Dr. Strangelove rating:
It's a nostalgia trip with the new, special edition DVD of Dr. Strangelove
In the 1960s, as a fledgling writer seeking my first magazine publication, I kept sending out an article on the philosophy of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. It kept coming back. Then I sent out "Sex and Dr. Strangelove"; it was published by the first magazine to which I submitted it, Film Comment. There was an easy lesson there. One that hasn't changed -- satire sells. Or something like that.
In the more than 35 years since its initial release, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) remains potent and brilliant. Its bravura performances, masterly direction and cynical social commentary remain fresh and original. The film is still a visual treat. The grainy handheld battle photography, the chilly War Room ambience, Major Kong's wild ride on the phallic bomb and the breathtaking final image of the world exploding in a great mushroom cloud as Vera Lynn sweetly sings "Well Meet Again" are classic cinema images. And the American Film Institute recently chose the film as the third best comedy, and 26th on their all-time list of movies.
Now a new special edition DVD of Dr. Strangelove has been released. Director Stanley Kubrick originally shot the film in "multi-aspect ratios" -- the dimension of the image changes in different scenes -- and this DVD at least pays lip service to that. The audio and video are digitally mastered. The initial DVD was devoid of extras; this special edition has several extras, including two documentaries. The only jarring note in both documentaries is by William H. Bassett, who attended the Ted Baxter school of narration.
One documentary is the rather skimpy 14-minute "The Art of Stanley Kubrick from Short Films to Strangelove." The new DVD also has split screen interviews with George C. Scott and Peter Sellers. The Sellers "interview" is a delightful tour de force of accents -- Cockney, English, Scottish and American.
But the feature that makes this DVD edition priceless is the new 45-minute "Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove," which is full of technical details and fascinating inside information. In it we learn that the film's press screening was originally scheduled for November 22, 1963, but President Kennedy was assassinated that day and, naturally, the screening was canceled. The assassination also caused a change in the dialogue. When pilot King Kong is going over his survival kit, sees lipstick, prophylactics, etc., his original line was, "Could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff." "Vegas" was hastily dubbed in instead.
Slim Pickens was not originally supposed to play Major Kong; Peter Sellers was, along with his three other roles -- the US President, an RAF pilot and Strangelove. But Sellers had a fight with Kubrick, fell out of the cockpit on set, broke his leg and couldn't get back in the cockpit, so the role had to be recast.
We also learn that Sellers improvised most of what he did -- the berserk gestures of Dr. Strangelove in the War Room; his black glove, a dig at Kubrick, who wore black gloves on the set; and his performance of the President, modeled on Adlai Stevenson. We find out how Kubrick manipulated George C. Scott to his advantage. Scott thought of himself as a good chess player, but Kubrick was a master. They played, and as a producer recalls, "He demolished Scott," thereby gaining his respect. Also, after Scott did his usual takes, Kubrick would ask him to do one "over-the-top," and later used these hammy takes. "George resented it," says James Earl Jones, who played the bombardier. But posterity would probably agree that Kubrick, the master, was right.
The special edition DVD of Dr. Strangelove is a veritable arsenal of sharp insights and lasting memories. Stanley, Peter and George C. -- we miss you.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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