This Day in Jewish History / 'Dr. Strangelove' Premieres

Director Stanley Kubrick's dark parody of the nuclear scare drew uncomfortable laughs at the height of the Cold War.

On January 29, 1964, “Dr. Strangelove,” the classic black comedy film satirizing the U.S.-Soviet nuclear standoff and the policy of mutually assured destruction that sustained it, had its world premiere in the United States. The opening was originally scheduled for November 22, 1963, but was cancelled when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” was directed and co-written by Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999), the Bronx-raised child of Jewish parents Jacques Leonard Kubrick, a physician, and Sadie Gertrude Perveler. Based on “Red Alert,” a thriller novel by Peter George about an unauthorized American nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, the story was turned into an outrageous satire by Kubrick, who was assisted in the screenplay by Terry Southern and Peter George.      

In Kubrick’s telling: An overly patriotic U.S. Air Force general orders a strike on the USSR and disables the communications devices of the strategic bombers sent on the mission so that they cannot be recalled. The plot is discovered, and measures are taken to help the Russians shoot down the planes en route, but one bomber gets through. The U.S. president, speaking with the Soviet ambassador, is informed that the Russians have a doomsday device that, if the USSR is attacked, will automatically launch enough nuclear weapons to destroy the U.S., if not all life on earth.

The president’s scientific advisor, the German-accented Dr. Strangelove, tells him not to worry and that the Americans can eventually, after 100 years, repopulate the earth if they can preserve a cohort of men and a large number of women who can begin breeding underground until the radiation passes. At the end of the film, an enthusiastic American bombardier is seen astride a bomb that he intends to manually direct onto a Soviet target, before the screen cuts to clips  of mushroom clouds from actual nuclear detonations, accompanied by the World War II song “We’ll Meet Again” on the soundtrack. 

Armed with the razor-sharp screenplay, the cast of comic actors – including, principally, Peter Sellers playing a British Royal Air Force officer, the American president, Merkin Muffley and the insidious Dr. Strangelove (who involuntarily reveals his continuing loyalty to his former employer, Adolf Hitler), as well as George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, Sterling Hayden and Keenan Wynn – make the film hilarious, despite its shocking subject matter and the fact that the Cold War was at full steam at the time. The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote that “Dr. Strangelove” displayed “contempt for our whole defense establishment” and was “the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across." But most reviews were very favorable. The movie drew sell-out crowds and was nominated for four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor (Sellers).

Kubrick, who began his career as a photographer and  relocated from the U.S. to the United Kingdom after his 1960 Hollywood hit “Spartacus,” went on to make “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) and “The Shining” (1981) – to cite some of the most distinguished examples of his limited output. He was known as a perfectionist who insisted on control of every aspect of a film’s production, and as his career progressed, the time between his films grew longer and longer. His much anticipated final film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” came out a full dozen years after the movie that preceded it, and he did not live long enough to attend its premiere in July 1999. He died shortly after completing editing, on March 7, 1999.

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