Monday, August 3, 2015

Advise & Consent (Otto Preminger Films, Alpha Altina, Columbia Pictures, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Heaven Can Wait TCM showed a quite different movie involving Gene Tierney, but in a much smaller role: Advise & Consent (I’d always thought the title spelled out the word “and” but the film’s famous logo — a cartoon drawing of the U.S. Capitol with the dome detaching itself on one end out of shock at the goings-on within — includes the ampersand; the same drawing was used for the paperback edition of the novel by Allen Drury on which the film was based, though the Wikipedia page on the book has a reproduction of the first-edition cover which spelled out the word “and”), a 1962 Washington, D.C.-based melodrama about politics and the corrupt shenanigans pulled by people on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Senate. The story is kicked off by the appointment of Robert A. Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) to be the new Secretary of State by a President (Franchot Tone) who is seriously ill — though no one knows how seriously — and he obviously regards Leffingwell as someone who can maintain his legacy in foreign policy in general and a more conciliatory policy of détente with the Soviet Union in particular. Though Drury played his own politics pretty close to the vest in this installment — which became the first in an elaborate cycle of seven political novels, which ends with a set-up in which the Presidential and Vice-Presidential nominees of both major parties are on a stage together, an assassin kills the Presidential nominee of one party and the Vice-Presidential nominee of the other, and Drury wrote two books to close his cycle with what would have happened with each pair of victims being the ones who died — he later revealed himself to be a conservative, though not a particularly hard-core Right-winger. In the middle of the cycle he wrote an authorized biography of Richard Nixon called Courage and Hesitation, which was excerpted in the last-ever issue of Look magazine in 1971, and though he doesn’t come right out and say so it’s pretty clear from Leffingwell’s politics that he, the president who appointed him and the majority party in the Senate are the Democrats.

Indeed, among other things Advise & Consent is a souvenir of the days through much of the middle of the 20th century when there were really three major parties in the U.S. Congress: the Northern Democrats, the Republicans and the Southern Democrats. Most of the New Deal legislation of the 1930’s had been carefully crafted in coalition between the Northern and Southern Democrats (and the price for the Southern Democrats’ support was things like denying agricultural workers — which most Blacks were then — the right to contribute to and collect from Social Security and the right to form unions), while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by a coalition of Northern Democrats and Republicans against the Southern Democrats (and the price for Republican support was to put severe restrictions on the government’s and private parties’ ability to sue corporations that practiced racial discrimination). Though Robert Leffingwell is the character who kick-starts the story, he’s pretty much just a MacGuffin whose function is to spark the ongoing conflict between the piece’s two main protagonists, Michigan Senator and majority leader Robert Munson (Walter Pidgeon) and South Carolina Senator Seabright B. Cooley (called “Seab” — pronounced “Seeb” — for short and played by Charles Laughton in his last film). The movie is basically a cut-and-thrust duel between these two Senators and their “seconds” on the Foreign Relations Committee over the Leffingwell nomination. The chair of the subcommittee considering the nomination is Brigham Young Anderson of Utah (the novel came right out and said he was a Mormon but the film did not), and while the committee is deliberating Cooley comes up with surprise witness Herbert Gelman (Burgess Meredith), who claims that when he was a student at the University of Chicago 20 years earlier Leffingwell, as one of his teachers, was also a member of a Communist cell Gelman briefly was part of before he got disgusted and quit. Gelman is discredited as a loner with a history of mental problems, but not before Leffingwell confesses to the president that he was indeed briefly part of a Communist cell.

Senator Anderson is so appalled at Leffingwell’s lying under oath to the committee that he switches from favoring to opposing the nomination, so Leffingwell’s strongest supporter on the committee, Senator Fred van Ackerman (George Grizzard), looks for dirt on Anderson and finds it: a man named Ray Shaff (John Granger) with whom Anderson had a brief Gay affair when they were both stationed together in Hawai’i during World War II. Advise & Consent was directed by Otto Preminger (and while I’m not usually a Preminger fan I think this and Anatomy of a Murder are his best films because they were strong stories that brought out his technical skill as a director and his ability to get strong performances from his actors without requiring the kinds of visual atmospherics he was never very good at), and when he bought the rights and announced the project he served notice on the Production Code Administration that he intended to keep the Gay aspects of the book despite the Code’s flat prohibition against depicting “sex perversion or any inference of it.” With Preminger already having broken the Code twice and got away with it — he got the words “pregnant” and “virgin” into The Moon Is Blue (1953) and got a story about drug addiction on the screen in The Man With the Golden Arm (1956) — the Code Administration hastily put through an amendment allowing “sex aberrations” to be put on film if done “with discretion and restraint.” Indeed, as Charles noted, Preminger and his screenwriter, Wendell Mayes, applied so much “discretion and restraint” that a lot of moviegoers probably had no (or very little) idea what that sequence was about. The scene in which Anderson traces Ray (via a heavy-set, queeny guy named Manuel, played by Larry Tucker, who appears to be Ray’s pimp) to the “Club 602,” the first Gay bar ever depicted in a Hollywood movie (unless you count the anarchists’ hangout in Clara Bow’s film Call Her Savage, whose patrons seemed to be having a lot more fun than the ones in this film!), where a song by Frank Sinatra is playing on the jukebox (a song he recorded for the film but never commercially released or sang publicly, though “The Voice of Frank Sinatra” is prominently advertised on the credits) has appeared in a lot of documentaries on Gays in film, but in context it’s just another example of how sordid the political game is and leads to a climax in which Anderson commits the obligatory suicide for an “outed” Gay man.

The ending takes place in the U.S. Senate, where the final confirmation vote on Leffingwell is taking place — only it’s interrupted when, after the vote is a 47-47 tie, vice-president Harley Hudson (Lew Ayres) announces that he’s not going to vote with the administration to confirm Leffingwell because he’s received word in the meantime that the President has died and “I’d like to appoint my own Secretary of State.” (Apparently this is a quite different ending from the one in Drury’s novel, in which so many Senators are revulsed at the suicide of Anderson that Leffingwell’s nomination is overwhelmingly defeated, and then the President dies and Harley Hudson takes over.) Advise & Consent has aspects that seem badly dated (and Tierney’s character, a Washington hostess having a sort of desultory affair with Pidgeon, is one of them) and others that seem torn from today’s headlines; certainly the argument between Robert Leffingwell and Seab Cooley (a superb characterization and an excellent role for Laughton to go out on) over whether we protect the U.S. by negotiating with our enemies or standing up to them is being replayed in the Congress now over President Obama’s nuclear arms deal with Iran. Both the book and the film provoked speculation as to who Drury’s real-life models for the characters had been — certainly the stand-offish way the president treats his vice-president (thereby leaving him woefully unprepared to take over when the President croaks) echoes Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and the confrontation before the Senate committee between Leffingwell and Gelman was obviously inspired by the affair of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers (particularly in Leffingwell’s denial, followed by a grudging admission, that he knew Gelman) — and ironically, the character of Senator Lafe Smith, who was pretty obviously based on John F. Kennedy, was portrayed by Peter Lawford, Kennedy’s brother-in-law and therefore a man with a far closer personal connection to the kinds of people depicted in the film than any of its other players!