Building my Movie Posters Puzzle: Dr. Strangelove
In late June I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.
This third installment in Building My Movie Posters Puzzle sees yet another leap forward on the calendar, this time from 1939 to 1964. I can promise you that this will not be a continuing trend. It is of some mild interest that despite the 25 years of progress between the release of our last entry, The Wizard of Oz, and Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick and company made the decision to shoot entirely in black and white, whereas Oz is famously presented in both black and white and color. Obviously, for a long time after, filmmakers felt very free to select either approach to filming and displaying their movies. Although color was steadily becoming the preferred format, if you take a look at the top-grossing films of 1964 you will find a few that were released in black and white, including Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Zorba the Greek, The Night of the Iguana, and A Hard Day’s Night. You appeared to need a motivating artistic reason for shooting in black and white, but studios were apparently not yet dead set against it and there was plenty of audience left that didn’t seem to mind (at least one commenter here at LeBlog claims to never watch black and white movies).
Kubrick’s reason for shooting in black and white has not been spelled out in any of the research I’ve done on the film, but my feeling is that it contributes to both the film’s verisimilitude and larger than life moments in equal measure. Many American households were still using black and white television sets deep into the 1970s, and informational films continued to use its “official” look.
This allowed Kubrick to gain the audience’s trust and serious mind before clobbering them with the broad political satire to come. Another approach he used in order to reinforce the documentary-like elements of Dr. Strangelove was a disembodied narration, sharing information about the U.S. air force and some simple daily strategies they use in the film.
I’m going to take this opportunity to get on my soap box and call out a large number of film critics and fans. Somewhere along the way, somebody decided that using any sort of voice-over is lazy storytelling and should be avoided at all costs. Now I’m not going to claim that narration and other forms of voice over haven’t been used very lazily at times when more creative use of scenes and dialogue could have communicated information and ideas more cinematically. That has happened. When it does, it should be called out. The problem I have is with those critics who were told narration was automatically bad and have decided it was true no matter what. These people will hear some narration and mark it down in their little notebook as a point against a film. To these people I say, just…stop. You are revealing yourself to be even lazier than the filmmakers you are criticizing. If you have seen a lot of movies you have seen plenty which are considered masterworks and which do, in fact, include narration. Examples? Okay, how about Goodfellas, Sunset Boulevard, Raising Arizona, A Clockwork Orange, American Psycho, Double Indemnity, Annie Hall, The Big Lebowski, Taxi Driver, Fight Club, Citizen Kane, The Shawshank Redemption, The Usual Suspects, and All About Eve. Is that enough? Charlie Kaufman lampooned this anti-voice over mindset years ago in Adaptation and yet I still see critics blithely listing narration as a “sin” in and of itself. If I ask you for criticism of a movie, DON’T say “it used a voice-over.” Tell me how it used it poorly. Otherwise, well, you are the one I will be judging negatively.
Okay, so that got said.
The point I’m trying to make about Kubrick’s approach to Dr. Strangelove is that it is not a typically constructed comedy. This is, in part, due to its very serious subject matter. The decision was made to establish that very seriousness in order to punctuate the ridiculousness of both the following comedy and of some of the real life cold war policies. Because of this, I’ve had people tell me that they “tried” to watch Dr. Strangelove but turned it off because they didn’t think it was funny. Well, that’s because the first 25 minutes or so are not particularly funny. This is by design.
After a short voice over introducing the concept of the “Doomsday Device,” the opening credits certainly hint at the movie’s comic destinations, with a very funny use of footage of mid-flight refueling of a war plane paired with a lilting orchestral version of “Try a Little Tenderness.” This choice is perhaps even funnier nowadays, with Otis Redding applying his brand of rough-hewn soul singing to the tune and making it very popular two years after Strangelove was released. At the time of the film’s release, a version by Aretha Franklin may have been most well known. Used alongside this romantic song, the footage can’t help but acquire a decidedly phallic quality. Sharp minds that are paying attention can have a real laugh right out of the gate.
But then, there really isn’t a true laugh line for another twenty minutes or so, when Sterling Hayden’s General Jack D. Ripper first introduces his bizarre fixation on his bodily fluids and a couple of minutes later, when George C Scott’s General “Buck” Turgidson tentatively suggests that Ripper “may have exceeded his authority” by launching a nuclear attack against Russia. Comic types have already been established by this point, most notably through jokey names like “Operation Dropkick” and broadly drawn characters like Turgidson and Slim Pickens’ pilot Major “King” Kong, but these are merely indicators of what is to come. Gradually, the events of looming nuclear apocalypse and the film’s satire spiral into the ludicrous, as the men in charge whose policies have led to swiftly approaching nuclear calamity prove themselves incapable of turning loose their entrenched ideologies and preconceptions. Amid this nightmare of self-interest emerges Peter Sellers’ title character, who serves both to clearly draw the nature of continuing megalomania among those in power and the cartoonish lunacy of what is happening.
Kubrick’s original plan was for a huge cream pie fight to break out among the generals and politicians in the war room, a sequence which certainly would have embodied the descent into comic anarchy. But in the end, the decision was made to leave the pie fight out and to detonate the Doomsday Device as the leaders were selfishly arranging for their own protection and preeminence.
The pie fight scene was, in fact, shot, but there were a few reasons given for its eventual deletion from the finished film:
1) Kubrick has said that the tone of the pie fight was too farcical and not in keeping with the satiric tone of the rest of the film.
2) At one point in the pie fight, President Merkin Muffley (also played by Sellers) was hit and fell, prompting a character to lament that the President had been “cut down in his prime.” The very recent assassination of President Kennedy would have made this seem in bad taste, but according to Kubrick, he had already decided to leave the scene out by the time of Kennedy’s death.
3) Some who have seen the footage claim that the black and white film, combined with the many flying white pies created a visually confusing result, with little ability to see who was actually being hit and by who at any given moment.
4) Still other reports indicate that the cast was having way too much fun creaming one another with pies, smiling and laughing throughout and the due to this Kubrick considered the whole scene a “disaster of Homeric proportions.”
As it stands, Dr. Strangelove is a masterpiece of cold war satire, progressing in its closing minutes from the iconic image of Slim Pickens’ bucking bronco ride on a nuclear bomb to Sellers’ wonderfully unhinged final moments fighting his own Nazi right hand and then the bookend romantic song “We’ll Meet Again” paired with footage of atomic explosions. Darkly funny stuff.