In the interests of obsessive completism, I thought I’d mention that I’ve just watched another rare 1930s William Wellman film. Sadly, however, if I’m honest, on this occasion the thrill of anticipation was greater than the pleasure of seeing the movie, The President Vanishes, which I think is by far the weakest offering I’ve seen from this director. I can’t really review it properly as I’ve only seen it once in a dire print, but will just make a few brief comments and post a few pictures.
I’d hoped for a lot from this film, which was made in late 1934, a few months after the enforcement of the Hays code, and released at the start of 1935. It has a good cast, headed by Edward Arnold, with a small part for a very young Rosalind Russell. It also has a plot which sounds intriguing on the face of it, adapted from a novel by Rex Stout. It’s about industrialists and businessmen trying to get America involved in a European war in order to boost the economy and the arms trade. The businessmen bankroll a shady Fascist organisation, known as the Grey Shirts, in order to stoke up public opinion, but, when the peace-loving President (Arthur Byron) is apparently abducted, the pro-war bandwagon is abruptly derailed. You don’t exactly have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out very early on in the 80-minute movie that the President engineered his own abduction.
This politically charged plot led to a row between producer Walter Wanger and Will Hays (for once, controversial censor Joseph Breen was apparently happy, as there was no sex, but Hays was the one to be outraged!) The film’s release was delayed as Hays and Wanger argued over the content, but I don’t think much was cut in the end, as far as I can gather from the articles I’ve read.
All this behind-the-scenes conflict seems as if it was probably more interesting than the film itself. The war itself is far too vaguely described for the wider plot to make much sense – who is supposed to be fighting whom, and why? Another problem is that none of the characters are all that interesting or realistic. The President and his wife (Janet Beecher) are incredibly saintly, fussing sweetly over the whereabouts of his missing wrist watch. By contrast, the various industrialists and money men are like cartoon baddies, constantly spelling out their evil plots to one another in ludicrously simple terms. There are also so many of these characters that I found it impossible to remember which was which. The dialogue is leaden and often preachy, despite the involvement of a whole string of writers including the usually brilliant Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
Edward Arnold doesn’t get much screen time as the war minister, and is mainly seen behind a desk, so he can’t be as fiercely energetic as he is in some of his other roles. Wellman favourite Andy Devine has a lovable simpleton role as a “grocery boy” for the President, but, although he does bring in some humour, his role is cloyingly sweet too. About the only times the film comes alive are during a dinner party scene where smooth-talking lobbyist’s wife Rosalind Russell entertains some of the politicians, and in the romance between secret serviceman Paul Kelly and the President’s secretary, Peggy Conklin.
A fascist rally is genuinely chilling, but this scene is over very briefly. Oh yes, and there is also a prolonged rainstorm towards the end of the film, just to remind us who is directing. I suspect Barney McGill’s cinematography would add a lot to the film if I had seen it in a better print, especially in these scenes, but all in all I was sadly disappointed by the movie. I have to wonder what on earth went wrong in its making, and whether the studio interfered a lot – usually Wellman is quite devastating in his portrayal of injustice and social issues, and I would have thought he could make businessmen discussing war plans in a cosy room every bit as menacing as his gangsters, but it just doesn’t work.