Monday, October 4, 2010

Monday Movies Post

The policies of a great nation are molded by prominent men, but behind these men stand women, guiding their husbands' destinies -- using the same devices that the feminine sex has always used throughout the ages.

The hand that rocks the cradle rocks the Capitol, which only goes to prove that wives are women in Kankakee or Washington, D.C. 
That's how "First Lady" (1937, d. Stanley Logan) begins.  Not quite "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....", but an interesting introduction to what they're going to show us.  It's from a play by George S. Kaufman and Katharine Dayton, and stars Kay Francis as the wife of the Secretary of State and granddaughter of a president.  Here's the plot: Francis wants her husband to be president.  She's also feuding with the wife of a Supreme Court Justice, who also wants to be married to a president.  The two of them scheme and plot, but Francis wins out in the end.

As a movie...well, it's a play put on film, nothing more.  Lots of people in rooms talking, so you first of all have to like that sort of thing.  The cast is OK; Kay Francis is quite good, and Walter Connolly, as the eccentric Justice ill-suited for politics, is good fun in one of the pure comic roles.  No one else is really memorable.  Stanley Logan, a former actor, was directing his first wouldn't take, and after four tries he wound up acting again.  So pretty much the movie stands or falls on the humor that Kaufman invested in it, and on the whole, I'd say that from the evidence here (which is all I know of it) it's not his strongest work, but there are plenty of good bits.

So, the politics.  Two things to mention; I'll start with the less interesting one, which is that everyone in the movie takes it for granted that presidential nominations are arranged by agreement of a handful of people at Washington dinner parties.  Not that the people's representatives are excluded; they're there, in the persons of a newspaper publisher, on the one hand, and a women's "purity" movement leader, on the other.  But the question posed in the movie is always going to be who manipulates who there in Washington; it's taken for granted that whoever wins that battle automatically has the nomination. 

Ah, the manipulation.  See, the reason to watch movies like this is to see how people at that point thought about men and women, without, of course, the knowningness that goes into the making of Mad Men (not that I'm complaining about that one; it's just different).  Here's the thing: women, at least in First Lady, aren't idiots or dingbats.  Kay Francis's character is, easily, the smartest person in the piece.  Nor does she depend upon "the same devices that the feminine sex has always used throughout the ages," unless those devices include ghosting Senators' speeches, understanding the incentives of political actors, and generally acting as a politician -- just like, as she tells a portrait of her presidential grandfather, himself and Lincoln.  In other words, our hero in this drama, while not allowed to govern herself, would clearly appear to be perfectly capable of doing so.  Except for one thing.  As I said, the plot concerns a feud between Kay Francis and another Washington wife.  What's the feud about?  The other woman stole Francis's cook!  And so we're back to "wives are women in Kankakee or Washington, D.C. "  Now, it's true that the men in Kaufman's world aren't exactly statesmen and scholars, and they're easily enough manipulated by Francis and her rival.  So I can imagine a reading in which both men and women are simply not up to the job of running the nation.  It's also worth noting that the star isn't defined by her relationship to men per se (she's defined by her relationship to her grandfather, but not her romantic interests).  And yet...the notion that she's really a strong, serious woman is just undermined by that damn cook.

I should mention that this movie does have one great virtue for an American movie set in the political world: absolutely no Mr. Smithism (it helps, of course, that this one predates Capra's movie).  So for me at least that makes it pretty watchable.  I'll give it a mild recommend, with my emphasis being on this one being particularly worth trying if you're interested in pre-WWII ideas about women and politics.


  1. FWIW, the premise that high-level political affairs are decided in the salons and drawing rooms of Washington (and therefore under the guidance of society ladies) had a very long history already by the '30s. It can be seen in Henry Adams' novel Democracy (1880) and other fiction of the Gilded Age, and before that, in the memoirs of Margaret Bayard Smith, a society lady herself, who witnessed and influenced the politics of the 1820s and '30s. Which suggests it has a strong basis in truth: Before primary elections and the like, fancy dinner parties and other such elite haunts would have been the place where a lot of the dealmaking got done that then became party nominations, Cabinet and diplomatic appointments, legislation, etc. This would have tended to given the women who ran the dinner parties and salons a significant political role if they cared to take advantage of it, and even more so insofar as they were daughters and relatives of the political leaders themselves. I'm not sure anyone has yet written a really good book on all this.

  2. And after primary elections? There is still a rather occult process that determines who is a credible candidate in the primaries. I seem to recall reading that some power players had their eye on Obama before most of us ever heard of him. Someone picked him for that major league tryout at the 2004 convention.

    Those informal party structures JB talks about here must operate largely through social networks, including dinner parties. In fact this remains an article of faith in a lot of the left blogosphere - 'the Village' is nearly synonymous with 'Beltway dinner parties.'

    The difference, besides voters getting a final cut, is that women are now in on the lunch meetings and hobnobbing on the Acela, not just the dinner parties. But DC seems culturally retro, and I wouldn't be surprised if social hostesses with no formal public role still play a big part. Remember Sally Quinn?

  3. Interesting points. What I suspect is that Washingtonians believed that this was how presidents were anointed, but in reality the conventions really did act autonomously, and state party leaders were a lot more important than DC-based big shots, at least most of the time (I don't know anything about Hoover's nomination, but that's the one that seems to fit the Washington dinner party the best from the very, very little I know. But the Democratic nominations in the 1890s-1930s don't seem to fit at all -- although, again, I can imagine Washingtonians thinking that's how things "normally" worked, just like LBJ thought he'd be nominated in '60.


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