Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dr. Strangelove: You Wear It Well

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of staying up late watching movies with my father. He and I shared a love of movies, especially comedies.

My own son and I have continued that tradition. On the weekends he is here, we'll pick out a movie to watch. A couple of weeks ago, we watched the original version of "The Producers," which he loved. Last weekend, we watched "Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb."

One of the dangers of a movie like Dr. Strangelove is that it was pretty topical-- its setting is the Cold War. There is the danger that the jokes won't translate well into our times. I'm happy to report that a 12-year-old who, granted, has a pretty good knowledge of history and the Cold War, loved it.

The movie's story, from a Terry Southern script, is set in motion by the orders of General Jack D. Ripper, who, after an incident of, well, equipment malfunction during the "physical act of love," as he puts it, comes to see and blame a worldwide communist conspiracy of flouridation of water for his "profound sense of fatigue," and uses a little-known nuclear contingency plan to launch an attack by Strategic Air Command bombers on the Soviet Union.

The general is played to perfection by Sterling Hayden, who usually performed in cowboy movies. You may remember him in the Godfather-- he was the corrupt New York police captain who got whacked by Michael Corleone.

The movie, in fact, is filled with marvelous performances, including a then-little-known James Earl Jones.

Peter Sellers plays no fewer than three roles: One is Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, who is a British officer, working through a NATO officer exchange program, and is trying to stop Gen. Ripper in his mad scheme. He plays this role to understated perfection, responding, when Gen. Ripper tells him that there is a full-blown nuclear war going on, "Oh hell."

His second role is as the effeminate U.S. President Merkin Muffley, whom I've always assumed to be a thinly-veiled Adlai Stevenson. The third, of course, is the title role of Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi scientist working for the United States.


In each of his roles, he has brilliant lines. In one scene, in which he has to call a drunken Soviet leader to politely tell him that a mad general has launched an attack on his country, Muffley, trying to calm him down, says "I understand how upset you are. How do you think I feel?" In another scene, the Soviet ambassador and Gen. Buck Turgidson, played by George C. Scott, in a tour de force performance, are fighting, when the ambassador tries to take serrepticious pictures of the War Room, Sellers, as Muffley, shouts at them "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

One of the most famous performances in the movie was a last-minute substitution. Peter Sellars was supposed to play a fourth role, that of the pilot of the B-52 bomber that the movie follows. Sellars, who was 39, and had just married a then-21-year-old Britt Eklund, suffered a heart attack (hmmmmm) and another actor, cowboy movie veteran Slim Pickens, was hired to play the part, and played it to perfection.

This is a movie that bears repeated viewing for details. While the camera is focused at one of its characteristically odd angles, if you look closely, one of the books Gen. Turgidson has in front of him as he advises President Muffley is entitled "World Targets in Megadeaths." (the band Megadeath supposedly took their name from this) In another scene, after Pickens, as Major Kong, is given his orders to attack Russia. He solemnly goes to the safe of his B-52, opens it up and takes out not secret codes, but his cowboy hat.

The interactions between Sellars, as President Muffley, and George C. Scott as the abrasive, brash, macho General Turgidson are brilliant. At one point, Muffley angrily informs Turgidson that to his knowledge, he, the President, was the only person who had the authority to launch a nuclear attack. General Turgidson politely states, in a masterwork of understatement, "...although I hate to judge before all the facts are in, it's beginning to look like General Ripper exceeded his authority."

One comic scene that has become legendary, has a note of tragedy in it. There's a scene in which Pickens, as Major Kong, is having his men check and inventory their emergency survival kits, a contingency in case they have to bail out over the Soviet Union. There are practical items, such as a pistol and a combination Bible and Russian phrase book, mixed with things that would be presumably be to bribe one's way out of the country, such as dollars, rubles, gold, condoms, lipstick and nylons. Pickens stops and says "Shoot, a guy could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff." Next time you watch the movie, watch Pickens' lips-- he's not saying "Vegas," but "Dallas" in the original script. The movie was already in the can, was released only a few months after John Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, and the producers hurriedly went back and dubbed in "Vegas." That line me makes more sense to me anyway.

Dr. Strangelove was released the same year as a serious film with the same theme was realeased, "Fail-Safe." I've put that one on my Netflix queue (I own the letterboxed collector's editon of Dr. Strangelove). I have a feeling it will not have aged as well.

For many years it was assumed that Dr. Strangelove, who is handicapped, and in a wheelchair, was supposed to be Henry Kissinger (in the book Fail-Safe, which the movie is based on, the analogous character Professor Groeteschele, was definitely Kissinger). It's actually likely supposed to be "doom and gloom" theorist Herman Kahn, who was not handicapped, but morbidly obese.

The verdict? "Dr. Strangelove" is still great. The jokes translate well to our time, the performances are still stellar, and with the current yin-yang as President, someone who believes that God is on the side of the United States, the message is still important.

10 comments:

Toccata said...

My mother's mother was not, well a very nice person. Because of that my mother did not like my brother and I being around her much and she would always send us off to a movie twice a month right after Sunday dinner with grandma. We loved it. I think those Sunday movies solidified a tight bond my brother and I share to this day and we both needless to say love movies.

I bet down the line your son is going to be blogging about watching old movies with his dad!

Erik Donald France said...

Johnny, love it! -- the post and the movie. One small p.s. it was based on Red Alert, and you're probably right about Fail Safe not having aged as well. Although it gave me the heebee jeebies as a kid. And with Putin lashing out at the Bush people and the Bush people lashing out at Iran, we might be in for another nutty ride. Bush may, like Ripper with the USSR, get the US entangled in another direct conflict with Iran just because he can.

I have a friend who's a dead ringer for Merkin Muffley.

I love all the things you pointed out and will add a couple more -- when the two branches of service discuss recapturing the base and the Army guy brags, "MY boys will easily brush your boys aside" or something like that. And the "PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION" posters while fighting at the base.

Sounds fun! If I had a son, I'd like to think I'd be doing the same thing. Instead, I show clips in classes from time to time.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

It's so great that you can share movies from your past with your son. My daughter and I watch movies together about once a week, but generally choose new ones. We should dip back into the archives more often.

Chris said...

Great fucking movie, no doubt about it. You should be very proud that you have a son that understands the humor in it.

SamuraiFrog said...

I think it's great you're watching movies with your son like that. I'm a movie junkie. My mom and I used to watch old movies together, and those are some of my best memories.

Bubs said...

It's great to see someone else who appreciates the bonding value of movies; old movies, especially, seem to be good for that.

Remember the Parkway Theater at Clark/Diversey? I wish they were still there, with that kind of program. I'd be there all the time with my kids if it were still around.

Flannery Alden said...

I love this movie and George C. Scott's performance, in particular.

Did you know that George Clooney remade Fail Safe and ran a performance of it on live network TV. Yeah, it sucked.

deadspot said...

Back when the Canopy Club was still a Brew and View, one of the best things the did was run a sci-fi film festival on their big old, never subdivided, CinemaScope sized screen. It kicked so much ass. I saw the director's cuts of Blade Runner and Alien the way they were meant to be seen: giant-sized, not jammed into a tiny little multiplex slot.

But those weren't the highlight for me. They showed a brand-spanking-new, mint-condition print of Dr. Strangelove.

Apparently there was a fire at the studio and all of their existing prints of Dr. Strangelove were destroyed.

It turned out that a copy had been given to Stanley Kubrick, and he had never even run it through a projector. The studio got permission to make new prints from his copy and this was our copy's first run in public.

It was unbelieveable. Huge, clear, not a single scratch or splice... Wow.

They did a couple of Hong Kong action film festivals there too, and on a big screen that's actually a BIG SCREEN they were pretty amazing too.

It was absolutely, hands-down, no exceptions, the best place to watch movies that I've ever seen (including the Virginia in Champaign, which in addition to being an old art deco movie palace with a full size screen, also has balcony seating, but not beer). Now it's a bar. With concerts. I'm so glad we have another one of those.

Johnny Yen said...

Toccata-
That's great that you forged a bond with your brother that still stands.

I hope that watching our movies together will be among the memories he treasures.

Erik-
Thanks!

That final scene in Fail Safe, which I have a feeling is still powerful-- the sacrifice the US President makes to save the world-- is haunting. It was definitely interesting to see Larry Hagman and Walter Matthau in serious roles.

I like what Robert Gates said about all the sabre rattling-- one Cold War was enough.

I love those two things as well-- the interservice rivalries. And "Peace is Our Profession" was SAC's actual motto!

That's pretty funny about your friend-- when you see him do you have to stifle the urge to speak in a George C. Scott voice and rail about the danger of a mineshaft gap?

Barbara-
We do see the occasional new movie, but there are so many old ones to see, and it's so fun to be the first one they see it with.

Chris-
Thanks, and I am very proud. He's quite a person.

Samurai-
Thanks! It does create quite a bond. It's funny, because now I email or call my father, who retired with my mother to Tennessee, and recommend Netflix movies. And sometimes there are movies that we just wait and see together when my son and I visit. It's funny to watch my dad and my son watch shared favorites like "The Blues Brothers" together.

Bubs-
Those are things that can't be taken away, aren't they?

My father gave me some advice when my son was very, very young-- he told me that he regretted his devotion to his job, and the time it took away from my brothers and I. He said "You get them for such a tiny sliver of time, in the big picture. Enjoy him while he's still around." I've always heeded that advice.

I never made it to the Parkway, but I remember it.

My father-in-law from my second marriage grew up in that area and would tell stories of going up on to the roof of the Century and throwing mannequins he and his buddies had gotten out of the alleys there, and people below thought they were suicides. He was quite the jokester.

Flannery-
His performance really stands out, doesn't it, even among the other great performances?

I watched the live tv version with George Clooney and company and actually liked it enough to buy a Region 2 copy through Amazon UK (one of my dvd players is multi-region). Although I though that yes, it was shaky at times because it was live, there were some interesting casting choices and some great performers-- Hank Azaria in the role of Groeteschele (played by Walter Matthau in the original), and some of my favorites in various roles, like Brian Dennehy, Norman Lloyd and Bill Smitrovich. I did find myself, though, through the whole thing, comparing it to the original. I mean, as much as I like Richard Dreyfus, how do you compete with Henry Fonda playing the President?

Deadspot-
I think it came up to the Music Box here in Chicago after that, and I went and saw it there. It's a movie you need to see at least once on the big screen, isn't it?

At least the Music Box still has a regular screen. We had one other old theater with a full screen, the Davis, near here. They showed second-run movies inexpensively, but it was way-cool to get an actualy theater experience. They were going to convert it into condos and the neighborhood was up in arms about it. The owners announced that they were going to keep it a theater-- and divided it up into cineplexes. Sigh. At least they show first-run movies now.

Yeah, there's a real shortage of bars in Champaign...

Hey, isn't it about time to watch Repo Man again?

Leazwell said...

Ah, the alien hand syndrome scene is my favorite.