First Family

The central joke of First Family pays homage to The President’s Analyst, and occurs in a quiet moment on Air Force One when the President (his name is Link, not Lincoln, played by Bob Newhart and thus a relation of Merkin Muffley) tells an academic, Dr. Grade (Austin Pendleton), that he dreams himself in the White House sitting down to a bowl of soup and eating it, that’s all. Does the professor know what his dream means? Does soup signify anything?

The stylistic dilemma is announced at the first, as a quotation from Bismarck appears on the screen, “politics is not an exact science.Comedy, as Godard pointed out in Cahiers du Cinéma, most definitely is, at least on film. The opening scene, which is derived from Citizen Kane, illustrates the geometrical quality of screen comedy quite well. The camera is fixed at the head of a bed on which a fully-dressed couple are embracing. At the foot of the bed, a television shows the President addressing the nation, followed by a panel discussion. In the background there is a fire in the hearth, and beside it a door. The camera never moves while the credits roll and the couple (whose faces aren’t seen) kiss and the speech goes on and the palaver after that, until the door bursts open and men with flashlights take the girl away in an unmarked car and a siren. She’s taken to the White House, and revealed to be the President’s daughter.

One can point out on stylistic grounds a certain difficulty, but by no means account for the critical neglect and antipathy the film has received. It must have come as a shock to see Buck Henry forgo at this point the perfection of style in which he made his name (Flicker’s The Troublemaker, Nichols’ The Graduate and Catch-22) in favor of a crumbly, broken approximation, but that is what he did, and why he placed the structure on the shoulders of the most expert comedians in plenty (a bill-signing scene has Bob Dishy, Fred Willard, Newhart, and Richard Benjamin side-by-side). Compare that opening shot with the scene in Presidential Assistant Feebleman’s office (he’s played by Willard). The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dumpston (Rip Torn) sits down facing his desk, behind which is a large window on a lawn and greenery, in the distance a gardener is trimming a tree. While they are talking, a rope ladder of knotted bedsheets descends into view just outside the glass, and the girl seen before (Gilda Radner) climbs down, walks across the lawn and then chases the gardener, while the Presidential Assistant calmly alerts Security. Nothing would be simpler than to film this correctly, but Henry breaks the scene up with editing, and this is typical of the entire film.

You want an adamantine structure for a political satire, and Henry gives you comedy as an inexact science. Our critics like what they know, and as they know precious little, they are bound to be vexed.

Harvey Korman plays the U.N. Ambassador, a little like Adlai Stevenson but not so tough-minded. An Arab ambassador suggests his mother had intimate relations with a camel, and he lashes out, offering fisticuffs.

A delegation arrives from an island nation whose flag is, on a red field, a black fist clutching a white businessman (later, a member of the delegation is dropped from their private jet over Washington as a propitiatory sacrifice). As they enter the building, they see above them to their left on the mezzanine the smiling American delegation, and to their right the Chinese.

The Ambassador (Julius Harris) presents a rock to the U.S. President, after the Marine Corps band switch to African drums to play his national anthem. The rock is radioactive, suggesting a lucrative mineral resource. The President resolves to make a treaty. His motorcade leaves the White House with a lifelike dummy standing in the limousine sunroof, made to stiffly gesticulate by the President himself operating the manual controls, a system of levers.

Roast crocodile on a spit is the main course at the island feast. The President of this nation is played by John Hancock with curious reflections of Moses Gunn and Clarence Williams III transforming his face by turns. The President’s daughter makes a play for the professor, both are captured by the islanders, who have an active volcano and a god to propitiate.

The President shows the President the island’s garden of giant vegetables, celery like skyscrapers, radishes like Volkswagens, and the President of the United States instantly envisions himself the benefactor of mankind. They draw up a treaty there and then.

The secret is fertilizer, he is about to inform America, when his staff have him declared by the Supreme Court not merely unfit for office by reason of mental impairment, but dead. Alas for their plans, giant vegetables sprout up all over Washington, there is talk of a Nobel Prize, and the resuscitated President is feted in a motorcade in propria persona. There is still the question of the human sacrifices, but his daughter looks over at a statue of the volcano god, which turns its stone head to look at her, and she gives it a wink.

Now, this is too good to be overlooked just because of a style purposefully applied to dissolve any apparent clash between seriousness of purpose and the purposeful satire of the Vice-President and the Cabinet and staff dressed for a costume party as the Easter Bunny, a Christmas tree, a jack o’ lantern, the old year with a scythe and a baby, etc. (the President goes as George Washington, there is a certain relationship to J. Lee Thompson’s John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!). The First Lady’s reserve is explained when she (Madeline Kahn) diverts the President’s attention in the car and sips something from her purse through a straw.