Once upon a time you had to plunder the magazine racks at supermarket checkout counters or tune in an edifying television program like "Hard Copy" if you wanted to wallow in the latest rumors about which prominent people might be doing what with other consenting adults behind closed doors. How times have changed. These days you can see network news anchors gravely repeating rumors that would have made Louella Parsons blush, while the sober columns of our leading daily newspapers overflow with the rankest kind of speculation about presidential infidelities that may or may not have occurred.
Although this particular mud puddle is relatively new to practitioners of what they are pleased to call "serious journalism," it is familiar territory to moviemakers, who have, after all, been in the entertainment business from day one. Hollywood's understanding of the marketability of a good political scandal is currently on display in "Wag the Dog," which will soon be joined at the local mutliplex by "Primary Colors." If you're interested in how earlier filmmakers wove entertainment out of political scandals, both real and fictional, look for these titles on home video.
"Chickens Come Home" (1931). Mayoral candidate Oliver Hardy is busy putting his best foot forward for the voters, when an old flame, played by Mae Marsh, turns up to blackmail him. If he doesn't pay up, she threatens to crash a dinner party at Hardy's home and tell a few stories that will ruin his reputation for good. Hardy makes the mistake of giving the job of keeping her away to his inept friend, Stan Laurel. Another fine mess, indeed.
"The Gorgeous Hussy" (1936). During Andrew Jackson's tenure in the White House, he became involved in one of those squalid little scandals for which Washington remains famous to this day. Peggy O'Neill, a local innkeeper's daughter, married John Henry Eaton, Jackson's secretary of war, in 1829, shortly after the death of her first husband. Immediately rumors began to fly around Washington social circles to the effect that she had been romantically involved with Eaton even before her late husband's demise. As a result, she was ostracized even by the wives of other cabinet members. Jackson took her part, even to the point of dismissing several cabinet members for their participation in snubbing Peggy. In this fictionalized account, Joan Crawford plays Peggy, supported by Lionel Barrymore as Jackson and Franchot Tone as Eaton.
"The Senator Was Indiscreet" (1947). William Powell stars in this delightful political satire as a senator with very little on the ball. Nevertheless, despite his incompetence, his colleagues are careful not to cross him. It seems that he has been indiscreet enough to keep a diary over the years. If that diary were to fall into the wrong hands, those of a journalist, for instance, half the Congress could kiss their careers goodbye. Just about the time our hero decides to make his bid for the presidency, the diary disappears, throwing Washington into a state of panic. Senators and congressmen begin leaving the country in droves in anticipation of what might be revealed when the diary turns up.
"Blaze" (1989). Paul Newman gives a virtuoso performance as three-time Louisiana Governor Earl Long, brother of the infamous Huey Long. The eccentric Long handicapped himself politically by carrying on an affair with Bourbon Street stripper Blaze Starr, portrayed here by Lolita Davidovich. What makes this such a fascinating story is that this liaison, which one would naturally assume to be a brief fling, turned out to be a long term relationship based on genuine devotion.
"Scandal" (1989). If British eyebrows have recently been raised over allegations leveled at America's chief executive, the shockingly personal nature of the charges certainly wouldn't be the reason. On the contrary, they are most likely amazed that such a small matter could command such extensive press coverage. By British standards, we Americans are pikers when it comes to political sex scandals. This film recounts the story of an infamous example of English superiority in this arena. In the early sixties, John Profumo, while Minister of War, was accused of dallying with Christine Keeler, a woman of scandalous reputation who was also romantically linked to an accused Soviet spy. Now that's entertainment. By contrast, American journalists' attempts to squeeze a juicy story out of Kenneth Starr's endless parade of subpoenas doesn't stand a chance.