Presidents & First Ladies On Film

"Movie Magazine International" Special Report

By Monica Sullivan

As we approach the last Presidential Inauguration of the Twentieth Century, historians are already trying to figure out William Jefferson Clinton's rank among the other forty guys who've held the office since 1789. But movie buffs have another question: Who's going to wind up playing the Clintons on film? British character actor Alan Mowbray, for example, made three appearances as George Washington between 1931 and 1942. Yeh, I know, anyone who's seen Mowbray in comedies like "My Man Godfrey" or the first two Topper entries might wonder how HE of all people managed to fill the shoes of the Father of Our Country, but maybe the casting directors knew something the audiences didn't. Movie heavy Douglas Dumbrille also played the father of our country as well as William Henry Harrison. Before William Daniels became Dr. Mark Craig on "St. Elsewhere", he was John Adams in the musical "1776", playing opposite future "White Shadow" star Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson.

I've never seen Burgess Meredith and Ginger Rogers as James and Dolley Madison in 1946's "The Magnificent Doll", but by all accounts we're not missing much. One of the box office problems with presidents in the movies is that most of their lives are so well-documented that there isn't much in the way of dramatic suspense. An exception is 1953's "The President's Lady", in which glamourous stars Charlton Heston and Susan Hayward dramatised Andrew Jackson's memorable marriage to a divorcee named Rachel Robards in the early nineteenth century. The hitch is Rachel never got to be First Lady. She had been previously married to a character who claimed to have gotten a divorce, but didn't, so she was labeled a bigamist forever after for marrying Jackson. Her new husband did everything he could to protect Rachel from gossip, but when she overheard some women discussing her while she shopped for an Inaugural gown, she soon succumbed to a fatal illness, leaving the heartbroken new President to face eight years in the White House without her. All this is colourfully and sadly detailed in "The President's Lady", among the best films ever about America's First Couple. Of course, it helped that they'd both been dead for over a century: the producers didn't have to worry about lawsuits. And Carl Betz played Rachel's wastrel of a first husband with considerable relish.) Heston played Jackson once more on film. though not, alas, with the fetching Hayward.

Poor Mary Todd Lincoln was to fare the worst of all the First Ladies on the silver screen: she was invariably played as a shrew. (Take a look at Ruth Gordon opposite Raymond Massey in 1940's "Abe Lincoln in Illinois"!) We all remember young Henry Fonda in 1939's "Young Mr. Lincoln", but since Abraham Lincoln was the subject of 158 films, the role actually turned out to be something of an occupation for Frank McGlynn, a kindly looking gent who played the role over a dozen times. The late Canadian actor Alexander Knox won an Oscar nomination for playing Woodrow Wilson, but "Wilson", one of 1944's best pictures, was an expensive failure. Ironically, the president who most looked like a President, Warren G. Harding, has never been portrayed on screen in spite, or perhaps because, of the juicy scandals which characterised his administration in 1923. Other presidents who have never turned up in the movies include John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan and Rutherford B. Hayes. Aspiring screenwriters, take note! But if I could play casting director for just a second, Jeff Bridges and Kathy Baker would have the "Bill and Hillary Show' locked up!

Copyright 1997 Monica Sullivan

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