Monday, February 18, 2013

FDR and the Vanishing Millionaire

This is Part I of The President’s Mystery. Watch more here.

What more appropriate way could there be for The Rap Sheet to celebrate this Presidents’ Day that with a showing of The President’s Mystery, the 1936 film based on a story concept by the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt?

Like other American chief executives--notably his fellow Democrats John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama--Roosevelt was a crime and mystery fiction enthusiast. And during his history-making dozen years in the Oval Office, he came up with what he thought was a damn good idea for a story, but he could never find time enough to write it. In a 1935 article for Liberty Magazine, editor Fulton Oursler (who himself penned detective yarns under the pseudonym Anthony Abbot) quotes from a conversation he had with Roosevelt, in which the president explained his tale’s plot thusly:
“The principal character in my story is a man of considerable wealth. Perhaps he has six or seven million dollars tied up, as such fortunes naturally are, in a variety of investments--stocks, bonds, and real estate. My millionaire is not an old man--just over forty and wise enough to feel that his life is only beginning. But he’s tired, fed up with his surroundings and habits. Perhaps, too, the sameness of his middle-aged routine has begun to wear him down. Furthermore, he is disheartened at the hollowness of all the superficial friendship surrounding him. The men at the club smile and slap him on the back but they go away to do him in the eye. Finally he has an ambition, a dream.

“So, in the trite old expression of another generation, he would like ‘to get away from it all.’

“Only in this case there is a difference--he would like also to get away with it all.

“Yes, my man plans to disappear. His purpose in vanishing from the scene in which he has played an important and successful part is twofold. First, he wants to find a new world for himself, one in which he will no longer be bored. He wants to start life afresh--he’s finished with his present career because he feels he has exhausted its possibilities. Second, and equally important, that dream he has--he would like to make a certain experiment in some small city where, in his new identity, he will not be recognized. To carry out this laboratory experiment, which if successful would become nation-wide and benefit all the people, he will need five million dollars. The dream will cost money, you see, and moreover he feels that he has a right to live well and enjoy, in his new environment, the fruits of his labors in the old. In other words, he wants to vanish--but he wants his money with him when he goes.

“Now, this man has an estate of six or seven million dollars. If he leaves a million or so behind him he will have made ample provision for his wife and the others dependent on him. That ought to be easy. But it’s not--the problem is not so simple as it seems.

“How can a man disappear with five million dollars in any negotiable form and not be traced?

“For years I have tried to find the answer to that problem. In every method suggested I have been able to find a flaw. The more you consider the question, the more difficult it becomes. Now--can you tell me how it can be done?”
Oursler couldn’t come up with a satisfactory solution, either, so he hired five prominent authors of the era--Rupert Hughes, Samuel Hopkins Adams, Rita Weiman, S.S. Van Dine, and John Erskine--to develop, in roundabout fashion, the complete story from an “elaborate synopsis” of his own construction. Only Oursler, who would contribute an additional portion of the work under his Abbot nom de plume, knew that the concept had come originally from President Roosevelt.

The results of their cooperation were rolled out in successive issues of Liberty, beginning in November 1935. And soon afterward, publisher Farrar & Rinehart released The President’s Mystery Story in hardcover book form. No less than Nathanael West, with help from Lester Cole, wrote the screenplay for the 1936 film produced from that work--the entirety of which is embedded atop this post. Or you can purchase a DVD copy here.

Rather creaky at times, and asking its viewers to suspend their disbelief somewhat too much, The President’s Mystery is not a great movie, nothing to rival Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). It’s also not much of a mystery. Yet Brandon L. Summers, writing in his blog, Film Obscurities, says that “As far as B-films go, this one is very well-made and written. There were no slow spots or filler. It clipped along nicely. Pleasing performances. A bit heavy-handed. Not political exactly, but it does have a certain leaning, if you follow me.”

Please feel free to offer your own trenchant reviews of the motion picture in the Comments section of this post.

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If you’re on the lookout for other ways to commemorate this Presidents’ Day, check out Mystery Fanfare, in which Janet Rudolph offers a longish list of crime and thriller novels featuring U.S. presidents. You could start reading any one of those today. Rudolph’s selections range from Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate and Max Allan Collins’ Primary Target to Rex Stout’s The President Vanishes, Margaret Truman’s Murder in the White House, and Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn.


Naomi Johnson said...

The character Roosevelt describes sounds a lot like Thomas Crown!

Fred Zackel said...

"A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder" first appeared on the front page of the Quincy Whig on April 15, 1846 and was described as, "A murder mystery by Abraham Lincoln."

Gary Phillips said...

What a trip.