Wolcott Gibbs on Coolidge

I confess to a weakness for The New Yorker – for years, I subscribed to that magazine, looking forward every week to its beautiful cover and urbane, witty, informative, far-ranging content. In recent years, this enjoyment was progressively dampened by the persistent left-wing bias of its political reporting, and I haven’t held a live copy in my hands for quite some time now (although I do look at the website occasionally).
But truly, the history of this unique magazine is one of many marvelous essays, cartoons, poems, short stories, and criticism, with names such as John Updike, Pauline Kael, Herbert Warren Wind, Susan Orlean and many, many others standing out in my mind.Others, such as Joseph Mitchell or Robert Benchley, were a little before my time but representative of the golden age of the magazine.
Deservedly or not, one name that is largely forgotten today is that of Wolcott Gibbs. A brilliant writer and editor, humorist and parodist, he worked at The New Yorker from 1927 to his death in 1958. He was working on his book More in Sorrow at the time of his death, and the following piece on Calvin Coolidge, originally published in slightly different form in 1929 (note to self:  find the original on my full set of The New Yorker on CD-Rom), is taken from this compilation. Honesty compels me to admit that I found this item on a left-wing blog that I link to only in the spirit of proper attribution. While Gibbs’ account of Coolidge as a comedian in the Chaplin or Harry Langdon mode obviously differs much from the approach this blog takes, it nonetheless is quite funny on its own terms. And frankly: what would we rather have, the president as existential comedian, or as larger-than-life action hero? Me, I’d prefer the former.
(Read the text of “Glorious Calvin” after the cut)
Glorious Calvin

The comic art of Calvin Coolidge was a thing so subtle that it almost defied analysis, for, like all great actors, his was the technique of implication. In fact, in his ability to suggest frustration — the bitter futility of all living — by such small things as an eyebrow infinitesimally raised, an incomplete, embarrassed gesture, he was equalled only by the immortal Chaplin, only occasionally approached by Harry Langdon. As I write this it occurs to me to doubt whether this man, who was known and loved by millions of moviegoers, was essentially a comedian. There was more than a hint of tragedy in the shy little figure staring with solemn bafflement on an inexplicable world. There was a great pathos about him as he went awkwardly and unhappily through the gaudy antics which were so hilariously at variance with his appearance. This great sense of the comic value of paradox was never better illustrated than in the magnificent film in which, resplendent in buckskin and feathers, he was created a chieftain of the Blackfeet Indians. While tom-toms beat under a copper sky, naked red bodies circled in a furious dance about a tightmouthed little man with the edge of a stiff white collar showing at the neck of his costume and the toes of sturdy black boots peeping out under the gay fringe at the bottom of his trousers. His expression, which never varied throughout the ceremony, suggested the faintly apprehensive geniality of an elderly gentleman who has been dragooned into a game of Post Office. The effect was irresistible.

This intelligent emphasis on contrast was present in all Coolidge’s camera work. I recall happily the film in which, attired in a cowboy suit with “Cal” stenciled across the seat of the trousers (a touch of genius, by the way), he made timid overtures to a faintly derisive steer. Incidentally, an adroit and characteristic touch was added to this picture by a subtitle, reading “COOLIDGE IS AMUSED BY RODEO,” which was immediately followed by a glimpse of the comedian, his back turned morosely on the rodeo, staring with horrid dejection at nothing whatever.

Coolidge, ascetic in cap and gown, receiving a degree from the president of a university; Coolidge, in yachting costume, with a vague hint of nausea in his expression, standing at the rail of the Mayflower; Coolidge, in overalls, thriftily chopping kindling against the bitter Massachusetts winter (the glittering nose of an enormous Packard appearing in a corner of this scene was a note of sheer and beautiful idiocy); Coolidge, the fisherman; Coolidge, the President of the United States — the man’s comic sense was unerring and his range apparently infinite.

In passing, it is perhaps worth noting that while, unlike Chaplin, Coolidge varied the major details of his costume with each part, the stiff collar was a constant item. With an unfailing instinct for the incongruous, he chose it as the inevitable label of the urban, the clerkly, the humdrum. Infinitely more subtle than Chaplin’s cane, derby, and baggy trousers, it was at the same time far more effective. To take a setting as strange and beautiful as the one used in a picture he made in Georgia — bearded Spanish oaks, oxcarts, the lovely keening of spirituals — and in an instant reduce it to absurdity by the introduction of a stiff collar, that was something very like genius.

While Coolidge depended upon simple incongruity for most of his effects, when he did introduce gags they were incomparable. I have in mind a bit, again in the Georgia picture, in which the comedian entered surrounded by secret-service men in business suits, uneasily raised a gun to his shoulder and fired once into the air. A subtitle was then flashed on the screen — “tribute to a steady hand and a clear eye” — and the next picture showed us two guides shouldering a long pole, bowed under the weight of a deer, two or three smaller animals which appeared to be raccoons, and several wild ducks. The expression of the comedian’s face as he studied this exhibit — wild surmise succeeded by a nervous and deprecating smile — I regard as one of the screen’s great comic achievements.

Unlike many cinema favorites, the introduction of the talking picture held no terrors for Coolidge. His voice, happily, was perfectly in keeping with the part he has chosen to portray — dry, nasal, utterly without inflection. The lines, which I am told he made up himself, were miracles of brevity and did much to further the effect of anticlimax upon which his art depended. Again in the Georgia picture there was the moment when the comedian rode onto the scene, seated upon an ancient wooden cart drawn by oxen. His progress through the green tunnel made by the overhanging trees was attended by the wailing of spirituals, the cracking of whips, and the muffled clump of the oxen’s hooves. It was a moment of rare, almost intolerable beauty. The cart stopped as it reached the forefront of the picture and the spirituals died away. There was a sudden silence, which was broken by Coolidge’s companion, who addressed him in a tone of great deference upon a problem apparently of national importance. . . . “What is your solution of that, Mr. President?”

The comedian smiled nervously, stared at the oxen, but did not reply. His companion tried again.

“What would you think of putting a tax on gasoline?”

This was obviously intended to be facetious, but the comedian considered it with perfect solemnity. At last his face brightened.

“Wal,” he said, “I don’t think I’d be in favor of that.”

The spirituals rose again, and the cart drove on.

When Coolidge left the pictures, he was succeeded by Herbert Hoover, a comedian whose work displayed certain similarities. To the critical mind, however, it was thin and derivative, a self-conscious echo of his predecessor’s magnificent technique. I doubt if we shall ever see the Master’s like again.

In the “The Talk of the Town” section of the March 5, 1938, issue, Gibbs added another little jab in the same vein at Coolidge’s expense:

A capitalistic nation has no more suitable reward for its great men than to put their portraits on its currency, but we have always been annoyed by the fact that the greatness of the man varies inversely with the denomination of the coin or bill upon which his image appears. Washington is on the dollar note; the likeness of Salmon P. Chase ornaments ten thousand dollars.

The principle here is obviously that it is more desirable to appear ten thousand times on little bills than once on a big one. This is the standard of vulgarity, putting quantity above quality, and it pays a shabby tribute to fame. Rather than reverse the whole order, however, we would like to suggest an entirely new currency. This is a tragic era and its heroes, we feel, should be those who have done most to dissipate the gathering gloom. We therefore petition the Treasury Department to print an issue celebrating the brave men, living and dead, who have done most to make their nation laugh.

In the ascending scale of their comic value to posterity, we would like to nominate the following statesmen, along with their proper denominations: $1, James Rolph, Jr.; $5, Marion A. Zioncheck; $10, William Hale Thompson; $20, John F. Hylan; $50, James J. Walker; $100, Frank Hague; $500, Huey Long; $1,000, William Jennings Bryan; $5,000, Hamilton Fish; $10,000, Calvin Coolidge.  The Rev. Fr. CHarles E. Coughlin and Charlie McCarthy, never having held elective office, are not eligible.

1 thought on “Wolcott Gibbs on Coolidge

  1. It is worth noting that none other than Will Rogers described his friend President Coolidge as “the funniest public man he ever met.” Will went on to say that Cal wasted humor on people who just didn’t “get it”. It is to Mr. Gibbs credit that he got it.

    It has been my good fortune to visit Sapelo Island, Georgia where Coolidge sat for portrait artist Frank O. Salisbury. The sessions are described in the painter’s Portrait and Pageant (1944). Therein is a photo of the finished canvas and Coolidge sitting for it. I got to perform in the small library where Cal sat. It is a Salisbury portrait of Coolidge that hung in President Reagan’s Cabinet Room.

    Somehow, I’ve inherited a vast amount of archival stock footage of old newsreels “out-takes”. A time code runs through the image and it would cost big bucks to use any in a film. (I’m speaking of today’s money – it would be impossible to calculate the cost in Coolidge Dollars.) The filming of the ox cart with spirituals is in my collection. In one very excellent take — all goes well — until two dogs of different sexes are in the shot engaged in what one might expect. Cut! Let’s roll it again!

    I recall reading a Secret Serviceman’s account of what an excellent shot President Coolidge was with hand gun, rifle and shot gun. In his Massachusetts years there was considerable bantering about his marksmanship when it came to dealing with woodchucks up in Plymouth, Vermont.

    I am old enough to remember when I would laugh out loud at New Yorker cartoons. That seldom happens, now.

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