What's become enervating, however, are the introductions and banter that provide misinformation. I've developed a penchant here for quibbling about them - a habit picked up, no doubt, from decades as a critic.
Too often opinions and gossip are presented as facts - and likely to be accepted as facts by the blindly loyal film buffs who make up TCM's core audience. I mean, if a filmmaker of some stature states a "fact" about a film during an on-air chat, that filmmaker surely knows what he/she is talking about, right? Well, not really. Often, it's just another opinion.
And opinions are like you-know-what: Everyone has one.
Also, an opinion posing as a fact is something easily researched - and invalidated - these days. It's foolhardy to pass one off as a fact.
The internet, you know.
The latest case in point is Saturday's segment of The Essentials, which included conversations between host Alec Baldwin and filmmaker William Friedkin prior to and following a screening of "The Manchurian Candidate."
Friedkin, of course, was one of the young filmmakers who, back in the 1970s, ushered in the New Wave in American filmmaking, along with Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian DePalma, Paul Mazursky, Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby. Back in the day, in the space of three years, William Friedkin directed "The Night They Raided Minsky's," "The Boys in the Band" and "The French Connection." Then came "The Exorcist."
His satisfying second act has included excellent films based on two Tracy Letts' plays - "Bug" and "Killer Joe." That aside, Friedkin was on The Essentials because he is an enthusiastic fan of "The Manchurian Candidate" in general and its director, John Frankenheimer, in particular. He has referred to Frankenheimer as "my idol," as well as "the most important" and "the most innovative" filmmaker, admiring the documentary feel the director brought to his work, particularly "The Manchurian Candidate."
Friedkin's comments are documented on the "A Little Solitaire" featurette on the "Candidate" DVD, an extra produced and directed by Michael Arick and edited by Glenn Erickson, author of the invaluable DVD Savant site.
Much of what Friedkin says on "A Little Solitaire" he repeated on The Essentials. But, at one point, he went off script. This was the jaw-dropping moment when Friedkin casually debunked the fact that "The Manchurian Candidate" was taken out of circulation a few years after its 1962 debut and made unavailable for decades for either theatrical or TV screenings. Never happened, he flatly stated. And he spoke with utmost authority.
Well, Friedkin pointed out that all films that were two or three years old at that time routinely had limited or no showings in theaters or on TV after their first-run engagements, not just "The Manchurian Candidate."
Not really. It's true that the three major TV networks and local stations discontinued telecasting feature films during the late 1970s - although "The Manchurian Candidate" did have one screening on NBC before its suppression and before commercial TV stopped airing movies regularly.
But, by then, cable had picked up the slack, airing films 24/7.
And it's true that second-runs and return engagements in mainstream movie theaters had become a thing of the past, but the other films that Friedkin claimed were never seen again in theaters actually found a second life in rep houses and on cable and home entertainment.
John Frankenheimer, for example, made two other films in 1962 in addition to "Candidate" - "All Fall Down" and "Birdman of Alcatraz," both of which were readily available either on cable or home entertainment and, in the case of "Birdman," in art houses. But not "The Manchurian Candidate."
It was simply ... gone.
OK, now for the facts...
The history of "The Manchurian Candidate" is as twisted, twisty and fascinating as its plot, which deals with elaborate brainwashing and a planned political assassination. It was Frank Sinatra, one of the film's stars and its executive producer, who posed the idea to United Artists head Arthur Krim to film Richard Condon's book. Krim was the finance chairman of the Democratic Party in those days and the material scared him.
But a call from Sinatra's friend, John F. Kennedy, sealed the deal.
The film was made in 1961 and released in '62 - and a year later, in 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. And Sinatra, who owned both "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Suddenly" (a 1954 film also about a planned political assassination), reportedly became disturbed by how life had suddenly imitated art. And so, the two films disappeared. In tandem.
The film's screenwriter George Axelrod, interviewed by the Washington Post, confirmed that Sinatra felt that "having assassination pictures floating around (in this climate) seemed to be in grotesque bad taste."
The suppression of "The Manchurian Candidate" didn't come overnight but in stages. First, all 35mm theatrical prints were removed from circulation. There would be no more showings in movie theaters. Then, the television versions, both complete and edited, were deleted from United Artists' syndication package. The film was available for a while in 16mm for non-theatrical rental (for showings on college campuses and the such) but those prints eventually were deleted from U.A.'s programming guide.
The decades-long absence of "The Manchurian Candidate" was the result of a very methodical process, as various studio departments got the word.
Films are suppressed for any number of reasons, most usually personal, and they can be placed in limbo by either the studio that made and released them or, in rare cases, by their filmmakers/owners. Both Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock, for example, owned most of their films. In the case of "The Manchurian Candidate," it was owned by Sinatra, plain and simple. And if one goes on the internet to do research - or, the old-fashioned way, to a library - one will find reports that point to Sinatra.
So, the popular explanation is that "The Manchurian Candidate" was pulled by Frank Sinatra, its executive producer, for politically correct reasons.
Sounds good. The stuff of excellent press.
But a second reason has also been advanced - that "The Manchurian Candidate" (along with other titles) disappeared because of a financial dispute involving discrepancies and disagreements about profits between the film's producers and United Artists. This is the version that John Frankenheimer himself had often corroborated in interviews.
Whatever the story, the movie was indeed unavailable for years.
It wasn't until home entertainment created a new market for films that the financial issues were finally resolved and "The Manchurian Candidate" was - ta-da! - suddenly released from limbo and free to be seen again.
But, first, a Big Comeback... Prior to its release on VHS, "The Manchurian Candidate" was screened at the 1987 New York Film Festival, with the spin being that the festival's selection committee had successfully coaxed Sinatra to comply. But it was all part of the planned re-release.
"The Manchurian Candidate" was restored for the occasion and became the hit of the festival. It eventually had a limited release in select theaters (read: art houses) in May of 1988 and was reviewed anew by critics.
The subsequent home entertainment included a seven-minute taped interview (produced by David Fein and Eytan Kella) with Frankenheimer, Axelrod and Sinatra discussing the making and controversy of "The Manchurian Candidate" - everything, but nothing about its disappearance.
Note in Passing: During his chat with Friedkin, Baldwin elicited surprise that the screenplay for the film was penned by Axelrod, a writer who was noted for light comedies ("The Seven Year Itch," "Phffft!" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's"). No surprise, Friedkin responded, because in his view, "The Manchurian Candidate" is a satire. Huh? True, there are a few humorous moments in "The Manchurian Candidate" but these largely revolve around the broad performance of James Gregory as a buffoonish (but decidedly dangerous) Senator with serious pretensions of becoming President.
Still, calling "The Manchurian Candidate" a satire is a bit of a stretch. John Frankenheimer's film has always worked as a compelling and often harrowing experience - even more so these days when its once-outrageous premise seems downright prescient. Now, Jonathan Demme's wildly misguided 2004 remake of the material, that's a funny film.
~John Frankenheimer rehearses a scene with Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey on the set of "The Manchurian Candidate"
~United Artists 1962 ©
~United Artists 1962 ©