Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Interview with TESTAMENT Director Lynne Littman

Littman Church

“You know, people really remember it vividly. It feels like it traumatized people and that’s just fine. That’s called catharsis…”

Director Lynne Littman on her film Testament

Since its release on November 4, 1983 (a few weeks before the network broadcast of The Day After) Testament has remained a haunting cinematic artifact from the last years of the Cold War. President Ronald Reagan’s first term arms buildup and his administration’s endorsement of civil defense had heightened fears of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It was in this tense atmosphere that a new wave of nuclear films was produced. The Day After, a heavily promoted and controversial “event” TV movie, was undoubtedly the best known of this crop.

As has been reported in several biographies, The Day After had a profound impact on the president. Indeed, Reagan wrote in his diary on October 10, 1983 that the movie had left him “greatly depressed.” It has been suggested by historians that this movie played a part in changing the commander in chief’s mind about the arms race. Four years after watching it, Reagan infuriated conservative hawks by signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the USSR. It is unknown whether the president ever saw Testament, but it is highly unlikely that he did—because if The Day After “depressed” him, Testament would have put him in the hospital.

Reagan Watching TV

To this day, Testament retains the power to induce an almost crippling sadness on the part of the viewer. The same cannot be said of its massively hyped genre cousin.

A few years back, CONELRAD wanted to explore the creative evolution that led to this amazing film. Director Lynne Littman was kind enough to indulge our request for an interview. Remarkably, Testament was Ms. Littman’s first dramatic feature film. She had previously worked in the field of documentary, winning an Oscar for her short film Number Our Days (1976). Ms. Littman was open to all of the questions that we posed to her and pulled no punches. We hope that this interview will serve as an informative companion to the film, a kind of textual director’s commentary (the DVD, unfortunately, lacks a commentary track, but is otherwise excellent).



CONELRAD: What inspired you to seek the rights to Carol Amen’s short story The Last Testament?

LITTMAN: I was looking for a film to do and it was in Ms. Magazine, and at the bottom of the story, it said Ms. Amen lived in Sunnyvale [California] so I called Information in Sunnyvale. It was easy to find her and she was gracious and she sent me to her agent. And the rest was kind of funny, because when I went to American Playhouse to get money for the film, Lindsay Law [who was the head of American Playhouse] said “I’ve got this story from half a dozen people, why are you any different?” And I said, “Well, I have a cancelled check for the rights.” I had spent one of the most unpleasant years of my life being an executive at a television network, and what I did learn was to get the rights.

CONELRAD: You paid a thousand dollars?

LITTMAN: I paid fifteen-hundred. That was the option. I don’t remember how much we wound up paying her, but it was against a fee.

CONELRAD: What was Carol Amen [1933-1987] like? Did you keep in touch with her?

LITTMAN: I did. We certainly invited her to the set whenever she wanted to come. She did come, she came with her family. She was very lovely, very simple. I think she wrote religious pamphlets for airports. So when she said that she awakened in the middle of the night and this story came to her in a vision, she literally meant it. I mean I thought she was joking when I first heard it, but then I realized she was telling me the truth. And she sat down and wrote all night and finished the story. It was a very, very complete story. I mean each portion of it had a beginning, middle and end and each portion of it allowed for expansion, so it was quite a wonderful story. It just takes your breath away.

Young Screenwriting Credit

CONELRAD: How did you engage the services of John Sacret Young to do the masterful adaptation of Amen’s story?

LITTMAN: Yes, he wrote a script that was as good as her story. He was recommended to me by several friends and I went and met him and he basically threw me out of his office because he had asked me what I had read of his and I said “nothing,” and he said, “Come back when you know who I am”—which I immediately loved him for. So I went home and read everything he’d written. And actually, I was interested in him mostly because of a novel he wrote called The Weather Tomorrow. And I liked the way he wrote about women. So I didn’t hire him because of any of his television screenplays. He’s just a wonderful writer. [Editor’s note: Young went on to co-create the ABC drama China Beach and write for and produce NBC’s The West Wing.]

CONELRAD: How much involvement did you have in structuring his script?

LITTMAN: Total. It wasn’t collaborative—he writes alone which is terrific. But [anthropologist, writer, filmmaker] Barbara Myerhoff [1935-1985] and I went through—because I loved her mind—the [original] story, beat-by-beat and decided what values I wanted to have happen in each scene. And I think I gave ten pages of notes to John and sent him away and he did it.

CONELRAD: How many drafts were there? Were there drafts and then edit notes and then more drafts?

LITTMAN: Yeah, I mean…but not many. He pretty much had it. There were changes. He writes so seductively that you actually have to force yourself to see if there’s a scene there—or if he’s just writing, and, you know, there’s nothing to shoot. I don’t think we had any wild disagreements about anything. As I recall, none at all.

CONELRAD: Was John Sacret Young as enthralled by the original story as you were?

LITTMAN: Oh, yeah. I mean, it certainly wasn’t the money.

CONELRAD: How was the cast assembled? Did you choose Jane Alexander because you knew her from your days at Sarah Lawrence College?

LITTMAN: Yeah, I mean I didn’t know anybody. I had never been anywhere near a dramatic project. That’s not true—I had done one short dramatic film that was so bad I took it out of [circulation]. It was just disgraceful. I can’t look at it to this day. It was for a non-profit agency and it was shocking. The leap [of improvement] between that and Testament is almost fictional. So, yes, I had gone to school with Jane and I didn’t know her well—she was two years ahead of me. But I knew her well enough and she had read the story. And she was far more involved in the…She was involved with [anti-nuclear activist] Helen Caldicott, whom I didn’t know about. I didn’t know anything about this subject. It was not my issue.

CONELRAD: So you were attracted to the story on a humanistic level?

LITTMAN: Totally. I mean, on an emotional level. I was not part of any anti-nuclear movement at all. Nor was I afterwards. You know, afterwards, I felt like I gave at the office.

CONELRAD: How did you get William Devane?

LITTMAN: Through an agent. I mean he was perfect. He was impossible.

CONELRAD: What do you mean?

LITTMAN: He told me he could ride a bike. He told me he could really ride a bike. And the definition of the character was that he was a real bike nut—a real competitive, semi-professional bike rider. So we went out and spent the first outrageous portion of our budget and got one of these Italian jewels, you know, that’s so skinny you could practically balance it on your finger. And he took a look at it and nearly died. And the first thing he did was take off the stirrups. Well, anybody who takes off the stirrups doesn’t know how to ride a bike. I mean and I know that because I don’t know how to ride a bike. And that was the first day of shooting, because we were going to knock it off—the simple stuff, no acting, just bike riding. And he was arrogant and we had a real break down. And I finally went up and he was sitting up in the house and I said “Listen, you know more about how to do this than I do. You’ve been on a thousand sets, you’ve worked with fantastic directors, but I know this script and I know this better than you ever will and you said you would come to work for me.” And he apologized and he did his job and then after the fact he apologized profusely. He was wonderful. He had a tiny part and he was wonderful.


CONELRAD: In a New York Times interview preceding Testament’s release you mentioned you had spoken to one of the Hiroshima Maidens

LITTMAN: Yes, I think she was. I don’t know how many there were, but I think she was. She was working with burned children at Cedars-Sinai [hospital] and she devoted her life to that. And I thought at one point that I would have another element of the film—I would have the story interrupted by these witnesses.

CONELRAD: Like in Reds (1981)?

LITTMAN: Yeah, it may have been influenced by that in thinking that I would break the drama and go to real people. And then didn’t. It was an aesthetic question, it wasn’t political, it was really whether I was going to use that as another color.

CONELRAD: What other interviews did you conduct to prepare for the reality of the film?

LITTMAN: I didn’t. Because it doesn’t have reality.

CONELRAD: You had mentioned that you…

LITTMAN: Called civil defense. I called civil defense. Yes, I called up the local civil defense office in L.A. and [explained we’re] making this film and what would they suggest the best action that citizens could take [in the event of a nuclear explosion]. And they said, “Use some plywood on your windows.” I mean we couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it! After that answer there was no more research to be done. I mean, what’s to say?

CONELRAD: One of the things we like about Testament is that the explosion comes out of nowhere…

LITTMAN: Comes out of the TV.


CONELRAD: …And the people come out of their houses like they would after a tornado, congregating outside their houses even though we’ve been indoctrinated about the dangers of fallout and to go to the basement. But in reality people would go outside…

LITTMAN: Of course you would—you’d run outside to find your neighbor.

CONELRAD: Right, because human nature trumps all that indoctrination…

LITTMAN: Yeah, the thing that I thought was authentic about this was the human behavior. That’s why there was no research. The only research we did, actually, was in the script. In the script, you know, there’s the doctor and the other people testifying [in the town meeting scenes held in the church] which is the weakest part of the story. We had to get some of it [facts about the effects of radiation] in and then when you see her lose her hair…[the audience understands what is happening]. We did research an answering machine. John and I both suddenly got crazed about finding an answering machine where you pull the plug out and it activates on batteries. [Editor’s note: A scene late in the film involving the answering machine is critical to tying up a loose end in the film].

Answering Machine

CONELRAD: What was the child actors’ view of the story of Testament? How did you guide them through the grim subject matter?

LITTMAN: It was only Lukas [Haas] who was an extraordinary boy. I think he was six. And he had never worked before and my casting director found him in a Montessori school. He was unbelievably precocious and I took him aside and I said, “You know, Lukas, your [character’s] father…” And he said, “Yeah, he got zapped in a phone booth in San Francisco…” And I said, “You got it.” And I found that with my own kids, they have a very strong sense of real and movie.

CONELRAD: Was the character of the little Asian boy with Down syndrome named Hiroshi [played by Gerry Murillo] supposed to be a symbol of the victims of Hiroshima?

LITTMAN: Not his condition. I mean that was certainly not intentional. Not that connection at all. He was an innocent, vulnerable.

CONELRAD: But was your intent to have a Hiroshima connection to the character?

LITTMAN: Well, sure, if you’re going to name him Hiroshi, you’re going to make the connection, but it wasn’t a big deal.

CONELRAD: But was that a calculated choice on your part because that’s how a lot of people took it.

LITTMAN: Well, I guess it is, but it wasn’t larger than what it is. I mean, yes, we [the United States] did Hiroshima, yes, we damaged people. Sure. How can it not be. And it may have been heavy-handed. Maybe we should have called him Yoshi and probably I would have, now.

CONELRAD: Was filming the story a generally depressing endeavor?

LITTMAN: It was odd. It was not only not depressing, it was like people were levitating. I mean, I had no idea. This was my first [dramatic] film. I had no idea that crews don’t drive forty-five minutes every night to come to the dailies. I mean the entire crew came every night to watch the dailies. I didn’t know that’s not what you did. I didn’t know that you usually didn’t let the crew watch the dailies. I didn’t know any of that stuff. They wanted to come, great, the room was big enough.

CONELRAD: So, the atmosphere on the set was a generally happy one?

LITTMAN: It was not only happy…This is all in retrospect. I had no frame of reference. It was truly amazing.

CONELRAD: That would surprise most people because it is such a depressing movie…

LITTMAN: But making movies has nothing to do with a finished movie. It’s totally fragmented, you’re worried about other things like whether Leon Ames [Henry Abhart, the HAM radio operator] is going to get through a scene. I mean I was hanging on a roof with cue cards because he was having a bad day. And he was an absolutely wonderful old gentleman and what you’re worried about is whether he’s going to be insulted and is he going to say his lines. So, the last thing you’re worrying about is a nuclear holocaust.

CONELRAD: Were you aware that Sierra Madre [where Testament was filmed] was the same location Don Siegel filmed Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

LITTMAN: No, I had no idea. We found this adorable little town. I had no idea. It was a pretty wide open space. Now they have a film commission. Now they’re all organized.

CONELRAD: Do you recall the start date and the end date of the 28 days of shooting?

[Editor’s note: At this point Littman moves over to a bookcase with her diaries and locates her book for 1983.]

LITTMAN [Quoting from book]: Start shooting Sierra Madre, Thursday, January 13th. End shoot in Sierra Madre on Valentine’s Day—Monday, February 14th. I play bag lady.

CONELRAD: You’re in the film?

LITTMAN: Yep. [Quoting again] Wrap party, February 19th.

CONELRAD: What was the wrap party like?

LITTMAN: I got so drunk, my husband had to carry me home. I was completely gone.

CONELRAD: How long were the shooting days?

LITTMAN: They weren’t outrageous. We were very good. I was very organized.

CONELRAD: Were the townspeople helpful? Did you utilize the townspeople?

LITTMAN: You know, I didn’t deal with them a lot. I had a very good…I had a Marine as a UPM [Unite Production Manager]. It’s quite possible that he made things work as smoothly as it did. There was one [resident] who didn’t do his awning.

CONELRAD: To conform with the post-attack look of the film?

LITTMAN: Whatever it was, he wouldn’t let us dirty up the front of his store. But [in general] they were very good. I only heard about it from a distance. I was treated like a real director and I behaved like one, I guess.

CONELRAD: What was the biggest challenge in filming?

LITTMAN: Staying on my feet.

CONELRAD: Was it draining?

LITTMAN: It’s a total loss of privacy. And I would go to the toilet to hide because the better the crew is, the more questions they have. The more you respect them, the more you want to give them the correct answers. They’re going to go off and work based on what you say. It’s wonderful, it’s thrilling.

CONELRAD: Some reviewers criticized “Testament” for not depicting the visible ravages of radiation sickness. How do you respond to that?

LITTMAN: I don’t care about that. They were wrong. I mean, that’s another movie. You know, The Day After basically killed us.


CONELRAD: We’ll return to the subject of The Day After. Did it strike you as odd that Testament—in addition to the more traditional award nominations (including an Oscar nomination for Jane Alexander)--was nominated for awards by science fiction foundations such as the French Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival [Editor’s note: Testament also won a Christopher Award; Jane Alexander was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Actress, but lost both times to Shirley MacLaine who won for Terms of Endearment.]?

LITTMAN: It is science fiction. No, if I could have gone to Avoriaz, I would have. It is science fiction.

CONELRAD: But it’s a very tangible kind of…

LITTMAN: Well, it’s just political. What it is that’s different from most science fiction is that it’s emotional. That’s the only thing that makes it strange for science fiction. Most science fiction is completely....even Rod Serling, whom I adore, is not emotional.

CONELRAD: So you embrace the notion that your film is science fiction?

LITTMAN: Well, it certainly ain’t fact. It ain’t science fact. You mean I should be insulted?

CONELRAD: No, it’s just most people don’t think about Testament as science fiction.

LITTMAN: Well, I don’t think they do and I certainly don’t, but I’m not angry at the science fiction people. They’re pretty brilliant. If I think of them as a country, I can’t see it [Testament] fitting in. You know, I can’t see a bunch of science fiction freaks blubbering and they’d have to. It’s just not something you think of when you think of science fiction. But if they want to embrace it, fine by me.

CONELRAD: Do you recall your reaction to Variety classifying Testament as a “suspenser” in its 10/19/83 review?

LITTMAN: No, I don’t remember that at all.

CONELRAD: Does that label amuse you?

LITTMAN: Well, that was what the amusing thing was that people actually were in suspense. People would come up to me afterwards and say, “Did William Devane come back?” I would say to them, “Not a chance! Are you out of your mind?! No! They’re all going to die. This is what is happening here.”

CONELRAD: It was funny to see these industry publications try to pigeonhole the film.

LITTMAN: Well, what would they call it? You could call it a horror film, too. You could probably put it in just about every category except romance. It’s a family drama. It’s not a musical either, but James [Horner] did the best score he’s ever done.

CONELRAD: Were you surprised that conservative columnist Ben Stein wrote approvingly of Testament? In his columnm by the way, he asserts—wrongly—that the Russians were the instigators.


LITTMAN: I think his wife worked at Paramount which wound up distributing it, so I don’t know at which point… [Laughs]

CONELRAD: So, you think it may have been… [suggested that Stein write about the film].

LITTMAN: No, I’m sure not. I don’t mean that. But she did work at Paramount. No, the funny thing about this movie is that—just as it’s multi-genre—it’s totally apolitical, so anybody can adopt it.

CONELRAD: On the other side of the political spectrum, were you surprised that Ms. Magazine–one of the two periodicals that originally published Carol Amen’s story—took rather dismissive potshots at the film version? [Editor’s note: Carol Sternhell, missing the point, wrote in the January 1984 issue of Ms. that the children in “Littman’s sentimental film could have been dying of anything, an outbreak of plague, a bad case of the flu…” Sternhell also took issue with the “schmaltzy music” and “heavy-handed symbolism.”].

LITTMAN: They said nothing. I didn’t even know that they had seen it.

CONELRAD: We have the review…

LITTMAN: Really? I was so pissed at them because I had credited them. I mean I didn’t know they had written anything—I wouldn’t be pissed at a bad review. But the fact that they didn’t do a major story about me and about the film which I gave them every credit for…It was unbelievable to me. In every interview I was thrilled and I said Ms. Magazine

CONELRAD: Even though it was originally published in a…

LITTMAN: A Catholic literary magazine [Editor’s note: Carol Amen’s original story, The Last Testament, was published in the September 1980 issue of Saint Anthony Messenger]. And you know she had to change the ending? Did I tell you that?

CONELRAD: No, please tell us about that.

LITTMAN: She had written the story originally where the mother commits suicide and they wouldn’t publish the story because it’s anti-Catholic.

CONELRAD: We’re going to come back to that because we’d like to ask you about how you chose to end the film…

LITTMAN: Anyway, screw Ms. Magazine.

CONELRAD: How did you react to some critics dismissing the film as a feminist “weepie”? Were you aware of the criticism?

LITTMAN: You know, I was in such euphoria. It was so wildly successful for me beyond my belief that at that point I didn’t care what anybody said. I mean, who cared? Paramount sent me to Europe on the most unbelievable tour—I will never stay in places like that again.

CONELRAD: So you’re not one to fixate on reviews?

LITTMAN: Well, the major ones were pretty terrific. I mean Sheila Benson’s review got me [distribution at] Paramount. And the [public] response was overwhelmingly wonderful.

CONELRAD: The early Reagan era saw a revival in the production of films about nuclear war. What did you think of The Day After and Threads, the two films that Testament is most frequently compared to?

LITTMAN: The film that I saw that scared the…I mean I think I left the theater and threw up, was Peter Watkins’s The War Game [1965]. It may have been the first film made [in the genre of] false documentary.

CONELRAD: How did you see it?

LITTMAN: I saw it in London in a theater in Piccadilly Circus around 1964 or ’65 and I was sick and I never forgot it—ever. And, so, to the extent that I had a model, that was my model. I mean, The Day After came out simultaneously, so I never saw it until later. And I don’t know if I ever saw Threads.

CONELRAD: How did the publicity of The Day After impact you?

LITTMAN: They did so much publicity, it was like a tsunami and they drowned me. They simply drowned me. After that, it wasn’t a matter of whether you had seen the movie. After that amount of publicity nobody wanted to go near the theater. And that made me sad because I think mine was a much better movie.

CONELRAD: What is your favorite Cold War film?

LITTMAN: The War Game. It was a stunning movie. You know, I’d have to see it now. It was as frightening as I think Testament is because it was physical. I don’t remember how they did it. All I remember is a kitchen where furniture flew around the room. In a way it was domestic, because the scenes were familiar. I don’t remember the people, but I remember the physical destruction and the images and the black and whiteness of it.

Post Nuclear Family

CONELRAD: There are many descriptions of the emotional reaction your film elicited from viewers back in 1983. Do you recall how it felt to have been responsible for such a film? Do you recall being in a theater…

LITTMAN: The night of the big screening—I paid for the screening—at the Writers Guild—I had invited everyone who had been to my wedding. I mean it wasn’t an industry screening, it was my life. The editor and I were sort of pacing at the back of the room, the auditorium. We went in and out, but we didn’t really watch. And we listened and we heard a plastic wine cup—it was dead quiet. And we heard this plastic wine cup rolling down the aisle and we thought, “Oh, God.” And then, at the end, nobody moved and we were heartbroken because we thought [the audience did not like it or get it]. And then they staggered out. Then it went to Sundance. Not to Sundance, to Telluride [Film Festival].

CONELRAD: Didn’t it play at Sundance?

LITTMAN: Well, there was no Sundance [as we know it today]. They had a wood hut and a projector. And it was in the summer and Lindsay [Law] and I went up for there, I think, for three days with the film under our arm and we showed it.

CONELRAD: We talked to Linda Remy who co-wrote the story for Desert Bloom (1986) and she remembered seeing a screening when she was there in 1983.

LITTMAN: Maybe she was and it was shown in a tiny room. I remember Armand Assante was there with his brand new baby and he and his wife and his baby were about to go in [to the screening] and I said to him, “Don’t go in there,” and they didn’t. That would have been just ridiculous. But I mean, Sundance—it was a wooden shack.

CONELRAD: A little different from today.

LITTMAN: No question.

CONELRAD: Did people come to you after the movie at the Writer’s Guild and Sundance?

LITTMAN: Well, yeah, but the big response, the big shock response was Telluride.

CONELRAD: What was going through your mind when you saw that kind of reaction?

LITTMAN: I was thrilled.

CONELRAD: Because you knew you had a film that worked?

LITTMAN: I don’t even know that I knew then. I guess I did. They showed it in the afternoon because nobody thought it was any big deal. The film that was supposed to be the big film of that season was El Norte which was a very lovely film, so they put mine on in the afternoon…

CONELRAD: Not realizing…

LITTMAN: Not realizing anything and then it blew that whole year away. People ran out of the theater to phone booths—this was before anyone had cell phones—to call and make sure their kids were still there. It was really funny. It was amazing. It was wonderful. I mean to feel that way about something that has value. And I learned that there’s a real fifty-fifty chance—and I think this is the way it broke down—that people would think it’s sentimental claptrap and just laugh at it. I was surprised that there was less of that than I’d expected. I did get a very interesting comment. Very early on I had wanted Julie Christie to be in it and I sent the story to her and she wrote me back this wonderful letter. I just met her recently. I had met her once then, but I just met her again. And she had written me this really thoughtful long letter about the fact that the naiveté [of the story] made it uniquely American, that Europe had been invaded and pulverized and was not as innocent. And I really learned then what turned out to be one of my most difficult lessons which is that for somebody who thinks of herself as very sophisticated, I make very American movies. And I make movies that have almost no interest anywhere else because they’re about America.

CONELRAD: So she was basically turning down your request to be in the film?

LITTMAN: It was very sweet. It was simply saying that, in a way, it was not relevant to her. And she was right. She’s very smart.

CONELRAD: So was Julie Christie your first choice to play the role of the mother?

LITTMAN: No, it was way before I think I even spoke to Jane [Alexander]. And there was also a period where Jane got another job and for a while it looked like she wasn’t going to be able to do this. Susan Sarandon came in, a lot of wonderful actresses who were not at all stars.

CONELRAD: In a preface to his Feb. 2001 article on “atomic” film/culture, Vanity Fair’s Bruce Handy confessed that he could not bear to watch Testament again even though he purposely watched every other “end-of-the-world” film to prepare for the article. He wrote of Testament: “It’s seriously the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen in my whole life—beyond traumatic.” Do you find that the common reaction to “Testament” is similar to Handy’s?

LITTMAN: You’re kidding? I don’t know whether to take it as an insult or a compliment. It should be the most depressing film. I would have been happy had he said the most threatening. So I don’t know how he really feels. He may have hated it.

CONELRAD: It is a traumatic film and that is the context of his statement. We didn’t get the impression that he hated it.

LITTMAN: I see. I’m now meeting people who say to me, “I watched that film with my mother—that’s my mother’s favorite film.” When people come up to me about the film, they get different. It’s like they’ve had some private experience with me. And they inevitably talk the baby in the bathwater [scene where Lukas Haas is hemorrhaging from radiation sickness].

CONELRAD: Does it surprise you that your film still provokes these reactions twenty years later?

LITTMAN: It’s wonderful. It does. You know, people really remember it vividly. It feels like it traumatized people and that’s just fine. That’s called catharsis to some extent.

CONELRAD: It seems that the overall lesson of the film is that life is precious and that the “mission” of the film is to avert nuclear war.

LITTMAN: Yes, that was the entire purpose. I mean this was not a real complicated goal. The funny thing is that, it seems to me, that all of my films have turned out to be about that, or most of them. They are about life on the edge of death which makes life precious.

CONELRAD: Did you want to end Testament on a hopeful note around the table with the candles and the “wish”?

LITTMAN: You know, I don’t like the last scene and I look at it now and it makes me uncomfortable because it breaks the dramatic convention—who is she talking to? You know, in the course of the film she suddenly becomes an uber voice and that’s wrong. And I wouldn’t do it now.

CONELRAD: You mean when she’s ostensibly talking to the kids?

LITTMAN: Well, she’s talking to the kids, but she’s saying, “To save the children…,” you know. It’s a violation of dramatic form. It’s wrong. I could have done it in voice over and that would have made it acceptable. It may still have been too preachy or too on the nose. I don’t know if anything had to be said. That whole scene could have been done silent and he [Ross Harris as Brad Weatherly] didn’t have to say, “What are we celebrating, mom?” [Editor’s note: Harris says “What should we wish for?”]. We’re celebrating life—it’s evident. You know, what you learn is that you need half of what you thought you needed if you’ve got the goods.


CONELRAD: Because you knew about Carol Amen’s original ending to her story, did it ever occur to you to…

LITTMAN: To have them die?


LITTMAN: I actually love when a movie continues after it’s over and by keeping them alive, the movie continues after it’s over. You walk out wondering if they’re going to die. And you have the fight with yourself—you know they’re going to die and you hope they won’t die, so that’s more powerful. You know, you start off a movie and you kill everybody. I mean that [allowing the remaining characters to commit suicide] would have made it silly. Maybe not, maybe if a European director had done it… but then it would have been European [Laughs].

Interview conducted by Bill Geerhart on January 28, 2003. CONELRAD would like to thank Ms. Littman for her hospitality and her willingness to speak at length about Testament. We regret that it took us this long to post this interview and we hope Ms. Littman will forgive us.

Littman Autograph

CONELRAD will be posting an extensive article on Testament in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Checkers: Viewer Mail


On the evening of September 23, 1952, Republican vice presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon went on the national airwaves to combat accusations of corruption in connection with his $18,000 expense fund. Before an audience of approximately 60 million Americans, Senator Nixon provided a guided tour of his family’s assets and debts. He also found time to compliment his wife’s “Republican” cloth coat and declare allegiance to his Cocker Spaniel, Checkers. At the conclusion of the speech, Nixon rolled the dice and surrendered his political fate to the fickle court of public opinion: 

…And for that reason I am submitting to the Republican National Committee tonight through this television broadcast the decision which it is theirs to make. Let them decide whether my position on the ticket will help or hurt. And I am going to ask you to help them decide. Wire and write the Republican National Committee whether you think I should stay on or whether I should get off. And whatever their decision is, I will abide by it.

Telegrams, letters, postcards and telephone calls began pouring in by the thousands. According to Roger Morris’s definitive account of Nixon’s early career, Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, of the nearly four million responses received, opinion ran seventy-five to one in favor of keeping the young senator on the ticket. Supporters even sent in cash to help reimburse the RNC for the $75,000 cost of the broadcast. According to Morris, eventually $60,000 in small donations was collected.

Western Union-LA-Jammed

CONELRAD recently spent some time at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum looking over their voluminous collection of this correspondence. The following is a sampling beginning with cartoon legend William “Bill” Hanna (1910-2001) of Hanna-Barbera fame. Apparently, Tom and Jerry were both Republicans…


P.E. Jordan of Clovis, New Mexico liked Senator Nixon’s address so much that he suggested demoting General Eisenhower to the vice presidential slot:


The Soules of California were so excited by Nixon’s speech, they wrote in immediately after the broadcast and even time-stamped their letter: 


Of the letters that we reviewed, none made mention of Checkers, but Mrs. Burris of Compton, California used canine-friendly stationary…


She was, of course, a supporter….


Some of the letters were anonymous and artistic…


This correspondent felt that Nixon should “resign as Candidate for the Presidency of the United States…” He may not have been clear on the post the senator was seeking. In any case, this was the only letter that we examined that called for Nixon to get off the ticket:


Not everyone was 100% satisfied with the candidate’s explanation of where the money in the controversial “fund” was spent. Lilian M. Lehbach of Westfield, New Jersey registered her concern on this point and then expressed her “hope” that Nixon would not be “asked to withdraw.”

18000 is alot of Money

Other Wesfield, NJ residents were more adamant in their support:


Some of Nixon’s fans were young political nerds:


Profanity was almost non-existent in the missives we reviewed, but Walter Perry, Jr. wrote that to replace Nixon on the ticket would be a “damnable tragedy”:


Mr. and Mrs. L A Brasher of Alabama City, Alabama were steadfastly against sacrificing Senator Nixon “to communistic wolves.”


EP Van Roy of California also referenced the communists. He was most concerned, however, about the candidate’s wife, Pat (“My heart aches for Pat.”).


Billy Graham wasn’t the only minister to like Richard Nixon…


A preview of Nixon’s later “southern strategy” fan base was evident in this telegram from “THREE DIXIECRATS”


Lee Martin Hale, Jr. and his wife Anne represented the pure enthusiasm of many writing in after the Checkers speech by  calling Nixon “tremendous.”


The overwhelmingly positive public response to the “Checkers” speech played the decisive role in keeping Richard Nixon on the 1952 Republican ticket. As a token of his appreciation to the masses, he sent out a form postcard…



Sept 29, 1952

Dear Friend,>

This is just a note to tell how deeply Pat and I appreciated your expression of confidence after the broadcast last Tuesday.

We want you to know we shall do our best never to let you down.

Dick Nixon

We have a lot more letters. If there is enough interest, perhaps we will continue posting. We will abide by the will of the people…


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Checkers, the Revered

“Someday, we’re going to bring her to the library…”
--Julie Nixon Eisenhower on the anticipated final resting place of her famous childhood pet, Checkers, on CNN’s Larry King Live, August 11, 2001
According to the 501-word New York Times obituary, Checkers, Richard Nixon’s famous Cocker Spaniel, passed away at the age of twelve on September 6, 1964. Sadly, she did not live to romp in the Rose Garden upon her master’s phoenix-like triumph in the 1968 presidential election. And while Checkers may not have a statue in Washington, D.C. (like Franklin Roosevelt’s beloved Fala, see below), Fala there is a reverence for the pooch in death that is unprecedented in American political history. Strangely enough, the continuing public interest in the deceased canine has focused, to a large extent, on her gravesite.

Indeed, since 1995 (at least), there have been reports of plans to exhume Checkers from the Bide-a-Wee Pet Cemetery in Wantagh, New York and move her to a plot of honor in Yorba Linda, California next to the man she saved from political oblivion.  During an interview on CNN in 2001, the president’s younger daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, made official the family’s desire to transfer her childhood pet (see above quote), but she was vague on details. As of this post, Richard Nixon’s once furry good luck charm is still interred on the east coast.

Nixon Grave
It turns out that the fascination with Checkers’ burial accommodations goes back to the early 1970s. In fact, there is evidence that concern over the maintenance of the dog’s gravesite reached the president himself.

CONELRAD is proud to be the first organization to publish this unusual correspondence:

Transcription of above letter including Rose Mary Woods’ margin note:
6723 Austin Street
Forest Hills, New York, 11375

October 13, 1970
President Richard M. Nixon
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D. C.

Dear Mr. President:
During this past weekend I visited my dog “Heidi”, who is resting in the Bide A Wee Cemetery, Wantaugh, Long Island, New York.
My friends and I walked over to visit “Checkers”, and were informed that Mr. Buckley had also been there and had left about ten minutes before our arrival. Also, we were told that many people stop by.
Now, my reason for writing, and I sincerely hope you will accept this information as one animal lover to another, is to inform you of the condition of little “Checkers” plot.
Checkers has two flags, one on each side of her monument, but the floral trimmings are very meager. My husband and I have a “Crade” of cement in front of our puppy’s monument and inside the “cradle” it is laden with flowers planted each spring by the custodians of the cemetery. Also, at Christmas and Easter, fresh trimmings are planted. For this service we pay a fee of $12.00 per year.
Won’t you please ask one of your staff to look into this a little further?
Wishing you continued success, I am,

Sincerely yours,
Margin Note from Rose Mary Woods:
Called and let custodians know that we would like to subscribe to this service.
The president’s long-serving secretary, Rose Mary Woods (who was with him during the “Fund” crisis that led to the Checkers speech), replied to Mrs. Long’s letter with surprising promptness on October 22, 1970:

Transcription of above letter:
Dear Mrs. Long:
This is just a note to thank you for your thoughtful letter to the President of October 13.
It was kind of you to call his attention to the condition of the gravesite of the Nixons’ family pet, “Checkers”, and I know you will be pleased to learn that steps have been taken to remedy this situation.
You may be sure both the President and Mrs. Nixon are grateful for your interest in writing as you did, and that they would want me to extend their appreciation and very best wishes to you.
Rose Mary Woods
Secretary to the President

Mrs. Louis Long
6723 Austin Street
Forest Hills, New York 11375
By May of 1971 Checkers’ gravesite was again drawing concern from the public. On June 14, 1971 Ms. Woods replied to a letter from Richard A. Meyer, thanking him for his offer to periodically monitor the beloved pet’s final resting place due to its shoddy condition. This time Woods took additional time to consult with the executive director of the pet cemetery. Both letters appear below:
Transcripts of above letters:
June 14, 1971
Dear Mr. Meyer:
The President has asked me to thank you for your kind letter of May 5. It was thoughtful of you to offer to see that the gravesite of the Nixons’ dog, “Checkers,” is tended whenever you have the opportunity. However, in view of the enclosed copy of a letter from Mr. Robert Mitchell, I am confident this situation has been remedied. You may be sure, nevertheless, that the President appreciates your friendly thought in writing as you did.
Your support and encouragement mean a great deal to the President, and he wants you to know that you and Mrs. Meyer have his very best wishes.
Rose Mary Woods
Secretary to the President
Mr. Richard A. Meyer
22 Salem Road
Rockville Center, New York 11570
Bide-A-Wee Home Association
410 East 38th Street
New York, New York 10016
Office of the Executive Director

June 4, 1971
Miss Rose Mary Woods
Secretary to Mr. Richard M. Nixon
President of the United States
The White House
Washington, D.C.
Dear Miss Woods:
There are times when I think the mail we receive here at Bide-A-Wee is a little peculiar but realizing what must cross your desk makes me aware of how comparatively easy my job is.
I visited the grave of “Checkers” yesterday and am enclosing two rather poor photographs which really do not show the finer details. However I assure you that “Checkers” grave was in very good condition with multi-colored pansies in full bloom and two brand new American flags upon it. In the surrounding area the grass was being mown on schedule and our cemetery manager was fertilizing the entire region so there was great activity going on. However I must mention that since “Checkers” gravesite attracts a great many tourists the grass does become worn down and it is difficult to cultivate new grass where people are constantly walking.*
There may have been some damage to the grass due to the long hard winter and Mr. Meyer’s letter may have been factual at the time he wrote it but it is certainly not factual now. As you can well appreciate, because of the attention “Checkers” grave receives from visitors we always make an extra special effort to keep it presentable.
If I can be of any further service to you, please do not hesitate to write.
Sincerely Yours,
Robert W. Mitchell
Executive Director
* Only the Democrats walk on the grass!
Bide-a-Wee must have become more vigilant in their oversight of Checkers’ grave after 1971 because the response from Mr. Mitchell  appears to be the last in the file accessed by CONELRAD at the National Archives. Perhaps someday Checkers will take her rightful place next to President Nixon and receive around-the-clock security. In the meantime, keep off the grass!

To see an article about references to Checkers in the popular culture visit our knol page.

Nixon Checkers-Later Years

CNN, Larry King Live Transcript, August 11, 2001

Checkers Obituary, New York Times, September 9, 1964, p. 19

Joseph Spear column, Galveston (TX) Daily News (and syndicated), July 8, 1995, p. 8-A (Spear mentions alleged plan to move Checkers to the Nixon Library).

“A Nixon/Checkers Reunion?” Los Angeles Times, April 28, 1997 (article mentions a May 5, 1997 U.S. News and World Report story about a “planned” Checkers move to the Nixon Library)

National Archives and Records Administration, Richard Nixon Library, College Park, Maryland, White House Special Files, Staff Members and Office Files, President’s Personal Files, Box 21, Folder Title: Bide-A-Wee Cemetery “Checkers” Grave Site [accessed by CONELRAD on January 26, 2009].

North Korean Diary: Fortune’s Favorites


Here is some amusing ghostwritten “Dear Diary” and correspondence text that was used in an early 1960s propaganda publication entitled Fortune’s Favorites. The nominal authors are U.S. Army defectors, Private James Joseph Dresnok (1941- ) and Private First Class Larry Allen Abshier (1943-1983). The diary text is all attributed to Dresnok which must have been particularly laughable to anyone who knew the barely literate Virginian…


WHAT A LUCK!: The Diary of Private Dresnok in Pyongyang  

Aug. 17, 1962 -- A cloudless day, and the second day which I meet in North Korea. Till last night I was rather uneasy. Though I was in ecstasy over my escaping from the devil's hell, I was uncertain whether the North Korean people would understand me or not.

Now all my uneasiness vanished away. The officers of the People's Army warmly treated me, encouraging me for my decisive action. I'm now enjoying too good treatment for me. I feel my frozen heart suppressed for a long time suddenly thawing.

What a luck! They say I will be in Pyongyang tomorrow. I wish I'd realized my dream there.

Aug. 20, 1962 -- Foggy riverside of the Daidong in the morning!

At 10 A.M. we visited the Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition Hall. My impression of the Exhibition Hall will never be given in a few words.

North Korea, that produces everything it wants on its own, is one of the most advanced countries in the world. . . . This was the thing I had never imagined.

Of course, all these owe to the leadership of the Korean Workers' Party and Premier Kim Il Sung.

Aug. 26, 1962 -- Pleasure boats of the river Daidong were resounded with songs and laughter. It made me ponder much. How can they be so happy? Are there nothing to be worried about? Yes, they have nothing to worry about.

If such a gorgeous reality is the product of Communist system, is not the system the true ideal of mankind?

Sept. 20, 1962 -- North Korea is an earthly paradise where the rights of labour and rest are guaranteed. . . . I cannot help envying heartily the happy life of the children in North Korea. Comparing with the life of the children here, the life in my childhood was too miserable.

In my primary school days in the city of Richmond in the State of Virginia, I had to be a handy man of a farm or a work-shop near the city to get my school fee. Every time when I look back upon my school days, I think that today's my happy life is a more precious one . . .

As Premier Kim Il Sung instructed that the most excellent goods should be given to children in North Korea, endless concern and love are being given for the children, masters of the future.

Here “Dresnok” and “Abshier” “write” to the military they left behind on the other side of the 38th parallel: 

Dear Old Fellow Friends!

G.I.'s stationed in South Korea!

Enjoying warm welcome from the North Korean people, I put off the disgusting G.I. uniform and visited Pyongyang and other cities and villages.

To tell the truth, the people in North Korea are enjoying freedom and happiness inaccessible to the working people of the United States. . . . Their life is incomparably freer and happier than that of the Americans or the South Koreans.

Dear old fellow friends!

Here the entire country is sizzling with peaceful construction and the people are working hard to realize the peaceful reunification of their country. It is preposterous that the U.S. rulers label such peace-loving people as "aggressors."

Dead G.I.'s whose corpses were scattered [in the Korean war] -- for what they sacrificed themselves? They died only to fatten the Wall Street masters and enriched their big money bags. Please, don't be a victim for the Wall Street but fight for your withdrawal from South Korea.

Well, that's all.

Goodbye, friends. I wish you a good luck.

-- Larry A. Abshier James J. Dresnok

Dresnok is still living in North Korea and Abshier died in 1983. For more on this topic see CONELRAD’s book review on yet another defector’s story: The Reluctant Communist by Charles Robert Jenkins.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Unbreakable: Hiroshima and the Mosler Safe Company

“Your products were admired for being stronger than the atomic bomb."
-- Teikoku Bank Manager, Hiroshima, in a May 22, 1950 letter to the Mosler Safe Company of Hamilton, Ohio
Mosler Safe Ad-1-lo
In the annals of modern advertising, it is difficult to think of a more inappropriate example of product placement than the Mosler Safe Company's Hiroshima campaign. Less than a year after the August 6, 1945 atomic attack of that Japanese city, E.H. Mosler, president of the famous vault business, was crowing about his product having withstood the destructive force of the A-bomb. The safe magnate explained in press accounts[1] that he had become aware of the vault’s awesome endurance feat courtesy of a U.S. Army lieutenant who had been surveying the damage. This unnamed officer wrote the company a glowing letter (no doubt punched up by Mosler’s copy writers) sometime in early 1946 describing what he had seen:
…In visiting the remains of the City of Hiroshima, I found in one of the three structures still standing, four large vaults built by the Mosler Safe Co. of Hamilton, O. The vaults were entirely intact and except for the exterior being burned and rusted there was no damage. Across the room from the American-made safes were two vaults made by the Takeucho Co. located at Tokyo. These were completely destroyed, their doors blown off the hinges, and the sides crushed. To me this was a very positive demonstration of the superiority of American equipment. No other test than that of the atomic bomb could have been more severe or exacting.
Teikoku Bank-360m from Hypocenter
The Teikoku Bank opened in 1925 as the Mitsui Bank with the same vaults that eventually survived the Hiroshima blast. The two-story structure was 360 meters from the hypocenter of the bomb and all that was left was its facade—and the Mosler vaults. At the time of the attack (8:15 a.m.), the bank had six night duty staff and twelve or thirteen female employees working there. None survived.[2]

After receiving the missive from the lieutenant, Mosler commissioned an official report to better document (and exploit) the durability of the vaults. The report stated, in part:
Those buildings constructed of steel and concrete in Hiroshima were best able to stand the explosion and hence protected their contents to some degree. …The explosions cracked the exteriors, tore the cement floors into pieces and the fire which followed gutted the buildings of all else. Those buildings constructed of reinforced concrete only, such as the Teikou [sic] Bank, were damaged to a larger degree. Those built of wood or brick were completely demolished.
Two Mosler bank vaults, one being located at the Teikou [sic] Bank in Hiroshima and the other located in the Geibi Bank in Kure, were in excellent condition and were in operation.
It did not take long for the amazing atom age achievement to find its way into local bank advertisements. For even though the Russians did not yet have the Bomb, Americans in 1946, were, evidently, concerned about their valuables surviving such an assault. At least that is what the banking industry claimed in the same American Banker issue that was among the first to promote the Hiroshima vault story: “Many of the estimated 13,000,000 holders of safe deposit boxes have voiced their concerns over the resistance of bank vaults to atomic explosion, according to letters from bank officials.”[3] These newspaper ads promoted their respective banks’ use of Mosler vaults as a selling point to potential customers. Mosler undoubtedly welcomed and approved of this added publicity because their own photographs were used in the promotions.

Mosler Safe Ad-2
About the same time that the Teikoku Bank was being rebuilt around the still-standing vaults in Hiroshima, Mosler received another unsolicited tribute to its sturdy craftsmanship. The May 22, 1950 letter from the enthusiastic bank manager is noteworthy for how blithely he mentions the victims of the bomb before getting on with the real purpose of the correspondence—fawning praise: 

The Teikoku Bank Limited 
Kawayacho, Hiroshima Japan
May 22, 1950
We consider it our great honour to inform you that The Teikoku Bank, the successor to the Mitsui Bank, had in 1925 when its Hiroshima branch was newly built dared to set two vault doors made by your Hamilton Factory.
As you know in 1945 the Atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, and the whole city was destroyed and thousands of citizens lost their precious lives. And our building, the best artistic one in Hiroshima, was also destroyed. However it was our great luck to find that though the surface of the vault doors was heavily damaged, its contents were not affected at all and the cash and important documents were perfectly saved. The superiority of your goods is completely verified as truly told to the whole world in the American Bankers [sic], the July 13th issue of 1946. Your products were admired for being stronger than the atomic bomb.
Since then about five years have elapsed. The building and doors of the vault have been completely repaired and we have started our business on the first of the month. Recently many tourists have come to see our building and when we show them your vault we proudly explain to them how strong they were against the atomic explosion. 
We hereby wish to have a letter of congratulations and some souvenir to celebrate our opening business at out old office. We shall appreciate it as our utmost honour, and we believe it will do much to keep and promote a good will relation for the long future.
Yours very faithfully
The Teikoku Bank Limited
T [illegible]
Manager, Hiroshima Branch.[4]

Not surprisingly, Mosler used the testimonial in a fresh promotional push. The “Hiroshima” chapter of the bank’s long history proved to be so irresistible to its PR department that they trumpeted it for at least the next decade. One such advertisement caught the eye of poet Robert Lowell in Boston, Massachusetts in 1960.[5] The crassness of the campaign (captioned “The Hiroshima Story Comes to Life with a Bang”)[6] inspired Lowell to include a line about it in his most famous poem, For the Union Dead:
…on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph / shows Hiroshima boiling / over a Mosler Safe, the ‘Rock of Ages’ / that survived the blast.
Mosler’s advertising may have repulsed an esteemed American poet, but it impressed the hell out of the U.S. government. Indeed, the company was kept so busy during the Cold War that it created a special “protective construction” division just to accommodate the various contracts it won. Among Mosler’s work product during this period was a specially designed vault for the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights and a 25 ton door to the then top secret congressional bunker at the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia.[7]

As it turned out, the economy of the 21st century was the one thing that Mosler could not withstand. In 2001, after 153 years in business, the company’s Hamilton, Ohio headquarters closed its doors.[8] The business’s impressive metal handiwork can still be seen at the Greenbrier and at many other locations if not in Hiroshima. The Teikoku Bank was converted into a bakery in 1967. Mosler and the atomic bomb, though, will forever be linked in the twin vaults of history and poetry.

Mosler Safe-Magazine Ad

[1] The first report of the Mosler Safe Company’s product surviving the Hiroshima blast was published in the Hamilton (Ohio) Journal-Daily News (the hometown of Mosler Safe Co.) on July 10, 1946. The American Banker published a story on the atom-defying vaults on July 13, 1946 (page 8). Mosler provided the publication with photographs illustrating the bomb damage to the Teikoku Bank and the working order of the vaults. Subsequently, the story was picked up in other newspapers such as the Fayette County (Iowa) Leader (September 12, 1946).

[2] See: Hiroshima Virtual Tour.

[3] “Will U.S. Vaults Resist Atom Bombs? Hiroshima Experience Proves They Do,” The American Banker, July 13, 1946 (page 8).

[4] “The History of Mosler,” Mpulse (Mosler company magazine), 1973, page 30.

[5] Paul Mariani, “Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell” [New York: W.W. Norton, 1994], p. 283. According to Mariani, Lowell worked for several months on “For the Union Dead” beginning in January of 1960. He read it publicly in June of that year for several thousand people at Boston’s Public Garden. The poem received “thunderous applause.”

[6] Jeffrey Meyers, “The Mosler Safe in Lowell’s ‘For the Union Dead,” American Notes and Queries, Volume 3, issue 1, 1990, page 23. Meyers reports in his excellent article that the Mosler Archives did not retain a copy of the ad that Lowell saw on Boylston Street, but they were able to confirm the caption for the photograph: “The Hiroshima Story Comes to Life with a Bang.”

[7] Tom Vanderbilt, Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America [Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architecture Press], p. 137. Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence [New York: Vintage Books], p. ix.

[8] Mike Boyer, “Mosler Slams Door on 300 Workers,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 4, 2001. As of 2010, a vestige of the company remains active in the United Kingdom.