Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President (Channel 4, UK)

The Office Cat

9 May 2017

For readers of the IAMHIST Blog who have yet to meet the Office Cat (who writes regularly for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television), you’ll find it a ‘ferocious yet felicitous feline who has assisted in aiding and abetting slovenly television producers and directors since it first saw light in the pages of the History Workshop Journal’. (HJFRT, Vol. 5, No. 2, June 2016: 339). Born in 1976, the Office Cat is no ordinary cat, but a film researcher. It might be fluffy, but unlike human film researchers, for whom it has the greatest respect, never takes ‘no’ for an answer. It specialises in finding film footage that no other film archivist, historian, critic, or other researcher has found before. The Office Cat finds film footage that doesn’t exist or does exist, but not in the ways that film producers or directors would like it to. For example, the Office Cat’s ancestors found footage of the Wright brothers’ first flight, another found footage of the Battle of Jutland. One even unearthed shots of Adolf Hitler marrying Eva Braun in the Führerbunker…

The Office Cat looks forward to shaking its paw with you all, and without further ado:

Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President was transmitted by Channel 4 on January 17, 2017. It was made by 72 Films, executively produced by Mark Glover and Mark Rafael and directed by Paul Berczeller and Mark Radice.

I was delighted with this programme, which did its best to usher in the Post-truth era.  Post-truth, as I understand it, means that anything you say, or any item of film you show, is true, if you believe — rightly or wrongly — that it is the case and those who disbelieve you can only be purveying Fake News. So, readers will just have to accept my account of these items in the spirit of Donald Trump, who is a most accomplished practitioner of Post-truth utterances and films.

Donald’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, was born in 1869 and emigrated to America in 1885, ten years before the invention of the Cinématographe, so when I tell you there is film of the ship which brought him to New York, with Friedrich himself standing on its deck, and with a cutaway of the Statue of Liberty which was dedicated in 1886, and of the crowds debarking at Ellis Island, which wasn’t built until 1892, that is no more than a simple Post-truth, or as Kellyanne Conway might say, Alternative fact.

When Friedrich went to Washington State in 1891 to seek his fortune, I found film of the train which took him there though the locomotive couldn’t have been filmed at least until 1895.  In Seattle, he gravitated to Washington Street, a rough part of town, where he opened a restaurant. His two Italian chefs came to blows, and I found film of their brawl, though whoever fired a gun at the chandelier and brought it crashing down was not identified.

Friedrich then went to Monte Christo, where he opened another restaurant. There he served men wearing Stetsons, who looked remarkably like those in Seattle for whom he had catered. Friedrich returned to Seattle, to Cherry street where he opened yet arestaurant which prospered., as had his earlier establishments. In 1898 he moved to Bennett, in British Columbia, where he and his partner Ernest Levin opened the Arctic Hotel and Restaurant which also had Rooms for Ladies, in other words catered for Prostitutes. as Friedrich had been doing at least since his time in Monte Christo. By now the Klondike gold rush was well under way but Bennett had been left behind, and this prompted Friedrich to shift his building to a barge to take him across lake Bennett, and then to the Yukon river, which would reach Whitehorse, his destination near the gold fields—where he planned to re-establish his Arctic Hotel. We saw colour film of the hotel on that barge though the first Kinemacolor film was not exhibited until 1908. When the building disintegrated on the way, there was just the briefest of shots of it collapsing, but when the logs from which it was made were bobbing in the river the scene was more lavishly illustrated.

Friedrich eventually found himself in New York, or more precisely Queens, where he built a thriving real estate business. I found film of one of his properties under construction, with a passenger car from the 1930s parked on the street outside, though Friedrich himself had died of influenza in 1918.  Sic transit gloria mundi, as his grandson probably wouldn’t say, since that minatory phrase certainly couldn’t count as extolling ‘America First! America First!’ nor was Friedrich’s death Fake News so far as we know. Bravo to David Glovert, Mark Rafael, Paul Berczeller and Mark Radice for having blazed such a fruitful trail in our brave new Post-truth world!


*The Office Cat will continue to publish in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

Jerry Kuehl is an independent television producer whose principal but not exclusive interest is visual history. His first grown-up job in television was as a historical advisor to the 26-part 1964 BBC production, The Great War, he was then an associate producer of The World at War, the 26-part series made by Thames Television in the 1970s which set new standards for accuracy and authenticity in the use of film archives. He was the Head of General Studies at the National Film School from 1979 to 1981. In the 1980s, he was a director of Open Media whose productions included After Dark. In the 1990s, he was a writer and consultant to the 24-part CNN production, The Cold War. In 1991, he wrote and co-produced the 4-part La Grande Aventure de la Presse Filmée (English title: The Great Adventure of Newsreels) for France 3. He is responsible for Kuehl’s Reels, a programme series for YouTube which punctures the pretensions of those who misdescribe films sent to the site. He is also responsible for the Office Cat who skewers irresponsible producers and directors in both the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and the IAMHIST Blog. He is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from FOCAL, the Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries.


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


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.


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