“All the Presidents’ Movies”
a miniseries made for Bravo
by Executive Producers:
Burt Kearns, Brett Hudson,
Bill Knoedelseder, and Irv Letofsky.
Produced by Brett Hudson & Burt Kearns
Narrated by Martin Sheen.
Reviewed by Martha Joynt Kumas
Department of Political Science
at Towson University
for Political Communication journal
Volume 24 Issue 1 January 2007
“Do you know I can get any movie I want?” the newly inaugurated President Carter asked his communications aide, Gerald Rafshoon? And then he proceeded to do so. He began with All the Presidents’ Men and followed it up with 579 other films in his four years in office. That works out to an average of one every two and a half days.
His movie watching habits and those of other chief executives is the subject of a Bravo miniseries, All the Presidents’ Movies. For those who study presidents, the documentary provides a useful thread to pull to reveal several aspects of presidential life. Presidents spend a fair amount of time watching movies and using them to entertain others; Hollywood directors and producers try to get their products in front of chief executives; and some presidents try to shape movies, particularly ones where they believe they have some interest. All of these elements are featured in the three-part, three hour miniseries.
The documentary has some solid data behind it. During the period when movies became a regular White House feature with a formal theater to show them, the projectionist, Paul Fischer, kept a log of what movies were shown in the White House and wherever the president traveled, when they were screened, and who saw them. Fischer first projected films for President Truman on the presidential yacht, S.S. Williamsburg. He became the White House theater projectionist in March 1953 and stayed through to his retirement in March 1986. During his 33 years, he and his colleagues at Camp David and on presidential road trips screened 5,000 films. The log Fischer kept, which serves as the basis of the Bravo documentary, is a rich resource. The log is complemented for the documentary by interviews conducted with Presidents Carter and Clinton, presidential staff aides from the Kennedy through the Reagan Administrations, film directors, actors, and presidential children, including Ron Reagan, Steve Ford, and granddaughter Susan Eisenhower.
Presidents and Their Families Go to the Movies
“The best perk of the White House is not Air Force One or Camp David or anything else. It is the wonderful movie theater here because people send me all of these movies all of the time,” commented President Clinton about the presence of the theater and its treasure of movies. While his predecessors might not have gone as far as he did singing the praises of the theater, presidents and their families have thoroughly enjoyed their access to the latest movies and ones of their choosing.
Movies have been a feature of White House life since the Woodrow Wilson Administration when in 1914 the spectacle Cabiria was shown on the White House lawn. The following year, Birth of a Nation was shown inside the White House. While there were regular screenings in the Hoover and Roosevelt Administrations, there was no dedicated place to watch movies. In the Hoover years, there were two projectors on wheels used to create a continuous film when the president watched upstairs on the second floor of the White House in the family quarters. Films were shown with chairs lined up in a hallway in the Roosevelt years.
Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to create an ongoing relationship with Hollywood. He made producer Jack Warner a Colonel in recognition of his work in the war effort, especially for films such as Yankee Doodle Dandy. He screened the wartime movie and Academy Award winner, Mrs. Miniver, after Winston Churchill recommended it to him. Roosevelt liked the industry and regularly taped a statement to be used at the annual Academy Award ceremonies. Much as he liked to bring in guests for dinner and movies, there was no established place to screen films. That came with the creation of the White House theater as part of the major building renovation in the latter Truman years.
While presidents may have different viewing habits, all of the seven presidents from Eisenhower through Reagan, those who served during the period when Paul Fischer was the projectionist, watched movies. Their successors have as well. President Carter was the most frequent movie viewer. His romance with the movies has been life long. In an interview for the miniseries, Carter spoke of his pleasant association with movies. His first date with Rosalyn Smith was to a movie. Their evening must have been a pleasant one as Carter told his mother the next morning that Rosalyn was the one he wanted to marry. He retained his interest in movies even though he was not able to see them during the four years before he became president. When he came to the White House, he told Rafshoon he wanted to catch up on all of the movies he had missed while campaigning. Rafshoon made a list for him of the movies he had missed and that served as his film agenda.
With his professional life and Nancy Reagan’s too spent in the film industry, President Reagan enjoyed watching them during their eight years in the White House, particularly reminiscing with old favorites. He watched his own movies, including Bedtime for Bonzo and Knute Rockne, and viewed contemporary movies as well, such as the film recounting the Cambodian holocaust, Killing Fields; Reds the film about American communist, John Reed; and the whimsical film Local Hero. But for Reagan, “the golden oldies are the ones,” Reagan told Fischer as they took a photo marking the projectionist’s retirement.
While the documentary does not discuss it, we know from contemporary news articles and memoirs of senior staff members in the Reagan White House that the president sometimes watched movies prior to important meetings. Twice that was the case with The Sound of Music. Reagan watched the movie the night before a 1983 Williamsburg economic summit with governors and prior to a 1986 meeting with Gorbachev in Geneva.
If Reagan looked to the Trappe family for inspiration, Richard Nixon chose Patton. Presidential aide Herb Klein said President Nixon watched Patton the night he made the decision to go into Cambodia, April 25th 1970. “Mr. Nixon and Kissinger made the decision we were going to enter Cambodia and then they did watch the film that night because it was one he [Nixon] felt, again, showed leadership. He knew that going into Cambodia meant that there would be a lot of demonstrations and we needed to be tough to do what he felt was the right thing.” In an interview with David Frost, though, Nixon said watching Patton had “no effect on my decisions.”
The Fischer logs let us see what President Nixon was watching when other big events occurred, such as the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. The night of the burglary, Nixon was in the Bahamas watching The Skin Game, a movie about two con artists. His viewing companion was Bebe Rebozo who often watched movies with the president. In fact, they watched 153 movies together. Herb Klein explained Rebozo’s frequent presence. “It was a time to relax when he was with Bebe and Bebe never tried to bring out discussions of issues.”
While Carter viewed more movies than any of the presidents during the period Fischer kept his log, Kennedy appears to be at the low end. He only saw 48 movies and then he often did not see them in one sitting or more than a few minutes of them. The Kennedy segment is revealing for what we learn about the extent of the president’s back pain. Residence staff and his aides sought to make the theater comfortable for him to view films, but his severe back pain made it difficult. In addition to the padded rocking chair in the theater for his use, an orthopedic bed was brought in for him to watch movies comfortably, Fischer commented. “One of the beds you could raise and lower so he could watch a movie, so he could sit up.” Even so, he often watched one half of a movie in the theater and then the second half at Camp David, reported Fischer.
Some presidents view film watching as an occasion for presidential slumber with family nearby. Both Lynda Johnson Robb and Steven Ford tell stories of their fathers sleeping through movies while family members watched films. Robb commented, “Movies for Daddy were a great sleeping pill.” He would go right to sleep, wake up and ask “did y’all like it?” Jack Valenti backed up Robb. “Mostly he went to sleep during a movie; would wake up refreshed and want to go back to his office and gather up his assistants and go back to work.”
Camp David is the place for watching films with family in an informal atmosphere. It is there presidents truly relax. President and Mrs. Reagan used their weekends for movie watching. There they watched 344 movies while they only saw 12 at the White House. “At the White House, films were often used to reward people, to give them a close-up view of the president so you usually had a bigger crowd,” said Ron Reagan. Camp David was “much more intimate, it was much more of a family atmosphere.”
Eisenhower too liked watching movies over the weekend at the retreat. Art Halo, Camp David projectionist, reported Eisenhower watched at least two movies a weekend and Westerns were his favorites. He saw more than 200 of them. “The Westerns he saw really reminded him a lot of the environment in which he grew up,” his granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, commented. But when it came to Westerns featuring Robert Mitchum, Eisenhower refused to watch any. “When he found out that Mitchum was involved with marijuana, he wouldn’t have nothin’ to do with any films Mitchum was in,” Fischer said. And he preferred deciding which films to watch. When First Lady Mamie Eisenhower chose a 1956 film about Vietnam by French director Rene Clement, This Angry Age, President Eisenhower got up after about 10 minutes and said to Mamie, “You can’t choose a movie worth a damn.” He then retreated to bed.
As different as their film habits proved to be in the 1953-1986 period, there were similarities among presidents. High Noon with Gary Cooper was a favorite of all presidents, even recent ones. It was the most watched movie during the period when Fischer kept records and later presidents have named it as well. Clinton commented, “I am 53 years old and my favorite movie is High Noon, a movie I saw when I was six years old.” Film critic Richard Schiekel theorized presidents were drawn to the film because of the hero played by Gary Cooper had to deal with a critical situation alone.
Baseball movies ranked high too. Eisenhower saw Angels in the Outfield four times. In more recent times, Field of Dreams was a favorite of both Presidents Bush and President Clinton.
Screenings in the White House Theater
While in the early days of the theater screenings were family affairs, in recent years they have become occasions for more formal entertainment. The theater has become a place to entertain supporters and administration people as well as a place to do advance screenings of films with the actors, directors and others in attendance.
As film participants and presidential guests came to the White House, Hollywood stepped forward to upgrade the theater. During the Carter years new machines and Dolby sound was installed. In the Reagan years, the theater was renovated with funds from the Motion Picture Association of America for the purchase of the latest projection and sound equipment and to develop elevated seating, purchase red carpets for the theater, and drapes to absorb ambient sound.
“Every filmmaker wants to screen his film at the White House,” observed Gerald Rafshoon. A film director explains why he wanted to get his film viewed in the White House theater in the George W. Bush Administration. Lionel Chetwynd, who directed Varian’s War, a 2001 film made for television about Varian Fry, an American working in France in 1941 who was involved in rescuing European artists and intellectuals, explained why a director wants a presidential screening. “For two hours I had the ear and the eyes and, in the end, the heart of the most powerful man in the world. And he heard what we were saying and that’s why, in the end, you really want a White House screening.”
Screenings work well for presidents too as they are an opportunity to bring together a group of people interested in the issues raised by a film. In October 1999, President Clinton brought in a standing-room only crowd to watch Three Kings, an action movie set in a turbulent Iraq by director David O. Russell starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. Before the movie, a reception was held for the movie-goers on the state floor of the White House with food and drinks served there. Arab-American donors and administration foreign policy people attended as well as others, including many of those associated with the film. Director Russell brought his own hand-held video camera to film the goings-on. His film shows Clinton speaking with the group of 50 + people before the film began and then afterwards for about an hour the president held court up front near his seat with a discussion of our Iraq policy.
Clinton was not the first president to have an advance screening of a film. Carter was so taken with films that his communications adviser Gerald Rafshoon asked him if he would like an advance screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Expecting an authentic rendering of the Vietnam War, the screening did not go well. Carter brought in as guests the Chairman of Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency all of whom, Rafshoon indicated, looked mystified by the film. While Coppola was experimenting with endings at this stage, the one he was working with clearly did not work for Carter. Thinking something was wrong with the projection of the movie; Carter stood up, turned toward the projection booth and said “what’s wrong back there?” Rafshoon said that at that point, Coppola said, “No, Mr. President. That is the ending.” In a note the following day to Rafshoon, Carter wrote, “Jerry, re the movie last night, no comment.”
While filmmakers want to see their movies shown at the White House, so too do political allies of the president who want to press a particular viewpoint. Varian’s War came to the attention of the Bush White House through conservative Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes. Chetwynd sent the film to Barnes who then sent it to Karl Rove. About two weeks later, Rove called Chetwynd and said “the president needs to see this film, can we get a print?” The director obliged. Chetwynd noted the film was useful for the White House. “There was a conference of major Jewish organizations in Washington and they wanted to invite some of them.”
Hollywood and Presidential Movies: Mutual Pressure
Among the most fascinating parts of the Bravo miniseries are the efforts of presidents and their aides to influence Hollywood and the willingness of the industry to please chief executives. The two most blatant attempts at presidential influence involve Presidents Kennedy and Nixon. Both chief executives took a direct interest in the structuring of a movie of interest to them.
In the case of President Kennedy, the movie was PT 109. President Kennedy, whose interest in movies appeared marginal, was involved in the selection of the director of the movie depicting his World War II experience and in choosing the actor to play himself as a young naval officer. Presidential friend and film director George Stevens and Press Secretary Pierre Salinger watched Marines Let’s Go, a recent movie by director Raoul Walsh who was chosen by studio chief Jack L. Warner to direct the biopic. Kennedy came in to the theater to watch it and asked after ten minutes that it be stopped. Soon thereafter, Les Martinson replaced Walsh. Projectionist Paul Fischer said he received the screen tests for the actors trying out for the Kennedy part and so too did the president and those close to him, including his brother-in-law actor Peter Lawford. Cliff Robertson was the presidential choice. Kennedy asked Robertson to come to the White House to talk to him about how to play the role. The president asked Robertson to play it “non-regionally” so that there would be no discernible accent. While the film was only a modest success, it did not do the president any damage either.
While Kennedy took a personal interest in film making when he was the subject, Richard Nixon got involved in movie-making over what he thought would be bad publicity for the conservative cause. When 1776 the play celebrating the American Revolution was made into a movie, Nixon was worried about the image of conservatives as anti-independence. Jack Warner, who was so pliant to Kennedy’s requests associated with PT 109, did the same for Nixon. Warner provided Nixon with a print of the film, which the president then went over. When Peter H. Hunt, the director of the film, returned from his vacation, he found the new cut of the film no longer contained a particular musical number, “Cool, Considerate Men.” He asked Jack Warner how he could have done it. His reply was “with scissors.” In 2002 DVD release of the movie, the nixed number was restored.
While the first two instances here demonstrate how a president gets what he wants from the industry, another incident gives us a glimpse of the way in which the industry works with the White House. Director George Stevens Jr. details in an interview how he went about making A Thousand Days, the film made for the United States Information Agency about the Kennedy Administration and the president’s death. Stevens decided shortly after Kennedy’s death that he wanted to make the film and have it distributed around the world. He went to Edward R. Murrow, head of the United States Information Agency, to discuss how it could be done. Both understood President Johnson would be involved in the decision. With that in mind, Murrow said to Stevens, “first, make a ten minute film about Lyndon Johnson.” Stevens recounted, “Ed was very sage and realized that if the word got out to the new president that we were making a feature film about the departed president, there may not be happiness on Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Murrow suggested to Stevens that his first step be making a ten minute documentary on Lyndon Johnson and his assumption of power. The theme would be the continuity of government and the film would serve as Johnson’s introduction to a world audience. Jack Valenti, his aide and later representative of Hollywood to Washington, commented that “anytime you are in a movie, you become your favorite movie star. “ Indeed Johnson was very pleased with The President, the documentary about himself. It was played in the White House theater 18 times and Johnson saw it 12. On the way back from a screening, Pierre Salinger told Stevens, “well, you just conned another president.”
All the Presidents’ Movies is persuasive when it comes to relating information contained in Fischer’s logs and in the interviews with former presidents, staff members, and people from the movie-making community. It is less convincing when claims are made that presidents have taken actions or said things based on films they have viewed. While Nixon watched Patton three times, it is hard to believe he took actions because of the film. He was inspired as other presidents have been by movie portrayals, but that is not why they watch movies. In the end, movies are a form of entertainment and presidents and their families like all of us enjoy being entertained.