Tonight on the Turner Classic Movies channel there’s a rare opportunity to see four remarkable early vérité documentary films. Filmmaker Robert Drew and his associates — a team that included the Maysles Brothers, Richard Leacock and DA Pennebaker — were given extraordinary access to John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and the Kennedy White House using the first, lightweight film equipment with synchronized sound.
The films air tonight starting at 8 p.m. First up is Primary, the 1960 film about Kennedy’s run for president in the Wisconsin primary which is, according to Drew, “regarded as the beginning of American cinéma vérité.”
In this YouTube clip from Primary, The New Yorker’s Front Row film blogger Richard Brody reviews the film.
After screening Primary with Kennedy, Drew convinced him that the new technology afforded him an opportunity to bring history alive to future generations. Drew’s 1961 film, Adventures on the New Frontier, follows Kennedy to the White House for a “rare and candid glimpse” of the newly elected president going about his daily duties in the Oval Office. In Robert Drew and the Development of Cinéma Vérité in America, Drew recalled how he talked the president into allowing him to make more films.
I made the point to him that when he entered the White House he would find the record of past presidents, and there would be pictures of men shaking hands in front of automobiles and making speeches, and still pictures, and motion pictures, and there would be official papers, but that he wouldn’t see the expression on the man’s face, and he wouldn’t actually see for himself how a president felt about anything in the past.”
Kennedy was intrigued by the idea. “Yes,” he said to Drew. “Think of what it would be like if I could see what Franklin Roosevelt did in the 24 hours before World War II was declared, before America’s declaration of war was declared.”
In Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, Drew and his crew captured a behind-the-scenes look at the 1963 attempted integration of the University of Alabama by two African-American students with the support of the Kennedy administration — and Governor George Wallace’s actions to stop them.
Watch the trailer:
The film covers the events that took place in the 30 hours between June 10 and 11, 1963, in four principal locations. In Washington, DC, the cameras were in the offices of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the Oval Office of the White House, where President Kennedy federalized the National Guard and debated when and where he should address the nation. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the crew followed Governor Wallace and his administration, as well as Nicholas Katzenbach, who was with Vivian Malone and James A. Hood, the two students attempting to register for classes. Drew showed both sides of the issue and the build-up to the showdown between Wallace and the Kennedys. In the end, Wallace stepped aside and Malone and Hood were allowed to enter, but until that moment, neither side was entirely sure what would happen, which created the real-life drama.
The film aired on ABC-TV on Oct. 21, 1963. After the broadcast, the network received angry calls from viewers who thought it was inappropriate for cameras to be allowed inside the Oval Office. A month and a day later, President Kennedy was assassinated. Drew made his last Kennedy film, Faces of November, a 15-minute short film, from footage he shot at the president’s three-day state funeral.
Other films airing this month as part of TCM’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy include Mel Stuart’s Four Days in November and PT 109. Visit the Turner Classic Movies website to learn more about broadcast times in your area.