President Dwight Eisenhower watched the 1953 documentary Mahatma Gandhi: 20th Century Prophet at the DuPont Theatre in Washington, D.C. on February 10, 1953.
Eisenhower watched the movie with India’s ambassador to the U.S., Gaganvihari Lallibhai Mehta. The ambassador would later become the subject of a national controversy in August of 1955 after he was refused restaurant service at the Houston airport during a layover. Houston, like the rest of the south, had strict segregation laws under Jim Crow. The refusal of service was considered an international embarrassment for the Eisenhower administration, which hadn’t made civil rights a priority. It was also a national embarrassment for Houston because the airport had just celebrated the 40th anniversary of it being a “world port” the night before, as Anke Ortlepp notes in the 2017 book Jim Crow Terminals: The Desegregation of American Airports.
President Eisenhower visited India in 1959. He wasn’t denied service anywhere in the country.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt watched the documentary movies of American filmmaker Julien Bryan at the White House on February 8, 1941.
Content warning: The second clip shows dead bodies.
Bryan was an American photographer who was invited to make a film about Adolf Hitler and Germany in 1937. When he got there and saw what was really happening to the Jews in the country he returned to America with his footage and showed the world the discrimination that Jews were facing in Germany.
It’s unclear precisely what movies Roosevelt watched that night but the time allotted was 8:50pm-11:00pm on the White House schedule, so it must have been quite a few. Bryan’s documentaries from that time were 10-15 minutes in length. Bryan was sometimes the only foreign photographer in a city, like when the Nazis invaded Poland and Bryan traveled there to capture the devastation. The two clips here are from his 1940 film titled Siege, which documented the destruction in Warsaw. The United States didn’t enter the war until December 1941.
President Donald Trump is obsessed with describing human trafficking at the U.S.-Mexico border in very graphic terms. He’s often described the “threat” of people coming from Mexico by talking about women with tape over their mouths. President Trump has even talked about the tape at least 22 times over the span of 10 days. But is it possible that President Trump is getting reality confused with a fictional movie? Namely, Sicario: Day of Soldado? It’s certainly possible.
Everyone from CNN to Stephen Colbert to Rachel Maddow have made the comparison by now, as people point out that many of President Trump’s false claims about the border are plot points in the movie. From the prayer rugs found at the border to, yes, the tape over the mouths of women, the similarities are there. And while we know that President Trump loves to watch TV, his movie viewing habits while in the White House are more of a mystery.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear if President Trump has seen the Sicario sequel starring Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. And White House records are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) until years after a president leaves office. And even then most movie screenings at the White House are protected under privacy laws for decades. I’m still waiting to request President Obama’s movie viewing records, for example. So we’ll probably have to wait and see.
One movie that we know the president has screened at the White House? Pixar’s Finding Dory, oddly enough. But we don’t know whether he sat through the entire thing.
President Dwight Eisenhower watched the 1955 musical Oklahoma! on November 21, 1956 in the White House. He was joined by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and Mamie’s mother, Elvira Doud.
Ike lovingly called his mother-in-law “Min” after a character in the newspaper comic strip The Gumps which ran from 1917 until 1959. Ike and Mamie’s parents lived in the White House and the projectionist, Paul Fischer, would always note in his log books which family members were in attendance during any given screenings.
You can watch the trailer for Oklahoma on YouTube and the full film is available on Amazon.
President John F. Kennedy watched the 1953 film Roman Holiday at the White House on October 27, 1962. Starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Hepburn plays the sheltered “Princess Ann,” on a tour of Europe and letting her hair down when she falls in love with Joe Bradley (Peck), an American reporter in Rome.
Amazingly, October 27, 1962 was smack dab in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis—a thirteen day saga where the world was on the brink of nuclear war. That date in particular has been called “the most dangerous day in human history.” Strategic Air Command was at Defcon 2, and both the United States and the Soviet Union conducted nuclear weapons tests on that day. An American U-2 spy plane even traveled into Soviet territory, and to make matters worse, an American destroyer, the USS Beale, started dropping “practice round” depth charges on a Soviet submarine, the B-59, causing the Soviets to think they were under attack. Soviet sub commander Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov refused to launch a nuclear torpedo in response. If he had, it almost certainly would’ve started World War III.
President Kennedy watched Roman Holiday that night with an unnamed person in the White House screening room. The White House projectionist typically made note of whoever joined the president during a screening, but his logs for that day are blank except to note that there was one other person there. Before watching Roman Holiday, the pair watched a 1962 propaganda movie called An Answer, which features several shots of Kennedy.
While not a remake, Roman Holiday share a number of plot points with the romantic comedy classic It Happened One Night from 1934 starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. Both feature a wealthy woman who’s on the run with a scheming journalist who can’t help but fall in love with her. Roman Holiday was directed by William Wyler (Ben Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives) and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1999.
President Jimmy Carter watched the 1980 movie The Stunt Man starring Peter O’Toole in the White House screening room on October 26, 1980. O’Toole plays a fugitive on the run from police who decides to pose as a movie stunt man while he’s hiding out.