Wednesday, October 8, 2014

THE PRESIDENT'S MYSTERY (1936)

James Blake has a bad case of the guilts, thanks to being a mouthpiece for George Sartos, the ruthless owner of National Cannery. After lobbying Congress to kill a proposal that would help small businesses at the expense of National Cannery's profits, Blake decides to cash in his $5,000,000 investments and fake his death. 

Leaving behind his faithless wife, Ilka, he moves to Springvale, a town negatively impacted by his lobbying, to revive the local co-op cannery. Ilka, meanwhile, is killed by Sartos' chauffeur, Roger. Just as Blake's succeeding in rebuilding Springvale, Sartos tracks him down. When Blake refuses Sartos' blackmail, he's arrested for Ilka's murder. The kindly sheriff lets Blake out of jail in order to prevent a mob -- paid by Sartos -- from destroying the cannery. Roger confesses to Ilka's death, and Sartos himself is arrested for inciting a riot.

I know what you're thinking. Where's the president? And where's the mystery? In the title, that's where. As the on-screen prologue explains:

How the hell do I know? You're the President.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, talking with a magazine editor on one of his favorite subjects - mystery stories - advanced the question: "How can a man disappear with five million dollars of his own money in negotiable form and not be traced?" Challenged by this, the editor enlisted the aid of six famous authors. The result was a thrilling story. The same problem intrigued the producers of this photoplay, and in another form is now brought to the screen. The proceeds of the sale of the plot, both for publication and motion picture rights, have been given voluntarily by the publisher to the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.  

Someone should tell Liberty that there's a
difference between "Plot By" and
"Shooting the Breeze with a Friend Over Drinks."
Well, that was a very generous donation. I only wish the screenwriters had been half as generous as donating a real mystery. In fact, the only mystery is why it's called a mystery. 

I've never read the original novel, but I would hope it's more "thrilling" than the movie. Hero James Blake isn't even smart enough to come up with the ol' fake-death-and-disappear routine on his own. He gets the idea from the latest copy of Liberty magazine where -- well, whaddaya know! -- The President's Mystery is prominently featured. Meta movie, 1936-style.
"Hey, I use a cigarette-holder like FDR.
I must be a good guy!"

If The President's Mystery is interesting at all today, it's because how ruthless and almost nihilistic businessman George Sartos is. An SOB whose corporate philosophy makes the Walton Family look like the Little Sisters of Mercy, he literally doesn't care about the effect his business practices have on anybody, as long as National Cannery's profits keep going north. 

James Blake's lobbying is shown in a montage that features everything you hate about Washington: boozing, schmoozing, golfing -- let's call it what it is, legal bribery -- interspersed with a series of screaming newspaper headlines: SMALL INDUSTRIES DOOMED! FEDERAL LOANS OUT! Hey, capitalist pigs gotta eat. 


C'mon, cheer up. Think of how happy
the corporate shareholders are!
And movie audiences gotta get romantic subplots, like the one James Blake has with Springvale Cannery owner Charlotte Brown. After meeting cute in a trout stream, Blake follows Charlotte back to the Springvale town meeting, where he discovers just how destructive his lobbying has been. This gives its citizens a chance to drive home how unchecked capitalism, crooked politicians and Godzilla-sized businesses can ruin entire towns. How nice that America has learned its lesson since then. Oh wait. (James and Charlotte are played by British-born Henry Wilcoxin -- a favorite of Cecil B. DeMille -- and Betty Furness, whose appearance is trumpeted on the credits as "Courtesy MGM". It must have been something of a drag for both to get loaned out to Poverty Row's Republic Pictures for a low-budget B-movie like this.)

Some of the movie's political theatre might be courtesy co-screenwriter Nathaniel West. Yes, the author of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust was better known -- make that better paid -- as a screenwriter, first at Republic Pictures, then later at RKO Radio. West might have painted a grim picture of Hollywood in Locust, but when you make a grand total of $1,280 from your novels (according to West bios), well, the movie factory looks pretty good. Great writers, like the aforementioned capitalist pigs, gotta eat, too.

Note FDR's quote on the upper left --
not exactly a ringing endorsement of
his own idea.
Over the years, The President's Mystery was one of those obscure movies I'd always wanted to see, just for its bizarre origins. A story written by six authors, each taking a different chapter, from an idea suggested by the sitting president. The film version co-written by a man almost unknown in his own day, but would later be renown as the author of two of the more trenchant novels about the underbelly of American popular culture. President Roosevelt himself gets a "Story Conceived By" screen credit.

And the result? A not-bad 52-minute movie which, had its origins been more humble, would have become even more forgotten than it already it is. It's remarkable, in its own way, that The President's Mystery successfully tackles so many different topics -- capitalism, quasi-socialism, murder, economics -- in less than an hour. In that respect, it would make a great double-bill with the still-relevant Washington Merry-Go-Round. And it still leaves time for a wedding engagement at the climax. 

Don't think I spoiled the ending -- that was no mystery, either.

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 To read about Washington-Merry-Go-Round, go here.

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