Monday, February 17, 2014

No President

The Borrowed Tambourine

 I first heard of this film under the title I’ve given this short essay. When I asked the author of the book in which this reference appears what became of it, he informed me that it was only its working title. It came to be known as No President.

Over the course of its making and exhibiting the movie had other names as well, including The Kidnapping and Auctioning of Wendell Willkie by the Love Bandit. Irving Rosenthal plays the infant Wendell, stuffed in his cradle, unshaven, with his eyes darkly shadowed with glitter makeup. In his book, Sheeper, he refers to the character he plays in the film as Serafino Villanova .

 Actually this is the name Jack Smith gave to the character he asked Irving to play. I take it to be a reference to Gene Kelly’s character, Serafin, in Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate, which was one of Jack’s favorite films (at least, according to one list he left.)

The Pirate character in No President bears an uncanny resemblance to Irving, and at one point I believed that it was him behind this disguise, but I’ve read elsewhere that the role was played by Doris Desmond, who also plays the woman wearing the oversize gorilla pelt hood whose face is revealed from behind a skull mask. From what I understand, regardless of their costume changes each player is only intended to represent one character.

Perhaps, as in Minnelli’s movie, where Gene Kelly is the itinerant Player pretending to be the Pirate and Walter Slezak is the Pirate disguised as the banal, upstanding, Mayor, these characters are intended as doppelgangers. The Pirate who kidnaps the young Wendell and sells him on the auction block is the role the child himself wishes to enact.

The film itself had a troubled production history. Filming was suspended after Irving received a severe physical beating from Jack. There definitely were scenes that Jack had planned that were never shot. How the story might have developed further no longer matters.

As the film is now, in its forty five minute version, it consists of passages from a newsreel documenting the Republican National Convention that nominated Wendell Willkie to run against Roosevelt for the Presidency of the United States of America, juxtaposed with Jack’s original material, representing an elaborate fantasy of this same politician’s imaginary life.

The movie begins with an excerpt from another documentary, a travelogue, showing handsome young Sumatran fishermen going off to cast their nets. Besides their obvious function as masturbatory fantasy material (for the young Smith, as well as this fictional Wendell, trapped out in America’s heartland, one can imagine well enough what these muscular guys in their wet loincloths could represent,) the fishermen serve a metaphoric purpose, representing the artist and his comrades casting their nets for the political prey.
There follows scenes from the convention and a campaign stop by Willkie to a farm and some admiring farm boys. The scenes that Jack shot show the infant Wendell surrounded by high society dames in turn of the century drag and a sleepy nurse reading My Book House: Through Fairy Halls by Olive Beaupré Miller. One of the ladies shakes a very phallic looking rattle in baby Wendell’s face as naked servants shake their cocks in the background.

There is another scene that appears to refer to Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus where dead or sleeping servants wiggle their cocks as baby Wendell fondles ears of native corn. Another piece of found footage shows Dinah Shore and an unidentified male singing in front of a fake down-home country farm house. Tally Brown makes a forceful appearance, setting the scene as another reluctant slave put up for sale, and some large handsome slaves in the background display the strongest phalli so far seen.
Irving, as Willkie clutching his designer satchel with prominent travel stickers, is finally forced onto the auction block. The film ends with Wendell, sold, enveloped by smoke as he is dragged down by unseen creatures, to the sounds of the conventioneers cheering on their candidate. In terms of its social and art historical reference points, No President contains some of the densest images one is ever likely to see in a movie.


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