Some Thoughts on Seeing Dr. Strangelove on the Big Screen

Dr. Strangelove

Production model of the War Room set, from Dr. Strangelove

‘Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ is my favorite film. I was pleased to learn that John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola both held up Dr. Strangelove’s absurdist humor as the example of what they were trying to achieve in writing the screenplay for their film, ‘Apocalypse Now’ (My second-most favorite film).

I recently saw Dr. Strangelove again for the – I don’t know – 25th time? But it was only the second time I’ve seen it on a big screen. The first time there was a projection problem with the first reel. They gave us our money back and let us stay for the rest of the film. It was okay from the second reel on. But I don’t fully count it as having seen the film in a theater.

I noticed several things that I’d never noticed before. First, I noticed a typo in the opening credits. These credits are famous. The design, by Pablo Ferro, has been much-copied over the years. I can’t believe I noticed it but it’s never going to show up the way it did if you’re watching it on even the largest large-screen television.

And the funniest part to me is that the typo is on the writing credit. It says ‘Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern.’ Then, underneath that is the credit to George’s book, ‘Red Alert’, which was the original material Kubrick planned to base the film on.

The credit reads ‘BASE on the novel ‘Red Alert’ by Peter George. I wonder if Kubrick ever noticed it.

The next thing I noticed, again because it was on a BIG screen, was that Miss Foreign Affairs, the centerfold in the Playboy magazine that Col. Kong (Slim Pickens) is reading, is Tracy Reed, who plays Miss Scott, General Turgidson’s (George C. Scott) ‘confidential secretary’. Apparently this was intended and I just never noticed it before.

I’d also never noticed a couple of shots with General Turgidson in the foreground during the War Room scenes in which other men seated at the table behind him are slightly out of focus. One of those men appears to have the hair and tinted glasses of Dr. Strangelove, but it doesn’t look like Peter Sellers to me.

I noticed that there is a point in the final scene when Sellers, in the Strangelove character, is explaining the concept of using mineshafts to preserve a portion of the country’s population. Actor Peter Bull, who plays Soviet Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky, stands behind and slightly to the left of Strangelove’s wheelchair.

It is well-known that Sellers’ improvisations drove large sections of the War Room scenes. Kubrick admitted to laughing frequently and heartily at Sellers while filming. But Bull, whose stern countenance completely melts down can barely stifle outright laughter at Sellers. Kubrick must have been faced with the choice of using the only take of a brilliant Sellers improv or leaving it out.

I thought I’d found something new, but I googled it to see if I could find another reference.

PETER BULL SELLERS BREAKING CHARACTER

The first item was the Wikipedia entry for ‘Breaking character’. Bull’s performance is second on the list.

That final scene, by the way, wasn’t the original final scene. In fact, the final scene was shot and not used. It featured a pie fight in the War Room in which every character ended up completely covered in merengue. Kubrick decided it against using it. So, in a way, he was stuck using the take with Bull breaking character.

Something else I learned as I was writing this. The advanced screening for Dr. Strangelove was not held. It was scheduled for the evening of November 22nd, 1963. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy would, a few days later, prompt Kubrick to bring actor Slim Pickens into a dubbing studio to record the word ‘Vegas’ to replace the word ‘Dallas’ in his commentary on the contents of the bomber crew’s survival gear.

“A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff” wasn’t funny anymore.

 

Putting Words in Their Mouths: Three Great Lines of Film Dialog

GroupWithBubblesA single line of dialog does not a screenplay make. But there are certain lines that stay in our minds long after the projector is turned off and the theater floor swept. In some cases those lines become the stuff of popular culture. Here is a list of three of my favorite lines of film dialog.

3. “Have you seen the returns on ‘Gandhi II’?”

David Mamet is a successful playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and director. He has written and directed a number of films, including ‘House of Games’ (1987) and ‘The Spanish Prisoner’.(1997) You know his dialog immediately, the way the spoken words form the warp and weft of the scene. There is no mistaking it.  ‘State and Main’ (2000) is an absurd exploration of what happens to a small East Coast town when a film production moves in and runs roughshod over the locals.

In one scene, two of the film-within-a-film’s crew are seen entering the production office having an exchange around the above, an inside joke-within-a-joke about the priorities and integrity of the film industry.

2. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

Mario Puzo’s novel ‘The Godfather’ was published in 1969. It was an immediate best seller. The screenplay for the film ‘The Godfather’ (1972) was co—written by Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, though they did not write together. Puzo completed a draft of the screenplay and submitted it. Coppola took a copy of Puzo’s novel and went through it with a pair of scissors, cutting it up and pasting it into another book, accompanied by his notes about themes within each scene and whether or not that scene would be included in the film.

The line above is delivered by the character Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano), as he’s initiating a young man into the ways of the family. Having just executed a mole, Clemenza instructs his new recruit to do the above. There is such humanity in the words, and the way Castellano delivers them.

1. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

When Stanley Kubrick decided to make a film based on Peter George’s thriller ‘Red Alert’, he originally intended it to be a serious drama. He began working with George on a draft of the screenplay. The more he researched the subject of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and the ways the U.S. and the Soviet Union were dealing with it, the more he realized the only way to treat the material was as a black comedy.
Kubrick and Terry Southern wrote the screenplay that became ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) In that one line of dialog they brilliantly summed up their theme.