50 Years Ago This Week – Adlai Stevenson Leaves the Building

Adlai Stevenson, Governor of Illinois and two-time Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party (he lost to Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956), died on July 14, 1965.  He succumbed to a heart attack while walking in London with the actress and politically active socialite (and occasional paramour of director John Huston) Marietta Tree.  An overview of his life can be found in this New York Times obituary.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with the movies?  Three things.  First, for many on the American left, Stevenson was more than just their political standard-bearer—he was idealized as something closer to a philosopher king: the thoughtful, articulate spokesman of American liberalism in the wilderness years of the 1950s, a decade when the New Deal and the Good War were replaced by Eisenhower’s caretaking complacency and the red-baiting of figures like Nixon and McCarthy. Stevenson was a Hollywood favorite – even in the era of the blacklist, when expressing liberal-leaning political views in public was a dangerous career move – counting among his outspoken supporters Lauren Bacall, Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Shelly Winters, Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, Tallulah Bankhead and Charlton Heston.  (And before you snort at that last name, keep in mind that Heston was, early and bravely, at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement.)  

More indelibly, Stevenson provided the template for President Muffley (“How do you think I feel, Dimitri?”) in Dr. Strangelove.   Peter Sellers, outstanding in that part (and two others in the film), originally took a different approach to the role, before Kubrick encouraged him to play the character with more dignity.  Given the nature of the film, moments of ridicule indelibly remained (“Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here—this is the War Room!”), but both in appearance and with his effective maneuvering and thoughtful disposition, Muffley came close to being the President that Stevenson’s supporters had imagined.   

Finally, Stevenson’s best remembered moment occurred when he was the American Ambassador to the United Nations (1961-1965).  During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he confronted the Russian Ambassador at a meeting of the Security Council, famously demanding: “Don’t wait for the translation, yes or no?”  Which all true fans recognize as the very same words asked of James T. Kirk by the Klingon prosecutor in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  And very fittingly, as the movie, released in 1991, was an allegory for the end of the Cold War.  I saw Star Trek VI (which established the one-time law that even-numbered Star Trek movies were the good ones) the week it opened, in a packed house at the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.  I laughed out loud at the Stevenson line, much to the alarm of my fellow patrons.