Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Lady of the House Speaking
Millions of viewers got a heaping helping of vintage Jackie, in a film that, seen today, seems almost as primitive as a Biograph two-reeler. It's hard to imagine the country now glued to something as stately, sedate, and reverent as the factually titled A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, and in 2012 it makes for curious viewing (you can see it,whole, here, although alas without contemporary commercials).
Mrs. K. won plaudits for banishing from the president's residence what were then seen as decades of bad taste - to paraphase that Ultimate Arbiter of Good Taste, June Bride, she gussied up the McKinley Stinker she moved into, making it into, if not a Kennedy Modern, then at least a paragon of American Elegance. To today's eye, though, she replaced Teddy Roosevelt's moose heads and Taft's potted palms with something that looks very much like every middle-brow resort hotel lobby of the next decade (until mod swept away the last vestiges of Mid-Century Federal, sending smoked-glass mirror tiles and mud-colored shag carpet cascading up walls at Hyatts and worse across America).
It's odd, too, to see so much of the future Jackie O; once her image was frozen forever a year and half after the broadcast, she was never again so present, in such abundance. Watching her drift from room to room, her vaguely anaesthetized voice murmuring rapturously about "masses and masses of gold and glass..." or the night Pablo Casalas played the East Room, she is at once charming and disconcerting. Her artless delivery recalls nothing so much as that of a supporting player in a John Waters movie, and the whole thing moves at an underwater pace.
Her often parodied accent (the still-unfinished Treaty Room is "a chambah of HAAARahs...") is even more distinctive than one expects, an at times beguiling, at times giggle-inducing fugue of Boston (did she pick it up from the in-laws?), lockjaw, and the breathiness more associated with her famous blonde rival. She smiles on cue, she nods her vast coiffure (Mr. Kenneth at his most cotton-candied), and says things like "It really is terribly good," (of a Van Buren-era portrait) in a way that calls forth the spectre of Gloria Upson. When her husband joins in for the last few minutes, he seems by contrast to be speaking perfect Broadcast MidAtlantic.
We leave them there, that handsome couple, serene in the cluttered, half-decorated Treaty Room. All these years later, we know more about them then they ever could have dreamed, a depressing amount of it not even slightly flattering. The White House still looks much the same, even though it's survived being Ultrachintzed by Nancy Reagan and Little Rock Contempo'ed by the Clintons. Bits of the Obama updates look even more Conference Center Classic than Mrs. Kennedy's Diplomatic Reception Room (there's a good article on presidential decorating, by the bye, here).
And yes, I am home sick from work today, with too much time on my hands. Why do you ask?