The President Vanishes (William A Wellman, 1934)

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.

Edward Arnold as the minister of war

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.

Arthur Byron as the saintly President

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.

Peggy Conklin as the President's secretary

Paul Kelly, Peggy Conklin and Arthur Byron

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16 thoughts on “The President Vanishes (William A Wellman, 1934)

  1. I’d never even heard of this one – where do you manage to find this stuff?

    Anyway, films that tackle political issues tend to be hit and miss affairs, and from my own experience mostly miss. However well-intentioned they may be it’s very hard to avoid a preachy tone and this tends to drag the whole picture down under the weight of its own sincerity.

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    • Preachy is right, Colin – the dialogue is never very convincing. I got this one from a collector via the ioffer website – couldn’t resist seeing a rare Wellman film, but sadly on this occasion it wasn’t what I’d hoped for! Thanks for commenting.

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  2. Based on a Rex Stout book, eh? I’ve read quite a few of Stout’s Nero Wolfes plus some of his other titles, but I’ve heard of this one until your review, Judy. I appreciate your reviewing this film. Sounds like something I may watch if the opportunity presents itself but not like something I’d go out of my way to get a copy of. Maybe the movie would have been helped if Edward Arnold had been the President and someone else had played the Sec of War. Arthur Byron has never struck me as being a strong enough actor to carry a leading part, but that’s just my opinion. Hats off to you for slogging through it for us.

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    • Oops. Left out a very important adverb in that second sentence: “NEVER”, as in, “I’ve never heard of this one. . . .”

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    • Thanks very much, CagneyFan! I don’t think I’ve read any Rex Stout, but it may well be that the book is better than the film, as there is bound to be more space to develop the plot. Interesting comment on Arthur Byron, not one of my favourites either! I must agree that the movie might have been helped if a more interesting actor had played the president – I remember Byron plays a prison warden in ‘20,000 Years in Sing Sing’, and in that film too he makes the character so saintly that it’s hard to believe he could ever have achieved a position of power. Edward Arnold does get top billing in ‘The President Vanishes’ and does what he can, but he’s fighting a losing battle!

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  3. “In the interests of obsessive completism…”

    Judy, you are amazing in digging up these rare Wellman films. Wellman was a busy little beaver back in those early sound days pumping out films like he hit the jackpot on a slot machine.

    I always like Edward Arnold, a wonderful character actor.

    No matter how obscure the film you always make it a fascinating read!

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    • Thanks for the kind comments, John! I think Wellman was amazingly prolific really up to this point, where he started to take longer over each movie – the following year he “only” made one, ‘The Call of the Wild’. I like Edward Arnold too – saw him in Hawks’ ‘Come and Get It!’ at the BFI in London earlier this year, and he really dominates that whole film.

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  4. Your Wellman mission has been wholly unique and a joy for all movie lovers, Judy. I take notes of a good number of the titles you have found, many from TCM viewings or from just plain tenacity in tracking some of these down. Your hankering for Wellman has been infectious too, as I just recently received a copy of the Warner Archives title SAFE IN HELL to join a number of other I’ve acquired. I love the comment about the rainstorm, to ‘remind us who is directing (ha!) and much appreciate your blunt assessment without any undeserved perlks for Wellman. Heck even Hitchcock and Ford have had several misfires. Arnold is of course a great actor, but you indicate he is wasted here or not used to compelling effect. Andy Devine of “Andy’s Gang” has that ‘lovable’ demeanor–glad to see he remained type-cast. But as you note, if a script partially penned by Hecht and MacArthur can’t cut it you have a subpar film, even with the weak print figured in. The plot here is exceedingly fastastical, especially for this period.

    Anyway, another splendid piece in every sense.

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    • Thanks very much for the kind and encouraging comments, Sam, which are much appreciated. I’m sure you will enjoy that WA ‘Safe In Hell’, and it’s great that this fine pre-Code has now joined many of Wellman’s others on DVD. I do agree on both Arnold and Devine, but ‘The President Vanishes’ doesn’t really use either of their very different talents to full effect. I wasn’t quite sure whether to write about this film as I mainly tend to concentrate on films that I actually like, but then thought maybe I should just write down a few thoughts on it before it completely faded in my mind! Thanks again.

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  5. I’ve seen a truly bad print of this film as well. I don’t think much of it and haven’t a clue why Wellman took on this script. It smells full of fail, no matter whose names are on it.

    I can’t comment on whether to write about films you like exclusively. Most writers on film who I read online tend to write only a little on films they find not worth the effort. I think my efforts would go to writing about films I thought little appreciated, but which I found had value. Sadly for me, a few already do it much better than I would.

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    • Thanks very much for that – sounds as if there is only a bad print around of this one. I wonder if the studio made Wellman do this film, or if someone interfered with it once it was finished. Clearly something went wrong somewhere along the line.

      Thanks also for your thoughts on which films to write about – something for me to chew over. And if you do ever decide to write a blog, let me know!

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  6. Great piece Judy! It’s a shame you didn’t like this movie. I’ve never seen it but have always been intrigued by the concept and wanted to see it. I suppose I will get around to seeing it one day (if I can ever find it), but my expectations will be seriously lowered.

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    • Thanks very much, Jason. Sadly, I think as soon as this film is described it somehow starts to sound better than it actually is, since it has an interesting plot but is brought down by feeble dialogue and characterisation.I would be interested to read the book, despite being disappointed by the movie.

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  7. Pingback: The President Vanishes (1934) | Rosalind Russell: Dazzling Star

  8. Pingback: Jan 8 1935 | Izzy 2 Thelma

  9. So I’m kinda late to the party here. I saw “The President Vanishes” once, during the run-up to W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which perhaps colored my impressions of it to a degree (needless to say, the VHS print was not very good). After so much time, my recollections might be suspect, but having read other critical (and not-so-critical) reviews, I am inclined to believe the film’s interest and significance have largely been lost in the absence of placing it in a proper historical context, as well considerations of its shortcomings as entertainment.

    The film was released a year or so after Hitler’s election as German chancellor and a few years after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Mussolini had already left democracy behind in Italy (his black shirts were the clear inspiration for the film’s “grey shirts,” essentially precursors of today’s alt-right groups). Within these early ‘30s currents, the rise of global fascism was palpable in the U.S. and there were fears that a new “war to end all wars” might once again draw U.S. involvement. Seen today, the film’s isolationist stance is at once understandable and yet ironically misguided. The producer, Walter Wanger, was a well-known Hollywood liberal also responsible for 1934’s “Gabriel Over the White House,” another Depression-era presidential fantasy wherein fascism wins the day in America. The two films make fascinating bedfellows.

    I believe what makes “The President Vanishes” most notable is the rare and raw look it offers at the collusion between big business and government; especially the portrait of the former as greedy capitalist swine forming a crypto-fascist cabal bent on enriching themselves at the expense of the rest of humanity. This perspective remains disturbing – and sadly relevant – today. I cannot think of any other film made within three decades of its release that savaged corporate interests in such a manner. Although I can offer no evidence to support this, I suspect this aspect of the movie has given pause to considerations of re-releasing it, effectively keeping it largely out of public circulation for many years.

    Along with some snappy repartee (the uncredited contribution of Ben Hecht?), I recall the film having several effective montage sequences. I have yet to see any review crediting the man I believe responsible for them: Slavko Vorkapich. He was often credited with “Montage Effects” and I could swear he has a similar credit in “The President Vanishes” (though not on IMDB). He worked on a number of U.S. films contributing memorable montages and visual effects (e.g., the opening of “Crime Without Passion”, 1934), but without ever receiving industry acknowledgement of his prodigious talents.

    Despite the film’s admittedly ridiculous plot, absurd climax and overwritten dialogue, I believe it remains radical for its time – and remarkably prescient – and it is for these reasons why the obscurity and neglect which it has long suffered seem wholly undeserved.

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