This is Marie Dressler. You can see her sense of humor, the very devil in her eyes. I don't know when the photo was taken, but it's another in a collection of photos in a book called Stars of the Photoplay, published in 1930.
She would have been 62 in 1930 (reportedly born in 1868), but the brief bio that accompanies the pic says she was born three years later in 1871. If, as was a lady's privilege, she lied about her age, she probably did not bother to relate to the publisher that this was not a current picture.
Or perhaps the studio photographer's magic was just at work here. I particularly love that all the photos in the book - big, page-sized portraits - are done in sepia tone. I think of the Thirties more as sepia than as black-and-white, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps all the sepia family photos, or the brown paper sleeves that held the 78 rpm records passed down to me, or the fact that my mother, in her Depression-era teens had a pair of saddle shoes that were brown and white, not black and white as in the 1950s.
Marie Dressler, who had a string of bad luck in middle age when stage parts dried up, was in financial difficulty when suddenly in 1927, a return to silent movies gave her career a lift and made her famous. It was a glorious end to the Jazz Age for her (a decade which, earlier, she had lamented was youth-obsessed), and the Great Depression and the coming of talkies seemed no great threat to the likes of this enormously talented actress. On the contrary, she could sling lines with the best of them.
But we were not long into the sepia decade when Dressler died in 1934. Being a woman in her early sixties did not keep her from being a star, successful in an industry where that was unusual. It took cancer to beat her.
I'm sorry I missed commenting on Miss Dressler when TCM programmed her movies in June when she was Star of the Month. I've always felt a special affinity to Marie Dressler when my mother told me that my grandmother, who was an immigrant to this country and did not speak English, loved Miss Dressler. She was my grandmother's favorite movie star. She didn't need to understand English for silent films, when pantomime told the story very nicely, thank you.
I wonder if she felt a sense of loss when her favorite movie star began to speak, and she couldn't understand her? Was it almost as great a sense of loss as when she died?
This is a playhouse within an amusement park, up on a mountain, at the edge of a New England factory town. You may not find a more unlikely place for a summer theater than this, but it was a giant in its day. Some great actors--before they were famous, and some after they became famous--performed here.
I am currently writing a book on this place and the companies which performed on Mt. Tom in Holyoke, Massachusetts, from 1895 to 1965. I hope to have it available in December.
Hal Holbrook debuted his the full-length version of his one-man show here: Mark Twain Tonight! He was a member of The Valley Players here long before he won his Tony award, and his fame, for playing that role that he created.
A generation earlier, George Brent, before he came to Hollywood (and before he was George Brent -- he still used the surname Nolan) was the leading man here for a couple summers.
Betsy Drake, before her film career, and her marriage to Cary Grant, performed here as a young ingénue. James Coco was a member of the company here, and Mary Jackson, long before you knew her as Miss Emily Baldwin on The Waltons, played here.
Others performed at this playhouse, long called The Casino, and in later years, The Mt. Tom Playhouse, after they had achieved their fame: Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson, Alexis Smith and her husband, Craig Stevens, Kathryn Crosby, Eve Arden, Dana Andrews, and Tallulah Bankhead, to name a few.
You may have never heard of Jackson Perkins, or Lauren Gilbert, Jean Guild, or Anne Follmann, Hugh Franklin, or John O'Connor. Maybe some of you will remember Joseph Foley only from his turn as the principal on the Mr. Peepers TV show in the 1950s. I am equally excited to be presenting their stories.
Those who love classic films often follow their favorite stars' career paths into television. Theatre is another world, one that required enormously hard work, self-discipline, and for which they did not always receive a great deal of money. It was done for the love of it. I would encourage all classic film fans to explore the dual heritage of the history of theatre as it may relate to your favorite film stars.
Time for Part
Nine in our monthly series on the current state of the classic film fan.
Today, we visit with Aurora Bugallo, whose blog Once
Upon a Screen is a delightful gallery of info and photos on our
favorite classic films and TV. A
prolific contributor to social media (who takes my favorite photos -- of the
top of her head below some famous tourist attractions or at some event -- I really think she
should put out a coffee table book on these hysterical pics), and whose latest
venture is a dynamic and entertaining series of
podcasts on YouTube called Classic Movies
and More, which she hosts
with Annmarie Gatti and Robert Medaska.
Here’s our discussion on classic movies…and more:
JTL:How did you, Annmarie Gatti, and Robert
Medaska come to know each other, and then come together to plan this venture
and to facilitate it?
AB: Well, let’s see…I first “met” Annmarie on
Twitter. She was one of the first people
I connected with on the platform. After
I visited her site I was blown away by its scope and we had plenty to discuss
there so it was a seamless connection. She’s also always been incredibly
supportive of my blog. When we met in
person at the 2013 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival it was as though we knew
each other. Among the things we’d
discussed almost since we met is the possibility of collaborating in some way
on a classic movie-related project, but we couldn’t quite put our finger on
and I met at a faculty meeting about three years ago. We both teach at the same university and the program
director couldn’t wait to introduce us knowing we had classic movies in common. Soon after we met Rob stated mentioning the
possibility of collaborating on something classic movie related. About a year later I thought it would be a
great idea to introduce Annmarie and Rob knowing they had similar interests. I knew I could only benefit from being around
the two of them. As a filmmaker Rob has
impressive technical knowledge and Annmarie is a master of all things social
media. It really took no time for the
three of us to decide on the YouTube show idea.
JTL:In one article on my series this year of
the current state of the classic film fan, I mention how technology has allowed
us to move beyond the movie theater, the home viewing, and extend our classic
film viewing onto the Internet. Here, we not only watch movies, but we connect
with other fans. In a do-it-yourself world of self-publishing of music and of
books, it seems a natural that classic film fans would want to also move to a
do-it-yourself realm of programming. From my post in April:
There are also
some intriguing home-grown programming—such as Dana Hersey, who hosted The
Movie Loft on Boston-area TV-38 in the 1980s is launching an Internet classic
movie streaming channel. Other hosts of online podcasts demonstrate that being
a classic film fan is continually evolving according to the technology that
allows us to appreciate old movies. No
longer content to be “programmed to”, the classic film fan is now taking the
reins and doing the programming.
you see CLASSIC MOVIES AND MORE as a part of this trend? And what do you hope
to accomplish with the project?
AB: I absolutely do. That trend is the primary reason why Rob
insisted on this type of show. I’m a big
fan of classic movie podcasts and subscribe to several that I enjoy immensely,
but – mostly thanks to Rob – we wanted something a little different where we
can offer the sights as well as the sounds of people and places that mean
something to our classic film community.
far as what we would like to accomplish – as we mention in the pilot episode of
“Classic Movies and More” we have lofty goals.
We’d like to go everywhere and talk to everybody. We base everything that we’ve laid out so far
on our own interests as fans and the show being “by fans, for fans” is central
to why we decided to do it. We want to
talk to the fans that play a role in keeping the movies and stars alive. We want to promote authors (like you) and
others who put in extraordinary time and effort to ensure the people whose work
we admire stay relevant. Aside from
allowing the three of us a new way to express how much we love these movies we
want to have a forum for all fans to do so as well. Of course that includes historians,
projectionists, accompanists, theater owners, bloggers and what have you
because at the core of most of their work is a fan.
JTL:It's terrific that you've covered the
small but significant stories that I think are not given much play elsewhere -
the Biograph episode,
the Bob Furmanek
interview. I especially enjoyed the
three-part series with Meredith
Ponedel on her father and aunt, Dottie Ponedel, who had such an impact on
the industry and such warm connections with so many stars as a makeup artist.
(From a technical aspect, I also would like to mention that I thought the
camera, the editing, and the patter of the interview was extremely well
done.) I would love to see some of your
episodes broadcast on TCM to achieve a wider audience. How do you investigate these story ideas, or
how do they come to you?
in the pilot episode, the possibility of future podcasts on visiting classic
film-related museums was mentioned. I'd love to see that.
AB: I’m so glad to know you enjoyed those
episodes. Meredith Ponedel was a happy
accident who came to our attention thanks to Kelly Kitchens who runs the “Going
to TCMFF” Facebook page. Meredith was
excited to talk to us and we were riveted by her stories. Naturally we
thought other fans would be as well. I
agree that Annmarie did a fantastic job with that interview. As for Bob Furmanek – he’s a tireless
advocate for classics particularly true in his efforts to save 3-D films. Bob and I have become friends and I love what
he’s doing. I’m hoping we can promote
any and all projects he has on the horizon.
Finally, the Biograph segment came about because Professor Ultan who’s
the Bronx Borough Historian also happens to teach at the same university that I
do. He’ll be featured in another piece
soon where we visit Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx. All I can say about him is that if I lived
five lifetimes I wouldn’t know what he knows so it’s thrilling to be in his
been lucky so far with the people we’ve been exposed to through the classic
film connections we’ve made. I expect
that these connections can only get deeper and larger in scope. We come up with ideas in a variety of ways,
but consult on an overall plan that focuses on what we can do locally first and
branch out from there. We have so much
film history in our own backyard so to speak that there’s no rush to travel the
world - although eventually we want to. We’ll
soon be incorporating Skype interviews/discussions as part of the programming, which
will certainly increase the number of people we can talk to and topics we
cover. Rather than covering “newsy”
topics we prefer (perhaps) more obscure things that are not necessarily found
in other places and museums are definitely in the cards. That said, we loved doing the pre-TCMFF
review and a pre-Capitolfest commentary was also released prior to that
festival, which enables us to stay topical in some ways. As for our content ever appearing on TCM –
well, we’d love that!! Who knows?
JTL:The Holy Cross Cemetery
episode was poignant, not only for its tribute to the stars, but to see
that tribute expressed by classic film fans and bloggers Laura Grieve and
Kellee Pratt. Classic film fans
themselves taking respectful ownership of the chronicling of classic films is a
huge aspect of the advent of blogs.
Watching favorite films is our main activity as old movie fans, but it
is a passive participation. Blogging --
and producing your CLASSIC MOVIES AND MORE series -- is an active, and proactive response to
the love of old movies. Do you see fans as becoming more proactive in their
love of old movies -- supporting restoration, etc.? What is your mission in producing this
AB: It’s difficult to gauge fandom in general,
but as far as our community of classic film fans goes there’s no doubt that we
are active participants when it comes to lauding the movies, people and eras we
dedicate time to. Of course being
proactive has been facilitated by social media and I’m constantly taken aback
by how passionate fans are or how much time they dedicate to what may be a
small part of their lives. Our
connecting en masse across mediums definitely tends to make us even more prone
to reaching out and taking part in classic movie related activities, donate to
restoration projects and many other ways of spreading the word well beyond
simply watching a film. In the same
fashion those who have projects related to film restoration, special screenings,
new book releases and so forth can reach out to a targeted audience immediately
and often. That was my long-winded way
of saying yes, by virtue of the connections I think fans are definitely taking
a proactive approach to fandom in a variety of ways.
We have a few specific goals for ‘Classic
Movies and More,’ but in reality the world of classic movies is our
oyster. As I mentioned, the “for fans,
by fans” is important to us, but beyond that spreading the word about something
we care about deeply is our primary focus.
The people we want to talk to are legion and the places we want to visit
are numerous. I feel like we’re kids in
a candy store thanks to the many passionate, knowledgeable people we know about
thanks to the active roles they now take across social media.
If you don’t mind, I’ll circle back to
the idea of connections with regard to the Holy Cross Cemetery episode we
did. What makes that special for us and
certainly has a lot to do with our decision to do this show is the fact that we
were there together and were able to express our appreciation for these people
who we never met, but who have nonetheless touched our lives in significant
ways. Knowing others share these
feelings makes it all that much more rewarding.
JTL:You and Annmarie did a preview of the
TCM festival this year. Will you cover other classic film festivals in future
AB: The pre-TCM festival was hilarious because we
couldn’t decide on anything, which is what most TCMFF attendees go
through. It was loads of fun to do as
well. The answer is yes we will do as
much festival coverage as possible, which may come slowly given current time
restrictions with regard to traveling to different parts of the country. We also
did a pre-Capitolfest commentary and hopefully many more are coming in the
JTL:What are some challenges of producing a
video series like this?
AB: Oh, challenges! I don’t want to speak for either Annmarie or
Rob so these are challenges as I see them.
The first would be technology. Rob
runs circles around Annmarie and me on the technology front so it hasn’t been
easy to ensure that I hold up my end in that regard. I’m working on it and will get better, but
it’s a slow process. The other challenge
is finding the time to spend together.
We are all juggling many things including full-time jobs, other projects
and Rob has two young sons so putting other things aside to concentrate on
‘Classic Movies and More’ is not always easy.
This endeavor is fairly new and I think we’re still finding our footing
in some ways, but the major plus is that we all want the same things and are
equally excited about the possibilities.
JTL:Will you have more interviews with fans
in future? Or, have you approached others, like Meredith Ponedel, who are
connected with the film industry, or TCM?
AB: We will absolutely do more fan interviews in
the future and have a few almost ready for release. The fan interviews are what I’m most excited
about. We have a long list of people we
want to reach out to and will be doing so as soon as we figure out the
logistics and timing. These include
bloggers, podcasters, authors and several others with classic movie connections
on many levels. We have not reached out
to TCM, but needless to say we’d enjoy interviewing a number of people at the
JTL:What do you have planned for future
AB: There’s a variety of topics coming up. Rob and “little” Rob just started a monthly
Svengoolie review series, we have several interviews with fans/bloggers already
“in the can” (aren’t you impressed with my movie lingo?), an interview with
accompanist Gary Lucas, another classics related historical tour with Lloyd
Ultan and several other things that I think will be fun for people to see. You’ll also like additional footage we taped
with Meredith Ponedel, which will be released as supplemental material in the
JTL:If I could take a step back from your
series for a moment, I mentioned Tiffany Vazquez, the new TCM host in a recent
blog post, and I'd love to know your opinion on the following excerpt:
has been noted that she is the first woman to be hired as a regular TCM host,
and her Puerto Rican heritage has been commented on as setting her apart as
representing a new demographic. But before we skew this into some Madison
Avenue pie chart of something up-market, we should remember that the classic film fan “demographic” has little
to do with age, gender, race, or ethnicity, and is remarkably diverse.
AB: I agree with you as far as how I think things
should be. I’m not sure it’s how things
my opinion the vast majority of classic movie fans – using the widely accepted
definition of “classic” meaning “old” in this instance - are not
twenty-something years old. And I don’t
think they will ever be in numbers that make a huge difference. We have several extremely dedicated,
passionate, knowledgeable younger fans in our community who live for classics
in every sense of the word. I marvel at
their passion for classic movies, which by the way is most consistently for
early talkies and pre-codes, but those fans are exceptions. The vast majority of classic movie fans are,
shall we say, not twenty-something.
They’re the ones who make up the core TCM audience who have been with
the network since it went on the air.
They are made up of a varied ethnicity, but their average age is a tad
above twenty-something. I’ll add this
because it’s been discussed throughout social media – many have noticed that
TCM is skewing toward a younger audience, and while I may not necessarily like
it I understand it. TCM is a for-profit
network and commercial-free programming has to cost a pretty penny so ensuring
longevity should be a goal. That said
there is always the danger of watering down a brand that has become the network everyone believes is the
primary arbiter for classic movies.
Tiffany – There’s no doubt your Madison Avenue pie-chart had something to do
with TCM’s decision to hire her as should be the case. I am both a woman and a Latina so the fact
that Tiffany is both of those thrills me.
I imagine that her age also played a factor in her becoming a TCM host. That said I like to think that Tiffany also
being a classic movie fan had a lot to do with it. Yes, she is not a film historian or author
like Robert Osborne was when he became TCM host and her last name is not
Mankiewicz, which Ben himself has stated played some role is his becoming a
host. But, as I assume is the case with
many others, I didn’t fall in love with Robert Osborne because he was a film
historian and I couldn’t care less what Ben’s last name is. I have been happy to welcome them both into
my home for over two decades because they speak to me like fellow classic movie
fans. I’ve met Tiffany and I know she
has that in spades. If she’s able to
convey that love of movies to an audience who is passionate and loyal I think
she’ll have a long, successful career on the network.
JTL:There are many aspects of classic films
which are difficult for younger people to swallow because they are so obviously
out of tune with today's concepts of race and gender. Even for those of us who are more familiar
with the eras in which the classic films were made, we still cringe at many
scenes, even if we are able to process them in context. Your thoughts?
AB: There’s no doubt that classic movie fans make
a decision to ignore the offensive material inherent in those movies in order
to appreciate them. We accept that they
are products of their time and therefore put aside what we would normally have
issue with. I think it’s a requisite to
watch them, in fact, so anyone – younger or older – who is not familiar with
what to expect to a certain degree would have a difficult time with what was
being served. And, for that matter,
understanding how the rest of us could enjoy entries that so blatantly insult
women and minorities.
JTL:With respect to the above passage, who
is your audience? Younger fans more in
tune to looking for info in the Internet? Diehard fans who can't get the
stories you present anywhere else? What has your response been to the series so
AB: I’d like to think our audience is the classic
movie fan of any age. Or hopefully will
be. Fans of classic movies or anything
retro, for that matter, are more predisposed to search for classic material on
the internet because we have limited outlets that offer it. I don’t think that practice is limited to
younger audiences in our community. Or at least that’s true in regards to major
social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
We hope to be able to offer those fans
an outlet to promote their blogs, tell their classic movie stories and so forth
in a way other outlets don’t do. In that
way we’ll be a connection to classics not offered anywhere else. If we are successful in presenting topics and
people with professional connections to classic movies that offer unique
insight or we take people to a place where others have not been then I think
people will tune in. Original content is
important and we’ll try our best to provide it.
My sincere thanks to Aurora for taking
the time to participate in this interview, and for her always thoughtful and
intelligent perspective on classic film.
Please visit her blog, and also Classic
Movies and More on YouTube, you’ll love them both.
My deathless prose has been rather heavy and intense these several weeks. Let's take a break, throw a picnic basket, our swimsuits, and maybe a fishing pole in the back of the car and enjoy these last days of summer.
See if you can name the folks, and their movies in these screen caps.
Days in May
(1964) uses a most meaningful and chilling biblical term in the crackling
dialogue: “false prophets”. It is this phrase, so well known, and occasionally
exploited by religious fundamentalists, that we hinge this post on, and not so
coincidentally, this election year.
“False prophets” is the term used by
star Fredric March to describe General Edwin Walker, a real-life figure, who
attempted a political career, unsuccessfully, after President John F. Kennedy
accepted his resignation in November 1961. Walker, an outspoken critic of
political figures and members of the government he felt were communist
sympathizers – naming, in his accusations, President Harry S. Truman, former
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and others in government, used his position in
the Army to impose his extreme right-wing views and attack those who did not
agree with him. Crossing the line of
propriety, not to say prudence, among military figures who desire political
power is nothing new. General Douglas MacArthur, also frustrated in political
aspirations, was removed from his position by President Truman when he
attempted to sidestep the authority of the President and run the Korean War in
his own manner, which included his intention to escalate a full-scale war with
Adolf Hitler was a soldier in World War
I who blamed Germany’s defeat on the politicians, and thought he could run
things better, too.
The story in Seven Days in May is fictional, but that it was, and is, entirely
plausible makes the movie an important voice not only of those tense days of
Cold War crisis when nuclear weapons raised the ante in a war of words with the
Soviet Union, but remains relevant today. Nuclear weapons have not gone away. A
new demagogue has risen from the dark corners of a free and tolerant society to
exploit it. Donald Trump, however, was not a soldier or representative of our
arms services. He has declined membership and avoided the draft on several
occasions. But he has more support and free range than any false prophet in our
history. The lazy, shallow, and inept media, and a moronic legion of extreme right-wing supporters, has allowed this. They even celebrate it.
Though we have seen much in this election
year alone to make us jaded, nevertheless I don’t think that keeps us from
feeling the power of Seven Days in May,
the shock of the characters facing an unimaginable threat to our
democracy. Though it was made at the
height of the Cold War, and is set in a vague not-too-distant future of the
early 1970s, the theatricality of the movie (it is really a series of “drawing
room scenes”); the sharp, literate dialogue; the fast-paced plot; and the stellar
acting make this movie as equally relevant today as it is a timepiece from an
era when the media wasn’t so much a “loose cannon” as it is today, providing a
showcase for other loose cannons.
I first read the novel on which the
movie is based when I was in high school, and re-read it before preparing for this
post. I understand much more about politics and government, and life, than I
did at sixteen – but the eerie chill that something like this could happen
remains just as profound in middle age as it did in my teens, but the movie
works even simply an entertaining thriller of Cold War intrigue, if one is unaware
of how real it is.
Directed by John Frankenheimer, everything
in the film is a purposeful tool, right down to the credits which count off to
seven numerals superimposed over the Articles in the Constitution. The arrows
in the talons of the eagle on the presidential seal, they are weapons. They are
a threat – but not to foreign enemies. They also resemble missiles.
We begin with an orderly protest of
marchers carrying signs in front of the White House. We, today, might be first
struck that the protesters are well-dressed, conducting themselves with cordial
dignity. Compared to protest mobs today, it looks like a country club
cotillion. We are not sure exactly what they protest, but soon there is a group
of counter protesters. They are for the president. They are against the president.
They are for a nuclear weapons treaty. They are against the treaty. In another
moment, the scene becomes less strange and more familiar to us – the two
factions get loud, ugly, and start to beat each other up.
Fredric March is a beleaguered
President, who has just signed a pact with the Soviet Union over the use of
nuclear weapons. His ratings in the polls has dropped. His doctor warns him
about his high blood pressure. He is a man of principle, but he is discouraged
and fed up.
Among his confidants is a Southern
senator played by Edmond O’Brien, terrific in the role as an acerbic,
no-nonsense career politician. He also has a drinking problem, which he
recognizes with a mixture of sadness and amusement. Martin Balsam is an
adviser. The movie is so jam-packed with the best actors of the day, just picking
them out is entertaining.
Burt Lancaster shines as a General of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff who has come to The Hill to testify to a senate committee
that he feels the treaty with the Soviet Union is a bad idea, that it makes our
country vulnerable. He makes several impassioned points. “There hasn't been a
single piece of paper written in the history of mankind that could serve as a
deterrent to a Pearl Harbor. I sometimes wonder why we haven't learned that
lesson by now. Every twenty years or so we have to pick ourselves up off the
floor bleeding and pay for that mistake. Those mistakes are delivered to us
C.O.D. by peace loving men. And bought and paid for with the lives of other
men. Men in uniform.”
Kirk Douglas is Lancaster’s aide, a
Marine Corps colonel who agrees with Lancaster’s view that the disarmament
treaty isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Mr. Douglas will soon become
embroiled in a mystery, a political controversy, and inevitable disillusionment
in the man he most admires – Burt Lancaster – when he discovers that Lancaster
is planning to take over the government and appoint himself as dictator in a
It begins, innocently enough, when Kirk
Douglas discovers betting slips left by the members of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff on the coming Preakness horse race. He is amused by this, and especially
amused that an admiral is too cheap to cough up a ten-dollar bet.
Soon, the young aide who let this funny
gossip slip, as well as the code used by the betters: ECOMCON, has suddenly
been reassigned. He’s there one day, gone the next.
An old friend of Douglas, played by Andrew
Duggan, is a colonel who has been assigned to a new secret base in Texas, and
he confesses to Douglas that he is baffled by the mission for which he and his
men are training: not defense, but seizure of the government. Douglas, fearing
something is going on behind his boss’s back, keeps his eyes and ears open. We
follow him to a Washington cocktail party, where he meets up with Ava Gardner,
who happens to be Lancaster’s former mistress, whom Burt has dumped.
We follow Douglas as he tails the car of
a firebrand right-wing senator to Lancaster’s home in the middle of the night.
We follow Douglas through a darkened parking garage, and through the halls of
the Pentagon. We come to understand, as he does, eventually, that Burt
Lancaster is plotting to take over the country. Lancaster has established the
secret base, unknown to the President and other members of the government, and
will take over all the media first, shut them down, and then throw the treaty
Douglas, choked by his suspicion, brings
it to the President, but neither Fredric March nor his staff believe him at
first. Still, they look into the matter.
Edmond O’Brien is dispatched to Texas
to find out where this secret base is. He is kidnapped and held in confinement
at the base. Knowing his problem with alcohol, O’Brien is brought a steady
supply of whiskey to quiet and disorient him, which he heroically pours down
the toilet. Andrew Duggan checks on the prisoner, and O’Brien manages to
convince him about the plot to overthrow the government. Duggan fires on his
own men to free O’Brien in a daring nighttime escape. Then Duggan disappears.
President Fredric March was slated to
attend scheduled war games exercises in a secluded bunker with Lancaster, but
he declines to go, insisting he is going to go to his fishing camp instead. He
doesn’t; he cleverly remains safe at the White House, and it is discovered that
Lancaster’s henchmen arrived at the fishing camp on a mission to kidnap March.
Martin Balsam is sent to an aircraft
carrier in the Mediterranean to obtain the confession of the admiral who knew
about the plot, but decline to place his “bet”. He is played, in his acting
debut, by John Houseman. A masterful scene, as Houseman squirms, wishing
he had more time. His gentlemanly guilt turns our stomachs. But the pot is not
foiled just yet. The tables are turned when Balsam, signed confession in hand,
dies in a plane crash. Houseman will later lie and insist he never signed any
Douglas is sent to New York to woo and
con Ava Gardner out of her love letters from General Burt Lancaster in an
attempt to use anything against him to stop him from taking over the
government. It is a chore that sickens him.
It’s a nail-biting finish, but an 11th-hour
lucky break for the doomed democracy occurs, and Fredric March, proof in hand,
demands the resignations of all the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lancaster, with that steely-eyed glare that
bores through the unfortunate person to whom he is speaking, arrogantly
declines, and openly declares his intentions to take charge. He insults the
President, and the presidency, and declares war on democracy to get what he wants.
Their firey exchange:
Lancaster, resplendent in his uniform,
his broad shoulders, his ramrod straight posture of a proud, accomplished man.
He is filmed from a low camera angle, so he looks even taller, mightier: “I'm here to tell you face to face, President
Lyman, that you violated that oath when you stripped this country of its
muscles, when you deliberately played upon the fear and fatigue of the people
and told them they could remove that fear by the stroke of a pen. And then when
this nation rejected you, lost faith in you, and began militantly to oppose
you, you violated that oath by not resigning from office and turning the
country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States.”
President Fredric March, sitting, older,
looking defeated and horrified, “And that would be General James Mattoon Scott,
would it? I don't know whether to laugh at that kind of megalomania, or simply
Lancaster, addressing himself in the
third person, the telltale sign of the depth of his conceit: “James Mattoon
Scott, as you put it, hasn't the slightest interest in his own glorification.
But he does have an abiding interest in the survival of this country.”
March responds “Then, by God, run for
office. You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical faith in this country,
why in the name of God don't you have any faith in the system of government
you're so hell-bent to protect?”
But with evidence in hand, and a
still-free press in place, and men in the military—like Kirk Douglas and Andrew
Duggan—who may not agree with politicians, but who agree that as military men their
purpose is to defend the Constitution and not to circumvent it—Lancaster’s coup
collapses. Lancaster accuses Kirk Douglas of being a Judas. “Are you
sufficiently up on your Bible to know who Judas was?”
Douglas, at attention, looks him in the
eye and answers, calmly, without any passion, “Yes, Sir, I know who Judas was.
He was a man I respected and admired—until he disgraced the four stars on his
It has been noted that the Pentagon did
not want this movie made, but that President John F. Kennedy supported it,
through his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, and “conveniently” left for
weekends at Hyannis so the film crew would be free to film exteriors in front
of the White House.
Fredric March offers a summary of the
evil of the day: “He's not the enemy. Scott, the Joint Chiefs, even the very
emotional, very illogical lunatic fringe: they're not the enemy. The enemy's an
age, a nuclear age. It happens to have killed man's faith in his ability to
influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, and out of
sickness a frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness. And
from this, this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white, and blue.
Every now and then a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be
our personal god for the duration. For some men it was a Senator McCarthy, for
others it was a General Walker, and now it's a General Scott.”
I would suggest, however, that this is
not a sickness specifically of the nuclear age. Hitler’s rise to power was not
a product of the nuclear age, nor Napoleon’s, nor any dictator through history
who exploited misery, spread lies, and relied upon the ignorance and bigotry of
an easily-manipulated populace to steal power. The only distinction between the
dictators or would-be dictators of history and Donald Trump is Trump has the
advantage of a media enamored of “reality” television, who regards him as
entertainment and thus has given him a platform and stature he would not have
so easily attained in another age. He has been given a free ride to fame. He
has learned through the process that he can do whatever he likes, the more
obnoxious he is, the more attention he gets.
The truth is what he decides it will be.
His rabid followers will not complain so long as they agree with him. When he
goes after them, they will have no
one to turn to for help—except any trace of democracy that might be left to
Benjamin Franklin announced at the close
of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787 that his colleagues had
created “a Republic—if you can keep it.”
President Barak Hussein Obama told the
delegates assembled in the same city at the Democratic National Convention this
year that “democracy works, but we’ve got to want it.” As regards Trump, the
President noted, “We don’t look to be ruled,” he said. “Anyone who threatens
our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown
demagogues, will always fail in the end.”
It is up to us to make sure they fail,
those “false prophets.”
Returning to that term, for those
extreme right-wing fundamentalists who are so fond of looking ahead, almost gleefully,
to Armageddon, a warning of “false prophets” occurs several times in the Bible.
We use the imagery of the Bible too
much like a Rorshach test, seeing what we want to see. Look hard and see if you can recognize Donald
In Matthew 7:15 (quoting from the King
of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are
And from John 8:44:
He was a murderer from the beginning, and
abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a
lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.
This concludes our five-part series on
how fascism was depicted in classic films. I would like to conjecture why
modern filmmakers don’t cover, intellectually and passionately, the issues of
our own times, instead of wiping them away with allegorical stories of space
warriors and fictional superheroes. But I don’t know the answer. Perhaps the
wish to be “politically correct” has made seeming to take a partisan editorial
stance in a film too uncomfortable, leaving one too open to criticism, sort of "damned if you do and damned if you don't," or
is just unprofitable.
Or maybe our society, and especially our
movies and media, just needs to grow up.