Saturday, March 4, 2017

THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT (1932)

Depending on your view of the current White House resident, your first response to the title The Phantom President might be "If only!" You may even assume it's a horror movie. 

The Phantom President, instead, is a rather sophisticated musical that, 85 years after its original release, offers 21st-century viewers proof that corrupt, contemptuous politics is nothing new. A group of bureaucratic hacks, lead by Prof. Aikenhead, believes that the super-rich Theodore K. Blair would make a splendid president, despite him being a businessman with zero political experience and possessing the charm of lumpy mattress. Impossible!

On the verge of giving up, Aikenhead and his colleagues stumble upon Doc Varney, a charming, smooth-talking snake-oil salesman who is Blair's exact double. Varney is immediately enlisted into taking Blair's place on the campaign trail, with the understanding that he will disappear once Blair is elected. But fate -- and the scriptwriters -- have other plans in store for all involved.


Blair and his doppelganger -- or vice-versa.
The big attraction of The Phantom President in 1932 was its star, the legendary George M. Cohan. At age 54, Cohan was perhaps a decade past his prime as an entertainer -- yet anyone familiar with his biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy, will immediately recognize where James Cagney got his dance moves. 


He's not a bad actor, either, playing Blair and Varney with two distinct personalities, right down to the way they talk and move. It's rather confounding that Broadway's most famous song-and-dance man made three silent movies but just two talkies -- only one of which was a musical. (Remember, this is an industry that put Enrico Caruso in five silent movies.)


Especially after she finds out he's a conman. 
A strikingly cynical vibe runs throughout The Phantom President. When Blair doubts the validity of running an entertainer in place of the real thing, Aikenhead assures him, "Voters want a musical-comedy campaign." A shot of a horse's ass dissolves to a close-up of a platitudinous senator speaking at the convention. Felicia Hammond (Claudette Colbert), the woman Blair is in love with, prefers the fast-talking Varney, even after she finds out he's a conman.

Despite George M. Cohan having written some of the most popular stage musicals of his time, there's no way he could have come up with anything as sophisticated as The Phantom President's score, written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart during their brief spell in Hollywood before returning to the more worldly Broadway.


"And I'll build a wall around Manhattan!"
While Cohan was best known for flagwavers, Rodgers & Hart's centerpiece number here, "Blair for President," performed at the presidential convention, is a hilarious expose of American politics' art of being everything to everybody. Varney's sidekick Curly (Jimmy Durante) addresses New Englanders in a Down East accent, gives polygamy a thumbs-up to Utah's Mormons, and informs Harlem's delegates that Lennox Avenue will be the new U.S. capital under a Blair administration. (Six decades later, then-Governor Bill Clinton's promised to keep a glatt kosher White House if elected president in 1992Nothing changes.)


You want modern? There's even a Times Square
Jumbotron 60 years before it really happened.
Rodgers & Hart's takedown of patriotism doesn't end there. Blair's number, "Someone Ought to Wave the Flag," is really about getting suckers to fork over money for his phony patent medicine. (Analogy alert!) Even the one "straight" romantic song, the treacly "Give Her a Kiss," is obviously a parody of love songs, to the point of birds and frogs singing the lyrics. (Typical of Paramount Pictures' comedies of the time, there are more surreal touches in The Phantom President than 500 M-G-M movies combined.)

And as for the climax... well, if America and its politics were anything like it's portrayed here, it's astonishing that anyone was elected president in 1932. 

All things considered then, The Phantom President would make a fine half of a double-bill with another 1932 release, the acerbic Washington Merry-Go-RoundBut they'd probably be too sharp for today's audiences. For them, Alec Baldwin wearing a blonde wig is the height of cutting satire.

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