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March 20, 1962
Hollywood on the Hill

Photo of Otto Preminger in Senate Chamber
Otto Preminger

On March 20, 1962, 60 senators went to the movies. They traveled to Washington's Trans-Lux Theater for a sneak preview of Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent. Based on Allen Drury's best-selling novel involving a bitter Senate confirmation battle, in turn based on Drury's A Senate Journal, the film presented a star-studded cast that included President Franchot Tone, Vice President Lew Ayres, controversial secretary of state nominee Henry Fonda (whose character had lied to a Senate subcommittee about a previous youthful flirtation with a pro-Communist political group), Senate Majority Leader Walter Pidgeon, and President pro tempore Charles Laughton, with other roles portrayed by Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, and Gene Tierney. Preminger had tried unsuccessfully to get Martin Luther King, Jr. to play an African American senator from Georgia.

Senators had a more than passing interest in this film. For several months in the fall of 1961 film crews had swarmed over public and private spaces within the Russell Senate Office Building, turning its corridors, offices, and especially its Caucus Room into stage sets. A patient host, the Senate drew the line at using its chamber. For scenes in that location, Preminger updated the Hollywood set used for the 1939 filming of Frank Capra's classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The director recruited senators to act as extras and convinced 58 of them to sponsor premieres in their home states. He also hired 400 socially prominent Washingtonians, with $25 donations to their designated charities, to participate in a party scene, filmed at the palatial Washington estate, Tregaron. Washington State Democrat Henry Jackson seized the opportunity to invite Helen Hardin, his future wife, on a cheap but impressive date.  Jackson, an extra in the party scene, got the premiere's biggest laugh from colleagues as he declined a drink from a passing waiter.

Senators offered predictably mixed reviews. Ohio Democrat Stephen Young, mindful of ongoing cold war crises, considered this "a bad time in world history to downgrade the U.S. Senate" and introduced legislation to prohibit the film's distribution outside the United States. New York Republican Kenneth Keating thought the film was "terrific." He wired Preminger that incumbent senators should henceforth "look to you for tips on how a senator should walk, dress, and posture with his hands." South Dakota Republican Karl Mundt had the final word. He pronounced the film "fictionalized entertainment with a touch of reality, while the U.S. Senate is a lot of reality with a touch of entertainment."

Reference Items:

Drury, Allen.  Advise and Consent.  New York: Doubleday, 1959.


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