by Norman Markowitz
from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, p. 15
Red velvet everywhere in flew York’s plush Ziegfield Theater. Ushers in black bow ties and ruffled shirts. The occasion is GIVE EM HELL, HARRY, Bill Sargeant’s filmed record of a live Washington performance: James Whitmore’s one-man attempt to do for Harry Truman what others have done for Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Clarence Darrow.
Inside, I find an audience that is predominantly middle-aged and elderly, with at least three old men who bear a striking resemblance to Truman himself. After a decade of cold war criticism, anti-Vietnam agitation, and general antihero muckraking in national politics, why did they come? Perhaps in search of memories of better days, world wars won, and government that seemed honest, respected, and democratic. As an anti-Truman “revisionist” historian, I came for another reason: to see how the commercial media would package Truman for U.S. viewers.
Selling Truman as a basic hero product presents acute problems. How does one deal with the frightened and insecure private person, the Truman who often dodged decisions, pursued the most cynical policies, and exploded with anti-working class and anti-minority expletives when crisis overtook him? This Truman is, of course, absent from, the Whitmore performance, just as he is from the popular mythology that the play and film drew upon. “A very ordinary man,” Harry Truman calls himself early in the film, but he is portrayed as a remarkable brand of ordinary man who dresses down railroad union chiefs, regularly denounces the malevolence and greed of the big” money, and stands up bravely and consistently for democracy against Douglas MacArthur and Joseph McCarthy.
GIVE EM HELL, HARRY exploits Truman’s profanity for all its worth and aims it at all the right targets, from KKK bigots to more contemporary nefarious types like Richard Nixon. “The people,” whether they be the brawling Irish artillerymen whom he commands in World War I, a Jewish buddy who becomes his haberdashery partner in Kansas City in the 1920s, or oppressed Blacks in Missouri, all are his fellows and friends, and he always stands up for them with angry courage.
(James Whitmore, hardly heroic in the tradition of Raymond Massey in ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS, Ralph Bellamy in SUNRISE AT COMPOBELLO, Alexander Knox in WILSON, or even Cliff Robertson in PT-109, nevertheless is a humorous, apoplectically explosive Truman. His characterization, perhaps a bit overdrawn for the transition from stage to screen, does capture well the Truman idiom and speech inflections.)
In reality, Truman the man was perhaps more a Willy Loman who made it than a cracker barrel Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The play/film abides instead by the myth and pictures Truman, in the context of the culture of the 1940s, as a sort of Fibber McGee, a common man comedian. Closing my eyes during the scene of Truman at home in Missouri, mowing the lawn at the behest of a wife he calls “the Boss,” I picked up on both the rhythms and the audience laughter of old radio situation comedy.
Even Truman’s perpetual harangues against the high hats and politicians of the world ring true to the sentiments of the Good for Nothing Middle American folk figure of yesteryear, Fibber McGee. The film’s most important message follows: that the common folks, if they have faith in themselves collectively and a proper distrust of high hats, can reach the heights and yet remain true to their best hopes. Truman’s comments to the people as he leaves office at the end of the film, “My promotion is to be one of you,” eloquently and perfectly reflects this theme.
People need to feel patriotic, to identify with the positive things in their society, so perhaps an idealized, egalitarian Truman has its reasons. Nevertheless, the producers of GIVE EM HELL, HARRY demonstrate unforgivable contempt for their audience by virtually ignoring the important events of the Truman presidency, i.e. the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Truman Loyalty and Security program, the Smith Act arrest of Communist Party leaders, and the anti-labor Taft-Hartley law.
Insofar as the A bomb decision and U.S.-Soviet general relations are touched, these appear weakly in an imaginary conversation between Truman and the ghost of FDR, a conversation that tells the audience nothing except that Truman had a mild distrust of Stalin at Potsdam and no regrets about using the bomb. The film’s treatment of the complex Korean War is limited to the Truman and MacArthur controversy, and then only to the public relations account of a petulant, autocratic general first misleading and then rebelling against an honest, peace loving president. Finally, the film shows Truman denouncing Joe McCarthy as “Mack the Knife,” and making the incredible boast,
In such ways does history really become a pack of tricks played on the dead, especially the dead from Hiroshima to blacklisted Hollywood.
To continue: on screen, Truman risks his life to confront Klu Klux Klan enemies at a closed Klan meeting and uses a quote from his Jewish partner, Eddie Jacobson, to humiliate them. In reality, Truman was not too averse to receiving KKK political support and only publicly repudiated it when the Klan warned him against appointing Catholic friends of the Catholic Pendergast machine, his principal backers in the race for Jackson County judge. Truman’s relationship with Pendergast is portrayed in terms of an understanding whereby the Big Boss respected the honesty and integrity of his handpicked county administrator and United States Senator.
In reality, the crime-syndicate-connected Pendergast machine used Harry Truman, its major political bread winner, to consolidate its power, first in Kansas City and then in Missouri as a whole. Truman’s patronage appointments, especially his use of Senatorial courtesy to influence the choice of WPA administrators, gave Pendergast much of his power during the New Deal, and Harry did everything he could to hinder the federal investigation that finally brought the Big Boss down and sent him to jail in 1939. After Pendergast’s fall, Truman made an alliance with Robert Hannigan, a major figure in the less flamboyantly corrupt St. Louis machine. As Democratic National Chairman in 1944, Hannigan was instrumental in the behind the scenes wire-pulling that gave Truman the Vice Presidential nomination over the New Deal incumbent, Henry Wallace.
As the diaries of Henry Wallace and other public figures show, Truman often distrusted Jews with the suspicions of a small town gentile businessman and feared Blacks before, during and after his presidency. Yet he took support from both groups, who were significant factors in the New Deal liberal and labor coalition that he precariously held together while presiding over the creation and development of the Cold War.
Concerning the major group within the coalition, the industrial workers, Truman had praise in the abstract (which is recounted in the film) undercut by petit bourgeois hostility to their practical struggles and their politicized labor movement (even though that movement was the decisive factor in his 1948 election). Perhaps the most frightening open attack made in the postwar era directly on the working class movement was Truman’s threat to draft the railroad strikers of 1946 into the army if they did not return to work. In a section of his draft speech to Congress that was cut out by his political advisors, Truman sounded more like Hitler than Jimmy Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON when he said,
Neither these words nor any others like them uttered by Truman appear in James Whitmore’s mixture of passionate and funny HST monologues. Yet, they are as much a part of Truman as are his attacks on Wall Street and big business, and they are, tragically, a far more accurate gauge to his presidency and times than GIVE EM HELL, HARRY, a warn and occasionally moving one-man soap opera manufactured for U.S. viewers and presented to them in an appropriately cheap process called Theatrovision.