It’s safe to say that Donald Trump’s relationship with Hollywood is unusual. The conventional dynamic between US Presidents and the acting fraternity has been replaced by visceral hatred, with President Trump proving particularly offensive to male film stars.
Until recently Hollywood’s self-styled elite, led by George Clooney, Robert de Niro, Alec Baldwin and Johnny Depp, had free access to the White House but now they veer between baring their teeth like attack dogs and group therapy.
President Trump, meanwhile, regards the views of most actors as suspect. Yet even the best of today’s stars are no Humphrey Bogarts, Gary Coopers, Jimmy Cagneys or Jimmy Stewarts. So it’s interesting to speculate how the election of Donald Trump would have been received by the inhabitants of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The American Film Institute recently compiled a list of the 15 Greatest Hollywood Stars, among them Stewart, Cooper, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and John Wayne. Mr. Clooney and his friends would probably vomit (as they do when they discover other people have different opinions from their own) at the political views held by their more illustrious predecessors.
The men who founded Hollywood were European immigrants, who, paradoxically, sought to be as American as possible. The collective embodiment of the ‘American Dream’, the great movie moguls such as Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B Mayer and Darryl F Zanuck sold that dream back to the cinema-going public. They were professional patriots and guardians of the national good.
Indeed, many classic films are mere Trumpism refracted through celluloid. They are flag waving, religious, patriarchal and suspicious of both the liberal intelligentsia and foreigners, with a condescending view of minorities. Look again at the undercurrents in Gone With the Wind, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Casablanca and It’s A Wonderful Life , all made between 1938 and 1949. Even Cagney’s likable convict in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) had to go the chair as an example to American youth.
Nor was Hollywood averse to “the politics of fear”. Hollywood films in the late 1930s attempted to persuade Americans that all Germans were Nazis and that the country’s entry into the Second World War was essential to preserve the American way of life.
In the late 1940s, the studios actively promoted ‘Americanism’ in response to the Soviet Union and alleged Communist infiltration of US institutions, including the film industry. During the anti-Communist investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the majority of those who ran Hollywood certainly approved of its motives, if not its methods.
That is not to say that great artists such as Cagney and Cooper were never against the environment in which they were placed. But it is safe to assume that many of the leading actors who appeared in what are now regarded as 30s and 40s classics broadly agreed with their political and moral content.
This is particularly true of those stars who portrayed the idealized American ‘Everyman,’ a role Mr Trump has sometimes claimed for himself. In Old Hollywood, the Everyman was often a small town guy who struggles against a decadent elite; a man who in the presence of sophisticated liberal folk is palpably uneasy.
Their clothes annoy him and he is suspicious of their too delicate manners. He knows all the while that they are laughing at him – if not at his simplistic speech then at least at his Alpaca pantaloons. But still he conquers, for to the common people he is a savior, and he is catnip to even the haughtiest of women.
It would be difficult to say the latter of President Trump, but he would have found a high approval rating in the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s. The male stars who populated it were He Men. They were not in touch with their feminine side and would have recoiled in horror if anyone had told them they possessed one. They made love to women without being asked and often with violence.
In The Quiet Man, John Wayne’s response to Maureen O’Hara’s decision to withhold her conjugal favours is to batter down her door and drag her by the hair. Pure Trump heaven, one might say.
To show today’s pallid actors a thing or two, here are some cinema icons who would have regarded the 45th President of the United States with more appreciation than their present-day equivalents:
Gary Cooper personified, on film and in life, the precepts of Trumpism and would have regarded the President’s detractors as deeply unpatriotic and might have called for them to be jailed. With his naturalistic speech and his affinity for the loner, Oscar winning ‘Coop’, whom Frank Capra called ‘the best actor of them all’, represented the individual who swims against the tide of bien pensant opinion.
Deceptively slow of understanding, Cooper specialized in soldiers, marshals or small town men standing up to the corruption of the metropolis and Washington’s career politicians, most notably in Mr Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, Sergeant York (which, incidentally, is Trump’s personal favorite) High Noon (Cooper was unaware that writer Carl Foreman intended the film as a critique of ‘blacklisting’) and The Fountainhead, based on the novel by Ayn Rand. Rand, who is one of the few novelists of which President Trump approves, advocated an untrammeled individualism.
Cooper was the most politically conservative of the great Hollywood stars. In 1944, he became an early member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. He followed this by acting as a HUAC ‘Friendly Witnesses’, and was one of the few actors to name alleged Communists in Hollywood. Like Trump, he had a penchant for philandering which he managed to reconcile with his Christianity.
In 1933, he married the socialite and athlete Veronica ‘Rocky’ Balfe. ‘Rocky’ taught her husband how to dress and gave him social polish. But the Coopers’ separations (the longest prompted by an affair with Patricia Neal) were notorious.
The shriekingly chic Rocky, like Melania, baulked at studio requests to hold her husband’s hand in public or give gushing and misleading interviews to fan magazines about her marriage. But the couple never divorced.
Most likely to say: “Dang it. They’re all a load of Commies.”
Least likely to say: ’I’m pleading the Fifth.’
Trump Score: Four Trumps
John Wayne is often seen as an ultra-conservative. Like President Trump, he had problematic hair and by 1950 was wearing a toupee. But Wayne’s personality was more complex than his detractors suppose. His favorite role was as the reticent former boxer in John Ford’s The Quiet Man – hardly a description of Trump- and he refused the lead in High Noon because he suspected that it was an allegory against blacklisting, calling it ‘the most un-American thing I have ever seen.’
For millions Wayne personified the frontier spirit of the nation (83 of his films were Westerns). Yet his failure to serve his country when America entered the war provoked charges of cowardice and hypocrisy. In fact, Wayne applied, unsuccessfully, to the US Naval Academy. He was later accepted by the Office of Strategic Services, but the letter went astray.
According to his widow, Pilar, this was the most painful part of his life: “His guilt would make him become a ‘super patriot’, trying to atone.” Wayne became a vocal supporter of HUAC, and publicly supported the Vietnam War and addressed Republican rallies.
Wayne was asked to run for political office in 1968, but declined, joking that the public would not seriously consider an actor in the White House. He had an unfailing sense of the ridiculous, that sets him apart from the current President.
Wayne was married three times, always to women of Hispanic descent, at a time when such marriages were still frowned on. Yet among the women who truly loved him was the Weimar sophisticate Marlene Dietrich. The pair had a long and torrid affair, once making use of the bannister rail at the Hotel Excelsior in Rome.
The biggest male box office draw over a period of 25 years, Wayne had engraved on a plaque: “Each of us is a mixture. In considering one’s fellow men, it’s important to remember the good things. We should refrain from making judgements just because a fella happens to be a dirty, rotten SOB.”
Would Trump allow his Democratic opponents the same slack? ‘Duke’ Wayne would have undoubtedly given the President a sporting chance, but he may well have concluded him to be a humorless bore and a charlatan who rarely kept his word.
Trump Score: One no Trump
Most likely to say: ’All I’m for, is for the liberty of the individual.’
Least likely to say: There are 225 countries watching this ceremony tonight and most of them hate us.’
James Cagney may seem an improbable proto-Trumpiste. But the star of ThePublic Enemy and White Heat, whom both Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick called “probably the greatest actor of all time” , would have had little time for the liberal film stars of today.
The role of which Cagney was most proud was that of showman George M Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a morale boosting, patriotic musical, while his favorite leading lady was Doris Day.
Cagney, who was falsely accused of Communist sympathies and then officially ‘cleared’ by HUAC, had flirted with the left, but repudiated Socialism in the 1940s, voting for Republican Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 Presidential election and over thirty years later for Ronald Reagan.
In his autobiography Cagney described himself as “an arch-Conservative.” He saw his reaction against liberalism as ‘totally natural once I had begun to see undisciplined elements in our country stimulating a breakdown of our system…..those functionless creatures, the hippies, didn’t just appear out of a vacuum.”
Trump Score: Three Trumps
Most likely to say: “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy; a Yankee Doodle do or die.”
Least likely to say: “You, you… dirty Republican!’
Born in Ohio, ‘the King’ of Hollywood. was christened William but nicknamed Clark. . As a young man Gable struggled with a Trump-like barnet that had to be slicked down with copious amount of hair oil.
By 1934, Gable was MGM’s most important male star and had divorced first wife Josephine Dillon for Texan socialite Rhea Langham.
Gable won his first Oscar for the comedy, It Happened One Night (1934). American women hood swooned, mercifully unaware that he had false teeth, halitosis and bad skin. Still, many of his co- stars overlooked his defects. Gable was a natural philanderer, and had affairs with Joan Crawford and Loretta Young, with whom he had an illegitimate child.
Gable promptly fell in love with the Democratic supporting Carole Lombard, divorcing Rhea and marrying Carole in 1939, After her death in a plane crash in 1942, he reverted to his conservative mores and joined the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.
Gable was a church-going man of masculine tastes (hunting and shooting) with a suspicion of “fancy food”. President Trump would have appreciated the barbecues on Gable’s ranch, where, David Niven recalled: “Whole animals were roasted on spits.”
The ‘King’ was deeply patriotic. When America entered the Second World War, he was one of the first Hollywood idols to enlist in the Armed Forces, joining the US Air Force and rising to the rank of Major.
After Lombard’s death, the actor remarried twice. Only his final marriage, to Kay Williams, was a success, and lasted until Gable’s death in 1960. He remained a staunch Republican and ultra-conservative all his life.
Trump Score: Three Trumps
Most likely to say: ‘Frankly, my dear, I do give a damn.’
Least likely to say: ‘A green salad, please.’
In addition to personifying the All-American star James Stewart was for want of a better word, a gentleman. A devoutly religious man, he spent his career playing individuals who fight for truth and American values. He was the reluctant politician in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the milk drinking sheriff in Destry Rides Again and the retired policeman in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Stewart played almost every wholesome American hero, from aviator Charles Lindberg to band leader Glenn Miller.
In Hollywood, the word honor has only a comic significance but Stewart almost succeed in making his trade look respectable. There was an instantly recognizable finesse to him.
From an early age Stewart was a conservative Republican and was prepared to fight it: on one occasion he punched close friend and colleague Henry Fonda, who was a Democrat.
Unlike Gable or Wayne, the tall and lanky Stewart possessed a natural elegance and a thick thatch of hair. Trump would have envied his prowess on the chaise longue. In the 1930s, Jimmy was the most sexually prolific male star in Hollywood. His conquests included Ginger Rogers, Norman Shearer, Marlene Dietrich and Olivia de Havilland. When Stewart ended his affair with de Havilland she went to bed for a month.
Possibly the most religious of all the great stars, which led to a solid social conservatism and a horror of abortion, Stewart became increasingly involved in Republican politics. In 1964, he endorsed Senator Barry Goldwater as the Republican Presidential candidate. Goldwater, a controversial liberal behemoth, had voted against the Civil Rights Act.
Later, he became a cheerleader for his old friend Ronald Reagan and was a frequent guest at the White House. Some said it should have been the other way around: “Jimmy for President, and Ronnie for best friend!”
Trump Score: Three and a half Trumps
Most likely to say: “Why are people so reluctant to use the word patriotism?”
Least likely to say: “The Pill is the greatest invention of the 20th century.”