Of Presidents and Impersonators

Nicholas J. Cull, University of Southern California

2 May 2017


One of the most startling of President Trump’s many foibles is his vociferous dislike of his being impersonated and specifically of the impersonation done by Alec Baldwin on the long-running NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live.  In the small hours of Sunday 3 December 2016, smarting from the previous evening’s offering he tweeted “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live – unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad”

In similar vein, after a whole day of reflection, the evening of 15 January 2017 produced: “@NBCNews is bad but Saturday Night Live is the worst of NBC.  Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television!”  For a media historian the spat raises the question of the history of presidential parody and how previous presidents have reacted to impersonation.  Trump is unusual.  Most past presidents had the good sense to ignore mockery and some have embraced impersonation.  Ronald Reagan reportedly really enjoyed the work of Rich Little and Barack Obama joined in the joke with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s ‘anger translator’ routine but the best example of a president embracing his impersonation is that of John F. Kennedy and his reaction to the impersonation by Vaughan Meader.

To place Meader’s Kennedy in context, it was pioneering for its time.  While there is a long history of satirical representations of American presidents, which have included the unflattering and the bizarre (Theodore Roosevelt was lampooned in stage impersonations by the blackface/minstrel Vaudeville performer Lew Dockstader and depicted in similar fashion in political cartoons) the electronic media, were more restrained.  Sitting presidents, like the figure of Christ, were not directly represented in motion pictures or in broadcast media.  Classic Hollywood films like Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Mission to Moscow (1943) depicted Franklin Roosevelt only with coy over-the-shoulder angles and his distinct voice (both these examples used a Canadian actor named Jack Young).  The age of television built a greater sense of familiarity with the president and a desire to know more which was unmet by the restrained habits of the media of the time.  The taboo was broken in the months following the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The age of the broadcast presidential impersonation dawned on the White House without warning in November 1962.  It was presidential advisor Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who raised the alarm.  He was driving to work one morning and thought he was listening to a White House press conference.  A journalist asked whether the president believed that a Jew could be president.  To Schlesinger’s dismay distinct Boston drawl replied to the effect that while that was possible ‘I could not vote for him because I am a Catholic.’  Narrowly avoiding an accident Schlesinger sped on to the White House, made some preliminary investigations and fired off a memo to the president warning darkly of Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds panic.  The broadcast – it emerged – was a track from a comedy album created by a nightclub performer from Maine called Vaughn Meader and entitled First Family.  The humor was gentle by today’s standards with many jokes turning on the idea of the president being depicted in ordinary situations.  JFK is heard discussing the allocation of his kids’ bath toys in the manner of Pentagon appropriations, stopping at a highway gas station with his entire motorcade and asking for green stamps, and discussing movies with his wife.  His preference is for Hercules.   While Kennedy’s team were appalled and made plans to contact the Federal Communications Commission to look into somehow banning its broadcast, Kennedy relished the humor.  He bantered with journalists about the impersonation (joking that it sounded more like brother Ted so he was the angry one); he bought multiple copies of the album to send out as Christmas gifts and on one occasion explained that he was the speaker only because Vaughn Meader couldn’t make it.  Neither he nor anyone else at the White House revealed that Jacqueline Kennedy was not amused by the impersonation of her and supported some kind of intervention against the record.

From Meader’s point of view the president’s good natured endorsement gave a welcome boost to what was already shaping up to be a stratospherically successful record.  It was soon the fastest selling record in history to that date.  Meader became a national celebrity and eagerly embarked on a sequel.  But his success was oddly bound to that of the president.  His career never recovered from the shock of the assassination of JFK in 1963.  He attempted various come-backs, including in the 1990s a record of the bible themed sketches in which God has a Kennedy accent.  He died, largely forgotten, in 2004.  The Meader accent lives on in the vocal performance of Dan Castellaneta as the mayor of Springfield, “Diamond Joe” Quimby in The Simpsons.

The relationship of Americans to the image of their president has changed radically in the 55 years since Meader’s First Family, and the jokes on SNL are far more barbed than could be imagined in those distant days.  So much of the veil is now missing.  Whereas a half century ago discussing of womanizing or exotic sexual tastes would be conducted only in whispers today we hear recordings of the president’s own voice bragging about lewd and illegal acts and allegations of shenanigans with Russian prostitutes are freely discussed in the media.  This said, sound advice for a satirized individual remains the same.  One does better sharing the joke.


Nicholas J. Cull is a Professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.  He is president of IAMHIST.  His archive-based study of Meader’s First Family  and the White House reaction appeared as ‘No Laughing Matter: Vaughn Meader, the Kennedy Administration and Presidential Impersonation on the radio’ The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 17, No. 3, August 1997, pp. 383-400

http://annenberg.usc.edu/faculty/communication/nicholas-j-cull


 

Swingeing London 67 – fifty years on and still ‘We Love You’

Justin Smith, University of Portsmouth

25 April 2017


Swingeing London 67 was the title of a series of works made in 1968-9 by British pop artist Richard Hamilton.  One version is a colour screenprint from a Daily Mail press photograph of his friend the art dealer Robert Fraser and Mick Jagger being driven to Chichester Magistrates Court in June ‘67. Another is a poster collage of newspaper cuttings relating to their arrest in February that year for alleged drug offences together with fellow Rolling Stone Keith Richards, at Richards’ country home ‘Redlands’ in West Sussex. Widely regarded as a trumped-up charge, William Rees-Mogg famously wrote in The Times that their trial (conviction, brief incarceration and acquittal on appeal) amounted to an attempt to break a butterfly on a wheel.

This was one ‘event’, in a kaleidoscopic decade of ‘events’, that was shaped as it unfolded, by the hedonism of wealthy young musicians and their friends, the forces of law and order and of Fleet Street, and the interventions of pop art and film. It was both serious and banal; it combined innocence and cynicism; it was real and it was mediated.

Later in that midsummer of love, the Rolling Stones recorded a single originally to be titled ‘We Love You, Goodbye’.  An otherwise modishly psychedelic but unmemorable number (Mick considers it their worst single), it was written as a thinly-veiled rebuke to the establishment following Jagger and Richards’ conviction.  The second verse intones: ‘You will never win “we”/Your uniforms don’t fit “we”’.  At the time of the studio session (12th and 13th June) – on which Lennon and McCartney reportedly contributed backing vocals – the two Stones were on bail pending an appeal.  With the threat of custodial sentences hanging over them, their manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham commissioned film-maker Peter Whitehead to make a promo for Top of the Pops.  This was filmed, in colour, on 30th and 31st July, the day before their appeal court hearing and prior to the single’s release on 18th August. Whitehead recalls:

Mick rang me up and said ‘Look, we’ve got this song coming out, and because we’ve got our trial on Monday and we’re going to prison, have you got any ideas because we can film it on Sunday?’ So I was filming The Stones on Sunday imagining they were going to prison on Monday. I rang Mick back and said that as far as I was concerned this case was as corrupt, scandalous, illegal and historically relevant as the case of Oscar Wilde. I wanted him to dress as Oscar Wilde and Marianne as a guy, as his boyfriend. Mick said, ‘I’d love to do that, let’s do it’. They weren’t very cheerful that day, I can tell you, expecting to go to bloody prison. And then I said, ‘Listen can you bring the fur rug?’ The fur rug was the one that Marianne was supposed to be under naked when they were busted. In one stroke, we said that this was going to be as scandalous as the Wilde trial – plus we could end up hopefully with a movie which we could go on to promote the song with.

The 4-minute clip opens with prison warder’s footsteps, rattling chains and the sound of cell doors banging.  Driven by Nicky Hopkins’ urgent piano riff, the song is accompanied by footage shot in Olympic Sound Studios while the Stones were working on the album Their Satanic Majesties Request – featuring a very stoned Brian Jones – and a sequence filmed in an Essex chapel based on the trial of Oscar Wilde, with Keith presiding in a fabricated wig.  Still photographs in the Peter Whitehead Archive at the CATH research centre, De Montfort University, capture the director (standing) with Faithfull (l) and Jagger, preparing the set-up.

Peter Whitehead on set with Faithfull and Jagger

Whitehead’s concept was both a satirical jibe at the legal establishment’s ignoble history of injustice towards bohemian artists, and comic reference to salacious newspaper gossip about the extent of their debauchery. In one shot Jagger emerges, apparently naked, from beneath the aforementioned fur rug. Only the infamous Mars bar is missing from the mise en scène. As Oldham comments, ‘It was like a predecessor to that George Michael video that was shot in a toilet’.[i]  Like Michael’s ‘Outside’ (1998) video, ‘We Love You’ is music video as political commentary; it is necessary to know the context. The insertion of some black and white footage from concert performances showing fans mobbing Jagger on stage could be read as evidence of the mutual adoration the song extols, or as an expression of the vulnerability fame had exposed them to. The single reached number 8 in the UK charts. However, perhaps predictably, the BBC banned the film, the Top of the Pops producer judging it ‘not suitable for the type of audience who watches this programme’.[ii]  It was sold more widely in continental Europe after its first showing in August 1967 as part of the launch of colour on West German television.[iii]

As an exemplar of innovation in the nascent form of music video, Whitehead’s own claims are characteristically unequivocal:

It was the first serious, politically committed, intelligent cultural video – which was also selling a song … As far as I’m concerned, nothing that went before that achieved what I achieved with that film. And I’ve always hoped that one day I’d get recognition for it.

Well, here it is Peter.

Whitehead’s groundbreaking concept video for ‘We Love You’ forms part of a donation of 100 landmark British music videos to the BFI’s National Archive under the auspices of the AHRC-funded research project Fifty Years of British Music Video. Peter Whitehead’s feature-length documentary satire Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967) will be screened as part of a series of Summer of Love events organised by DMU’s Cinema And Television History research centre at the Royal Albert Hall on 1 May 2017.

 

[i] Oldham, Andrew Loog (2011) Rolling Stoned, North Syracuse, New York: Gegensatz Press p. 417.

[ii] Quoted in Entropy: archiving the future of culture.

[iii] Aeppli, Felix (1996) The Rolling Stones: The Ultimate Guide. Bromley, Kent: Recorded Information Services, p. 77.


Justin Smith is Professor of Media Industries at the University of Portsmouth, and a specialist in post-war British film history. He is the author of Withnail and Us: Cult Films and Film Cults in British Cinema (I. B. Tauris, 2010) and, with Sue Harper, British Film Culture in the 1970s: The Boundaries of Pleasure (Edinburgh University Press, 2011). He is currently Principal Investigator on the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project Fifty Years of British Music Video (2015-17). In Summer 2017 he will take up a new post as Professor of Cinema and Television History at De Montfort University, Leicester.

http://www.port.ac.uk/school-of-media-and-performing-arts/staff/justin-smith.html


 

I Read it for the Articles: James Bond and Playboy magazine

Claire Hines, Southampton Solent University

18 April 2017


Seriously, Playboy magazine and James Bond?

Often when I tell people that some of my research has focused on Playboy magazine and James Bond, the idea has a tendency to be treated with disbelief as an eyebrow-raising suggestion reminiscent of Roger Moore’s Bond. This is actually quite fitting in a way though because in the 1970s and 1980s Moore brought with him to the part an established screen persona of a rather too smooth playboy (having played stylish adventurer Simon Templar in the successful TV series The Saint from 1962 to 1969, and British gentleman and aristocrat Lord Brett Sinclair alongside Tony Curtis in the rather less successful series The Persuaders! in 1971), compared to the somewhat rougher edges of Sean Connery’s 1960s Bond. However, dressed up in a suit Connery’s Bond was no less appreciated as a stylish, sophisticated and sexually confident icon of masculinity. In fact I discuss in my forthcoming book that it’s actually Connery’s Bond who has been most idolised by Playboy. Not only was Connery interviewed for Playboy in November 1965, but his Bond is still held up for admiration by the magazine as the quintessential screen interpretation of the character. I draw parallels between Playboy’s admiration for Bond in the Connery era and the recent approach to Daniel Craig as Bond. Craig was also interviewed for the magazine in December 2008 and his performance as Bond is favoured by Playboy in part because it recalls Connery. The connections between Bond and Playboy had begun in March 1960 when the magazine published its first Bond story and reported that Fleming had pledged ‘“I’m sure James Bond, if he were an actual person, would be a registered reader of Playboy.”’

But I have digressed. For now let’s get back to the reason for that ironically raised eyebrow and my research project, which focused on the public relationship between Playboy magazine and James Bond in the wider context of the playboy lifestyle in popular culture. This obviously meant studying Playboy magazine for research purposes.

“I read it for the articles” is an old joke about Playboy magazine. But it’s certainly true in my case and for other researchers. Though there are nude pictorials to look at in relation to Bond, there are also essays, interviews, fiction, readers’ letters, and other sections in the magazine’s contents.

The joke about ‘reading’ Playboy magazine is something that the Bond films had also referenced. When I began researching Playboy in relationship to James Bond I already had at the forefront of my mind the magazine’s brief cameo appearance in the Gumbold office safecracking scene in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (dir. Peter Hunt, 1969). George Lazenby’s Bond finds the February 1969 Playboy issue hidden between the pages of a newspaper. Opening up the magazine to the centerfold, he ignores the articles and looks admiringly at the Playmate of the Month. When Bond leaves the office after successfully breaking into the safe with a gadget, he has kept the centerfold but discarded the rest of the magazine without reading it. (Incidentally, the other direct reference to Playboy that occurs in the Bond films is in Diamonds are Forever (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1971), when Connery’s Bond is revealed to be a card carrying member of the Playboy Club and Casino.)

Unlike the screen Bond I wanted to do more than glance at Playboy, but in practice gaining access to the magazine turned out to be less than straightforward for me. As a UK-based researcher in the early 2000s one of the challenges when studying Playboy magazine was searching out old copies. Fortunately, the British Library was one of the select few libraries in Britain that held Playboy. However, it didn’t hold the complete run of the magazine from 1953 onwards. Some early issues of the magazine in particular were missing, though the library staff were always helpful trying to look for what I’d requested from the catalogue. To this day, the location information remains inscribed on my memory.

Anyone who has ever read Playboy will also recognise that like other magazines it can approached from a socio-historical perspective as a cultural artefact to be deconstructed. Over the years Playboy obviously has important connections to changing taking place in consumption, gender and sexual relations, and lifestyle. Of course I was especially interested in the magazine’s intertextual engagements with Bond as another cultural icon closely associated with the 1960s.

In recent years academic interest in Playboy has grown and access to the magazine has become much simpler. In 2011 Playboy launched the web-based subscription service iplayboy.com, giving complete and unlimited access to the publication. For the researcher this type of digital archive offers quick and easy access to resources that were once difficult to locate and time consuming to navigate. iplayboy.com boasts that users can “unlock access to the most comprehensive and exclusive collection. Every issue, article, story, and pictorial Playboy has ever published”. Users can search the digital archive and refine searches according to author or section – just in case you wondered a search for “James Bond” currently produces 1,068 results, with varying degrees of relevance. (In comparison searches for “Ian Fleming” and “Sean Connery” produce 222 results. Surprisingly a search for editor-publisher “Hefner” returns just 1,268 hits; there should be more, surely?). As far as my research goes the digital archive has provided detail that has enriched my earlier study of the magazine in hard copy – bringing to my attention some mentions that I hadn’t otherwise uncovered, such as Playboy’s April 1964 “On the Scene” introductory feature on Connery as an actor of note thanks to his breakthrough role, or the food article “From Russia with Love” in Playboy April 1965, which is about Russian cuisine but beyond the title strangely makes no direct reference to Bond. But a difficulty that comes with the ability to search the text is the possibility that each result might require scrutiny or that these elements may take over the bigger picture of the magazine in context. For this you still really need to spend time browsing through many issues, years, and decades. This may sound obvious, but in the digital age in particular there’s more than one kind of approach to reading Playboy.


Dr Claire Hines is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at Southampton Solent University. Her research and publications focus on sexuality, gender, fantasy, and James Bond in the contexts of American and British cultures. She is the editor of Fan Phenomena: James Bond (Intellect, 2015) and her book The playboy and James Bond is due to be published by Manchester University Press in 2018.

https://www.solent.ac.uk/staff-profiles/academic-profiles/claire-hines/claire-hines


 

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