Movie Night at the White House

Like many of their generation, Herbert and Lou Hoover were fascinated by motion pictures. They lived at a time when film evolved from its infancy into a mature industry. Silent pictures were often enhanced by a piano, theatre organ accompaniment or even orchestral scores for some of the epic films. Movie houses in larger cities were the first to have the modern convenience of air conditioning which made film-going popular during the long hot summers. But the advent of sound tracks synchronized to the visual images made motion pictures almost an extension of reality. By the time of Hoover’s presidency, sound motion pictures were the norm and advances in film production eliminated much of the dark, grainy quality associated with early film.

Recent research has uncovered a script and correspondence concerning a 1926 silent film on the history and achievements of the Commission for Relief in Belgium initiated by Herbert Hoover. While an extant copy of the film has yet to surface, the correspondence indicates that one was shown to Hollywood studio head Louis B. Mayer of MGM. Hoover’s close friend and writer, Will Irwin, produced a campaign film biography of Hoover in 1928 entitled Master of Emergencies. The film undoubtedly used footage from the missing CRB film and recast it into a larger narrative of Hoover’s humanitarian and public service efforts.

During Hoover’s “Good Neighbor” tour of Latin America as president-elect, movies were a regular part of activity on the USS Utah. Among the selections was The Tempest with John Barrymore and Camille Horn, Jazz Mad with Jean Hersholt and Marian Nixon, and The Patent Leather Kid with Richard Barthelmess and Molly O’Day.

Promotional poster for the film "The Valiant (1929).
Promotional poster for the film “The Valiant (1929).

Movie screenings became a recurrent event in the Hoover White House. An undated 1929 memo indicates the “First night of movie tone pictures” included three news reels, a feature film and a news weekly that was on hand in case the audience wanted an encore. The newsreels included, “Hoover serenaded at the White House,” “Opening the baseball season,” and “Making speech at the AP [Associated Press] dinner.” The feature film was The Valiant, a pioneer talkie staring Paul Muni who received an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

What the Hoover’s began in 1929 continued throughout later administrations. Eventually, the White House obtained its own viewing room for the film showings. A coat room was converted into a family theater in 1942, seating about 40 individuals.

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