Political Campaign Films
Why “Political Campaign Films” and not just “Political Films”? Well the second term is a bit to vague and perhaps all encompassing depending upon your point-of-view. And I believe there may be some insight to be gained into politics if we examine how political campaigns have been portrayed throughout the years in classic film.
As our society has changed and our sources for news have grown the process it takes to get elected to office has changed dramatically. If one assumes (warning – BIG ASSUMPTION) that Hollywood captured these bygone days in the films it produced relating political campaigns of the time then we get some semblance of an historical record of how “they” have evolved.
On April 29 2005 I watched Politics (1931) on TCM a comedy-drama with Marie Dressler as a landlord widow whose campaign against the incumbent Mayor’s corruption by the speak easy owning gangster is assisted when all the married women in town go on strike against their husbands by refusing to do housework or perform any other wifely duties.
The Dark Horse (1932) stars Warren William as a campaign manager extraordinaire so skilled that he’s able to promote a simple (e.g. stupid) common yet honest man (Guy Kibbee) for governor as the titled candidate for a Democratic party that was deadlocked (the conservative opponent is played by Berton Churchill). This was the first of William’s several pairings with Bette Davis; she plays his love interest a tedious subplot complicated by the campaign manager’s alimony-dependent ex-wife (Vivienne Osborne). Frank McHugh plays William’s assistant.
Another early film on the subject is Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty (1940) about a bum that is manipulated by a corrupt political machine all the way up the line to Governor of a state. The story and it’s acute repartee earned Sturges an Oscar for Best Writing Original Screenplay. The lead character played by Brian Donlevy is recruited by “The Mob” to assist in voting fraud which in part because of his physical presence he does very well. His efforts come to the attention of “The Boss” who chooses him to become the next alderman and “makes it so” nefariously. “Owning” the media source (newspapers) turns out to be the ticket for Donlevy’s character to advance to Mayor and marriage to an honest woman his ticket to the Governorship. Then his love for her causes a change of heart in him much to the dismay of the mob boss.
Other films about political campaigns include:
- Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)
- Another early film about a “grass roots” political campaign driven by an unscrupulous businessman is Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941) also starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck which received an Academy Award nomination for Writing. Stanwyck’s media boss is the unscrupulous one played deftly by Edward Arnold who publishes her stories about Coop’s “forgotten man” until he’s a populist hero and then attempts to exploit it to his own advantage.
- Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) which also starred Joseph Cotten won a best Best Writing Original Screenplay Oscar & received eight other nominations including Best Picture Director & Actor (for Welles). It also involves a newspaper man a multimillion dollar tycoon actually with larger than life ambitions. A thinly veiled account of William Randolph Hearst’s life the film is revered as much for Gregg Toland’s filming technique and Robert Wise’s editing as it is for newcomer Welles unprecedented debut.
- I finally saw Wilson (1944) when TCM aired it for the first time ever in February 2013. It uniquely dealves into the challenges of winning one’s own party’s nomination at the convention and also the challenges of being reelected (there’s even a precursor to the Dewey-Truman incident of years later). The “political boss” is front and center at the beginning of the film but its storyline soon fades into the background.
- Preston Sturges did it again with Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) a film for which he was nominated for a Best Writing Original Screenplay Oscar which examines the popularity of a returning veteran. Though his “war record” is a work of fiction (sound familiar?) fabricated by well-meaning yet newfound friends the protagonist gets temporarily caught up the hero worship almost to the point of being selected as a candidate for public office (the reform mayor for the town). Thankfully he is an honest man whose conscience eventually leads to his self induced exposure but Sturges delivers a funny biting comedy which is ironically timely in 2004.
- The Farmer’s Daughter (1947) is the film which saw Loretta Young receive her Best Actress Oscar & Charles Bickford also get nominated. It focuses on a young Swedish-American woman (Ms. Young) who leaves the family farm to go to the “big” city to earn an education but is bilked out of her money on the way and finds herself working as a maid to a US Senator (Joseph Cotten again). During a rally for him she speaks up for immigrants and is thrust popularly into running as well.
- Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948) with Spencer Tracy Katharine Hepburn and Angela Lansbury sizzles. The Republican political machine run by Ms. Lansbury’s character selects a “political neophyte” businessman (“Spence”) as its candidate for President. Conflict arises when influenced by his wife (“Kate”) he speaks his mind in lieu of the party line.
- Broderick Crawford’s Best Actor performance in All the King’s Men (1949) which won Best Picture as well.
- John Ford’s The Last Hurrah (1958) also stars Spencer Tracy. However this time he’s an aging incumbent trying to get reelected against the wishes of his party’s political machine in the new era of television. It foreshadows (to some degree) this new medium’s influence in the process for the real life Presidential contest (between Kennedy & Nixon) two years later.
- Ada (1961) – is about a political machine that selects an amiable bumpkin to be their candidate so that once he’s elected they can control the state. The machine uses smear tactics against the incumbent to elect their man.
- John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which inexplicably only received one AA nomination (for Best Costume Design!) includes another look at the grass roots campaign this time in the Old West. It’s about how a “legend” of a man (James Stewart’s character stood up to Lee Marvin’s criminal) is/was used to get someone elected (e.g. eventually to the Senate). “Stewart” feels remorse and is unwilling to use the legend about him because he feels remorse for the killing. However it turns out (***spoiler***) that John Wayne‘s character actually did the job but kept quiet about it (which contributed to his losing “the girl” to Stewart) until he sees Stewart refuses to be the candidate. Once he reveals the truth all is well for Stewart whilst all goes to sh*t for Wayne.
- John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) features an evil Angela Lansbury (again;-) who received a well deserved Best Actress nomination for her performance (the film also received another for Editing). Her character plots to kill off her husband’s political opposition by brainwashing a confused returning veteran and Medal of Honor winner into an assignation attempt with startling results. A remake of this film starring Denzel Washington & Meryl Streep was released in the summer of 2004. In my opinion even the great Ms. Streep does not match Ms. Lansbury’s AFI recognized (21st best villain) portrayal.
- The Best Man (1964) is one of the best of this genre; it focuses on one party’s Presidential political convention where five candidates are vying for the nomination. The front runners are played by Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson each has a skeleton in their closet. It was written by Gore Vidal and directed by Franklin Schaffner. It features Lee Tracy’s only Academy Award nominated performance; he plays the President who’s secretly dying from cancer but still wields significant power over the process.
- The Candidate (1972) starring Robert Redford won a Best Writing Oscar (and was also nominated for Sound). It tells the story of the all powerful political machine and the “pretty boy” pawn. Focusing on the use of TV and sound bite politics it could be considered a slight to John F. Kennedy and his successful bid to become President. The ending is a classic (***spoiler***) when he wins he utters “what now?”.
- Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) received no nominations though his All the President’s Men (1976) which had only a small piece of a political campaign (Nixon’s reelection) received 8 nominations (winning 4) including Best Picture and was added to the National Film Registry in 2010.
These are just a few “great movies” which come instantly to mind that feature political campaigns which may be of interest.