In Films That Time Forgot, The A.V. Club digs up trashy, obscure movies and looks for memorable moments in films that few people remember.
Film: White House Madness (1975)
Director: Mark L. Lester
Tagline: “It’s historical… it’s hysterical!”
Choice IMDB keywords: Politics, satire, scandal, Watergate, dog
Also known as: Checkers, The White House Films, Top Dog
Plot: In 1974, future Texas senator Phil Gramm invested $7,500 in what he thought was a raunchy R-rated comedy about beauty queens. The future presidential hopeful didn’t realize his money was actually being used to fund 1975’s White House Madness, a ramshackle, lowbrow sledgehammer political satire that gives the Hellzapoppin’ treatment to the Watergate affair.
The film features an actor professing to be White House Chief Of Staff Alexander Haig explaining that while it is well known that President Nixon (Steve Friedman) audiotaped many of his private conversations for his own personal edification, it is less known that Nixon filmed many of his most important encounters as well, which allows viewers to see private footage that clears Nixon of any wrongdoing in connection with Watergate.
White House Madness then unspools as a series of interconnected sketches pitched unmistakably to the same pot-smoking countercultural audience as Saturday Night Live and Kentucky Fried Movie. White House Madness presents an alternate history of Watergate where the trouble all started because Nixon kept his secret tapes inside the stuffed corpse of his late dog Checkers, which he talks to and looks to for guidance in times of need.
When Checkers’ corpse is spirited away to the Watergate Hotel, a panic-stricken Nixon angrily demands his dog back, leading to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings that threaten the foundation of his presidency, then ultimately grease his way out of office. As the film progresses, Nixon sinks deeper into madness and paranoia and becomes more and more the cartoonish tyrant his leftist critics accused him of being. Over the course of the film, Nixon suspends the constitution, forces his followers to offer a Nazi salute while pledging “Heil Nixon,” declares it to be 1984, makes the bold but risky move of growing a Hitler mustache, and in a desperate bid to rid himself of his troubles, has Billy Graham, the holiest man in America, perform an exorcism on him.
A crudely Xeroxed stoner underground comic in cinematic form, White House Madness delights in tweaking and subverting all-American iconography. It cross-pollinates its central political scandal with The Three Stooges, the Marx brothers, and ultimately, The Wizard Of Oz when the boozy, brawling, out-of-control wife of Attorney General John Mitchell dresses as a farm-girl Dorothy and throws a bucket of water onto witchy old Nixon, causing his little-person helpers to merrily decree, “The wicked Dick is dead, the wicked Dick is dead, the wicked Dick is dead!” when he appears to disintegrate. Ah, but Tricky Dick isn’t quite out of tricks yet: He faked his disintegration, and is hiding under a table, safe and sound.
Key scenes: The revelation that Nixon kept his secret tapes “in the stomach of his late and deceased stuffed dog Checkers” leads to an animated conversation between the president and a stuffed animal in which Nixon goes to his canine pal for counsel and Checkers repeatedly confirms the American people’s intense love and loyalty for Nixon. Then Nixon breaks the news that he’s started seeing a new dog. Among its many other bold, self-conscious provocations, White House Madness is filled with intimations of bestiality involving Nixon and his beloved new dog, which he is depicted as being unusually, even suspiciously close to.
In the perfect encapsulation of the film’s vaudevillian conception of politics as low, pandering slapstick, Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and John Mitchell bumble through pratfalls and shenanigans like The Three Stooges.
White House Madness goes to extensive lengths to set up a bit when Haig once again addresses the audience directly and says Nixon personally confided to him that he became president for two reasons: to become the most powerful person in the world, and so he would have a pretext to host a party where he could do his special impersonation of Groucho Marx. Oh, White House Madness, is there any end to your zaniness and tomfoolery?
Nixon isn’t the only icon of rock-solid Republicanism to figure prominently in the proceedings. When Graham attempts to exorcise Nixon’s demons, the procedure gives the president a psychedelic freak-out where he stands naked (except for an American-flag pin on his chest) before an otherworldly tribunal accusing him of crimes against the constitution and people of the United States.
Can easily be distinguished by: Its gleefully crude, slapdash comic treatment of a then-recent political trauma.
Sign that it was made in 1975: It would be hard to imagine a more prototypically 1975 image than an actor playing Billy Graham exorcising an actor playing Richard Nixon.
Timeless message: Before condemning a president’s actions, it’s important to understand the circumstances behind them, even if they’re just a clumsy setup for a bunch of wacky, naughty sketch-comedy conceits.
Memorable quotes: In another instance in which the film deviates from the historical record, an enraged Martha Mitchell calls Nixon a “jive-ass Quaker.”