Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The 50th Anniversary of Dr. Strangelove

It was fifty years ago today that Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was released. Short of  2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) it could well be Stanley Kubrick's best known film. The film was popular upon its first release and would have a lasting impact on pop culture. It is consistently ranked in lists of the greatest films of all time.

The genesis for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb  goes back to the late Fifties when Stanley Kubrick developed an interest in thermonuclear war. He read a good deal on the subject and asked Alastair Buchan, then head of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (a British think tank then focusing on nuclear deterrence) for a list of books he could read about nuclear warfare. Among the books Mr. Buchan recommended to Stanley Kubrick was the novel Red Alert by Peter George (originally titled Two Hours to Doom and published under the pen name Peter Bryant). During World War II Mr. George had been a  Flight Lieutenant and navigator in the Royal Air Force. Stanley Kubrick saw the possibility of a film in the novel and sought the rights to it. Unfortunately, agent, Peter George's Scott Meredith, told Mr. Kubrick that the motion picture rights had already been sold in 1959 for $1000. Fortunately for Stanley Kubrick, financial backing for a film based on Red Alert proved to hard to come by, and as a result the film rights were sold from one person to another. Finally Stanley Kubrick was able to buy the film rights to Red Alert from Scott Meredith for $3500.

Stanley Kubrick then hired Peter George so the two of them could collaborate on a screenplay. Mr.Kubrick's partner in film production James B. Harris took the script to Seven Arts who approved it as the second film in Mr. Kubrick's commitment to them. While Red Alert was a very serious, even sombre novel, the film emerging from it would not remain so for long. The potential for the film to be a satire occurred to Stanley Kubrick and James B. Harris early in the development of the film. Eventually Mr. Kubrick settled upon the idea of making the film as a very black comedy. He hired Terry Southern, author of the comic novel The Magic Christian, as a co-writer. Red Alert then became Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

For the film's lead Stanley Kubrick turned to actor Peter Sellers, with whom he had worked on Lolita (1962). Not only did Mr. Kubrick want Mr. Sellers as the lead, but he wanted the actor to play four major roles in the film (the President, Dr. Strangelove, Group Captain Mandrake, and Major Kong). Peter Sellers was reticent about playing multiple roles, fearing comparisons to Alec Guinness who had played multiple roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Stanley Kubrick eventually convinced Mr. Sellers to play the multiple roles.

That having been said, Peter Sellers would not remain in the role of Major Kong for long.  He had difficulty with the Texan accent required for the role. When Peter Sellers broke his ankle, Stanley Kubrick then looked for another actor to fill the role. He asked John Wayne who, as might be expected, declined the role. He then asked Dan Blocker, then as now best known as Hoss on the TV Western Bonanza. He also declined the role. Stanley Kubrick then approached Slim Pickens, whose performance he remembered in the film One-Eyed Jacks (1961). Fortunately Mr. Pickens accepted the role.

The other roles in the film were filled with some very experienced actors. Sterling Hayden, who had starred in Stanley Kubrick's film The Killing (1956), was cast as the paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper. George C. Scott was cast as the ultranationalistic General Buck Turgidson. British character actor Peter Bull played the Soviet Ambassador. In addition to actors with considerable experience in film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb featured an actor in his film debut. Stanley Kubrick had seen James Earl Jones in a performance of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice with George C. Scott. He cast him in the role of Lieutenant Lothar Zogg, the bombardier aboard the B-52 commanded by Major Kong.

It was while production was under way on Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that Stanley Kubrick discovered a film adaptation of the 1962 novel Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler was in production Like Red Alert, the novel Fail-Safe was a serious examination of thermonuclear war. The film rights for Fail-Safe had been bought by producer Max Youngstein, who was then head of Entertainment Corporation of America. Mr. Youngstein wanted to make Fail-Safe in as little as six week so that it would beat Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to theatres. Even though Fail-Safe was going to be a serious film and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb a satire, Stanley Kubrick worried that the release of another film about thermonuclear war before Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb could hurt its chances for success. Stanley Kubrick then took measures to halt production of Fail-Safe (or at the very least slow it down),

Stanley Kubrick and Columbia Pictures filed a plagiarism lawsuit against  Entertainment Corporation of America, McGraw-Hill (the publisher of Fail-Safe), Curtis Publishing (who had serialised the novel in The Saturday Evening Post), and the book's authors (Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler). In the end a settlement was reached whereby Columbia Pictures assumed the distribution of Fail-Safe and Columbia Pictures decided to release Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb first. At the time Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was set for a December 1963 release. Fail-Safe would be released later, in October 1964.

While Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb would beat Fail-Safe to theatres, it would still encounter a major problem with its original release date. The film's first press screening was scheduled for 22 November 1963. It was cancelled when news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy broke. The assassination of President Kennedy would also have an impact on the film's premiere. Originally set to premiere on 12 December 1963 in London,  Reuters reported on 28 November 1963 that the premiere of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb had been moved as Columbia Pictures and Stanley Kubrick thought  that it would be "...inappropriate to release a political comedy at the present time."  It is for this reason that Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb debuted on 29 January 1964.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy would impact Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in one other way. Major Kong's line, "Shoot, a fella' could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff" was originally "Shoot, a fella' could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff." It was redubbed out of respect for the President, who had been assassinated in Dallas. Here it must be pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, the enormous pie fight that formed the original climax of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was not cut due to the assassination. In fact, the pie fight sequence had been cut well before 22 November 1963. Viewing the footage of the pie fight, Stanley Kubrick decided it was too farcical and not in keeping with the satirical tone of the film. He then cut the sequence and shot a new climax for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

While Columbia Pictures had serious doubts that a comedy about thermonuclear war could be a success, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb proved to be a hit upon its release in January 1964. Not only did the film do well at the box office, but it received generally positive reviews as well. At the Oscars it was nominated for four awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Peter Sellers); Best Adapted Screenplay (Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, Terry Southern); Best Director (Stanley Kubrick); and Best Picture. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb performed even better when it came to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts' awards. The film won the BAFTA awards for Best British Art Direction (Black and White), Best British Film, and Best Film from Any Source, as well as the UN Award. It was also nominated for BAFTA awards for Best British Actor (Peter Sellers), Best British Screenplay, and Best Foreign Actor (Sterling Hayden).

If anything, since its debut the reputation of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb has grown. In a Sight & Sound poll conducted among directors it was ranked as the fifth greatest film of all time and was the only comedy in the top ten. It ranked #26 on  Empire's 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. It is one of the very few films that can boast a 100% "Fresh" rating on the web site Rotten Tomatoes.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was truly a ground breaking film.  Prior to the release of the film certain subjects simply were not considered fit for comedies. While there had been films made before  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that had satirised politicians and the military (although they might not have gone as far as it did), no film had ever used nuclear annihilation as a source of humour before. It should then not be surprising that both Columbia Pictures and the Production Code Administration expressed doubts that the public would receive Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb with welcome arms. The film's success then proved that the public would not only accept but even enjoy comedies that made light of subjects that once would have been considered off limits for humour.

The impact of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb would be felt almost immediately, with similar iconoclastic satires being released in its wake. The 1965 film The Loved One (loosely based on Evelyn Waugh's novel  The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy) satirised the once taboo subjects of the funeral industry and death itself. Richard Lester's 1967 film How I Won the War not only lampooned the war film genre, but the military and war itself. The President's Analyst (1967) took jabs at psychiatry, spies, the FBI, the CIA, conservatives, liberals, and many other topics. Like How I Won the War, M*A*S*H satirised war. Very dark comedies continued to be made well into the Seventies, with the 1976 send up of television, Network, being a prime example.

The influence of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb would go beyond its status as a black comedy dealing with taboo topics with an iconoclastic approach. The very look of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, particularly the set for the War Room, would have a lasting impact on films. This was particularly true of the science fiction genre. Dark Star (1974) , The Terminator (1984), Men in Black (1997), and other sci-fi movies borrowed , sometimes heavily, from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

There can be perhaps no better testament to its status as a classic than the fact that many directors cite Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb as an influence on their careers. Such diverse directors as  Brad Bird,  Lawrence Kasdan, and Barry Sonnenfield all cite the film as having had an impact on their careers. It should be little wonder that it ranked #5 in the aforementioned Sight & Sound poll conducted among directors.

Of course, there can be perhaps no greater measure of the impact of  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb than how much it has permeated pop culture since its release.  The Muppet Show featured a recurring character called Dr. Strangepork in its "Pigs in Space" segment. In Back to the Future (1985) Marty McFly plugs his guitar into a device in Doc Brown's lab labelled "CRM-114", the name of the message decoder in Dr. Strangelove. On television The Simpsons has made numerous references to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, including a conference room that looks like the War Room in the episode "Bob's Last Gleaming" and  a parody of Major Kong's ride atop the bomb in the episode "Homer the Vigilante". Mystery Science Theatre 3000 regularly referenced  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Quite simply a list of the references to  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in popular culture could easily fill a book.

Fifty years after its release Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb continues to influence directors, writers, critics, and classic film buffs. The film also continues to have an influence on popular culture. None of this should be surprising given Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb changed the course of film satires and comedies in the Sixties. Indeed, while  2001: A Space Odyssey may arguably be Stanley Kubrick's most famous film, it could well be Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that is his most influential.

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