The Comedy That was a Drama That was a Comedy

Dr. Strangelove This is a continuation of a series in which I count down my Top 5 Favorite Comedy Films

No. 1: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

And, here we are at No. 1. Finally. And, what better movie for a sense of finality than one that ends in the nuclear decimation of the entire planet!

If you’re wondering how a movie about nuclear annihilation can be a comedy, you’ve got some pretty good company. As in, absolutely everyone…except for Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick has been dead now for almost 17 years, and he wasn’t all that productive during his lifetime. Thus, younger audiences are sadly not as aware of him as a filmmaker as they should be, or even know they are.

He only directed 13 feature length films. But, those films are almost all classics that you definitely have at least heard of.

Greatest Hits: Spartacus, Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and of course, Dr. Strangelove.  

Some people will be upset at the few omissions. Surely, The Killing, Paths of Glory, and Barry Lyndon deserve mention.

And, younger people might actually know his under-appreciated final directorial effort Eyes Wide Shut, starring pre-divorce Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and most famous for the masked orgy scene that has been aped in many movies since.

Anyway, to say Kubrick was prolific wouldn’t be accurate, but a genius, unquestionably.

And, nowhere is that genius put more on display than in Dr. Strangelove.

The basic plot is that a rogue general, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), has decided to take Cold War matters into his own hands by calling in a nuclear bombing run to the fleet of bombers constantly patrolling the skies between the USA and USSR.

Once Washington and Moscow see the bombers moving toward the USSR on radar, they get together to try and figure out what happened and stop it before one of the planes successfully drops its payload on Soviet soil.

This is particularly important because, as it turns out, the Soviets have just installed an automatic response mechanism that will launch all missiles as soon as it senses a detection on Soviet soil.

Added level of difficulty: the planes are now supposed to disregard all incoming messages that are not accompanied with the proper code, which only the general has.

Nuclear war seems inevitable.

So, how in the world is this a comedy?

Well, it’s not. Or, at least, it didn’t start out as a comedy.

Based on the exactly as serious and dire as it should be book Red Alert by Peter George, Kubrick initially approached to project as a drama.

But, he soon had a change of heart. You see, to him, the whole thing was so comically absurd that he had no choice but to turn it into a pitch-black, satirical comedy.

So, he brought in the satirist Terry Southern to collaborate and set about turning the Cold War into comedy.

The first piece was the most important. Casting the title character. If you haven’t seen it, Dr. Strangelove is a real person in the film, and as his name might suggest, he’s on the peculiar, possibly maniacal, side. And yet, a genius figure revered by many. So, complex. He couldn’t be too clownish or too serious. He had to inhabit this “strange” in between. Kubrick had the perfect person, a brilliant comic actor he’d just worked with in a similarly complex role. Peter Sellers.

Most people know Sellers from the Pink Panther films, but he also starred in Lolita for Kubrick. So, he was signed on to play the odd former Nazi doctor (a definite commentary on Project Paperclip).

But, they didn’t stop there. Before it was all over, Sellers was set to play four characters in the film, though it was eventually whittled down to just three. Just, as if it’s that easy.

He makes it look easy, though. And people that don’t know to look for it, in my experience, never know which characters he plays. Strangelove is wheelchair bound with wild blonde hair, sunglasses, and one gloved hand. Lionel Mandrake, that character the most looks like Sellers in real life, is the RAF Group Captain stationed at the base with General Ripper. And, the U.S. President Merkin Muffley is a slight man with a horseshoe bald spot.

The key to writing satire - well, one of the keys - is to write as if you’re serious. The comedy doesn’t come in spoken jokes (usually). It’s all based in absurdity. So, the characters should generally take their dialogue seriously. Which is why it was a near stroke of genius to fill most of the rest of the cast with veteran dramatic actors such as Hayden and George C. Scott. Especially, Scott.

Known most for playing General Patton in Patton, Scott was a smart man and wise to Kubrick’s plans. But, taking himself seriously as an actor, he refused to engage in any shenanigans when it came to the delivery of his lines.

You see, the words themselves may not be particularly funny in a satire, so the humor can often reside in the delivery. If you’re saying something crazy, say it with a straight face while simultaneously swinging from the rafters.

Scott’s role was General Buck Turgidson, the trigger-happy military adviser to the president. And, he intended to take it seriously. But, Kubrick had a plan.

Something that is actually a good tool to use for measuring emotion, Kubrick would always have Scott do at least one silly, over the top take, saying that it was to help Scott find his range. Kubrick promised not to use any of the takes…then used all of them. And, the result is one of the greatest performances of Scott’s career.

As far as the bombers go, we focus on one in particular led by Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens).

Pickens was also in the No. 3 movie on this list, Blazing Saddles. He was a great comic actor…later in his career. But, like a lot of people at the time, he started out doing serious stuff. Obviously, mostly Westerns. He was also way down the list on choices to play the part. This was Sellers original fourth part, but he was injured and cut his roles down to three. Then, they tried to get John Wayne, who turned it down. More people were offered the role before Kubrick finally thought of Pickens, who he’d worked with on Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks. And, the rest is history. Now, the most iconic image from this movie is him riding the nuclear bomb down onto Soviet soil.

Fun note: This was also James Earl Jones’ first movie. He’s part of Kong’s flight crew.

Another iconic image, that is often copied, is the War Room, where many pivotal scenes take place. As Turgidson, Muffley, and Peter Bull as the Soviet Ambassador argue and scuffle, bureaucracy is played to maximum effect and gives us great lines like, “You can’t fight in here. This is the war room.”

This movie’s influence is nearly immeasurable. From the copied images and characters like Strangelove, the War Room, and riding the bomb to pitch-perfect comedic stabs, like a master fencer jutting his slight blade between the ribs of a heavy drama.

A lot of this is due to Sellers’ performance. General Ripper would be unbearable as he groans on about fluoride in the water if not for Lionel Mandrake nervously interjecting just long enough to tell Ripper he sounds crazy. So, it’s a lot like you having dinner with your Glenn Beck-loving uncle in that way. Only funny.

Then, there’s Pickens’ breakout moment.

Then, there’s the screwball insanity of the War Room, led by Scott playing it as big as he ever could.

Then, there’s the peculiar Strangelove who is both off-putting and funny.

This is a movie best enjoyed with friends. Due to it being one of the most perfect satires ever committed to celluloid, laughs are better in groups. It can be easy to take it seriously sometimes.

The 1960s were a tense time. This move reflects that, but it also calls our leaders to the mat for putting us through such unnecessary insanity like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Obviously, it took another 25 years to end the Cold War. But, I like to think that, coming out in early 1964 this movie, at least, made a slight impact in reminding people how crazy and unnecessary this all was.

And, now that it’s been 25-plus years since the end of the Cold War, it’s a lot easier to laugh at. Mostly. One doesn’t have to look too hard to see parallels between the characters in the movie and some of our leaders now.

Ripper keeps going off about how the fluoride has made us impotent. He’s blaming his impotence on the Soviets, essentially. And doesn’t that sound an awful lot like some of our leaders now?

It’s in the past, but it’s timeless. It’s perfect satire in that it’s actually a drama. It gets some of the best performances for some all-time greats in their careers. It’s infinitely quotable. Its influence is still felt today. And, it was written and directed by one of the greatest filmmakers in history.

For all these reasons and more, this is why it’s my No. 1 comedy film of all time. I hope you agree. But, if you don’t, that’s cool too. The great thing about comedy is that it’s got something for everyone. It’s not so easy to categorize like drama. Comedy is complex, and it rewards those who love it and seek out the best in it.

Dr. Strangelove has exactly one comedic actor and one satirical writer among a bunch of otherwise serious film people. And yet, the comedy was there. They recognized it and gave it life. And, we’re all better off for it.

Kris Noteboom is a Level 3 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus on comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.