1962 drama based on the Pulitzer Prize winning, best selling novel of the same name
. Stars Henry Fonda
, Peter Lawford, Charles Laughton
, Franchot Tone and Walter Pidgeon and was directed by Otto Preminger
makes a controversial nomination for Secretary of State, one Robert Leffingwell (Fonda), a man who advocates a more conciliatory approach to the Soviet Union
with the hope of thawing the Cold War
. Political machinations ensue to get the U.S. Senate to "advise and consent"
to the nomination.
The novel is not a Roman à Clef
, but does depict incidents and character traits that would have been familiar to Americans who followed politics at the time. Most obviously, a president who is hiding the extent of his illness and who serves with an honest but out-of-the-loop Vice President would have evoked Franklin D. Roosevelt
and Harry Truman
Last film for Charles Laughton, who plays Sen. Cooley, the leader of the opposition to the President and to Leffingwell. Look for Betty White
, who was not always old, in a small part as the only woman Senator.
This movie provides examples of:
- Adaptational Heroism: Leffingwell, who's at least less villainous than the book's Leffingwell. He lies about his past but is highly conflicted about it. He's (rightly) convinced that his enemies in the Senate would use his left-wing connections against him, and regrets his dishonesty (confessing it to the President himself). In the novel, Leffingwell shows no remorse for lying, is only exposed by others, and is implied to have a hand in the conspiracy against Brig Anderson.
- Author Tract: Again, averted by the adaptation. The book overtly villainizes the President and Leffingwell, and Drury's conservative political views dominate the story. Preminger offers a more nuanced, though still cynical take on Washington politics.
- Bittersweet Ending: With the Senate vote tied, VP Hudson is poised to break the tie and confirm Leffingwell, but he can't, because he isn't Vice President anymore. He has succeeded to the Oval Office after the President's death.
- Blackmail: Brig Anderson, who as chairman of the committee is holding up Leffingwell's nomination, is blackmailed by Sen. Van Ackerman (George Grizzard), who knows of a homosexual dalliance Anderson had in his youth.
- Bury Your Gays: Sen. Anderson's gay romance while he was in the Army is about to be exposed, so he kills himself.
- Casting Gag: Elderly Sen. McCaffrey, who keeps dozing off, only to shout "Opposed, sir, opposed!" when woken, was played by Henry F. Ashurst. Ashurst actually was a United States Senator for 29 years, 1912-1941. He died one week before the movie opened.
- The Chainsof Commanding: The President is burdened with the knowledge that he must live up to the examples left by his predecessors and not allow the United States to fall lest the sacrifices of past generations of Americans be for nothing. It's gotten so bad that the burden is literally killing him.
- Cruel Mercy: Van Ackerman receives this from Munson and Danta. They don't want to bring up Brig Anderson's "old sin" by censuring Van Ackerman for his blackmail. So, they tell him he can remain in the Senate, but it's clear he'll be a non-entity, shunned by both parties and considered a disgrace.
- Cut-and-Paste Note: The threatening notes sent to both Sen. Anderson and his wife.
- Decided By One Vote: Leffingwell's nomination fails on a 47-47 tie.
- Democracy Is Flawed: Some venal characters and some self-serving motivations on display.
- Demoted to Extra: Senator Knox is one of the novel's protagonists. He's a pretty minor character in the movie, with his meatier speeches given to Cooley.
- Driven to Suicide: Sen. Anderson kills himself to avoid exposure.
- Fat, Sweaty Southerner in a White Suit: "Seab" Cooley. Somewhat averted later, when he puts on a regular suit, and does the honorable thing at the end.
- The Film of the Book: A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Allen Drury.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Although The Hays Code was still technically in effect, Otto Preminger barely bothered.
- An attractive woman is seen leaving a senator's hotel room first thing in the morning, wearing the same Little Black Dress and mink stole she was presumably wearing the night before. The majority leader then enters, finds the senator still in his bathrobe, and gently suggests that perhaps a senator should project more stability by getting married.
- This is the first American movie with a scene inside what is obviously a gay bar.
- It's also pretty strongly implied that Sen. Anderson and his wife aren't intimate very much.
- Government Procedural
- Gray and Grey Morality: Pretty much no one has clean hands in this one.
- Hauled Before A Senate Subcommittee: Leffingwell has to testify.
- Hidden Depths: Once Harley Hudson realizes that the President is indeed going to die soon and that the country will need him, he promptly takes a level in badass and becomes much more competent. He even manages to stare down the Jerkass Soviet ambassador. The ending of the novel implies that Hudson will be a capable if perhaps not extraordinary president.
- Lots And Lots Of Characters: Not as many as the novel, where seemingly every Senator has at least a walk-on, but there's still a dozen major characters to keep track of.
- My God, What Have I Done??: Almost every single person involved in the scheme to blackmail Senator Anderson has this reaction once he commits suicide
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: All the characters are fictional, but they are all clearly inspired by Real Life individuals.
- As noted above, the President who is dying, but concealing that from the public, and the Vice President who is ignored by the administration, are pattered after Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. While the parties wouldn't be right, that could also describe Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon's relationship.
- Playboy Senator Lafe Smith is modeled after John F. Kennedy (and it may be a Casting Gag that Peter Lawford, Kennedy's brother-in-law, plays Smith in the movie).
- Van Ackerman is based on Joe McCarthy (although Van Ackerman is a left-wing extremist rather than a right-winger).
- Anderson's suicide is inspired by the real-life story of Sen. Lester C. Hunt, who killed himself in the Capitol building after being blackmailed over his son's homosexuality.
- Seab Cooley is patterned after Georgia power broker Richard Russell.
- Betty White's Sen. Bessie Adams is inspired by Margaret Chase Smith.
- And the cross-examination of Leffingwell by the Senate subcommittee is strongly reminiscent of the Alger Hiss hearings.
- No Name Given: The President's name is never mentioned, although Sen. Munson does once call him "Russ".
- No Party Given: One character is the Senate majority leader, another is the Senate minority leader, but party names are never mentioned.
- The novel actually averts this if one pays close attention. Seab Cooley is mentioned in passing as having been first elected to the House on the same platform as Woodrow Wilson. That would make the Senate majority and the President Democrats and the Senate minority Republicans.
- Not So Different: Orrin Knox and the President absolutely loathe each other yet the novel routinely shows that the two men are very alike. Both love their country with a passion and both have a vision in mind for her future. Both are also absolutely sure that their vision is best and won't compromise on it. Their final Oval Office conversation makes it clear that if they had been willing to set aside their differences they could have been a great team.
- Our Presidents Are Different: The President Scheming variety, although he's sincerely motivated to do what he thinks is best for the country.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Senate Majority Leader Munson (Pidgeon) gives two, one to Cooley for his scheming and a more forceful one to Van Ackerman for his role in the blackmail scheme.
- Red Herring: Sen. Munson, a widower, is carrying on an affair with a Washington society lady, Dolly Harrison (Gene Tierney). This seems like it will be important. It isn't.
- Secretly Dying: The President's health is rapidly declining after a surgery failed. He wants to get Leffingwell confirmed while he still has the chance.
- Except it's not that much of a secret. By the time the novel starts, most of the government is already aware of this and preparing to help Vice President Hudson as much as they can when he has to step up to the plate.
- Title Drop: When Sen. Munson moves to proceed with the vote on Leffingwell's nomination.
- Vice President Who: Harley Hudson is ineffectual, mild-mannered, and terrified at the prospect of becoming President. He is generally ignored by the administration. The President, who is gravely ill, wants Leffingwell as Secretary of State because he doesn't think Hudson can handle foreign policy.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Van Ackerman, who takes some extreme measures to get Leffingwell confirmed.
- Although it is strongly implied that he's equally motivated by a desire to be a major player in the Senate and hit in with the more prominent senators.
- The President would be a more straight example of this. He's willing to get his hands very dirty to get the job done but a chapter in the novel makes it clear that he's motivated by nothing more than the continued security and prosperity of his country.
- Your Days Are Numbered: The President (see Secretly Dying above).