THE BOOTLEG FILES: GIVE ‘EM HELL, HARRY! Image

BOOTLEG FILES 386: “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” (1975 film starring James Whitmore as Harry S. Truman).

LAST SEEN: The entire film is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Twice on VHS video, but never on DVD.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Unavailable for many years.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: I hope so.

My grandfather was a rather severe right-wing Republican – compared to him, Rush Limbaugh was a Pete Seeger-style leftie! While Grandpa abhorred the Democratic Party, there was one leader in their ranks whom he revered: Harry S. Truman. Grandpa may not have been in line with many of Truman’s policies, but he greatly admired the 33rd president’s blunt honesty, salty sense of humor and ability to stand up for what he believed in.

In today’s political climate, it is easy to rue the absence of a straight-talking, morally honest leader like Truman. Since that kind of a politician appears to be extinct, the best we can do is to appreciate the spirit of Truman in the delightful 1975 film “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!”

“Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” was conceived by playwright Samuel Gallu as a one-man production that highlighted episodes in Truman’s personal and political adventures. It was created at a time when American theater was ripe with one-person plays on the lives of towering historic figures: most notably, Henry Fonda played Clarence Darrow, Hal Holbrook was Mark Twain and Julie Harris was Emily Dickinson.

For the theatrical production of “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!”, character actor James Whitmore was tapped as the show’s star. Whitmore was a one-time MGM contract player who received an Oscar nomination for “Battleground” (1949), his second film role. MGM initially positioned Whitmore for meaty supporting roles in prestige productions such as “The Asphalt Jungle” and “Kiss Me Kate,” and he snagged a starring role in the 1954 sci-fi cult favorite “Them!” However, his career became bogged down with minor supporting roles in major films such as “Oklahoma!” and “Planet of the Apes,” plus a seemingly endless amount of forgettable television roles. Landing this role was something of a major comeback for Whitmore.

Whitmore bore no physical resemblance to Truman, though expert make-up and costuming helped to bring about a passing similarity. However, Whitmore captured the unique cadences of Truman’s distinctive speech pattern and the trademark physical gestures that shaped the public’s perception – most notably his wide, beaming smile. As New York Times critic Richard Eder remarked: “If at the start he is an actor straining away to imitate Truman, by the end he is the man.”

Gallu’s play opened at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 17, 1975, and then embarked on a six-city tour. Strangely, Broadway was never part of the original tour – it was never staged in New York until 2008. However, the success of the touring production, coupled with a growing nostalgia in Watergate-weary America for Truman-style honesty, encouraged Gallu to release a film version of “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!”

What was very unusual about the film adaptation was the decision not to shoot it on film. In order to maintain the vibrancy of the stage production, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” was shot in a single real-time performance (before a Seattle audience) using nine video cameras in a process called Theatrovision. This was actually a successor to a 1960s process called Electronovision, which recorded theatrical productions on video, most notably Richard Burton’s Broadway turn in “Hamlet” and the all-star concert “The T.A.M.I. Show”. In both processes, the video production was transferred to 35mm for a theatrical release – but Theatrovision included a sharper visual quality.

The turnaround time for the motion picture version was unusually quick: the film “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” opened four months after the Ford’s Theatre premiere. The director of the video-to-film record was Steve Binder, who directed Elvis Presley’s stunning 1968 TV comeback special and later directed the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special.” The stage production was directed by Peter H. Hunt, who was best known for directing the Broadway and film versions of the musical “1776.”

Ultimately, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” is Whitmore’s triumph. The actor invests an extraordinary level visceral energy into his Truman, breathing new life into Truman’s frank command of the language. Whether threatening a newspaper critic who denigrated a concert recital by his daughter Margaret or harshly calling Douglas MacArthur and Joseph McCarthy to task for overstepping the bounds of their respective authorities, Whitmore’s Truman is a whoosh of fresh air – he is a man who speaks his mind freely, but never recklessly. One of the biggest laughs in the show comes when Whitmore repeats Truman’s celebrated 1948 campaign remark: “I don’t give ’em hell – I tell the truth and they think they’re in hell.”

Although much of the play is taken directly from Truman’s speeches and autobiographical writings, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” plays a bit loose with the full story, often jumping over key controversies in the Truman administration and rewriting aspects of his biography to make him look like a one-man dynamo that constantly knocked down intolerance and hypocrisy. A section where Truman converses with the ghost of his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, is more than a little weird, and there are also a couple of kicks at Richard Nixon that are strictly aimed at the mid-1970s audience. (Did Truman really say, “If that son of a bitch Nixon is ever elected president, he will hurt this country”?)

“Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” was theatrically released by an independent company called Theatre Television Corporation. The film’s advertising campaign was unusually hyperactive, with a claim that “the stage attraction of the decade becomes the greatest entertainment event in history!” The distributor invested a great deal of money into the film’s promotion, and its efforts paid off with Whitmore gaining Best Actor nominations in both the Golden Globe and Academy Award competitions. These nominations were somewhat controversial, with detractors harping that Whitmore’s performance was a filmed record of a stage production and not a performance created especially for the screen.

Oscar trivia buffs like to point out that “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” was one of two films where the entire cast was nominated for the coveted award – “Sleuth,” with only Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine on camera, was the other film. However, there is another bit of Oscar trivia worth noting: this is the first shot-on-video production to receive an Academy Award nomination.

“Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” turned up twice on VHS video – once in 1986 from Goodtimes Video and then in 2002 from Republic Pictures/Worldvision. However, it was never released on DVD. The film has been out of circulation for nearly a decade, and bootleg copies can be found in unauthorized DVD duplications of the VHS versions; the full film is also on YouTube, albeit in multiple installments.

For those of us who were too young to be part of the Truman experience, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” is a wonderful introduction to the great man. I can understand why Truman could make my unshakeable Republican grandfather cross party lines – he was one of the greatest presidents of American history, and this very fine film is a memorable tribute to his achievements.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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