Friday, December 2, 2011

JFK and "Seven Days in May," starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (1964)

I recently watched John Frankenheimer’s 1964 movie Seven Days in May, starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, and Ava Gardner. It’s about a right-wing general’s attempt to start a military coup against the President of the United States. It’s based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, and the screenplay was written by Rod Serling. Seven Days in May is a tense, intelligent film that asks big questions about the relationship between the Presidency and the military. In the movie, the President, played by the great actor Fredric March, has just signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. This proves to be a very unpopular action, and right-wing Air Force General James Scott (Lancaster) feels as though the President has betrayed and weakened the country. Colonel Casey (Douglas), an aide to Scott, senses that something fishy is going on, as he starts learning of secret military bases and lots of interest in an office horse-racing pool. Casey soon discovers that Scott and the other Generals on the Joint Chiefs of Staff are planning to use a training exercise to take over the United States government. Casey goes to the President with what he knows, and an investigation begins.
Seven Days in May is a great political thriller, and Frankenheimer was the perfect person to direct it. Using black-and-white film, he creates a tense mood similar to his earlier film The Manchurian Candidate, in which things are not quite what they seem. Fredric March gives a great performance as the embattled President, who is just trying to do what he thinks is best. Kirk Douglas is excellent as Colonel Casey, whom everyone calls “Jiggs.” Douglas gives a pretty restrained performance, but it fits the movie, and the part, perfectly. Sometimes it’s hard to have the less flashy part that anchors the movie, but Douglas did a great job, and he’s very likable as Casey. Douglas said, “I haven’t played a lot of nice guys in my time, so I enjoyed that.” (The Cinema History of Burt Lancaster, by David Fury, p. 170) Lancaster was also excellent as General Scott, even though he was cast against type both as a villain and as a right-winger. (In real life Lancaster was very liberal politically.)
Lancaster wanted to make Scott a real character, not just a cardboard cut-out, and he succeeded. Scott isn’t an evil person. Scott is just doing what he feels is right, out of his patriotic obligation to protect America from its enemies. Scott feels that the Soviet Union is using the treaty as a trick to launch a pre-emptive attack on the United States, and he thinks that he can best protect the country he loves by essentially staging a military coup. Lancaster didn’t overplay the part. There’s a scene in the movie where Scott gives a speech at a conservative rally. Lancaster could have easily played it over the top, using all his Elmer Gantry-like charm and charisma to sell Scott’s point of view. But he plays it much more low-key, much closer to how a real General would address such a gathering. I think the scene works because Lancaster played it this way. I admire Lancaster’s ability to play someone who he totally disagreed with in real life, and to play a character that is not very sympathetic. Lancaster is really playing a supporting role in Seven Days in May, as Douglas has much more screen time. (Lancaster still got top billing, though.) In a way, there’s a lack of ego to Lancaster’s acting that I find very appealing. Obviously, he had an ego, you probably can’t remain a top Hollywood star for forty years and not have an ego, but he also didn’t seem to be hung up on his own image as a star. He was not afraid to play unsympathetic parts like J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, or Emil Jannings in Judgment at Nuremburg. If the part called for big bushy eyebrows, mutton chops and a moustache, like in The Leopard, Lancaster was willing to be made up to look like a much older man. I’m not saying that Lancaster was a character actor, because he really wasn’t, but he was a big movie star who was also willing to do whatever it took to fit the part. It wouldn’t fit for General Scott to suddenly come on like Elmer Gantry, with Lancaster’s mega-watt smile of blinding teeth, and so Lancaster holds back. Pamela Tiffin, who co-starred with Lancaster in 1965’s The Hallelujah Trail, said this about working with him:
“Burt was not worried at any time about other actors and if they had more lines, if they had close-ups, if they had more screen time. That was one of the most wonderful things about him when I knew him. There was no pettiness in him whatsoever. And that’s rare.” (Against Type, by Gary Fishgall, p. 237)
The supporting cast of Seven Days in May is excellent as well, with Martin Balsam as the President’s Chief of Staff, Edmond O’Brien as a drunken Southern Senator who sobers up once things get serious, and Ava Gardner as Scott’s ex-lover. O’Brien gave a great performance, and he won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor as well. March was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Leading Actor in a Drama. March lost the Golden Globe to Peter O’Toole’s brilliant performance in Becket. (In a perfect world, I think both O’Toole and his Becket co-star Richard Burton should have won Oscars for Becket.) Interestingly enough, both O’Brien and Gardner had co-starred in Lancaster’s first movie, The Killers, in 1946. However, in The Killers, Lancaster and O’Brien have no scenes together, since O’Brien is playing the private detective who is investigating Lancaster’s death. And in Seven Days in May, Lancaster and Gardner have no scenes together.
What did the United States government think of Seven Days in May? It was released in February, 1964, just three months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Predictably, the military hated it, and had wanted Frankenheimer to submit a script for Pentagon approval. Frankenheimer refused. Kennedy himself, however, had read the novel and strongly encouraged the movie to be made. When Kennedy ran into Kirk Douglas at a party before filming began, he asked Douglas if he planned to make the movie. “When Douglas replied yes, the President proceeded to tell him why and how it would make an excellent movie.” (Burt Lancaster: An American Life, by Kate Buford, p. 230) For the opening scene of the movie, Frankenheimer wanted to film a mock protest outside of the White House between pro and anti-disarmament treaty protestors. Kennedy arranged his schedule so that he and the First Family would be in Hyannisport for a weekend, thus giving Frankenheimer the opportunity to capture the scene.
Kennedy was highly skeptical of the military after getting burned early in his administration during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. (The military had assured Kennedy the invasion plan would work; it didn’t.) Kennedy also earned the wrath of some right-wing generals who thought he should have taken more aggressive military action to support the Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. According to Richard Reeves’s book President Kennedy: Profile of Power, “John Kennedy distrusted the military, at least its commanders….Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and Maxwell Taylor were the men he entrusted with one of his fundamental goals: gaining civilian control over the military.” (President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves, p. 306) Kennedy also faced severe pressure from the military to act during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Many of Kennedy’s military advisors advocated a preemptive strike against the Cuban missile sites. But cooler heads prevailed, and Kennedy was able to skillfully defuse the crisis without starting a nuclear war. Kennedy said of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we listen to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.” (This quote is from a photo caption in President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves.)
Kennedy was genuinely appalled at the idea of nuclear war, and despite his sometimes tough rhetoric, he was determined to maintain peace at the height of the Cold War. Early in his Presidency, he sat through a meeting where he was presented with the American plans for a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. (Kennedy was not seriously considering such an attack, it was merely a contingency plan.) After listening to details of exactly how many missiles would be fired, and learning how much they would destroy, Kennedy disgustedly said, “And we call ourselves the human race.” (Reeves, p. 230) Kennedy thought it was “insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.” (One Minute to Midnight, by Michael Dobbs, p. 229)
Like President Lyman in the film, Kennedy also signed a weapons treaty with the Soviet Union, although Kennedy’s treaty was much more limited and was not a total disarmament treaty. It was the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, in outer space, and underwater. It was the first significant arms control treaty of any kind signed by both the United States and the Soviet Union. JFK signed it on October 7, 1963. Kennedy had called for the Treaty much earlier, and he advocated for it in a remarkable speech he gave at American University on June 10, 1963. The topic of Kennedy’s speech was world peace, and the speech was written by him and Ted Sorensen, his most trusted speechwriter. In the speech, Kennedy argued for seeing citizens of the Soviet Union in a more human light. Kennedy said, “No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.” (Let the Word go Forth: The Speeches, Statements, and Writings of John F. Kennedy-1947 to 1963, p. 285) In the same speech, Kennedy stressed what the citizens of the world have in common, saying, “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” (Let the Word go Forth, p. 286) This was actually a pretty radical thing to say in 1963, at the height of the Cold War, to actually acknowledge that the Russians were people too, just like us. Today Kennedy’s speech at American University is seen as one of his most eloquent.
When JFK’s friend Red Fay asked Kennedy if he thought the events depicted in the novel Seven Days in May could ever actually happen in the United States, Kennedy had an interesting response.
“It’s possible. But the conditions would have to be just right. If the country had a young President, and he had a Bay of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness. Maybe the military would do a little criticizing behind his back. Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, ‘Is he too young and inexperienced?’ The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation and only God knows just what segment of Democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment. Then, if there were a third Bay of Pigs it could happen. It won’t happen on my watch.” (Reeves, p. 305-6. Story originally from Red Fay’s book The Pleasure of His Company.)
There were certainly right-wing military men during this period who were very contemptuous of liberalism and Kennedy. Perhaps the most well-known was Major General Edwin Walker, who had served in World War II and Korea. By the late 1950’s Walker was convinced that many of America’s leaders were too soft on Communism. Walker began giving long lectures to his troops, and eventually telling them how they should vote. Walker used “a political index prepared by a group so far to the right that it did not even give Barry Goldwater a perfect score.” (Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, by David Talbot, p. 72) For these acts, which broke many Army regulations, Walker was relieved of his command and transferred. Walker became a darling of the far right, and eventually resigned from the Army. Walker was also a racist, and he protested the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962. Was Walker really trying to start a military mutiny, or was he just a slightly wacky John Bircher? It’s more likely that he was just the latter, but he was investigated for sedition after his conduct during the riot at Old Miss when James Meredith tried to enroll in classes. And then Walker’s story just gets stranger. Walker lived in Dallas, and on the evening of April 10, 1963, someone fired a bullet at him through the dining room window of his house. The bullet hit the window frame, thus saving Walker’s life. Walker just had a minor cut on his forearm from bullet fragments. The crime went unsolved at the time, with no real suspects. However, once President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald immediately became a suspect in the Walker shooting. While Oswald did not confess to firing the shot at General Walker, the Warren Commission concluded that it was in fact Oswald who fired at General Walker. It makes some sense that the apparently left-leaning Oswald would have a hatred for the right-wing General Walker, but if he did indeed fire the shots at General Walker, why would he assassinate the liberal Kennedy just seven months later? Like many things in Oswald’s life, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, unless Oswald was just trying to get famous, and didn’t really care who he tried to shoot.
There’s a final, sad note in the relationship between John Frankenheimer and the Kennedys. Frankenheimer was a very good friend of Bobby Kennedy’s, and when Kennedy was running for President in 1968, he spent the day of the California primary, June 4th, at Frankenheimer’s house in Malibu. Later that evening, Frankenheimer drove Kennedy to his victory party at the Ambassador Hotel. After making his victory speech, Kennedy was walking through the kitchen of the hotel when he was shot three times by Sirhan Sirhan. Kennedy died 26 hours later. While Frankenheimer was driving Kennedy to the Ambassador, he was speeding and missed a turn off of the freeway. As Frankenheimer cursed himself, Bobby Kennedy said to him, “Take it easy, John. Life is too short.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Concert Review: Ray Davies at the Fitzgerald Theater

Last night I saw Ray Davies at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul. It was a terrific show. I’ve seen Ray in concert once before, at First Avenue back in 2006. That was an amazing show as well. Ray seemed to be pretty chipper, after the first song he said, “I’m in a good mood tonight.” He didn’t tell as many stories as he did when I saw him five years ago, and it was a slightly shorter show, an hour and a half versus two and a half hours. Ray still looks and sounds good, he’s as thin as ever, and he was jumping around the stage as usual. (But he didn’t balance a bottle of beer on his head-a usual Ray trademark.) For the first half of the concert, he was accompanied by just Bill Shanley on guitar, who did a tremendous job playing the guitar licks that Dave Davies made famous. The first half was my favorite, as hearing all of Ray’s great songs with only two guitars really highlights how classic these songs are, and how well they stand up even 45 years after they were written. It was amazing hearing Ray sing “Waterloo Sunset,” one of the most beautiful songs ever written. We even got to help out on the “sha-la-las.” (Ray really loves having the audience sing along!)

For the second half of the show, Ray was joined by the band the 88, who were also the opening act. The 88 did a great job, but the sound mix was really loud. It’s something that annoys me about rock concerts, how the sound just gets all muddy once 4 or 5 people start playing together. The subtlety of the playing just gets lost, and I can’t hear individual parts anymore. Can’t they make it sound like a record, where you can hear the different parts? Anyway, Ray rocked out more Kinks classics with the 88 backing him, like “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” and “Till the End of the Day.” Ray dedicated “A Long Way From Home” to his brother Dave, which he also did when I saw him in 2006. The show was very 60’s-centered, the most recent song Ray played was the encore, “Low Budget,” from 1979. Ray said something towards the end of the show about putting out a new record next year, which would be great. A highlight of the second half was Ray digging deep into his back catalogue and pulling out the “Face to Face” track “Too Much on My Mind.” And “Celluloid Heroes” is really one of Ray’s best songs; it was fun to hear that one as well. All in all, it was a really great show by a rock and roll legend.

Here are the songs that Ray sang, in mostly correct order:

Acoustic, with Bill Shanley:

I Need You

Sunny Afternoon

Dead End Street

Waterloo Sunset


A Long Way From home

Dedicated Follower of Fashion

See My Friends

Victoria-partial, which segued into:

20th Century Man-in which Ray was joined by the 88

This Is Where I Belong

I'm Not Like Everybody Else

Where Have All the Good Times Gone?

Tired of Waiting for You

David Watts-sung by the 88

Nothing in the World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout that Girl

Too Much On My Mind

Till the End of the Day

All Day and All of the Night

Celluloid Heroes

You Really Got Me

Low Budget-encore

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Bob Forsch, Cardinals pitcher: 1950-2011

Bob Forsch, 1950-2011.
Bob Forsch won 163 games for the Cardinals from 1974-1988, and he threw two no-hitters.
Bob Forsch on the Cardinals Leaders card from the 1986 Topps set.

Bob Forsch, a right-handed pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1974-88, died on Thursday at the age of 61. Forsch threw out the first pitch at Game 7 of the World Series just a week before he died. This just makes me really sad. I never saw Forsch pitch, but he was a player I was very familiar with through my baseball card collection and my fondness for the Cardinals. I’m a Minnesota Twins fan through and through, but the Cardinals are my second favorite baseball team. As a kid, red was always my favorite color, and the cardinal was always my favorite bird, so it was inevitable that I would like the Cardinals. I was rooting for the Twins during the 1987 World Series, though. Even at age 6 I had to support my hometown team. It always makes me sad when someone who played baseball during the 1980’s dies, as it serves as a continuing reminder of my own creeping mortality and it also means that my childhood has been over for a long time. Forsch was also way too young to die at 61. He looked very healthy and vital when he appeared at Game 7. Forsch died of an aneurysm, which sounds like the kind of thing that could happen to pretty much anyone his age.

Forsch wasn’t a Hall of Famer. Heck, he was never even an All-Star. But he was a good, solid, steady, dependable starter for 16 big-league seasons, from 1974-1989. (After pitching for the Cardinals, Forsch finished up his career pitching for the Houston Astros in 1988-89.) Forsch won 168 games and lost 136, with a lifetime ERA of 3.76. Those are really good career numbers, but not great. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate players like Forsch more. It’s so unbelievably hard to just make it to the major leagues, let alone to be a consistent starting pitcher for 15 years, that I tip my hat to Bob Forsch. I was looking through my set of 1988 Fleer baseball cards a couple of weeks ago when I came across Bob Forsch’s card. I said to my wife, “You know, Bob Forsch wasn’t a Hall of Famer, but he had a pretty darn good career. Winning more than 150 games is really impressive.” That I randomly picked Bob Forsch’s card out and had been thinking about his career recently is definitely one reason why I’m writing this post. It’s easy to like the superstars and the Hall of Famers. They’re the best of the best, and they will never lack fans. But for every Tom Seaver, there are a lot of guys like Bob Forsch, players who did the best with what they had and made the most out of their talent, even if it didn’t carry them all the way to Cooperstown. As a baseball fan, I’m in awe of anyone who made it to the major leagues, since I would probably sell my soul to get just one major league hit. 

Forsch won 20 games once during his career, in 1977, when he went 20-7 with a 3.48 ERA. His best season might have been his second, 1975, when he went 15-10 with a 2.86 ERA. Forsch also threw 4 shutouts that year. Forsch was not a strikeout pitcher, as he only had 3 seasons in which he topped 100 strikeouts. Forsch consistently threw 200 innings a year for the Cardinals, with a high of 233 and 2/3 innings pitched in 1978. All told, he had 7 seasons over 200 innings. Besides 1977 and 1975, he had just one other year in which he won 15 games, 1982, when he went 15-9. Forsch had a lot of seasons where he won 11 games. He must have been injured in 1984, and in 1985 he wasn’t used very much as a starter. Forsch did get a lot of post-season playing time, as he was with the Cardinals when they had a resurgence in the 1980’s. Forsch pitched in the 1982, 1985, and 1987 World Series. He threw a shutout against the Braves in the 1982 NLCS, giving up just 3 hits. Forsch started Games 1 and 5 in the 1982 World Series, but lost both starts. The Cardinals won the Series in 7 games against the Brewers. Like the rest of the Cardinals, Forsch didn’t do well in the 1985 World Series, getting an early exit from his Game 5 start. But he did pitch an inning of scoreless relief in the disastrous Game 7, which the Cardinals lost 11-0 to the Royals. Oddly enough, Forsch was only used as a reliever in the 1987 post-season. He pitched scoreless relief in Games 2 and 3 of the NLCS against the Giants, and he got the win in Game 3, but then blew up in Game 5, giving up four runs without retiring a batter. The Twins hit Forsch hard in the World Series, tagging him for seven runs over six and a third innings pitched. But Forsch pitched well enough in Game 4 to earn the win, his only World Series win. 

Forsch was also a good hitter for a pitcher, hitting 12 career home runs and winning two Silver Slugger awards at pitcher, in 1980 and 1987. He hit .295 in 1980, .298 in 1987, and .308 in 1975! In August of 1988 Forsch was traded to the Astros and finished his career there as a spot starter and long reliever. Forsch started 422 games in his career, which puts him at 99th on the all-time list. That’s pretty impressive, that only 98 guys in the history of the game ever got the call to start more than Bob Forsch. Forsch ranks 3rd on the all-time Cardinals win list with 163, he’s only behind Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Jesse “Pop” Haines. Forsch threw 19 shutouts in his career, which is 15 more than Andy Pettitte threw. Of those 19 shutouts, two were no-hitters, putting Forsch on a short list of pitchers with more than one no-no. Bob’s brother Ken was also a pitcher and threw a no-hitter, making the Forsches the only brother combination to both throw no-hitters. Bob’s no-hitters came against the Phillies in 1978 and the Expos in 1983. In both games, he faced 29 batters, just two more than a perfect game. He gave up two walks to the Phillies, and against the Expos he hit Gary Carter with a pitch and the next batter, Chris Speier, reached on an error. The 1983 Expos were a very good hitting team; the heart of their lineup was Andre Dawson, Al Oliver, Tim Raines, and Gary Carter. Dawson, Oliver, Raines and Carter had a combined total of 10,214 hits in the major leagues, so holding all of them hitless for a game is pretty darn impressive. 

From what I’ve read about Bob Forsch it sounds like he was also a really nice guy, in addition to being a pretty awesome pitcher. It sounds like he was very humble and down to earth, and was a great mentor for younger pitchers as his career wound down. Like I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not an expert on Forsch’s career and I never saw him pitch, so there are certainly lots of people out there who know more about him than I do. But I have very fond memories of him through my baseball card collection, and I think it’s important for baseball players like Bob Forsch to be remembered.