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123 After 1960, when Dwight Eisenhower’s successor was elected, presidents made a bold return to the movies. This shift was made manifest in several ways. The 1950s had offered virtually no Hollywood portrayals of real or fictional chief executives. The only exceptions were two portrayals of Andrew Jackson by the young Charlton Heston, adding a southern accent to his granitic Moses persona. The President ’s Lady was a low-budget throwback to the presidential biographical films of the 1930s and 1940s—in fact, its chronicle of the ill-fated Rachel Jackson (Susan Hayward) might be considered a prequel to The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), which depicted the widowed chief executive (here, Lionel Barrymore) defending the scandalous Peggy Eaton (Joan Crawford). Heston ’s second portrayal of Jackson was a cameo appearance in The Buccaneer, a movie delineating “Old Hickory’s” victory in the Battle of New Orleans. The Buccaneer was a remake of a 1930s picture, so both films were echoes of Hollywood’s prewar treatment of Andrew Jackson. In the early 1960s, though, the number of presidential portrayals on film increased considerably, and for the first time since the early 1930s, these presidents were predominantly fictional. A rare exception was a brief and reverent portrayal of General Dwight Eisenhower by a lookalike actor, ordering the Normandy invasion in Darryl Zanuck’s The Longest Day (1962). That same year, the fictional chief executive in Advise and Consent was portrayed by Franchot Tone (who had also appeared in The Gorgeous Hussy with Crawford , then his wife). In 1963 came Kisses for My President, a comedy featuring C H A P T E R 4  CHARISMA’S HOUR, 1960–1969 124 the leading man Polly Bergen as the first female holder of the office and Fred MacMurray as her conflicted husband. That same year, Irving Berlin’s musical comedy Mr. President first appeared on Broadway. In 1964 fictional presidents appeared in a cycle of films that allegorized real-life issues: Lee Tracy in The Best Man, Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe, and Fredric March in Seven Days in May. The cycle was parodied that same year in the best-remembered fictional portrayal from this era, Peter Sellers’s turn as the bland, hapless President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove. The efflorescence of movie excitement about the presidency reflected the sense of ferment and change that came with the ascension of John F. Kennedy to the office, succeeding Dwight Eisenhower. In fact, Hollywood’s presidential film cycle included a movie about Kennedy himself, the first biographical picture ever produced about a sitting chief executive. A few years earlier Robert Montgomery had tried to mount a film biography of his friend Eisenhower, who was then in office, but he had failed, and instead went on to produce a picture about the World War II admiral William Halsey. However, the enhanced sympathy between Hollywood and Washington in the Kennedy years helped a studio to realize the kind of project that Montgomery had not even been able to begin. PT 109 was released in June 1963, late in JFK’s tragically shortened term. The story of Kennedy’s World War II heroics, rescuing sailors under his command after their ship had been rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, had been a vital component of the senator’s campaign biography in 1960. It had given the youthful, wealthy, and relatively inexperienced candidate a wartime record that made him seem at least a plausible successor to Eisenhower as commander in chief. Robert Donovan’s book PT 109 appeared in 1961, and Warner Brothers quickly bought the film rights. The resulting movie was a moderate commercial success but a critical failure, and probably a keen disappointment to Kennedy and his political team. Given a grade-B treatment and filmed on Florida locations, PT 109 ironically may have been the worst entry in the cycle of presidential Hollywood films of the early 1960s. Although business contingencies at Warners ultimately defeated them, the president and his close aides had striven for two years to help make the movie a success. Kennedy, the son of the controversial former businessman charisma’s hour 125 and diplomat of the Franklin Roosevelt era, had partially grown up around the movie industry, and he knew it better than any man heretofore elected to the White House. According to Pierre Salinger, JFK’s press secretary, Joseph P. Kennedy supervised the Warner Brothers production deal, ensuring that the studio paid handsome...


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