriel Over the White House, which appeared at roughly the nadir of the Great Depression. Walter Huston plays a lackadaisical playboy president who suffers a near-fatal accident and is reborn as a Mussolini-like figure who solves the country’s problems through sheer force of will (and guns). At about the same time, there was also The Phantom President, a Rodgers and Hart musical, in which no less than the Yankee Doodle Dandy himself, George M. Cohan, reminds convention delegates about to nominate him for president:

My friends, this land is sad today,
It faces want and dearth.
But government of the people,
By the people, for the people,
Shall not perish from the earth.
The chorus answers, “Hey, hey, hey—that’s a new thought.” 

On the calmer end of the spectrum, at a time when Roosevelt was saying he was less concerned with being a great president than with not being the last president, the years 1930-1940 brought no less than three major films about Abraham Lincoln (D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, starring Walter Huston; John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, with Henry Fonda portraying Lincoln as lawyer; and John Cromwell’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois, with Raymond Massey as the titular character) each bearing the reassuring message that when the Republic was last under threat, a hero arose to restore order.

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The United States was a far more stable and prosperous proposition during the 1960 presidential campaign season, but the choice between Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy and incumbent Vice-President Richard M. Nixon made it a change election nonetheless. The previous three presidents had been born between 1882 and 1890. Kennedy, 43 years old, or Nixon, 47, would be the first president in United States history born in the 20th century. Whether one agreed or disagreed with the policies of Roosevelt, Harry Truman, or Dwight Eisenhower, in a very real sense the reassuring grandpas who had steered America through the frightening progression of the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War were going away for good. 

There were good reasons to doubt both men. If Kennedy won, he would be the youngest elected president in history. While his panache made an appealing contrast with the dowdy Eisenhower, it was also a reminder that he was inexperienced, with an indifferent record in the Senate. Old New Deal Democrats, including Eleanor Roosevelt, doubted Kennedy’s bona fides. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it, “Kennedy seemed too cool and ambitious, too bored by the conditional reflexes of stereotyped liberalism, too much a young man in a hurry. He did not respond in anticipated ways and phrases and wore no liberal heart on his leave.” In particular, the Kennedys had failed to repudiate the Red-baiting demagoguery of Senator Joe McCarthy and had, in fact, supported him. 

Kennedy was also burdened by inherited doubts. He was a Catholic, and anti-Catholic prejudice was still strong in the country; it had helped defeat Democrat Al Smith in the election of 1928. There was also the looming presence of his father, Joseph Kennedy, a wealthy, unscrupulous climber who had sunk his own presidential ambitions by advising appeasement of Hitler while serving as ambassador to Great Britain at the outset of World War II.

As a Congressman, Senator, and Vice-President who had successfully debated Nikita Khrushchev and stepped in as pinch-president when Eisenhower was ill, Nixon had experience in spades, not that the old general acknowledged it. (Asked at a press conference to name “an example of a major idea of [Nixon’s] that you had adopted,” the president replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.”) That experience, though, contained a fair share of disqualifiers. He had pioneered McCarthy’s tactics, first in his campaigns for the House and Senate, then in the divisive Alger Hiss affair. Due to the revelation of a campaign slush fund, which he combated with the infamous “Checkers” speech, he seemed to many not just an unscrupulous careerist, but also an example of tawdry, down-market venality. “No class,” was Kennedy’s two-word dismissal, an assessment that was echoed in campaign signs that asked,  “Would you buy a used car from this man?” Anticipating Donald Trump, Nixon had tried to rebrand himself so often that one commentator said the question was not if there was a new Nixon or an old Nixon, but “whether there is anything that be called the ‘real’ Nixon, new or old.” (James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations, 435.)

Tensions around the election were unsurprisingly stoked by the candidates. Kennedy’s major theme was the anodyne, “It’s time for America to get moving again,” but in his first televised debate with Nixon, he began by questioning, Lincoln-style, whether the world could continue to exist half slave and half free, asking, “Can freedom be maintained under the most severe attack it has ever known?” It was as if the Russians were about to march down Pennsylvania Avenue and paint the White House red. 

Unsurprisingly, with the old guard fading away and the new guard doing what it could to shatter any sense of serenity, public uncertainty about the election expressed itself in polemical art that asked tough questions about the integrity of the American political system and the quality of men that system produces. Among the first was the novel Advise and Consent by Allen Drury, appearing in 1959. A huge bestseller and inexplicable winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it became a Broadway play the next year, with the film version, directed by Preminger, finished in time for Oscar season in 1961 but held back for contractual reasons until June 1962. Vidal’s play The Best Man premiered on Broadway on March 31, 1960. The film adaptation, directed by Franklin Schaffner (who had directed the Broadway version of Advise) appeared on April 5, 1964. Significantly, both struggle to find an ending that does not duck the questions the stories pose, and both fail. Over 50 years later, with a presidential election of our own in the offing, we are still asking the questions.

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In Advise & Consent, an unnamed, ailing president (Franchot Tone) nominates controversial candidate Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) to succeed the recently deceased Secretary of State. Leffingwell is an intellectual who disdains kneejerk anti-Soviet policies. The former head of two federal agencies, he has made powerful enemies among the senators who must confirm his appointment, chief among them senior senator from South Carolina Seab Cooley (Charles Laughton, visibly ailing in his final role). Leffingwell also has an obsessive advocate in the sneering, peace-at-any-price junior senator from Wyoming, Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard). Caught between them is Brigham Anderson (Don Murray), senior senator from Utah, who will chair the subcommittee assigned to conduct the confirmation hearings. A family man with a pretty wife and a young daughter, Anderson is hiding a secret that could influence his vote if one side or the other was to get ahold of it.

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The Craftsman’s Hands: How Samson Raphaelson Shaped Classic Hollywood by Daniel Carlson

By Yasmina Tawil

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The biblical character of Samson was a man divided. The story goes that he was chosen by the almighty before birth to be separate and consecrated from those around him. He would lead the Israelites to glory, and to do so, he would be given superhuman strength, but this strength would have bound within it a weakness. It was tied to his hair, and Samson was forbidden from cutting it if he wanted to remain strong. He was given a hero’s power, but a mortal’s pride, and no victory could keep him from downfall. He fell in love with the wrong woman, bragged about the source of his gift, and awoke one day to find his head shorn and his muscles worthless. The allegory lends itself to many lessons, maybe none more poignant than this: knowing your limitations is often the only way to achieve greatness.

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Samson Raphaelson was born in New York City in 1894, a year before the Lumiere brothers held their first screenings of projected motion pictures, and three years after Edison held the first public demonstration of his prototype kinetoscope. This is one of those historical connections that winds up feeling portentous in hindsight but is actually just a fluke of great timing. Raphaelson — by his own account a “skinny guy with glasses” who just wanted to figure out what his talent was and put it to use — had the good fortune to grow up with the movies, and to come of age with a new medium. After he graduated high school, he spent a year doing menial clerical work for Sears Roebuck before taking a chance on himself. Recounting his youth to Bill Moyers on a PBS documentary in 1982, he said, “I rented a typewriter. Something happened, and I knew I could do it. I put it on the dining room table and I bought white paper and I put it in and I started to think of something. I didn’t plan it out.” Short stories led to rejection slips, but a year later he managed to make an impression on a publisher, who encouraged him to keep working. “I became a person” at that moment, Raphaelson said. He wrote a short story called “Day of Atonement,” about a young Jewish man who changes his name and finds success as a pop entertainer, only to return home and reconcile with his family and heritage when his father’s health fails. Raphaelson then turned that story into a stage play, which is when he felt a revelation and found his calling. “I knew I was a playwright,” he said of the experience. The play was a hit, so much so that, two years later, it was adapted by Warner Brothers into what would become a landmark of cinema history: it was the first sound film, and it was called The Jazz Singer. Raphaelson was 33.  

Almost everything about Raphaelson — his career, beliefs, gifts, impact, and goals — can be found in that moment, and the way he handled it. He’d written a story about something he knew firsthand (the intersection of Jewish faith and popular culture), and he’d done so with grace and insight. He’d written a story inspired by humor and pleasant entertainment, specifically by the shows of Al Jolson, whose verve and skill Raphaelson loved; Jolson was the only natural choice to star in the film. Yet Raphaelson didn’t write the adaptation, and he was dissatisfied with the movie version of his story. He knew the play he’d written was sentimental and melodramatic, but he also felt the movie was “overwritten” and did “awful things.” He was obsessed even then not just with story, but with style. In art, it’s not what you say, but how you say it, and Raphaelson realized that technique was going to be as important to him as anything else. Most importantly, though, he started to realize what he actually liked. As he told Moyers, “My notion of being a good writer was to write something that the critic on The Nation would praise. Now, did I like the Schubert books with the little gags and the little skits in them? Sure I did. Now, would I care to be the author of them? No. I was ‘above’ that. Until one day I said to myself, who the hell do you think you are? What do you like when you go to the theater? I love Jolson shows! That’s what made me write The Jazz Singer. So I had that out with myself. I said, why am I above that? I’m only a snob because I’m impressed by what I read in those things. But I am creatively not up to those guys. This is my level.”

Raphaelson wanted to be a workman, the guy who picked up his tools and got his hands dirty, and though he never claimed greatness, he took pride in his abilities. His work was funny and warm, sophisticated and sharp. Raphaelson himself was eager to please and determined to succeed.

Raphaelson’s most fruitful cinematic collaboration was his creative partnership with Ernst Lubitsch, who directed nine films based on Raphaelson screenplays, including The Shop Around the Corner and Heaven Can Wait. Yet Raphaelson also wrote the screenplay for Suspicion, directed by Alfred Hitchcock; continued his work on stage with plays like Accent on Youth and Skylark; and taught and wrote for the rest of his life, including a University of Illinois class in the spring of 1948 that was turned into the book The Human Nature of Playwriting, which is as much an examination of the psychology of storytelling as it is the nuts and bolts of dramaturgy. He pursued relentlessly the essence of human nature in his work, crafting some of the finest comedies of Hollywood’s golden age, and his influence on film history is inescapable. We’re all still walking on the tracks he laid down.

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Raphaelson’s first screenplay was also the first time he’d work with Lubitsch. The Smiling Lieutenant, released in 1931, starred Maurice Chevalier as a Viennese army officer who falls in love with the leader of an all-female orchestra (Claudette Colbert) before becoming inadvertently entangled with the princess of a neighboring country (Miriam Hopkins). It’s a breezy little picture that relies on Chevalier’s winking charm to skip along through 89 pleasant minutes, and Lubitsch’s deft touch with romantic comedy blends perfectly with the pleasure Raphaelson clearly takes in sending his characters spinning around each other. The next year’s One Hour With You is basically just a tighter, better version of the story. In that film, Chevalier plays a doctor who’s in love with his wife (Jeanette MacDonald) but surprisingly willing to flirt with her best friend (Genevieve Tobin). Throughout both films, Chevalier’s character makes regular overtures to the viewer, breaking the fourth wall in a way that seems unusual now but feels right at home given Raphaelson’s background in stagecraft and fondness for revues. One Hour With You finds Chevalier turning to camera to sing “Oh That Mitzi,” in which he declares his fidelity to his wife while also reveling in the idea of cheating on her:

This is, of course, an almost startlingly direct way to approach moral ambiguity. The filmmakers got away with so much sexuality because they were making these movies in the final days before the institution of the Hays Code, but it’s Chevalier’s cavalier attitude toward his lovers — and their acquiescence to his wishes — that feels most unpredictable, even today. It’s part of what would come to be branded as the Lubitsch touch: a blend of melancholy and whimsy, witty ripostes sandwiched in sight gags, sexual misadventure leading to ultimate reconciliation. And while there’s no denying Lubitsch’s brilliance as a director, it does a disservice to writers like Raphaelson to imagine it all came from one man, especially given how collaborative the creative process can be. “He wrote some of my best lines,” Raphaelson said, “and I contributed more than a few of those silent things that are famous as Lubitsch touches. You couldn’t help it if you’re working together.”

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I’ll Help You Be Popular: “It Should Happen to You” and the Thirst for Fame by Daniel Carlson

By Yasmina Tawil

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“Within the last century, and especially since about 1900, we seem to have discovered the processes by which fame is manufactured. Now, at least in the United States, a man’s name can become a household word overnight. The Graphic Revolution suddenly gave us, among other things, the means of fabricating well-knownness. Discovering that we (the television watchers, the movie goers, radio listeners, and newspaper and magazine readers) and our servants (the television, movie, and radio producers, newspaper and magazine editors, and ad writers) can so quickly and so effectively give a man “fame,” we have willingly been misled into believing that fame — well-knownness — is still a hallmark of greatness. Our power to fill our minds with more and more “big names” has increased our demand for Big Names and our willingness to confuse the Big Name with the Big Man. Again mistaking our powers for our necessities, we have filled our world with artificial fame.


“Of course we do not like to believe that our admiration is focused on a largely synthetic product. Having manufactured our celebrities, having willy-nilly made them our cynosures — the guiding stars of our interest — we are tempted to believe that they are not synthetic at all, that they are somehow still God-made heroes who now abound with a marvelous modern prodigality.”

— Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961)


“Kim has mastered the art of taking flattering and highly personal photos of oneself.”
— promotional copy for Kim Kardashian West’s Selfish (2015)

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1954, and a time of creation. Marilyn Monroe marries Joe DiMaggio. Bill Haley releases “Rock Around the Clock.” Sports Illustrated puts out its first issue, and the Miss America pageant is broadcast on TV for the first time. The first nuclear submarine is commissioned, and the first nuclear power station comes online. The territorial excess of the post-war boom is funneled into home appliances, sedans the size of small boats, and the Red Scare. It’s when the country starts taking stock of itself and figuring out what kind of century it’s going to have, now that they’ve toppled the Axis and emerged under sunny skies. It’s also a tipping point for the way Americans are able to see themselves in the mirror of visual media: in 1946, only 0.02% of American households had a television set, but by 1954, that figure has exploded to 59.4%. More than half of all U.S. homes now had a glowing box in the corner of the living room that let them gaze for hours at the faces of actors, actresses, comedians, composers, authors, emcees, and anyone else who managed to, however temporarily, step over the firmament that separates viewer from viewed, consumer from provider. It’s a box that gives you the ability to gawk at famous people — that actively encourages you to do this — and to daydream about what their lives must be like. Crucially, though, it’s a device that doesn’t just reflect fame, but create it. Get yourself on TV, and you can be a household name, instead of the other way around. In other words, it was the beginning of the era of the self-reflexively famous, and nobody quite knew how to handle it.

That sense of unease, of nervous laughter, is shot through 1954’s It Should Happen to You, directed by George Cukor from a script by Garson Kanin. It is, ostensibly, a comedy, but this is a little like saying Romeo and Juliet is about a couple of young kids in love. It’s got plenty of laughs, sure. Judy Holliday stars as a woman with aspirations of fame, and she finds herself in a triangle between a scheming executive (Peter Lawford) and an earnest documentarian (Jack Lemmon, in his first major role). Holliday plays her part with sparkle, and Lemmon is so pleasing you’d never suspect it was his big-time debut. Part of the misconception can be chalked up to the marketing, too: key art and trailers for the film paint it as a kind of laugh riot or hilarious screwball trip, set against the city that never sleeps. But it’s a film plagued by worry and colored by darker things, and the comedy is shaped by the story’s grim satire of a new generation that seemed to seek fame above all else. What seemed outlandish sixty years ago, though, is now commonplace, and as a result, to modern eyes the film often plays almost flat, and beats that would’ve been surprising to post-war viewers feel instead inevitable. It’s a film worth watching for many reasons, but its prescience tops the list.

Gladys Glover (Holliday) seems to come out of nowhere. We meet her wandering in Central Park, and her backstory is only sketched out via an exposition dump when she strikes up a conversation with Pete Sheppard (Lemmon), who’s shooting B-roll for a documentary about city life: she’s been in the city a couple of years, modeling girdles until she was fired for being a fraction of an inch oversize, and now she’s unemployed and struggling to find meaning in her life. She lets Pete film her for a bit, but importantly, she’s more infatuated by the idea of seeing herself in an eventual film than she is in anything he has to say. She’s less a person than a force of will; a physical representation of the thirst for notoriety. She’s not malicious, though. Kanin doesn’t paint her as a murderer or sociopath. She just wants renown, and she trusts that her desire necessitates worth.

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