The Archivist #109 Hollywood and the Cold War [THE PRIZE and THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT]

Paul and Doris illustrate Hollywood’s take on cold war politics

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory pressed Blu-ray discs. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

Of the many cultural events to help change the shape post-WWII society, few had the global reach of the cold war. The threat of communism and the breaking down of alliances spurned a tension felt on virtually every corner of the globe. In an effort to capitalize on, and perhaps maybe even understand, all the mayhem, Hollywood began churning out a collection of films which delved into the politics from the cold war, or at least what the world perceived them to be. Titles such as Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe dealt with the cold war in the most up-front of ways, while On the Beach and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming took their own liberties as they theorized about the potential horrors that could eventually become realities.

Yet there were a whole mess of movies produced during the seemingly endless cold war (especially during the 1960s) which tackled the threats, fears and overall tearing away at the fabric of a variety of cultures, whether or not the audiences watching realized it. In this edition of The Archivist, we explore both the international thriller The Prize and the delightful comedy The Glass Bottom Boat in an effort to grasp the various ways the cold war made its way onto the big screen.

The Prize (1963)

A top-notch cold war thriller of the highest order, Newman stars in The Prize as Andrew Craig, a world-renowned novelist whose once-glorious career has dwindled down to an alcoholic existence. Nevertheless, because of his past brilliance, Andrew has been selected to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. Shortly after arriving in Stockholm however, Andrew notices strange shifts in the behavior of fellow recipient Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson), which goes unnoticed by his niece (Diane Baker). With the help of his government-appointed assistant (Elke Sommer), Andrew risks life and death as he uncovers a conspiracy beyond anything he’s imagined before.

It only takes one name to coax cinephiles and genre lovers into watching The Prize; Ernest Lehman. The screenwriter behind Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest revisits many of that movie’s iconic themes in The Prize; namely larger-than-life locales, beguiling female characters and a mystery whose twists are just as diverting than its solution. The biggest commonality shared between the two works however is the presence of a protagonist whose far from admirable or heroic, yet finds himself plunged into a situation which forces him to encompass both traits. Giving North by Northwest costar Leo G. Carroll a supporting role here may have been too much in the Hitchcock vein, but thanks to the small handful of years between the movies, both titles feel entirely their own. The Prize takes advantage of its cold war setting by playing on the kind of conspiracies flying about surrounding many international institutions. In any other era, the movie’s premise may have read as pulpy, but there’s something incredibly chilling about soviet domination being so threatening, they’d be willing to make well-known figures disappear only to replace them with copies. Always the consummate actor, Newman looks like he never had more fun on a movie set than when he made The Prize. His level of gusto and belief in the script results in one of the star’s most tour-de-force performances. The production may have been a star vehicle, but it also provides Sommer, Baker and Robinson with some great character parts to sink their collectively underrated teeth into. A stellar combination of cold war conspiracy and classic Hollywood entertainment.

The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

Here’s a toughie: How many times in Doris Day’s dazzling movie career did she play a character accused of being a spy? The answer is…well, a couple of times actually; but The Glass Bottom Boat remains the actress’ top attempt at being the bubbly Bond. When a handsome and successful scientist Bruce (Rod Taylor) encounters a beautiful tour guide working in his facility named Jennifer (Day), he falls head over heels for her. Jennifer, a widow not so keen on falling in love again just yet, has some doubts, but finds she can’t resist Bruce’s charms. Unfortunately for the lovestruck pair, a series of incidents and mishaps have convinced Bruce’s associates that Jennifer isn’t the squeaky-clean girl next door she seems to be, but actually a Russian spy.

The Glass Bottom Boat is played strictly for laughs, and that’s pretty much what audiences took away from it. The movie is a frothy romp featuring Day at her cutest and most game as she not only succeeds in pulling off all of the movie’s pratfalls, but also outwits her leading man in that way only Doris could ever manage. Her chemistry with Taylor is off the charts and her sunny accessibility was never at its most potent. Like most of Day’s comedies, this one is full of the fluffy escapism the actress’ public loved her for, which she was more than happy to deliver. Because of this, casting Day as a suspected spy was something of a bold and genius comment on the red scare for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, it showed the lunacy of what went into labeling someone as an actual spy (the film was made during a time when neighbors were only too happy to rat each other out for what they felt were suspicious activities) in the most outrageous of fashions. At the same time however, the movie showed how no one, not even someone as beloved as a Doris Day character, was safe from being declared a communist threat. The Glass Bottom Boat was Day’s final entry in the box-office records as the world’s top movie star thanks to the diminishing quality of her subsequent titles and audiences’ changing tastes. While it may not be as fondly remembered as some of her other 60s titles that commented on the decade, The Glass Bottom Boat still showed Day firmly in the zone as a comedy pro and an artist willing to tackle the world her audiences were living in though her own sunny methods.

The Prize and The Glass Bottom Boat are both available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive.

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