If there’s anyone who deserves to be the subject of a big budget biopic, it’s Victoria C. Woodhull. Back in the 19th century, at a time when women were not even allowed to vote, Victoria C. Woodhull was not only the first woman to ever work as a stockbroker but also the first to ever found her own newspaper. A fierce advocate for women’s right and free love, Victoria Woodhull was also the first woman to ever run for President. She was nominated in 1872 by the Equal Rights Party and, for the crime of trying to cast a vote for herself, she spent election day in jail.
Since that day, many more women have run for President but none have been elected. Since 1984, two women have received major party nominations for vice president but neither came close to being elected. Since 1964, Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Patsy Mink, Ellen McCormack, Patricia Schroeder, Elizabeth Dole, Carol Mosely-Braun, Michele Bachman, and Hillary Rodham Clinton have all campaigned for the presidential nomination of one of the two major political parties but none of them have been nominated.
I do believe that a woman will be elected President within my lifetime. In fact, it could even happen in 2016. But until then, the only place where you can find a female President is on TV and in the movies.
Take, for instance, today’s final entry in Shattered Politics, the 1964 film Kisses For My President. This may very well have been the very first movie to feature a woman as President. Needless to say, in 1964, this idea was considered so outrageous that it had to be played for laughs.
Kisses For My President starts with an image of hundreds of women chanting “We want Leslie!” We get a shot of Fred MacMurray looking out over the crowd. The next scene, the new President is being sworn in. We start with a close-up of the chief justice reciting the oath of office to “Leslie Harrison McCloud.” The camera pans over to Fred MacMurray, listening intently. However, just when 1964 audiences were expecting MacMurray to swear to uphold the constitution, the camera pans yet again, over to …. Polly Bergen!
“OH MY GOD!” audiences in 1964 gasped, “LESLIE McCLOUD IS A WOMAN!”
That’s right. Polly Bergen is playing President Leslie McCloud and Fred MacMurray is playing her husband, Thad. As the film makes apparent in its opening scenes, Thad is not quite sure what his role is supposed to be. He has an office in the White House but it’s just so … feminine! And it’s full of painting of previous first ladies who were all ladies! And, at one point, Thad even imagines a picture of himself wearing a lady’s hat!
Oh my God!
Now, to be fair to the movie, Polly Bergen does get a few scenes where she shows herself to be a strong President. There’s a great scene where she coolly dismisses a condescending senator (Edward Andrews) who suggests that, as a woman, Leslie might not be up to the task of standing up to America’s enemies. It’s a brief scene but it’s a good one.
But, ultimately, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Kisses For My President, a film about the first female President, is mostly interested in how Thad handles being “first gentleman.” It’s a film that imagines a historic moment for women and then focuses on what it would mean for one man.
On the one hand, Kisses For My President is a dated comedy that runs way too long and tries to get too much mileage out of one joke (i.e., Fred MacMurray looking confused). However, the film also features a great performance from Eli Wallach. Playing a strutting dictator named Vasquez, Wallach is a lot of fun and the scenes where MacMurray shows him around Washington are the best in the film. I also appreciated the fact that the President’s daughter reacts to the restrictions of living in the White House by dating a guy that she knows her parents will hate, largely because I would have done the same thing in her situation.
I’m a little bit torn on the ending of Kisses For My President. (Should I spoil it? No, I don’t think I will.) On the one hand, it’s outrageously sexist and seems to suggests that Leslie — despite being a strong President during the few times we actually get to see her doing the job — should have been content to just be a wife and mother. On the other hand, it’s one of those endings that would seem to perfectly capture the dominant culture of the time when the film was made. So, it has some worth from a historical point of view.
When last I checked, Kisses For My President is currently available for free on YouTube. The film is interesting as a historical document if nothing else.