Calvin Coolidge, the only American president to date to have been born on the 4th July (1872), ascended to the presidency of the United States in August 1923 upon the death of Warren G. Harding, to whom he was vice-president. His reputation is largely that of a lazy and unfeeling president, although this may be a misconception as some believe he actually suffered from deep depression while in office following the death of his son, Calvin Jr., from blood poisoning in July 1924.
Coolidge died of heart failure at his home in Northampton, Massachusetts on 5th January 1933.
Coolidge and the Cinema
It’s ironic that a man known as a quiet, taciturn president (he was sometimes referred to as ‘Silent Cal’) should not only have his voice heard by more American citizens than all the previous US presidents combined, but also be the first president to be heard talking on film when he read from a speech outside the White House in an experimental synchronized sound film made by the DeForest Phonofilm Corporation in 1924. Lee DeForest and his associate Earl I. Sponable hoped the four minute film, President Coolidge, Taken on the White House Grounds, would be good publicity for their new company while Coolidge hoped it would aid his presidential campaign.
On 21st April 1925, Moses Koenigsberg, the president of King Features, presented another Phonofilm with sound of Coolidge at ‘the Lark,’ an annual luncheon held at the Friar’s Club in New York. The film was of a speech given by Coolidge at the same club the week before. In his speech introducing the film, Koenigsberg said, ‘The address you will hear is lifted from the Phonofilm - just as these words of explanation are now being lifted - and projected by radio to hundreds of thousands of receivers. Thus this occasion marks the first time in history that the human voice has been broadcast from a motion picture.’ A few weeks after the demonstration it was discovered that De Forest was using an image of Coolidge from the Phonofilm to sell stock in his company. The president was outraged, and even called in the FBI to investigate the matter.
Prior to these experiments in sound, Coolidge had made the first president campaign film lasting longer than a minute when he appeared in the 16-minute The Life of Calvin Coolidge (1923), a silent film with intertitles featuring photographs, stock footage and location shots of Coolidge’s birthplace, his home town, his political career and his role as Commander-in-Chief of the US army and navy. His wife, Grace, was also featured in the film; described as an expert knitter, she was shown in a sequence that was speeded-up to accentuate her prowess with the needles.
Coolidge played another important part in the coming of talking movies when he appeared, on 14th June 1927, in an experimental Fox Movietone program that featured sound. Together with a speech by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the president was seen receiving Lindbergh at the White House, and the audience was so enthusiastic that Fox and newsreel producer Courtland Smith established the hugely popular Fox Movietone News, the first of which was exhibited on 28th October 1927.
While Coolidge was far from the encapsulation of the Roaring 20s over which he presided, he did share with the rest of the nation a love of movies. The film magazine Film Classic described him as ‘the first national executive to depend on motion pictures as his sole recreation.’ The president had his yacht, the Mayflower, fitted out for screenings and even had a 44-piece orchestra accompany a screening on one occasion. On another occasion he kept a welcome delegation waiting more than 20 minutes at Washington DC’s Union Station while he finished watching a western film on the train.
Coolidge portrayals on the Screen
Calvin Coolidge has not been a particularly popular subject matter for film makers since he chose not to run for re-election as president in 1929. In fact, the only film of note in which he was a character was in Otto Preminger’s The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), a lesser film in which Gary Cooper played the eponymous character, a WWI army general who was court-martialled after he accused the US government of an ‘almost treasonable administration of the national defence.’ The role of Coolidge was played by character actor Ian Wolfe.
Sources: The Presidential Campaign Film: A Critical History. Contributors: Joanne Morreale - author. Publisher: Praeger. Place of Publication: Westport, CT. Publication Year: 1993. Page Number: 3; Hearst over Hollywood: Power, Passion, and Propaganda in the Movies. Contributors: Louis Pizzitola - author. Publisher: Columbia University Press. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 2002. Page Number: iv; A History of Narrative Film. Contributors: David A. Cook - author. Publisher: W. W. Norton. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1996. Page Number: 247;http://www.filminfocus.com/article/presidential_projections
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