Monday, August 21, 2017

fake facts

I'm a sucker for Turner Classic Movies. It's become the filmic equivalent of White Noise in our home, always on. And, sometimes, I get to sit down and watch a movie (always when Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" or Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy" is aired). Its programming is beyond reproach.

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. 

His logic?

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 ©


Jimbo said...

A satire isn't necessarily humorous. It can be an exaggeration of reality for the sake of examination. Seen with a modern eye one can read the movie as a satire but in context of the time in which it was filmed I'm not so sure that was the intention of the makers. Friedkin, it seems to me, is projecting an anachronistic view on a film made in the 60s.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Jimbo. I agree that satire isn't always necessarily humorous and can be a way to describe exaggeration. Frankly, however, I don't see where anything in "The Manchurian Candidate" is exaggerated, except possibly (as noted) James Gregory's performance. If you saw that episode of The Essentials, Friedkin illustrated that the film was another example of George Axelrod's comic writing skills. Also, on the "A Little Solitaire" featurette, he points out that Richard Condon, the author of the book on which the film is based, was also a light writer. I also agree with you that when they made the movie, it is doubtful that the makers thought they were filming satire. Thanks again. -J

Sheila said...

I was also taken aback when Friedkin claimed that "The Manchurian Candidate" was never taken out of circulation. One could not see it for years and, when it did comeback, I remember countless news stories about the situation.

Bennett said...

There was no reason for an introduction or postscript to TCM's showing of "The Manchurian Candidate" - the film speaks for itself. Just show it! The talk spoils everything. Let people discover and savor the movie for themselves, without any prodding - which I find condescending.

Kiki said...

I love columns like this -- now, in the movie "The Rat Pack" (which was better than the real Rat Pack) was it Frank Sinatra (Ray Liotta) who told Kennedy that Judith Exner"looks like Elizabeth Taylor but you don't have to marry her to fuck her" or was it one of the other rats? I thought it was a terrific movie. k.

Gary Meyer said...

I was in the tenth grade when MANCHURIAN came out and saw it all three nights it played at the Uptown, Napa. My friends and I talked about it at length and felt it was a cynical and very dark serious comedy. When we started Landmark Theatres with several repertory cinemas we wanted to play MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and got a handful of bookings--maybe the local branches had not gotten the word. Indeed it then disappeared and we pestered Sinatra's lawyers and assistants to the point that, if I remember correctly, we got to show it at the Nuart once again. The urban legend was a credible one and included SUDDENLY which actually had gone into the public domain but theaters were afraid if they showed it there would be unwelcome visitors. It was screened a lot in non-theatrical venues. And then 1987 and Mike Schlesinger came along to change things, thank you.

The book was called pulp and campy and a 1962 New Yorker article called THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE “wild and exhilarating satire.” But the film was deadly serious and unnerving. Greil Marcus' book about the film has quite a story about Bobby Kennedy and John Frankenheimer which his excerpted here:

This New Yorker article about Richard Condon doesn;t necessarily have all the facts right but it is an interesting read.

Last year I was about to go to a play and started chatting with the couple, lawyers from Australia at the next table about what they were seeing. After comparing notes on various plays we exchanged contact info and when his name was Pete Axelrod I said "There was a great playwright and screenwriter named George Axelrod. He wrote two of my favorite movies, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and LORD LOVE A DUCK."

"He was my father." And he was surprised I knew those films and his others. We have become friends online and I will send him this article and comments for his perspective.

Bill said...

This is just my personal experience: Almost ALL of Richard Condon's books are satires--- sometimes they're lampoons. One of my favorites is "A Talent For Loving" a hilarious novel made into a barely tolerable, never-in-a-theater movie which wasted Richard Widmark and Genevieve Page. If you read the Manchurian Candidate, you will be convinced--- and those elements do indeed show up in Frankenheimers wonderful movie. I thoroughly enjoyed your post, by the way.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Bill, for the added insight. Actually, "A Talent for Loving," directed by Richard Quine (about whom I just wrote)was released in theaters, albeit in a limited way, by MGM in 1969. -J

Unknown said...

I scheduled it for an AFI series in the mid-or-later '70s (unless it was the Washington series I did in early 1980). UA told us they had a print but that clearance rights had to come from Sinatra. I thought we were sunk, but we wrote Rudin, who answered quickly, allowing me to make my brochure publishing deadline. His OK letter was stapled to a xeroxed copy of our original letter, which also now featured a xeroxed copy of Rudin's ballpoint permission that said, "OK. per 'The Man.'" Which became an office catchphrase in the theater offices for years. Mike Clark

joe baltake said...

Mike- Thanks so much for the invaluable added information. Rudin's terse response is wild. -J

Mike Schlesinger said...

Well, you're close, but still not quite right. Since I was the one who got MANCHURIAN back into circulation, I got the emmis straight from the horse's mouth--in this case, Sinatra's attorney, Bob Finkelstein.

Sinatra's then-attorney, Mickey Rudin I believe his name was, thought MANCHURIAN was a terrible idea. And when Sinatra insisted on doing it, he thought he would "save" Frank from financial disaster by structuring a deal that would make Max Bialystock envious. Of course, the film became a big hit, so Rudin's handiwork meant that every single time the film played, Sinatra actually LOST money. The deal with UA was for ten years, expiring in 1972. When renewal time came, Rudin gave them a flat "no' and swept it under the rug. Sinatra, who was never one to look back and was then in his brief retirement anyway, couldn't have cared one way or the other.

Flash forward to 1987. I'm now running MGM/UA Classics. The NYFF wants to show the film. More importantly, Sinatra has a new attorney (Finkelstein) with no axe to grind. The screenings are okayed, sell out promptly, and the reaction is incredible. With that encouragement, a new, more favorable deal was struck. I reissued it theatrically in Feb. of 1988, eventually grossing more than $3 million with only 50 prints. (That whole saga is another story in itself. I may need to write a book some day.) The rest is history, and it's remained in service ever since. I'm immensely proud of my part in this, even though it's meant spending the past nearly 30 years trying to stamp out all the BS theories of why it disappeared for so long. (Even Frankenheimer didn't know until I told him.)

One bonus: I had an original one-sheet from the film. At the taping, Frank, John and George all signed it for me, and eventually I added Lansbury, Leigh, Silva and Koch. It's one of my most treasured possessions, even though it was damaged in the 1994 earthquake. (Frank also signed my Live-at-the-Sands-with-Count-Basie LP.)

joe baltake said...

Mike! Thanks so much for this incredible history. You've put it all in perspective. -J

Rick Notch said...

"The Manchurian Candidate" was the first film broadcast on the CBS Thursday Night Movie, Sept. 16, 1965. I was 10 and watched it with my mother. Schedule information confirmed on Wikipedia.

joe baltake said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Rick! -J

Unknown said...

Rick-I think I remember seeing that 1965 TV showing, and the main reason I remember it so vividly is that they actually included the shot of the one POW's blood splattering behind him when Harvey shot him. For a seven-year-old such an image made a deep impression that has never left me after all these years and I still wonder how CBS' S&P department let that shot remain, unless either UA, Sinatra or Frankenheimer had enough pull to have them show the film without cutting a single frame. For a network to actually show gore (even in B/W) at that time still seems amazing to me.