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Commemorate Nixon Resignation Day with 1972’s Another Fine Mess

The obvious viewing choice to commemorate today being the 40th anniversary of Richard M. Nixon’s resignation would probably be either Oliver Stone’s expansive, feverishly/ludicrously compelling Nixon or Robert Altman’s more compact but no less outlandish Secret Honor, a paranoid monologue barked by an increasingly intoxicated Philip Baker Hall. In a more ironic vein, you might turn to Nixon’s own viewing choices: he watched 528 movies during his time in office. An apt favorite might be Patton, which he viewed three times prior to initiating the bombing of Cambodia (he told David Frost the movie didn’t influence his decision), or his regrettable personal favorite, 1956’s now-little-loved Around the World in 80 Days. (More on Nixon’s cinephile side here.)

One of the odder Nixon-related artifacts is 1972’s Another Fine Mess (directed, to no particular effect, by Albert Brooks’ brother Bob Einstein). Kliph Nesteroff details its fascinating backstory at length here. In brief: after the cancellation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (caused at least in part by write-ins coordinated by the White House), comic Tommy Smothers was keen to throw financial weight behind some anti-Nixon comedy. John Dean got wind of “a derogatory film about the president being produced by the Smothers Brothers” and tried to sabotage the production, arranging a police raid of Smothers’ house in a failed attempt to bust him for drugs.

The resulting product is inevitably but unfortunately not as interesting as its origins. Despite Smothers’ personal experience with Nixon’s dirty tricks, as a pre-Watergate satire Another Fine Mess is missing a major opportunity. Impressionist Rich Little’s secondary task is to play Nixon himself watching the movie and deriding it, in language predicting his casually profane tapes, as “definitely a piece of crap.” His main task is to play Nixon as Oliver Hardy, with Spiro Agnew (Herb Voland) as his Stan Laurel. They do a credible impersonation, starting early when Spiro pulls a thread out from Nixon’s pants, causing them to fall as he pratfalls up the stairs after his inaugural swearing-in. The comedy is very limited in scope, though, and invention is in short supply; intercutting with clips of the real Laurel & Hardy helps nothing.

Topical touchstones include a montage of anti-Vietnam protesters and another one of the real Nixon working crowds on the campaign trail, smiling and shaking hands with presumable members of his “silent majority.” The silliness of Nixon and Agnew’s double act doesn’t correlate to their policy initiatives or actual actions, of which there are pretty much none included (their clumsiness sabotages a state dinner with the president of… “Amnesia”). There is, however, a loaded scene of Nixon shaving, primarily treated as an opportunity for silly gags involving a malfunctioning sink. His swarthiness came up in a 1960 interview with Walter Cronkite, as Rick Perlstein points out in Nixonland: “Oh, I get letters from women, for example, sometimes — and men — who support me. And they say, ‘Why do you wear that heavy beard when you are on television?’ Actually, I don’t try, but I can shave within thirty seconds before I go on television and I still have a beard.” The film also includes a comic version of the hard hat riot, instigated by hippie Steve Martin in his first screen role.

In light of his viewing habits, the movie Nixon’s claims that “I am a great supporter of the motion picture industry” take on retroactive prescience. The movie also climaxes with Nixon and Agnew getting baked without realizing it after being served a tray of pot cookies, an anticipation of the same happening to Nixon and Brezhnev having the same experience with brownies in 1999’s Dick. But there are also audio snippets from the real Nixon, such as his 1971 interview suggestion that all ran smoothly and as error-free as possible in his White House: “One of the benefits, Mr. Smith, of course, of being in this position and having gone through so much before I got here, is that a man tends not to make as many mistakes. Now that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t make some mistakes. I have made my share, not only as President but before.”

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