U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Would You Vote for a Woman for President of the U.S.?”: A Quick Note on Magic Town, Jimmy Stewart’s Forgotten Sorta-Classic

Magic Town - 1947-3While editing a chapter, I ran across a small fact that I had totally forgotten about: in the film Magic Town, a Capra-esque film with Jimmy Stewart from 1947, the plot hinges (in a sense) on an affirmative answer to the question in this post’s title: “Would you vote for a woman for President of the U.S.?” Given Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the White House, I thought that this little trinket of cinematic history might be worth making note of.[1]

The way the film gets to this unexpected point is a bit convoluted. First, a couple of words about the film’s history, though. Magic Town was written by Robert Riskin, who had been Capra’s screenwriter on It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can’t Take It With You, Meet John Doe). I believe they had something of a falling out and Riskin decided that he could do better away from Capra. At any rate, he ended up bringing the expert and versatile director William Wellman in, and landing Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman for the romantic leads. (Wyman’s legs feature prominently in a lot of the promotional materials I’ve seen, as in the poster above. Wyman was still married to Ronald Reagan when the film came out, and if you’re interested in that relationship, there’s no one better to tell you about it than Anne Helen Petersen.) At any rate, below the fold I’ll try to unravel the film’s crazy plot–it is a lulu.

Magic Town - 1947-5The gag of the film is that Stewart is a pollster who runs a small outfit that is competing with Gallup, and losing. Stewart has tried some elaborate sampling techniques to cut corners, and come out with a highly embarrassing set of poll results. His office now shutting down, Stewart jumps at an unlikely statistical anomaly: a town that perfectly matches national demographics in class, political affiliation, religion, gender, age–every dimension they could think of (which therefore–conspicuously to our eyes–doesn’t include race). The town has even matched the national returns on every Presidential election for the last thirty years. Stewart travels there incognito to begin polling the town hoping he’s found his shortcut: provided they never become self-conscious of their microcosmic status, he’ll be able to poll them continuously–faster, cheaper, and more accurately than anyone else.

Hijinks of various sorts ensue, including a slightly stilted courtship that does, nonetheless, have its moments (Stewart and Wyman take turns reciting nineteenth-century American poetry, like “Hiawatha” and “Little Orphant Annie,” and they share their first kiss after he’s been teaching her how to shoot a layup in the high school gym.) I wouldn’t say they have chemistry exactly, but they do have ice cream sundaes, which is close.magic town - 1947-4Stewart’s cover is blown eventually, and the town decides to cash in on its status as the most typical municipality in the United States, drawing in tourists and a kind of carnival atmosphere. They put up little poll booths around the town where questions can be submitted to the citizens and the citizens can drop by to vote, thus providing a sort of instant plebiscite for the nation on all kinds of pressing questions. But the town runs into trouble when it generates its own anomaly: to the inconceivable question “Would you vote for a woman for President of the U.S.?” the townspeople answer yes!

Magic Town - 1947-1It must be a hoax–who could believe a thing like that!

Real estate agents, smelling an opportunity, had begun selling lots at vastly inflated prices; some of the town fathers, believing they could get in on the ground floor, used town funds to snap a few up. When the laughable tally for the woman President question comes in, all the other potential buyers vanish, and the town leadership is left holding the bag: the town is ruined!

I’ll let you find out what the ending of the film is on your own: you can actually stream the film via Amazon. But the interesting thing to me is that, while it is clear that the Americans of 1947 see the question “Would you vote for a woman for President of the U.S.?” as beneath serious consideration, it is far from clear that the film itself regards the question as bizarre. Furthermore there is no indication that the people of Magic City are wrong: the unspoken possibility is left open that, if the nation were to be polled, the same result would be found in a countrywide canvass. Maybe pollsters are just afraid to ask?

It’s a tantalizing thought, although I don’t know how much stock to put in it. By 1947, U.S. citizens had gotten used for the first time to seeing two women taking prominent roles in the federal government in Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt. Perhaps Riskin was making a statement here about the hidden feasibility of a woman President, the deceptively fragile nature of the “highest glass ceiling.” Or perhaps not, but it’s a fun–if uneven–film, and a fascinating attempt by Hollywood to engage with polling and its power.

[1] I ran across the name of this film in Sarah Igo’s excellent book about the growth of statistical knowledge and its representations in the mid-twentieth century, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very timely slice of movie/film history.

    They put up little poll booths around the town where questions can be submitted to the citizens and the citizens can drop by to vote, thus providing a sort of instant plebiscite for the nation on all kinds of pressing questions.

    Sort of taking Renan’s figurative nation-as-daily-plebiscite and making it literal. Sort of. But more to the point, I’m wondering what other questions the residents of the town are asked to vote on (and 1947 is kind of a hinge year, with the Cold War not fully underway yet). Does international politics figure in the questions? Or is it more light stuff, e.g., do you prefer dogs or cats as a pet?

    • That’s an excellent cross-reference to Renan. I can’t say it was on Riskin’s mind, but it’s there in spirit, certainly. The film has a kind of naïve acceptance of the premises of polling, although it also turns it (as per the title) into a kind of magical realism–polling is somewhere between Renan’s daily plebiscite and Rousseau’s general will, perhaps.

      As for the other questions, I wish I remembered! Only the woman-as-President vote stood out in my memory. Unfortunately, I’d have to watch it again, or at least fast-forward to the spot.

      • That’s ok, not an important question, and given your reference at the beginning of the post to editing a chapter, you have way more important things to do right now. Anyway, thks for the post.

  2. Thanks for this, Andy! It reminds me just a little bit of the 1972 film *The Man,* based on a novel about the first African American president. He comes to office through odd circumstances, requiring the death of the President and an unfilled Vice Presidency. James Earl Jones stars: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeINMIJaaXA.

    Back to this film–it sounds interesting: for what it says about women in post-WWII society and the increasing importance of polling. And anything that mentions Sarah Igo’s book is always worth thinking about too! One of my favorite reads in graduate school.

  3. Best line in the piece, from Andy: “I wouldn’t say they have chemistry exactly, but they do have ice cream sundaes, which is close.” …Love it! – TL

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