American Presidency on Film:
A National Conference
Village, California · November 10-12, 2000
Let me say at the beginning that I am a filmmaker not a
film theorist. It is only as I finish a film that I am tempted
to read the likes of Bill Nichols, Jane Gaines, Robert Rosenstone,
Michel Chion, Dai Vaughan and Walter Murch to learn what it is
I may have produced. The last two Vaughan and Murch
as prominent film editors, particularly draw my attention and
trust. That said, I must confess to personal tastes in approach
and technique which, without question, affect the narrative style
and content of my work. "Things of the Spirit,"
the biographical film I am completing on the personal and political
life of Calvin Coolidge, is a case in point.
After fully researching
my subject, it was clear that I was dealing with both a unique
person and a unique president. In addition, this was my first
embrace of a fully historical subject. Nevertheless or
perhaps because of it all I deliberately chose not to create
a synthetic narrative, weave it around a formulaic dramatic arc,
and package Calvin Coolidge as has so successfully been done for
many 20th Century presidents. The Calvin Coolidge I discovered
in my research would have smothered under such a narrative blanket.
Because of the unique
character and strangely fragile nature of my subject, I set out
instead to gather raw content, later to be crafted into story.
The approach might best be called "evidentiary"
structuring interviews and gathering material later to be used
in producing a cinematic portrait. In other words, I applied to
my historical subject as much as possible the approach,
techniques and risks of "live" documentary production.
Taking those risks literally made the film. The strength and historical
significance of the narrative and archival material we gathered
doubled the film's estimated running time during edit.
When asked, while editing,
what the final film would look like, I named by analogy a very
different film about a very different character "Thirty
Two Short Films About Glenn Gould." Rather than force
our varied and often disparate material into strict linear narrative,
I chose instead to construct a mosaic of largely chronological
episodes. My named analogy proved apt upon completion of
our story edit, we had, in fact, constructed thirty-two short
films about Calvin Coolidge.
This mosaic structure
provided three immediate advantages for "Things of the
Spirit." First, it allowed us to make the best possible
use of our material. Second, it affords maximum flexibility in
meeting the transient needs of television programmers. Selected
episodes from the definitive biographical film can quickly be
assembled into shorter versions ranging from Coolidge "lite"
to Coolidge "extra strength." Third, once on random
access digital video disk, the film's episodic structure lends
itself ideally to educational use, both at high school and college
levels. The DVD syllabus, already prepared, groups the thirty-two
episodes by topic: biography/historiography; economic issues;
political issues; social issues; foreign policy; and "things
of the spirit."
For preview and fundraising
purposes, we transferred eleven episodes from edited film workprint
to videotape. I have chosen two episodes for screening and discussion
during this shorter seminar session today. The entire seventy
minute preview will be screened on Sunday morning at 10:45 a.m.
The first episode for screening and discussion is, in fact, the
third episode of the film: "Weaned on a Pickle." Viewers
of the entire film will already have heard that characterization
of Coolidge's childhood and presidential demeanor in the earlier
"Prologue." "Weaned on a Pickle," like many
other episodes in the film, is entirely self-narrating from interview
and visual material gathered in the field.
"Weaned on a Pickle"
[George Nash, Historian]
Well, Coolidge, of course, was born on the Fourth of July as
every historian likes to tell people. He was born in 1872 in
a hamlet, really, in Vermont. He was a Vermont Yankee. His father
was a storekeeper. He really came from a what we think
of as small town, even village America, not long after the Civil
War. A part of America that did not change very much really
in his lifetime and in some ways has not changed that much even
now by that I mean Plymouth, the town in which he lived
as a boy.
Norton Smith, Historian] Coolidge came out of it and he
went back to it, over and over again in his thoughts
and in many ways he never left it. And if there's any one key
to understanding Coolidge, it's Plymouth. You have to go to
Plymouth to know Coolidge.
Ward, Plymouth Resident] Most of the people in town now
don't remember Coolidge, of course, only just a very few of
us that remember him. John Coolidge, his father, owned the store
and that's where the President was born, in a tenement back
side the store. Yeah, he had the post office, too. He run the
post office at the same time he had the store, in the same building
before they moved over to the house where, you know,
he took his oath of office, of course.
Michael, Plymouth Resident] The Coolidges were not poor
people. They weren't rich, like, well, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts
and so on. But they were not poor people. His father, probably,
for Vermont at the time, come up among, well, I don't mean he
was really wealthy, but you know, he had enough, he could circulate
in a higher class of people.
Ward, Plymouth Resident] Calvin Coolidge's father was in
some town office most the time. He was either justice of the
peace or constable or something, you know, he always was in
some town office. Oh, yes, they were thought well of all over
Norton Smith, Historian] Listen to Coolidge describing life
in Plymouth among his neighbors: "They drew no class distinctions
except towards those who assumed superior airs, those they held
in contempt. They held strongly to the doctrine of equality.
Whenever the hired man or the hired girl wanted to go anywhere,
they were always understood to be entitled to my place in the
wagon. In which case I remained at home. This gave me a very
early training in democratic ideas and impressed upon me very
forcibly the dignity and power, if not the superiority of labor.
It was all a fine atmosphere in which to raise a boy. The streams
ran clear; the roads, the woods, the fields, the people, all
were clean. It was all close to nature and in accordance with
the ways of nature. Even when I try to divest it of the halo,
which I know always surrounds the past, I'm unable to create
any other impression than that it was fresh and clean."
And then he said something that sums up Plymouth: "Country
life does not always have breadth, but it has depth. It is neither
artificial nor superficial, but is kept close to the realities."
Michael, Plymouth Resident] Well, of course, his mother
died when he was a what was he? Twelve or something like
that? He was a young boy, not grown up.
Coolidge, President's Son] He was only twelve when she died.
She died on her 39th birthday. She never had been very well.
He says in his autobiography that as long as he can remember
her she was not in very good health. As he said, sadness came
to his to him that only a boy could know on losing his
mother. He said, life after that was never to seemed
to be quite the same. He used to go over, sometimes in the middle
of the night, walk over to the cemetery to visit her grave.
Michael, Plymouth Resident] And then his sister died, maybe
within two years or so. And, of course, later his father married
again and I guess he thought a great deal of his stepmother,
but of course she come into his life when he was older.
Norton Smith, Historian] Col. Starling of the Secret Service
recalled that Coolidge would talk often about his mother, particularly
in the evening, sitting out on the White House porch, and he
seemed to have remembered every day, Starling said, that he
lived with her. And it was almost as if he was communing with
this woman whom he had lost as a child. He once said, "I
wish I could really speak to her, I wish that often."
Platt, Historian] In his autobiography he stresses the quietude
of the lives lived in Plymouth, and indeed of the lives that
he saw and learned from. And he even talks about the silences
he enjoyed going out horseback riding. He says, for example:
"Riding over the fields and along the country roads by
myself, where nothing interrupts his seeing and thinking, is
a good occupation for a boy. The silences of nature have a discipline
all their own." He talks about night, middle of the night
visits to his mother's grave. Now in Plymouth his mother's grave
is about a quarter mile from his house. He went there often,
especially when he was troubled. And that kind of silence, that
capacity to be with yourself alone, to think long thoughts,
is a strength that comes into all that he said later on.
Contrast that "testimonial" rendering of Coolidge's
childhood with the brief scripted version written and presented
by the Kunhardts in their "The American President"
series, broadcast last April on PBS:
Coolidge grew up on the family farm in Vermont, working so hard
he was left with little time for himself. He was often lonely,
yet feared being alone... Cal learned to waste nothing. As he
saw it, reading for pleasure, anything musical, dancing, playing
a sport, indulging in a hobby, having a sweetheart all
squandered precious time and energy. Even talking itself could
be a form of waste.
To be fair, the Kunhardts
devoted only fifteen minutes to Coolidge's entire life. But to
be fair, instead of scripting what they imagined Coolidge felt
as a boy, they could more easily have chosen a primary source
Coolidge's Autobiography, either as quoted in "Weaned
on a Pickle," or later where Coolidge summarizes his childhood
in a single sentence:
theory I was always urged to work and save, in practice I was
permitted to do my share of playing and wasting.
Which rendering better
serves television viewers and the historical record the
Kunhardts' synthetic narrative, or the subject's own written recollection
and the recollections of those who either knew or know about him?
The second episode
for screening and discussion appears later in the film. "Your
Son, Calvin Coolidge" combines three disparate elements which
never before had been joined unedited archival motion picture
film rescued and remastered from decomposing nitrate film; selected
letters Coolidge wrote to his father from the time he was a freshman
at Amherst College to his presidency in Washington; and temporary
music which attempts, as Walter Murch might put it, to trigger
a "conceptual resonance" between the image and the spoken
Again, viewers of the
entire film will have learned that Coolidge was the first in his
family to attend college; that both his mother and sister, Abbie,
had died when he was a boy; that, as Governor of Massachusetts,
he thought he had committed political suicide by doing what he
believed right in handling the 1919 Boston Police Strike; and
that, while president in 1924, his younger son, Calvin, Jr., died
at age sixteen. The film you see today is a so-called "scratch
print," used during edit prior to payment of archival license
fees. The vertical scratch, of course, does not appear on our
Son, Calvin Coolidge"
page of The New York Times, March 19, 1926, reporting the
death of President Coolidge's father, followed by scenes of
his winter burial in Vermont.]
Quote / Male Voice]
Father: Each time I get home I hate to go away worse than before...
I think I must be very home-sick my hand trembles so I can't
write so any one can read it.
J. Calvin Coolidge
My Dear Father: I want to do careful work but many men in my
class have strength, preparation, inclination and ability to
do much more than myself.
My Dear Father: I... hope you are better now. We must think
of Abbie as we would of a happy day counting it a pleasure to
have had it and not a sorrow because it could not last forever.
love, J. Calvin Coolidge
Father: I am from the country and am glad of it... but I do
not always want to remain a rustic in my ideas and in my appearance.
I have improved some, and know the untiring self denial of those
who have given me the opportunity for culture and education.
J. Calvin Coolidge
Father: To you I send a little birthday present. I hope you
will not lay it away to keep ... I hope you will take it and
spend it foolishly.
You may have seen in the papers that I am a candidate for Lieutenant-Governor...
Whatever you may read of good or ill I am just the same as when
I was a boy at home and am at my best when I am most like you.
Father: People applaud me a great deal but I am not sure they
will vote for me... It is necessary to make sacrifices for the
welfare of the state. I am willing to make mine.
Father: If you do not feel like coming to the inauguration I
am not going to urge you about it... You and John and I are
all that is left. You have worked hard for me and I do not want
to put any more burdens on you.
My Dear Father: It is getting to be almost Christmas time again.
I always think of mother and Abbie and grandmother and now of
Calvin. Perhaps you will see them all before I do, but in a
little while we shall all be together for Christmas.
Father: It is forty one years ago since mother lay ill in the
same room where you now are. Everyone tells me how cheerful
you are... So many loved ones are waiting for you, so many loving
ones are daily hoping you are comfortable.
It was a sore trial not to be able to be with him, but I had
to leave him where he most wished to be. When his doctors advised
me that he could survive only a short time I started to visit
him. When I reached home he was gone. It costs a great deal
to be President.
As a brief coda, let me show two additional bits of audio-visual
"evidence" recently remastered from nitrate film. The
first supports a statement made by
economist Lawrence Reed in the episode titled "Crash and
Depression." Toward the end of that episode, Reed states
Reed, Economist] If
in 1932 you were an American who believed in less government
and less intervention by government, you would have voted for
Franklin Roosevelt. He promised, in fact, that there would be
a twenty-five percent reduction in federal spending if he was
elected. He assailed Hoover for taking the country down the
path to Socialism. He accused Hoover of imposing upon America
the most reckless, spendthrift administration in American history.
It is one thing to
ask viewers simply to take Reed's word for it. It is quite another
to preface Reed's description with Franklin Roosevelt actually
saying it as he did in a 1932 campaign address in Bridgeport,
Connecticut. I can play for you only the film sound track at this
time, but Roosevelt will appear on-camera in our finished film.
Roosevelt, Presidential Nominee] The
Democratic Party in its national platform has told you that
it promises a reduction of twenty-five percent in the cost of
operation of the national government and I propose to
use every effort to carry out that pledge... This fundamental
of reducing the cost of government is one of the keynotes of
our party throughout the nation this year [applause and cheers].
Again, Roosevelt speaks
on-camera. This nitrate film element was discovered during archival
research long after filming Lawrence Reed's narrative.
Finally, here is a
bit of visual evidence in support of a statement made by historian
George Nash in "Wonder Boy," an episode near the end
of the film on the relationship between Calvin Coolidge and Herbert
Hoover. Nash describes a meeting of the two:
Nash, Historian] Herbert Hoover visited Coolidge when Coolidge
vacationed out in the Black Hills of South Dakota to
give him a report on the flood relief in the Mississippi. According
to the Secret Service officer who was sitting in the front seat,
the two men, Coolidge and Hoover, sat on opposite sides of the
back seat, drove for thirty miles from Coolidge's lodge up to
Rapid City Coolidge looking out the left window and Hoover
out the right, or vice versa never speaking for the entire
Nash's on-camera rendering
is entertaining enough as is. But imagine what will happen when
we cut away to these recently remastered scenes of that July 20,
1927 meeting in South Dakota.
newsreel footage of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover standing
outside the State Game Lodge in South Dakota, followed by the
two of them sitting next to each other on the porch, silent
and joyless, glancing off in opposite directions.]
In conclusion, it is
not my position that an evidentiary approach to historical narrative
guarantees a "pure," unbiased film. Indeed, because
of the hatchet job administered by historians and journalists
on Coolidge since his death in 1933, producing a balanced film
on the man requires a measure of affirmative action. Moreover,
it can reasonably be argued that all non-fiction narrative is
synthetic to varying degrees. But I do maintain, at least in the
context of documentary film, that degree counts. The challenge
for independent producers is to resist the lure of formulaic treatment
and instead allow the fruits of responsible scholarship to determine
the content, composition and framing of historical reality.
© 2000 by John Karol