The Phantom President

By Thomas F. Schwartz

A recent viral video shows a famous Hollywood actor performing magic tricks.  Surprisingly, it is not the actor at all but someone with an uncanny resemblance.  “Deep fakes,” the use of artificial intelligence to create videos showing images so real, such as Queen Elizabeth performing a TicTok dance, that the fake is mistaken as reality.  The look-alike problem has been explored by authors such as Alexandre Dumas in The Man in the Iron Mask, Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, and Mark Twain in The Prince and the Pauper where a look-alike substitutes for the real person. 

George F. Worts, largely known for his science fiction writing, published a novel, The Phantom President, in 1931 that was turned into a musical and film the following year.  Theodore K. Blair is a self-made millionaire and businessman known for his efficiency and success in everything he undertakes.  Blair’s problem is he has no personality and dislikes small talk and public events.  Although party bosses see him as an ideal presidential candidate in all respects save his lack of charisma, they think they solved the problem by finding a confidence man, Peter Varney, selling health tonic at a traveling medicine show.  Varney is glib, charming, and can talk his way out of any situation.  Moreover, he looks exactly like Theodore K. Blair.  The question is can they fool the public in believing Varney is Blair?  If Blair is elected, how do they continue to deceive the public by using Varney for public relations events?  Most Americans in 1931 would immediately associate the portrait of Theodore K. Blair, a successful but aloof businessman, with President Herbert Hoover.  Not surprisingly, Worts’ novel differs in significant ways from the musical/movie of the same name.

In the novel, Varney in self-defense kills the husband of Kate Ingals with whom he was having an affair.  He flees the town with a stolen car and heads to Steel City where police find him in a speakeasy.  They have vague and conflicting evidence and let Varney go when the owner identifies Varney as the famous local resident, Theodore K. Blair.  The party bosses show up at the speakeasy for a drink and think Varney might be able to win voters over to Blair.  The plot is hatched to substitute Varney for Blair in all public appearances.  Blair’s girlfriend, Felicia Hammond also senses something of a split personality between the more gregarious public Blair and the reserved private Blair. Varney generates great public acclaim posing as Blair allowing him to win the election.  In playing the role of Blair, Varney falls in love with Felicia and becomes depressed as she senses something amiss and rebukes his advances.  He refuses to eat and sleep which quickly change his appearance.  With the police looking for Varney in connection with the Ingals case, another plot twist occurs when a disgruntled employee of Blair’s seeks to kill him.  The novel tidies things up with Varney in his role of Blair, being killed by the disgruntled employee while attending a public event.  The real Blair, confronted by Felicia, confesses to the deception and plans to let his Vice President fill the vacancy created by the President’s death.  Felicia realizes she really loves the reserved Blair and vows to go into hiding with him and live happily ever after.

 The Phantom President movie poster.The movie, The Phantom President, was made into a musical comedy.  George M Cohan, the composer and showman who was portrayed by James Cagney in biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy, played the dual roles of Peter Varney and Theodore K. Blair, with Claudette Colbert as his love interest Felicia Hammond, and Jimmy Durante as Varney’s sidekick, Curley Cooney.  Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote the music and lyrics much to the anger of Cohan who referred to them as “Gilbert and Sullivan.”  The screenwriters transformed the novel into a love story with Varney chasing Hammond throughout the film.  A minor character in the novel is turned into a major role in the film with Jimmy Durante doing a number of musical numbers.  The camera work of showing Cohan as two identical people in the same room is realistic given the limit technology of the time.  Lines emphasize Blair’s unelectability:  “Blair lacks political charm.  Blair has no flair for savoir faire.”  A scene showing Blair offering a horse an apple only for the horse to bolt and run underscored that even animals did not like Blair.  In the end, Varney pulls off winning the election for Blair.  Felicia, knowing about the deception, falls in love with Varney.  Blair hires thugs to kidnap Varney after the election and keep him prisoner somewhere in the Arctic Circle.  Felicia pretends that Blair is Varney when the thugs arrive, allowing the real Blair to be kidnapped.  Varney as President together with Felicia ride together as the car heads to the Capitol where he will take the oath of office pretending to be Blair.

The Phantom President did not do well at the box office.  It would be 1993 before the plot device of a presidential look-alike reappeared in the Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver film Dave.  Of greater interest is the public perception between electing a person who is an effective administrator but lacks a good public persona versus someone who is likeable and gregarious but not known for being getting timely and successful results. 

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