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THE BEGINNING OR THE END (1947)


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I posted an excerpt of Agee's review of this title in the Classic Film Criticism thread. But I think it deserves its own separate discussion. THE BEGINNING OR THE END is considered a docudrama, and one of the first films on the subject of the Manhattan Project.

 

I found this user review on the internet movie database, and I thought it worth re-posting here for readers:

 

*The idea for this film was brought to the studio (MGM) by Donna Reed, whose high school science teacher had written to her about the secret WWII atomic bomb research project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Later, Donna and her husband, Tony Owen, received a $50,000 finders fee for this contribution.*

 

*Always a contentious project, cooperation came from the army, including General Groves, manager of the Manhattan Project and from top scientists including J. Robert Oppenheimer, at Berkeley, and Albert Einstein, at Princeton. President Truman knew about the film and met with the producer.*

 

*The script went through a lengthy development with columnist/screenwriter Bob Considine, and Clark Gable was originally in mind for the Robert Walker part. The Tom Drake scene, scattering a mass with his unprotected hand, is based on an actual incident, and the scientist who did it at the Chicago research lab (and possibly saved a good section of the city), died as a result.*

 

*Not successful at the box office, the studio rationalized the picture was too soon after the war and too realistic: audiences were not able to assimilate a story about nuclear energy in the late '40s, they were terrified of the bomb, of radiation fallout; pictures of Hiroshima were still in the news.*

 

*The film walks a fine line between fact and fiction (it received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary), but how effective was softening a docu-drama with a fictionalized love story?. The atomic pile was constructed on a sound stage, and the shots of the B-29 formation seem an appropriate metaphor for the film's subtext, the power of the nascent military/industrial relationship moving forcefully ahead into the unknown.*

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Very interesting movie... and well done. In regards to it being "too soon after the war," I might agree... plus the epilogue in which the movie is dedicated to the generation of the "25th century" may have been a little too fantastic an idea for audiences. Even today the 25th century seems a long way off.

 

Does anyone know anything about the atomic bomb footage? Was this government-shot and then loaned to the studio for use in the film? Was it from a test? One thing is sure: it's the real deal.

 

And it's always great to see the lovely Audrey Totter and her mega-brows pop up... I LOVE her.

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Never heard of it before. Couln't sleep and caught it this morning. I have three words for this film:

 

FAN!

TAS!

TIC!

 

I think another reason it might not have done well at the box office could be that so soon after WWII, and following our victory, the picture's subtext as to questioning the endeavor of war might have put hawkish noses out of joint. When your hometeam wins the World Series, you don't go around opining how baseball's a waste of time.

Sepiatone

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Interesting comment. Also, this was the era of Esther Williams in a bathing suit and June Allyson romantic comedies. I just don't think the public was interested in such a serious topic. The studio tried to use a love story to sugar-coat and sell it, just like Zanuck did with GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT, made around this time. It didn't work.

 

One can't help but wonder how the film would've been if it starred MGM's proposed leads: Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Van Johnson. Also, Lionel Barrymore was scheduled to play FDR (the actor was fairly wheel-chair bound at this point). But Barrymore had criticized Roosevelt's politics and the late president's family had objected to him playing the part.

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According to notes from the TCM database for this film, Mayer postponed its release because he was still trying to obtain actual bombing footage. The notes do not say where Mayer eventually located the footage and when it had been initially filmed.

 

THE BEGINNING OR THE END, which had been scheduled to open in October '46, did not get released till late February '47.

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>Does anyone know anything about the atomic bomb footage? Was this government-shot and then loaned to the studio for use in the film? Was it from a test? One thing is sure: it's the real deal.

 

I just watched the bomb footage near the end of the movie. That was a large model of a city, with the camera moving overhead. The mushroom cloud was a model explosion and it actually formed too fast. It should have been slowed down. They used a combination of explosives to get the flash and the mushroom cloud.

 

The fly-over scenes of the city on fire were also model shots.

 

As a matter of fact, most of the old B&W footage we see of the Japs attacking Pearl Harbor, as shot from above, are model shots that were used in several movies.

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Well, I'm 25 minutes into the film now and nothing has happened yet.

 

This is so boring, it looks like an educational film for high schools.

 

Now we can see how the Russians got the bomb. This film tells them how to make one.

 

Why does Enrico Fermi look and sound like a gangster?

 

Where's Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet?

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Fred, it doesn't really pick up steam until around the hour mark. The second half of the film is infinitely more interesting.

 

The problem I have is that Robert Walker is gliding through this role and certainly not up to his usual skill as an actor. Tom Drake is trying hard and does okay. Then there's the rest of the cast. Hurd Hatfield, so excellent in MGM's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, is dropped into a thankless role. What was Mayer thinking?

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Agreed. There was too much exposition at the beginning of the story. It could've been trimmed down to 90 minutes easily.

 

Personally, I think MGM did much better a few years later with Robert Taylor in ABOVE AND BEYOND. That film, a 1952 effort about World War II American pilot Paul Tibbets, also addressed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

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This movie is absolutely fascinating. I'm amazed that that much information was told as early as 1947.

 

I've seen a bunch of movies and TV films made in the '70s-'90s that pretended to be the "first" to tell the whole story.

 

For example, the TV movie "DAY ONE" from 1989. It's basically this same film. It's as if they copied this film.

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097159/

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Originally an iron curtain was a theater term, meaning some kind of fire-proof curtain that could block fires that started on stage. There had been several disastrous theatrical fires before the safety curtains were used. I don't know if they were actually metal or not, but I heard the term used in an old British Movie. The actor said, "Quick, bring down the iron curtain!" In the US, asbestos curtains were used, and that's why the word Asbestos is printed on some early 19th Century curtains in old movies.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safety_curtain

 

---------------

 

Here are some reviews of the 1989 made-for-TV version of this story. I saw that TV movie, and it is just about the same as this 1947 film. But in the TV movie, they played up Leo Szilard's involvement, while they played it down in the 1947 version.

 

These reviews show how similar the two films are:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097159/reviews

 

I just happened to study the physics part of this story about 15 years ago, and it is quite fascinating. Szilard actually filed for a patent for an atomic device in the 1930s, years before the US made one. Amazingly, he got the idea from a 1914 H.G. Wells book, which was the first literary work to talk about an Atomic Bomb. Wells got the idea from a 1909 paper written by a British scientist, which was apparently the first publication to mention the possibility of making a weapon out of uranium and other atomic material.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_Set_Free

 

It was supposed to have been Szilard who talked Einstein into sending the 1939 letter to President Roosevelt. Einstein was famous as a theorist, but not as a working scientist. He never worked on the Manhattan Project. But he was so famous because of all the media publicity he got in the 1920s and '30s, that's why Szilard suggested that he send the letter to Roosevelt.

 

There is a fascinating story about why the Germans didn't invent the bomb first, but that's a long and complicated story. I don't know if that story will ever be told, because not many people understand it or even know about it.

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The MGM version was definitely telling the American side of the story. I haven't seen the 1989 telefilm.

 

Paramount made FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY in 1989. In that film, Paul Newman stars as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers General Leslie R. Groves, the man assigned to head up the Manhattan Project in 1942.

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After reading the reviews, it looks to me like all three of these are the same story, with the second and third film being basically copies of the 1947 film, but with Oppenheimer emphasized more in the later films.

 

All the reviews I read for the second two films would also apply to the first film.

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097336/reviews

 

I suppose that since so much of these films were based on true historical fact, no one could sue anyone for stealing their story idea.

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Probably in the case of the Paul Newman version, Paramount was trying to present a serious prestige-type film. The subject matter, if done right, could lead to Oscars.

 

However, like its predecessors, FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY did disappointing business at the box office, earning just $3 million (a very low figure by 1989 standards). It proves that people are not necessarily interested in spending two hours watching a story about the atomic bomb, unless it has some sort of entertainment value. It's a tough sell.

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1947 Life Magazine review of the film, with photos. Go to page 75:

 

In the upper right-hand corner of the first page of the link, click on the text that says "Front Cover", then click on the movie title on page 75:

 

http://tinyurl.com/7ldsk3s

 

For some reason, the people at Life decided to try to destroy this film, which is quite unfair. The film did such a good overall job of telling the story about the making of the first A-bombs, the 1989 TV movie and the 1989 Hollywood movie copied it and imitated it. They are essentially re-makes of this 1947 MGM film.

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There are a lot of different ways to present the story of the first A-bomb, but the Paul Newman movie and the 1989 TV movie both resemble the story that the 1947 MGM movie told, including the feelings among some of the scientists that they might be doing the wrong thing by inventing the bomb.

 

I wonder if MGM sold the rights to that way of telling the story?

 

Did you notice that in the MGM version, Robert Oppenheimer was in the film but played down, while he was more prominent in the two modern films? There was a specific reason for that. Also, did you notice how Einstein in the MGM film pointed out that he didn't invent the bomb and wasn't responsible for it, and that a lot of Europeans and Americans of different nationalities were responsible for the bomb?

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>It really hasn't been a viable property, since none of these films turned a profit. They are curios, at best.

 

That is very interesting. IMDB critics complain about each of the 3 films, and Life Magazine complained about the 1947 version.

 

The reviews criticize the addition of women into the plot, and they criticize some of the technical stuff in each film.

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