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Kisses for My President

Kisses for My President(1964)

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Fred MacMurray was tall, solidly masculine and amiable, with a face like everyone's favorite uncle. When he played against type, as in Double Indemnity (1944) or The Apartment (1960), the contrast between his despicable actions and his Everyman demeanor made him unforgettable, in fact, he once got swatted with a purse at Disneyland when an incensed woman confused him with the ratbag executive he played in The Apartment. But MacMurray was a shrewd and thrifty businessman, and he knew that while audiences might be impressed by a turn as a villain, they ultimately trusted the familiar "Smiley MacMurray, a decent Rotarian type".

MacMurray parlayed his type into a lucrative deal with Disney in the early 60s, earning the studio 80 million dollars after starring in family friendly films such as The Shaggy Dog (1959) and The Absent Minded Professor (1961). (MacMurray was also working on the TV show My Three Sons during this time, in a sweetheart deal dubbed "The MacMurray System", where, in order to evade the grind of a weekly series, he shot a season's worth of reaction shots and close-ups all at once, to be spliced into scenes with the show's young actors - a schedule that allowed him to commit to extended film shoots as he pleased.) The Disney studios were "a pleasant place to be", according to MacMurray, and he saw no need to look for work elsewhere.

But in 1963 MacMurray's agent Arthur Parks asked him to take a look at a non-Disney script for the gender-switch satire Kisses for My President (1964), in which MacMurray would play the affable businessman who gives up his career to become White House "First Gentleman" to his newly elected wife (Polly Bergen). The project was to be directed by Curtis Bernhardt, the German-born veteran of "women's pictures" such as A Stolen Life (1946) and Possessed (1947). MacMurray was skeptical, but agreed if Bernhardt would direct and produce. (Biographer Charles Tranberg suspects MacMurray agreed to the project out of loyalty to his friend, screenwriter and former Variety reporter Claude Binyon).

If Bernhardt was happy about his leading man, he was less certain about his leading lady. Jack Warner wanted Maureen O'Hara, but Bernhardt turned her down just to spite Warner, his longtime nemesis. Polly Bergen, who had garnered attention in Cape Fear (1962) and Move Over, Darling (1963) was selected as a second choice. Bernhardt was not enthused about his new leading lady, although he admitted "Her chicness is quite convincing and makes her look like a president, even if she doesn't know how to act like one." She joined a cast which included Eli Wallach in a comic turn as the macho presidente of a banana republic, Arlene Dahl as a sophisticate rival for MacMurray's affections, teen actress Anna Capri (who, years later, gained a cult following as the sexy blonde in Enter the Dragon [1973]) and TV child actor Ronnie Dapo.

Costume designer Howard Shoup, a respected Hollywood veteran who was one of the earliest members of the Costume Designers Guild, had the challenge of designing costumes for Bergen that, while following the Chanel suit silhouette popularized by Jackie Kennedy, were more befitting a president. (He would earn the fourth of his five Academy Award nominations for designs created for Kisses for My President). Shoup had more leeway outfitting Dahl's zaftig curves in plunging decolletage offset by extravagant brooches.

MacMurray and Dahl had worked together before, in Woman's World (1954). She was familiar with his meticulous working style that included meeting with co-stars for private rehearsals to decide on "the business" (the small incidental actions that give depth to a scene) although she remarked that, in the decade since they'd last worked together, MacMurray was much more relaxed -- a change she attributed to his marriage to actress June Haver. (Haver and MacMurray's mother made an impromptu visit to the set one day, where, unbeknownst to them, MacMurray was shooting a love scene with Dahl. Unfortunately, Dahl got a nosebleed during the aborted take, prompting June to shout in joking outrage to her husband, "You never gave me a nosebleed!")

The film deliberately tried to evoke the Kennedy magic in several scenes, by having MacMurray's character joke about reading The Making of the President (the Pulitzer Prize winning account of Kennedy's 1960 campaign), and, in one comic sequence, he drunkenly guides a group of TV reporters around the White House, in a burlesque of Jacqueline Kennedy's famous televised White House tour.

Unfortunately, all the jokes couldn't disguise the fact that a still shell-shocked nation was in no mood to laugh about the presidency. Kisses for My President premiered in August 1964, less than a year after Kennedy's assassination. The film was a failure at the box office, and it marked Curtis Bernhardt's final film (he would retire due to health problems). MacMurray didn't return to movies until 1966 with Disney's Follow Me, Boys!, and Kisses for My President would languish in obscurity until 2004, when a real presidential race involving women brought the movie to the forefront again.

Producer: Curtis Bernhardt
Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Screenplay: Robert G. Kane (screenplay and story); Claude Binyon (screenplay)
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Film Editing: Sam O'Steen
Cast: Fred MacMurray (Thaddeus (Thad) McCloud), Polly Bergen (U.S. President Leslie Harrison McCloud), Eli Wallach (Raphael Valdez, Jr.), Arlene Dahl (Doris Reid Weaver), Edward Andrews (Sen. Walsh), Donald May (Secret Service Agent John O'Connor), Harry Holcombe (Vice President Bill Richards), Anna Capri (Gloria McCloud), Ronnie Dapo (Peter McCloud), Richard St. John (Jackson).

by Violet LeVoit

Tranberg, Charles. Fred MacMurray: A Biography. BearManor Media, 2007
Basinger, Jeanine. A woman's view: how Hollywood spoke to women, 1930-1960. Wesleyan University Press, 1995
Goodman, Mark."A Dad For All Seasons". People, November 18, 1991.

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