The American Presidency on Film:
A National Conference

Westlake Village, California · November 10-12, 2000


John Karol

Let me say at the beginning that I am a filmmaker – not a film theorist. It is only as I finish a film that I am tempted to read the likes of Bill Nichols, Jane Gaines, Robert Rosenstone, Michel Chion, Dai Vaughan and Walter Murch to learn what it is I may have produced. The last two – Vaughan and Murch
as prominent film editors, particularly draw my attention and trust. That said, I must confess to personal tastes in approach and technique which, without question, affect the narrative style and content of my work. "Things of the Spirit," the biographical film I am completing on the personal and political life of Calvin Coolidge, is a case in point.

After fully researching my subject, it was clear that I was dealing with both a unique person and a unique president. In addition, this was my first embrace of a fully historical subject. Nevertheless – or perhaps because of it all – I deliberately chose not to create a synthetic narrative, weave it around a formulaic dramatic arc, and package Calvin Coolidge as has so successfully been done for many 20th Century presidents. The Calvin Coolidge I discovered in my research would have smothered under such a narrative blanket.

Because of the unique character and strangely fragile nature of my subject, I set out instead to gather raw content, later to be crafted into story. The approach might best be called "evidentiary" – structuring interviews and gathering material later to be used in producing a cinematic portrait. In other words, I applied to my historical subject – as much as possible – the approach, techniques and risks of "live" documentary production. Taking those risks literally made the film. The strength and historical significance of the narrative and archival material we gathered doubled the film's estimated running time during edit.

When asked, while editing, what the final film would look like, I named by analogy a very different film about a very different character – "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould." Rather than force our varied and often disparate material into strict linear narrative, I chose instead to construct a mosaic of largely chronological episodes. My named analogy proved apt – upon completion of our story edit, we had, in fact, constructed thirty-two short films about Calvin Coolidge.

This mosaic structure provided three immediate advantages for "Things of the Spirit." First, it allowed us to make the best possible use of our material. Second, it affords maximum flexibility in meeting the transient needs of television programmers. Selected episodes from the definitive biographical film can quickly be assembled into shorter versions ranging from Coolidge "lite" to Coolidge "extra strength." Third, once on random access digital video disk, the film's episodic structure lends itself ideally to educational use, both at high school and college levels. The DVD syllabus, already prepared, groups the thirty-two episodes by topic: biography/historiography; economic issues; political issues; social issues; foreign policy; and "things of the spirit."

For preview and fundraising purposes, we transferred eleven episodes from edited film workprint to videotape. I have chosen two episodes for screening and discussion during this shorter seminar session today. The entire seventy minute preview will be screened on Sunday morning at 10:45 a.m. The first episode for screening and discussion is, in fact, the third episode of the film: "Weaned on a Pickle." Viewers of the entire film will already have heard that characterization of Coolidge's childhood and presidential demeanor in the earlier "Prologue." "Weaned on a Pickle," like many other episodes in the film, is entirely self-narrating from interview and visual material gathered in the field.

"Weaned on a Pickle"

[George Nash, Historian] Well, Coolidge, of course, was born on the Fourth of July as every historian likes to tell people. He was born in 1872 in a hamlet, really, in Vermont. He was a Vermont Yankee. His father was a storekeeper. He really came from a – what we think of as small town, even village America, not long after the Civil War. A part of America that did not change very much really in his lifetime and in some ways has not changed that much even now – by that I mean Plymouth, the town in which he lived as a boy.

[Richard Norton Smith, Historian] Coolidge came out of it and he went back to it, over and over again in his thoughts – and in many ways he never left it. And if there's any one key to understanding Coolidge, it's Plymouth. You have to go to Plymouth to know Coolidge.

[Victor Ward, Plymouth Resident] Most of the people in town now don't remember Coolidge, of course, only just a very few of us that remember him. John Coolidge, his father, owned the store and that's where the President was born, in a tenement back side the store. Yeah, he had the post office, too. He run the post office at the same time he had the store, in the same building – before they moved over to the house where, you know, he took his oath of office, of course.

[Violette Michael, Plymouth Resident] The Coolidges were not poor people. They weren't rich, like, well, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts and so on. But they were not poor people. His father, probably, for Vermont at the time, come up among, well, I don't mean he was really wealthy, but you know, he had enough, he could circulate in a higher class of people.

[Victor Ward, Plymouth Resident] Calvin Coolidge's father was in some town office most the time. He was either justice of the peace or constable or something, you know, he always was in some town office. Oh, yes, they were thought well of all over town.

[Richard Norton Smith, Historian] Listen to Coolidge describing life in Plymouth among his neighbors: "They drew no class distinctions except towards those who assumed superior airs, those they held in contempt. They held strongly to the doctrine of equality. Whenever the hired man or the hired girl wanted to go anywhere, they were always understood to be entitled to my place in the wagon. In which case I remained at home. This gave me a very early training in democratic ideas and impressed upon me very forcibly the dignity and power, if not the superiority of labor. It was all a fine atmosphere in which to raise a boy. The streams ran clear; the roads, the woods, the fields, the people, all were clean. It was all close to nature and in accordance with the ways of nature. Even when I try to divest it of the halo, which I know always surrounds the past, I'm unable to create any other impression than that it was fresh and clean." And then he said something that sums up Plymouth: "Country life does not always have breadth, but it has depth. It is neither artificial nor superficial, but is kept close to the realities."

[Violette Michael, Plymouth Resident] Well, of course, his mother died when he was a – what was he? Twelve or something like that? He was a young boy, not grown up.

[John Coolidge, President's Son] He was only twelve when she died. She died on her 39th birthday. She never had been very well. He says in his autobiography that as long as he can remember her she was not in very good health. As he said, sadness came to his – to him that only a boy could know on losing his mother. He said, life after that was never to – seemed to be quite the same. He used to go over, sometimes in the middle of the night, walk over to the cemetery to visit her grave.

[Violette Michael, Plymouth Resident] And then his sister died, maybe within two years or so. And, of course, later his father married again and I guess he thought a great deal of his stepmother, but of course she come into his life when he was older.

[Richard Norton Smith, Historian] Col. Starling of the Secret Service recalled that Coolidge would talk often about his mother, particularly in the evening, sitting out on the White House porch, and he seemed to have remembered every day, Starling said, that he lived with her. And it was almost as if he was communing with this woman whom he had lost as a child. He once said, "I wish I could really speak to her, I wish that often."

[Michael Platt, Historian] In his autobiography he stresses the quietude of the lives lived in Plymouth, and indeed of the lives that he saw and learned from. And he even talks about the silences he enjoyed going out horseback riding. He says, for example: "Riding over the fields and along the country roads by myself, where nothing interrupts his seeing and thinking, is a good occupation for a boy. The silences of nature have a discipline all their own." He talks about night, middle of the night visits to his mother's grave. Now in Plymouth his mother's grave is about a quarter mile from his house. He went there often, especially when he was troubled. And that kind of silence, that capacity to be with yourself alone, to think long thoughts, is a strength that comes into all that he said later on.

Contrast that "testimonial" rendering of Coolidge's childhood with the brief scripted version written and presented by the Kunhardts in their "The American President" series, broadcast last April on PBS:

Calvin Coolidge grew up on the family farm in Vermont, working so hard he was left with little time for himself. He was often lonely, yet feared being alone... Cal learned to waste nothing. As he saw it, reading for pleasure, anything musical, dancing, playing a sport, indulging in a hobby, having a sweetheart – all squandered precious time and energy. Even talking itself could be a form of waste.

To be fair, the Kunhardts devoted only fifteen minutes to Coolidge's entire life. But to be fair, instead of scripting what they imagined Coolidge felt as a boy, they could more easily have chosen a primary source – Coolidge's Autobiography, either as quoted in "Weaned on a Pickle," or later where Coolidge summarizes his childhood in a single sentence:

While in theory I was always urged to work and save, in practice I was permitted to do my share of playing and wasting.

Which rendering better serves television viewers and the historical record – the Kunhardts' synthetic narrative, or the subject's own written recollection and the recollections of those who either knew or know about him?

The second episode for screening and discussion appears later in the film. "Your Son, Calvin Coolidge" combines three disparate elements which never before had been joined – unedited archival motion picture film rescued and remastered from decomposing nitrate film; selected letters Coolidge wrote to his father from the time he was a freshman at Amherst College to his presidency in Washington; and temporary music which attempts, as Walter Murch might put it, to trigger a "conceptual resonance" between the image and the spoken word.

Again, viewers of the entire film will have learned that Coolidge was the first in his family to attend college; that both his mother and sister, Abbie, had died when he was a boy; that, as Governor of Massachusetts, he thought he had committed political suicide by doing what he believed right in handling the 1919 Boston Police Strike; and that, while president in 1924, his younger son, Calvin, Jr., died at age sixteen. The film you see today is a so-called "scratch print," used during edit prior to payment of archival license fees. The vertical scratch, of course, does not appear on our remastered negative.


"Your Son, Calvin Coolidge"

[Front page of The New York Times, March 19, 1926, reporting the death of President Coolidge's father, followed by scenes of his winter burial in Vermont.]

[Coolidge Quote / Male Voice]

Amherst, 1892

My Dear Father: Each time I get home I hate to go away worse than before... I think I must be very home-sick my hand trembles so I can't write so any one can read it.

With Love, J. Calvin Coolidge

My Dear Father: I want to do careful work but many men in my class have strength, preparation, inclination and ability to do much more than myself.

Much Love, J. Calvin

My Dear Father: I... hope you are better now. We must think of Abbie as we would of a happy day counting it a pleasure to have had it and not a sorrow because it could not last forever.

With much love, J. Calvin Coolidge

Amherst, 1895

My Dear Father: I am from the country and am glad of it... but I do not always want to remain a rustic in my ideas and in my appearance. I have improved some, and know the untiring self denial of those who have given me the opportunity for culture and education.

With love, J. Calvin Coolidge

Northampton, 1899

My Dear Father: To you I send a little birthday present. I hope you will not lay it away to keep ... I hope you will take it and spend it foolishly.

Very Affectionately, Calvin Coolidge

Boston, 1915

Dear Father: You may have seen in the papers that I am a candidate for Lieutenant-Governor... Whatever you may read of good or ill I am just the same as when I was a boy at home and am at my best when I am most like you.

Your Son, Calvin Coolidge

Boston, 1919

My Dear Father: People applaud me a great deal but I am not sure they will vote for me... It is necessary to make sacrifices for the welfare of the state. I am willing to make mine.

Your Son, Calvin Coolidge

Washington, 1925

My Dear Father: If you do not feel like coming to the inauguration I am not going to urge you about it... You and John and I are all that is left. You have worked hard for me and I do not want to put any more burdens on you.

Your Son, Calvin Coolidge

My Dear Father: It is getting to be almost Christmas time again. I always think of mother and Abbie and grandmother and now of Calvin. Perhaps you will see them all before I do, but in a little while we shall all be together for Christmas.

Your Son, Calvin Coolidge

Washington, 1926

My Dear Father: It is forty one years ago since mother lay ill in the same room where you now are. Everyone tells me how cheerful you are... So many loved ones are waiting for you, so many loving ones are daily hoping you are comfortable.

Your Son, Calvin Coolidge

It was a sore trial not to be able to be with him, but I had to leave him where he most wished to be. When his doctors advised me that he could survive only a short time I started to visit him. When I reached home he was gone. It costs a great deal to be President.

As a brief coda, let me show two additional bits of audio-visual "evidence" recently remastered from nitrate film. The first supports a statement made by
economist Lawrence Reed in the episode titled "Crash and Depression." Toward the end of that episode, Reed states on-camera:

[Lawrence Reed, Economist] If in 1932 you were an American who believed in less government and less intervention by government, you would have voted for Franklin Roosevelt. He promised, in fact, that there would be a twenty-five percent reduction in federal spending if he was elected. He assailed Hoover for taking the country down the path to Socialism. He accused Hoover of imposing upon America the most reckless, spendthrift administration in American history.

It is one thing to ask viewers simply to take Reed's word for it. It is quite another to preface Reed's description with Franklin Roosevelt actually saying it – as he did in a 1932 campaign address in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I can play for you only the film sound track at this time, but Roosevelt will appear on-camera in our finished film.

[Franklin Roosevelt, Presidential Nominee] The Democratic Party in its national platform has told you that it promises a reduction of twenty-five percent in the cost of operation of the national government – and I propose to use every effort to carry out that pledge... This fundamental of reducing the cost of government is one of the keynotes of our party throughout the nation this year [applause and cheers].

Again, Roosevelt speaks on-camera. This nitrate film element was discovered during archival research long after filming Lawrence Reed's narrative.

Finally, here is a bit of visual evidence in support of a statement made by historian George Nash in "Wonder Boy," an episode near the end of the film on the relationship between Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Nash describes a meeting of the two:

[George Nash, Historian] Herbert Hoover visited Coolidge when Coolidge vacationed out in the Black Hills of South Dakota – to give him a report on the flood relief in the Mississippi. According to the Secret Service officer who was sitting in the front seat, the two men, Coolidge and Hoover, sat on opposite sides of the back seat, drove for thirty miles from Coolidge's lodge up to Rapid City – Coolidge looking out the left window and Hoover out the right, or vice versa – never speaking for the entire 30 miles.

Nash's on-camera rendering is entertaining enough as is. But imagine what will happen when we cut away to these recently remastered scenes of that July 20, 1927 meeting in South Dakota.

[Archival newsreel footage of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover standing outside the State Game Lodge in South Dakota, followed by the two of them sitting next to each other on the porch, silent and joyless, glancing off in opposite directions.]

In conclusion, it is not my position that an evidentiary approach to historical narrative guarantees a "pure," unbiased film. Indeed, because of the hatchet job administered by historians and journalists on Coolidge since his death in 1933, producing a balanced film on the man requires a measure of affirmative action. Moreover, it can reasonably be argued that all non-fiction narrative is synthetic to varying degrees. But I do maintain, at least in the context of documentary film, that degree counts. The challenge for independent producers is to resist the lure of formulaic treatment and instead allow the fruits of responsible scholarship to determine the content, composition and framing of historical reality.

Copyright © 2000 by John Karol


John Karol, Producer
Persistence Plus Productions
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