Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Dewey Defeats Truman

Film: Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

Of all the films I’ve reviewed here, and I’ve reviewed a lot, I don’t think I’ve come across one like Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!. This is not a traditional film in any sense of the word. What this is, in fact, is a filmed performance of a one-man show of the same name with James Whitmore taking the role of Harry S Truman during the years of his presidency. The film was made, evidently, by staging nine cameras around a live performance of the show in Seattle and editing it live, essentially as if it were being done on live television. In that respect, it’s pretty impressive.

During the course of the show, Truman talks to the audience, tells stories about his history, and also talks about what were current events for him at the time. It appears that the show is in two acts, the first covering Truman’s first presidency started on the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The second concerns his second term, and the only one he was elected to. Throughout, Truman not only talks to those in the crowd, but to “people” who come to visit him, holding conversations where we can hear only his side, but where he also gives us enough information to follow both sides. In a sense, these moments are like listening to Bob Newhart on the phone.

It’s a damn shame that this film is so difficult to find. The version that I located on YouTube is clearly ported over from videotape, since there are several places during the course of the movie where the tape has some bad patches. I say it’s a shame less because of the quality of the material and more because of the quality of the single performance and because there are parts of this that seem almost prophetic of the current political situation in this country.

By that I mean that Truman goes on several rants during the proceedings discussing his intense displeasure at the inclusion of money in politics. More, he frets about the possibility of someone with no motive other than greed being elected to the highest political office in the land. There’s a lot about McCarthyism in the second act, about fear-mongering, and this seems prophetic as well.

I don’t mean to suggest that this play-turned-film is specifically talking about the upcoming presidential election, since a great deal of this is targeted at what was going on politically in 1975. Remember that Truman was a political contemporary and a political rival of Richard Nixon, and 1975 was at the same time as the Watergate scandal. What Truman says on stage about Nixon is merely something that could just as easily said today, said with the same force, and said with the same amount of concern.

There is only a single performance to discuss here. In fact, the only person in the entire film who says anything is a man right at the start selling programs for the show. The rest is simply James Whitmore on stage. Whitmore makes a good Truman. I haven’t heard enough of Truman’s actual speech patterns to tell if Whitmore is doing an accurate Missouri accent, but it seems close enough. He also looks a bit like Truman, and that helps with the image he’s trying to portray.

I think a great deal of anyone’s reaction to this will come down to how someone views Truman both as a president and as a man. I happen to like Truman. I think he was a better president than he’s typically given credit for being. He comes across here as honest and forthright, stubborn and a bit cranky, but good natured and truly concerned for the well-being of his country and the people who live in it. He appears as a man who is truly dedicated to the idea of being a public servant and doing what he believes to be the right thing come hell or high water.

It’s worth noting additionally that this is one of only three movies (the other two are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Sleuth) where the entire cast was Oscar-nominated. Of course, with only a single cast member, that’s a little easier to manage.

In general, I liked this. Truman as depicted here is funny. He’s filled with a folksy wisdom but also with a cantankerous nature not scared to rile people up if he thinks they need riling. It is a bit fast. Whitmore speaks at an awfully rapid clip throughout, and sometimes the jokes land and he moves on before the jokes really have the time to sink in to their full effect. It could stand to be a little longer without any additional material. With some slower speeches and a few more notable pauses for important points, it would be easier not just to follow the thread, but to understand the impact of what he’s saying.

It’s hard to dislike, though. Truman seems like a guy who would have been fun to have a drink with, and Whitmore seems like the same kind of guy.

Why to watch Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!: A command performance by James Whitmore.
Why not to watch: A little too fast, a little too clever.


  1. I'd watch pretty much anything with James Whitmore in it, no matter how fast he might be talking.

    1. It's worth tracking down, if just for Whitmore.

  2. I actually saw this in the theatre during its initial release. I was fascinated by presidential history when I was a kid and my grandmother was a great admirer of Truman so she took me to see it though I was a bit young to understand it all.

    Despite that it was tremendously entertaining because of Whitmore's ease in the role and as you said Truman's likability as the focus of the show. I did see it once years later when it popped up on TV but then it sadly seemed to vanish, which is a shame. It was a sizable hit at the time, the theatre I saw it in while not packed had a good size audience, owing to the low cost of it production I'm sure but mostly because of the acclaim Whitmore deservedly received. He use to tour in it regularly to the point it became his signature piece much like Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst. This sort of filmed show is a tricky proposition but this one turned out about as well as could be done.

    1. There are some odd camera choices at times. It might have been a little cleaner if it had been more conventionally edited. Still, as a filmed theater piece, I think it's pretty good.