Politics and Politicians in American Film

Politics and Politicians in American Film

Politics and Politicians in American Film

Politics and Politicians in American Film


Films have been a part of U.S. society for a century--a source of great enjoyment for the audience and of great profit to filmmakers. How does a mass entertainment medium deal with some of the great sources of dramatic real-life political and economic conflict--the Great Depression, the Cold War--in a way that attracts an audience without making it angry? How does an industry, which has from its beginnings been the subject of attacks from social, political and religious groups deal with political issues and conflicts? This book is an attempt to examine these questions; it is also an examination of some of the greatest and most interesting American films ever made--westerns, gangster films, comedies, war films, satires, and film biographies--to see what American films say about politics and politicians, and what these films, in turn, say about the audience for which they were produced.


Film critic Stanley Kauffmann recalled this story (Kauffmann, 1989, 90):

When I was a high school senior, I took a girl named (let's say) Jean Miller to a party, a nice forthright girl who all night long was nice, forthright Jean Miller. I took her home after the party, and at her front door I kissed her good night; and as our faces moved together, I saw Jean Miller become Joan Crawford. It was at that moment, I suppose, that I first became clear about what had been happening in my own daydreams (in which I was usually Richard Dix) and in those of many others. Within every sentient being on the face of the earth--or at any rate so many of them that the claim is tenable--films are a part of his or her dreams and daydreams. This is often true of the arts; it is always true of films.

Ronald Reagan, a man of the movies before he was one of politics, seemed occasionally to be unable or unwilling to distinguish between the world that is in films from the world that is not. He told audiences of a bomber pilot's decision to go down with his injured comrade rather than bail out. The pilot, Reagan said, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1983, Reagan told the Israeli prime minister of his horror at seeing the Nazi death camps when he visited them after the war as a member of a military film crew.

Neither story was true. The heroic scene of the bomber described by Reagan came entirely from the 1944 picture, Wing and a Prayer, and Reagan never served on a film crew in Germany: his whole military career was spent in Los Angeles, making movies. (For accounts of these events and others related to Reagan's film career and his presidency, see Rogin, 1987, chap. 1, Wills, 1987, chap. 17, and Schickel, 1989, 121-36.)

Reagan was hardly the first. In a letter to Orson Welles, Franklin Roosevelt referred to Welles as the "second best" actor in America and to himself as the best. John Kennedy, whose father produced films and had a long affair with film star Gloria Swanson, was fascinated by the film industry and its people, including Marilyn Monroe. Richard Nixon, it was said, repeatedly watched . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.