Sunday, November 21, 2010
THE PRESIDENT'S MYSTERY (1936)
The President's Mystery is a B-movie famed for one reason. Its story was conceived by our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt! While he was president!
That's somewhat inaccurate, though. Actually, the film is based on a magazine article (like Live Free or Die Hard), wherein the president, speaking with the magazine's editor, asked "How can a man disappear with five million dollars of his own and not be traced?"
The answer is pretty obvious to us all now, in the 21st century, since there have been "literally" one billion films where a guy has faked his death using a corpse, driving his car of a bridge, and then taking off with his money to live a better life. So, the answer: quite easily. In fact, I honestly can't imagine it was much of a conversation.
If there's no mystery in the president's query, then what's the film about?
A senator is trying to pass a jobs bills that would reinvest money in the nation's small canneries. The big business opponent of the bill, George Sartos (Sidney Blackmer), argues that, quote, the government has enough to do without getting into the canning business.
Sound familiar? Seventy-five years later, and the pro-business faction is still using those exact same words (replace canning with automobiles/health care/etc.) to make the same non-arguments. It's a nauseating but unsurprising discovery.
Sartos wants the bill defeated, so he calls in old "friend" James Blake (the great Henry Wilcoxon), a brilliant New York lawyer.
They never say "lobbyist," but Blake does go to D.C. and schmoozes and dines with congressmen and others in a "schmoozing on the hill" montage.
The bill is killed. In another of those montages with spinning newspapers, huge headlines read "SMALL INDUSTRIES DOOMED!" and such.
His unrewarding job done, Blake finally gets to go on his precious fly-fishing vacation. At the river, he meets a plucky modern girl (Betty Furness) who is netting all the fish downstream. It turns out she's giving them to the people of the hard-hit town of Springvale. It also turns out she's Charlotte Brown, owner of the town's closed cannery. Blake catches up to her at a town hall meeting where the "real America" wants to skin her alive for not magically giving them jobs.
Blake is so moved by what he's seen and so discontent with his own life he hatches a plan. First, he divorces his estranged, drunk wife. He buys all the stock in a crappy tin company under a fake name and sells it to himself, so it looks like he lost all his money. He liquidates his assets. He buys a corpse, drives his car and new corpse off a bridge and takes off!
The idea was that his bad investments drove him to commit suicide. But, Sartos's messenger accidentally kills Blake's wife. Now, the story is that Blake killed his wife and then committed suicide.
Back in Springvale, Blake, now calling himself Carter, gets the cannery up and going again, and enjoys a romance with Charlotte, who is cute in that timeless plucky young woman way. (She was 20.) Blake shaves his mustaches and loses 45 pounds. Now that he actually works for a living he's losing his rich guy flab. Get it?
The canning cooperative is a huge success, so Sartos tries to destroy it. There's money to be made, after all. "That's just some big ol', got danged common sense right there." (I've heard this said before. Hence the quotes.) Sartos sends in spies who want to bomb the building. He also buys the branch rail to the main line the co-op has just made a deal with. Sure, he also purchased the franchise but he can keep that tied up in court for years, he explains.
Sartos arrives in person and identifies Blake. By now, Blake is wanted for murder. It's a simple matter of calling the cops. Sartos also sends in rabble-rousers to get the people furious. "The creditors are coming and they're gonna take all our food! We're not going to get through the winter! It's a cooperative, ain't it? That foods's as much ours!"
The "real America" attacks the co-op. Blake gets out of jail long enough to make an impassioned speech about working together to build something and being a beacon of hope for the nation.
Blake's butler gets a confession out of Sartos's driver. The cannery makes its delivery date. And Sartos goes to jail for inciting a riot, which I'm so sure would stick.
The film just asks me to suspend too much of my disbelief. The people find out their beloved Carter is a millionaire and alleged wife-murder who used to work for Sartos's company. Why would some of them so eagerly listen to him and rally to his aid at the end? These people are the bitter and uninformed bottom rung. It'd be like if someone from Wall Street circa Nov. 2008 asked help from a Wal-Mart greeter in southern Louisiana. Ain't doing, mister.
No, I believe the "real America" with its "common sense" would rip their own cannery apart to satisfy their hatred and their ignorant, myopic concerns.
I did like the film, though. As far as B-films go, this one is very well-made and written. There were no slow spots or filler. It clipped along nicely. Pleasing performances. A bit heavy-handed. Not political exactly, but it does have a certain leaning, if you follow me.
No, it doesn't hold up against the greats like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) or the still brutal The Grapes of Wrath (1940). But, this film could rightly be put at the very bottom of that list, as an afterthought.
It's the 1930s equivalent of The Majestic (2001). Enjoyable and well-made, but you'll want more than what you got. It will leave a void. It doesn't help that anyone watching this will expect, you know, a mystery.
Meanwhile, the Spanish Civil War has begun. Germany, Italy and Japan have formed an alliance. The Treaty of Versailles has been broken. And two months before this was released, Jesse Owens won some Olympic medals. History!
The President's Mystery only has 35 votes on IMDb HERE. It is available inexpensively on DVD on Amazon HERE. It is currently available on Netflix Instant.
James Lileks also wrote about this film. His much shorter and much more wry article can be read HERE.