Dissecting Dr. Strangelove

Actor Slim Pickens being filmed before the special effects were applied.

by DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette | July 22, 2016 at 1:51 a.m.

The most shocking aspect of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 nightmare comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is not how the idiosyncratic filmmaker made nuclear warfare funny nor that he earned three Oscar nominations (for co-writing, producing and directing the movie) nor that it was a commercial hit (earning $ 9.5 million on a $1.8 million budget).

No, the most surprising aspect of the film is that it exists at all.

While the film has become symbolic of the Cold War that inspired it, the story of an insane general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) who launches an unprovoked attack on the Soviet Union because he believes fluoridation has hurt his, um, love life is now out on a new deluxe Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection. The new edition of the film features top secret (OK, previously unseen) information about the making of the film.



Because the Cold War is as dated as the suits on Mad Men, Dr. Strangelove now seems funnier because the reasons people offered for killing each other seem even more ridiculous. Nonetheless, the hatreds and the lethal technology that accompanied the era remain, even if the uniforms have changed. Kubrick’s sick, dirty joke serves as a serious warning for the rest of humankind.

Richard Daniels is the Stanley Kubrick Archivist at the University of the Arts London and says that despite the fact that the American president is named Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), the director’s sense of alarm remains.

Daniels (along with Tatjana Ljujic and Peter Kramer) edited the recently published Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives, which draws on the archives’ material to debunk myths about the filmmaker, who died in 1999. Daniels also appears in the extras on the new disc.

“One of the things Kubrick wanted to do with this film is bring people to the awareness of how crazy the nuclear arms race was, how close people were to self-destruction because of it,” says Daniels via Skype.

“One interesting fact that a lot of people might not know is that at that period of time, Kubrick actually contemplated moving to Australia because he had calculated that if a nuclear war was going to happen, one of the developed Western-style countries that might not be as heavily affected as the United States, Europe [or] Russia was Australia. He certainly started the motions of setting up bank accounts and talking to immigration officials in Australia.”

Because Kubrick’s dread about atomic Armageddon was genuine, it’s not surprising the script he developed with novelists Peter George and Terry Southern (The Magic Christian, Blue Movie and Candy) went through constant changes in tone before, during and after the shooting.

“What we can see from the development of the script is that the original idea was to do a very serious adaptation of Peter George’s novel Red Alert [also known as Two Hours to Doom], and then around March ’62, Peter George went away to do a new, different script, and this was the rise of a guy named Dr. Strangelove. Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers in the final film) was a nuclear scientist who through his knowledge of nuclear warheads and nuclear weapons became famous. I believe in one of the scripts he actually becomes the president himself. In most of them, he just becomes a presidential aide,” Daniels explains.

He adds, “No Kubrick script will ever tell you what the film is going to be like because changes are made during the shoot.”

For example, Kubrick shot scenes in which an ailing President Muffley struggles with a debilitating cold and the fate of the world. Kubrick found watching Sellers sneezing an amusing distraction and reshot Sellers as a more healthy, resolute and assertive commander in chief. “In the end, you get a completely different film because the president is a completely different character,” Daniels says.


While Kubrick got some help with hilarious turns from Sellers (who also played a British Royal Air Force officer who tries to stop Ripper’s attack), George C. Scott, former rodeo clown and rider Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn (who plays the unfortunately named Col. Bat Guano), he still faced a challenge in trying to entice audiences to see his gloomy comedy.

Kubrick understandably felt his unconventional film required unconventional promotion, so he turned to Cuban-born artist, filmmaker, animator and ad man Pablo Ferro, who was making award-winning commercials for Beech-Nut Gum, Ford and U.S. Steel. (He also made the NBC Peacock’s feathers unfold “in living color” and created a recurring logo for Burlington Mills where a piece of red cloth wove itself at the end of each ad.) Ferro was a towering figure on Madison Avenue at the time of Mad Men’s fictional Don Draper, but Ferro had never made a trailer before.

To pitch Dr. Strangelove to potentially wary audiences, Ferro incorporated storytelling techniques for TV commercials. The trailer features multiple moving images in the same frame and lightning fast cuts. He also incorporated the existing footage from the movie into a series of questions that roused viewer curiosity. According to the documentary Pablo, viewers in Texas actually bought movie tickets just to catch Ferro’s daring trailer.

Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Ferro recalls the stylistic innovations he made came as much from necessity as creative urges.

“He hired me because he wanted me to sell the movie as a commercial, and then I did it in my style with quick cuts with lettering and images,” he says. “When I came up with the quick-cutting technique, they would take a minute spot and make it a 10-second spot or a 30-second spot. I learned to do that in England. In England, they don’t do 60-second spots. They do 30. I made it simple for you to look at, but there are still a lot of images for you to look at. I set you guys up.”

Ferro says that comedy also makes a more appealing way to deal with important but unpleasant subjects. “I made it funny, and everybody wants to sit through humor. They don’t want to sit through drama, especially about bombing Russia.”

When asked what also helped audiences discover the film, Daniels pauses.

“Sex,” he replies.

“There’s one thing they use, particularly in the imagery for selling the film, in the kind of posters and the kinds of lobby cards you can get is Tracey Reed, who’s given the title of ‘Miss Foreign Affairs.’ You see lots of images of her in a bikini laid out on the bed. Sex runs all the way through the film, so it’s not completely incongruous.” Reed is in the film for little more than two minutes.

Carnality even makes its way into the open credits that Ferro put together after the trailer. Ferro’s distinctively narrow letters, which later decorated the openings of movies like The Addams Family, Stop Making Sense, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Philadelphia and Napoleon Dynamite appear over shots of a B52 being refueled in midair. With an instrumental version of the make-out classic “Try a Little Tenderness” playing in the background, the symbolism is amusingly obvious.

“We weren’t sure if it was funny,” Ferro says. “But everybody loved it. It looked like it was written for the script. We made that as we went along. The thing about Stanley is that he was open to new ideas. It was just a conversation over dinner. That’s how it happened.”

The director’s penchant for retakes and changes of heart didn’t bother Ferro.

“When I started working with him, people complained that Stanley was manic. What happened was that he was like me,” says Ferro. “We were not afraid to work.”

At 81, Ferro’s gratitude to Kubrick is evident throughout the conversation.

“It was amazing how that worked. It’s because of Stanley I created that style,” Ferro laughs. “He wanted everything on that screen, and then everybody started copying it.”

He sheepishly adds, “I don’t know how to spell. I left the ‘d’ out of ‘based on the book.’ Somebody at Columbia [Pictures] had found it six months later. Stanley calls me and says, ‘Pablo! How can you do this to me?!’ I said, ‘But, Stanley I can’t spell. I left it up to you. Besides, it’s very satirical. He said, ‘Yeah, it is very satirical.’ The army invaded the base. He didn’t change it, and he said, ‘You’re completely right. It looked like you did it purposely.’”


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Dan Lybarger is a freelance film critic and writer whose work has appeared in The Kansas City Star, The Pitch, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cineaste and other publications.