By now you are getting the idea these movies posted for review on Wednesday are not all that bad. True. Leave it to me, however, to pick apart a few aspects.
This is Advise and Consent from Columbia Pictures in 1962. It’s masterfully directed by Otto Preminger. The cast of characters is top tier. I will just repost the main list from Wikipedia, my source for the technical details. Images are screen shots from the DVD.
- Henry Fonda as Robert A. Leffingwell
- Charles Laughton as Senator Seabright “Seab” Cooley of South Carolina and President pro tempore of the United States Senate
- Don Murray as Senator Brigham “Brig” Anderson of Utah
- Walter Pidgeon as Senate Majority Leader Robert “Bob” Munson of Michigan
- Peter Lawford as Senator Lafe Smith of Rhode Island
- Gene Tierney as Dolly Harrison
- Franchot Tone as The President
- Lew Ayres as Vice President Harley Hudson and former Governor of Delaware
- Burgess Meredith as Herbert Gelman
- Eddie Hodges as Johnny Leffingwell
- Paul Ford as Senate Majority Whip Stanley Danta of Connecticut
- George Grizzard as Senator Frederick “Fred” Van Ackerman of Wyoming
- Inga Swenson as Ellen Anderson
- Edward Andrews as Senator Orrin Knox of Illinois
- Paul McGrath as Hardiman Fletcher
- Will Geer as Senate Minority Leader Warren Strickland of Idaho
- Betty White as Senator Bessie Adams of Kansas
- Malcolm Atterbury as Senator Tom August of Minnesota, chairman of Foreign Relations Committee
- J. Edward McKinley as Senator Powell Hanson of New Mexico
- Bill Quinn as Senator Paul Hendershot of Indiana
- Tom Helmore as British Ambassador
And this movie is about… Wait! It’s about politics. I should have known. I’m not going to detail the plot, but here are some salient points.
Opening scenes show Democratic Party members of the United States Senate reacting to the announcement by the President of the United States (not otherwise identified) of a new Secretary of State. Their reaction is furious. Leading senators of the Party were not notified in advance. Additionally the nominee is controversial political figure Robert A. Leffingwell. Charged with getting Leffingwell’s nomination approved by the Senate are (Democratic) Majority Leader Munson and Majority Whip Danta. Opposing them is South Caroline Senator Cooley, a Democrat. Senator Cooley has a personal dislike for Leffingwell, having been humiliated by him in a previous encounter. A chance meeting airs all this out.
A Senate panel must be convened to review the nomination, and Senator Anderson is chosen to chair the panel. A senator from Utah, named “Brigham?” Is he a Mormon? Is the lake salty? His comfortable family life is interrupted this morning by a phone call advising him he is being given chairmanship of the panel. His downfall and death will be a consequence.
Making things interesting is radical liberal Senator van Ackerman. The brash freshman senator has with him a brain trust of four who do considerable legwork for him, attempting to work the Senate as one would a Mafia family.
Dolly Harrison is a widow and a prominent Washington socialite, inserted into the plot to add some sparkle, some charm, some sex. She sleeps with Senator Muson, himself a widower, but this information is not for public consumption. Can you imagine this sort of thing going on among our elected officials? Anyhow, she also serves to enlighten viewers to the workings of American government. Here in the Senate gallery she explains to a visiting French dignitary that the Vice President of the United States is President of the Senate. He is not a senator and cannot vote. But he can break a tie vote when necessary. This is to become crucial.
Things get sticky at Leffingwell’s confirmation hearing when Senator Cooley brings up the matter of Herbert Gelman, who previously attended Communist Party meetings with the nominee.
Leffingwell successfully deflects the attack, but he perjures himself in the process. The president will not withdraw the nomination and insists on keeping the indiscretion quiet and pushing on. Senator Anderson will have none of this, showing his true convictions.
In response to Senator Anderson’s intransigence, Senator van Ackerman launches an investigation that dredges up the Utah Senator’s homosexual relationship with a fellow soldier during their days in the Army in Hawaii. Getting threatening phone calls at home and at his office, Anderson flies to New York to hunt up his former friend, Ray. At a gay bar in New York Anderson comes to realize that Ray is a male prostitute and has sold information about their affair. He flees the scene, leaving Ray face down in a pool of water in the gutter. He flies back to Washington and cuts his own throat in his Senate office.
Anderson’s death is a blow to the Leffingwell confirmation, but Cooley, seeing that conflict has brought death and destruction to the Senate, calls off his attack. Van Ackerman is vilified for his part in Anderson’s destruction and leaves the Senate chamber before the confirmation vote. Munson releases all his pledged votes, and the Senate begins to call the vote. It’s going to be a tie. The Vice President is going to have to break the tie and confirm Leffingwell.
At the last minute the Vice President is handed a note. The president is dead. Hudson will be the new president.
The Vice President refuses to break the tie. The confirmation of Leffingwell fails. The Vice President informs the senators of the President’s death and hands over the gavel to Senator Cooley and tells the Senate party leaders he will choose his own Secretary of State. The Senators adjourn and prepare for a new administration.
This plot shows its age in a number of ways. Senator Munson and Mrs. Harrison need to keep their love affair a secret? A prior homosexual encounter drives a Senator to commit suicide? Also, communism was a larger bogey man 53 years ago. These days you might have to show the nominee once shook hands with Osama bin Laden.
I found additional oddities. Senator Brigham Anderson is at home and pulls a bottle of Coca Cola out of his refrigerator? As late as 2007 I spent a few months working with Mormons out in Salt Lake City, and never a cola drink, especially Coca Cola, ever appeared at a meeting. Those guys drank water.
Another thing that stands out is Hollywood’s Senate. When did you ever see the United States Senate begin and end a session of any kind in under an hour?
Else, the film is top notch. The plot is riveting, cinematography is first class (Sam Leavitt), and direction shows Preminger in top form. Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize Betty White as a Kansas senator. A Frank Sinatra song is playing at the gay bar. And there is no mistaking the dramatic titles by Saul Bass.