It’s ironic that Calvin Coolidge—30th President of the United States and a man so famously taciturn his nickname was Silent Cal—was also the first President to make wide use of mass communication. His December 1923 State of the Union address was the first time any President had appeared on radio and his March 1925 inauguration was the first ever broadcast. He was also the first President to appear in a sound film. I’ve written before about DeForest Phonofilms, an early sound-on-film technology. On 11 August 1924, Coolidge stepped before a Phonofilm camera on the White House lawn and delivered a message of fiscal rectitude one can imagine a politician delivering verbatim today. Given that he was in the midst of the Presidential election season, we can also see this as the first sound campaign ad.
Our copy of President Coolidge, Taken on the White House Grounds was preserved from the original nitrate negative donated to the Library in 1969 by Maurice Zouary, and the preservation was anything but straightforward. By the late 1920s, 24 frames-per-second had been established as the standard for both film sound recording and projection, but when DeForest was making his Phonofilms, that standard was still in flux. For instance, President Coolidge was filmed at about 21 frames-per-second, meaning it can’t be projected using modern equipment. So, we received a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation to re-record the sound at Chace Audio (now Chace Audio by Deluxe), marrying that new soundtrack to a speed corrected picture element to create a 35mm print that can be projected.
Our restoration had its “premiere” on the NFPF’s DVD set More Treasures from the American Film Archives, 1894-1931. Scott Simmon, a professor at the University of California, Davis, wrote the film notes and with his kind permission I reproduce a part of them here:
According to DeForest, Coolidge agreed to the filming “very reluctantly,” complained of the inconvenience, criticized the lighting, read his words in a “lifeless voice,” appeared “cross and put out,” and the moment he finished “walked out of the picture.” DeForest was a supporter of the Republican Coolidge but gave equal Phonofilm time to his two other 1924 contenders—Democratic nominee John W. Davis and Progressive Party candidate Robert LaFollette—and screened those films together during the campaign. When DeForest ran the Coolidge film again after the election as part of a sales pitch for stock in DeForest Phonofilms, Coolidge was outraged, saying that he had agreed only to campaign use, and ordered a Justice Department investigation.
While the Davis film appears to be lost, we also have Progressivism by Senator Robert M. LaFollette in the Zouary Collection. He’s a bit more lively than Silent Cal, and we’re pleased to present both films here.
President Coolidge, Taken on the White House Grounds (DeForest Phonofilm, 1924)
Progressivism by Senator Robert M. LaFollette (DeForest Phonofilm, 1924)