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88 On February 10, 1945, Franklin Roosevelt’s new vice president, Harry S. Truman , made an unannounced visit to the National Press Club in Washington, where a delegation from the Hollywood Canteen was entertaining troops, journalists, and bureaucrats. The names of participating movie celebrities had remained unannounced as well, to build anticipation and excitement among the crowd. A young studio contract player named Victor Mature appeared in one skit, but the heaviest applause greeted Lauren Bacall. Only twenty years old, Bacall was even greener than Mature as a screen actor, but her single role to date was a radiant one, a starring performance as Slim opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not. The movie had been released nationally on the same day that Truman became vice president, three weeks before the Canteen show in Washington. New and inexperienced , Bacall arrived late to the show, just as Truman, a skilled pianist, sat down at an upright to play an impromptu number. At the urging of a studio press agent, she climbed on top of the piano, stretching out her long legs. As eager photographers went to work, Bacall maintained the smoldering look she had developed for Slim while Truman, playing away, obligingly smiled for the cameras.1 These famous images—a handful of different shots of the occasion have competed for primacy—remain among the most arresting portraits of the conjunction of politics and motion pictures. In large measure they were the products of two converging cultural tendencies. Bacall’s instant stardom, C H A P T E R 3  THE OLD MAN AND TV , 1945–1960 the old man and tv 89 coming only months after she had been discovered by a studio agent while working as a Canteen hostess in New York, was a kind of apotheosis of Hollywood’s now-celebrated star-making alchemy. For To Have and Have Not, the former Betty Joan Perske was given a stage name, coached to speak in a husky new voice, and restyled and dressed to resemble Nancy “Slim” Hawks, the wife of the film’s director, Howard Hawks.2 In the movie Bacall projected a novel, blunt femininity that captivated movie audiences (as well as her co-star, Humphrey Bogart, who became her husband months later). Truman’s willingness to play along with the photo stunt, by contrast, was a by-product of the traditional lack of seriousness with which Americans regarded their vice presidents. Even though six vice presidents before him had ascended to the presidency on the deaths of their predecessors, nominees to the office continued to be chosen by the parties largely on the basis of their electoral appeal and were given virtually no meaningful work to do after they were elected. The insouciance of the moment, as a representation of the spirit of the movies and of Truman’s career, was fleeting. Although FDR’s failing health was evident, the popular self-delusion about the vitality of the chief executive , who had been in office for twelve crisis-filled years, persisted until the end. His death on April 12, 1945, shocked the public, and the ascendancy to the Oval Office of Truman, a relative unknown, at a pivotal moment in national and world history made them uncertain and anxious. It was unthinkable for Truman, now president, to participate in photo opportunities as frivolous as the one at the National Press Club. Similarly, the “golden age” of the Hollywood studios, as popular historians have come to call it, was on the brink of coming to an end. As World War II wound down, labor pressures reshaped the industry and began to erode the contract player system; antitrust actions by the government finally stripped studios of their theater chains; and independent producers gained new power and took much filming away from Hollywood soundstages, and even out of the country altogether. Later in the 1940s, as America eased into peacetime prosperity and assumed world leadership during the Cold War, television matured as a mass medium. To an extent, it began to take on some of the movies’ function of 90 the leading man transmitting images to the mass audience and thus began to drain away some of their prominence in the culture. TV also usurped much of radio’s role as a mass medium that brought entertainment and news into the nation’s living rooms. Television differed from movies in some important ways; above all, its tiny screens seemed to pose little challenge to...


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