THEIR FINEST HOUR: CHURCHILL AND MURROW Theater Review
Trivia Pursuit Question of the Review: What movie ends with the song “We’ll Meet Again” and what happens when this WWII era song is heard?
One of the best things the dramatic arts can do is to transport us through time and space to long ago and far away and to bring back to life actual figures and historical events. Willard Manus’ Their Finest Hour: Churchill and Murrow does this and much more with his fine two hour two-acter, four-hander mostly set during the Battle of Britain. For in addition to resurrecting legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (Tyler Cook) and famed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Michael Karm), Manus tosses Murrow’s mistress Pamela Churchill Harriman (carnally reincarnated by seductive Chantelle Albers) into the heady mix, proving that the personal is not only political, but historical as well.
An intriguing character, Lady Pamela seems to be missing in action in Alexander Kendrick’s 1969 biography Prime Time, The Life of Edward R. Murrow. As one of the so-called “Murrow Boys” - the all-male team Murrow recruited to report on the epic crusade against the Nazis in the European Theater - Kendrick is likely to have known about his chief’s adulterous affair, as Charles Collingwood (Beau Hogan) does in Finest. Through the upper class born and bred Pamela’s presence, Manus’ play presumes to go behind-the-scenes and demarcates a rather offbeat triangle.
As Murrow the reporter and Churchill the politician bond, developing a working relationship and friendship, bound together by a common contempt for Hitler, Lady Pamela complicates matters. She is married to Winston’s wastrel son Randolph and as the Englishwoman romances the likewise married Murrow, Churchill tries to be a cock block.
In our age of sexual discombobulation, Lady Pamela is an intriguing character - all the more so because she is a real life figure. In the play, as depicted by the tall, slinky, blonde Albers, she insists on pursuing her sexuality, including using it when “cunt-venient” to get what she wants from wealthy and powerful men. Although one gets the sense that if it’s true the future wife of wealthy diplomat and politician Averell Harriman did - as accused - sleep her way to the top, the passionate Pamela thoroughly enjoyed her bedroom romps as a sexual thoroughbred. Indeed, her sexploits amongst prominent men are so renowned that one wonders if the Beatles had her in mind when they sang:
“Well you should see Polythene Pam …
She's killer-diller when she's dressed to the hilt
She's the kind of a girl
That makes ‘The News of the World’
Yes you could say she was attractively built.”
This, of course, was followed on “Abbey Road” by “She Came in Through the Bathroom.” But meanwhile, back at the theater review:
The relationship between Sir Winston and CBS’ Murrow was further complicated by a little thing called journalistic ethics and the possibility of compromising them. Churchill makes no bones about the fact that he wants the broadcaster to use his considerable influence to draw America into the war against the Nazis. Indeed, one could argue that the Murrow-Churchill “collaboration” (where more was often off the record than on) is similar to the Sean “Insanity” Hannity/President Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle/Don Trump Jr. relationships, wherein these Fox “News” propagandists don’t reveal to the public the interactions they have with politicians they are regularly covering.
However, given Murrow’s track record - his anti-Nazi reporting, including during the Blitz in London; his stellar anti-McCarthy broadcasts; his 1960 Harvest of Shame documentary on the exploitation of migrant workers in America; etc. - one could argue that Murrow was the best type of “objective journalist”: Murrow objected to fascism, McCarthyism, oppression, unfairness and injustice and boldly used his reportage to oppose them.
Speaking of which, in the interests of full disclosure I should reveal the fact that I was named after Edward R. Murrow. His CBS producer Fred Friendly personally told me that I was “the only journalist in America named after Murrow.” So it’s difficult for me to be completely dispassionate and impartial regarding a bio-play about my namesake. As I once told George Clooney, it was a real treat for me to watch this drama, as it was Clooney’s 2005 Murrow movie Good Night, and Good Luck, starring Clooney as Friendly and David Strathairn as the by then TV reporter who took Sen. Joe McCarthy on, just as he had Adolph Hitler before him.
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During Finest I learned a lot about the man I was named after and I got a real kick out of it. Despite the fact that Cook is probably much taller than Murrow was, he acquitted himself well in the role and made me feel proud to be named after the man widely considered to be America’s greatest broadcast journalist. Karm nailed Churchill, which is hard to do with a personage so prominent. He captured the PM’s soaring oratory and is note perfect, as he enlists Shakespeare’s tongue to fight dictatorship.
Albers strikes a sexually defiant note as a woman who insists upon living on her own terms in a “man’s world,” and may be the most captivating character of all. One could say that the private lives of noteworthy people is none of our business, and this may in fact be true. But it’s also true that sticking our noses into their personal affairs is interesting, fascinating, titillating, etc., too. So let’s be honest about it!
As that Murrow boy Collingwood Hogan’s hero provides some comic relief and panache as he covers combat, up close and personal. Finest captures the WWII anti-fascist zeitgeist, not only with the costumes, set, period songs, but most importantly with its still relevant message powerfully conveyed by its cast, and is ably guided with Stu Berg at the directorial helm.
Having said that, Manus’ script has some historical inaccuracies. Notably, Murrow was not with Churchill on Dec. 7, 1941 as the play incorrectly depicts - he was stateside and actually at the White House on the day that the Imperial Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Shortly after midnight Murrow met with President Roosevelt, according to Kendrick’s Prime Time. This makes me doubt the veracity of the vaudeville routine Churchill performed upon hearing of the sneak attack at Hawaii, wherein he’s positively gleeful, because despite the death and carnage, this means that formerly isolationist America will enter the war on Britain’s side, against fascism. (Ironically, according to Kendrick, Winston was actually at Chequers attending a birthday party for Averell Harriman’s daughter when Oahu was attacked.)
(BTW, it is to the everlasting shame of the Left that while America slept and England was almost all alone fighting the Nazis during the Battle of Britain, Stalin had signed a truly despicable treaty with Hitler containing secret protocols enabling the USSR to co-invade parts of Eastern Europe after the Germans blitzed Poland. What a stain on the record that a conservative like Churchill led the fight against the goosesteppers - until the Nazis inevitably attacked the Soviet Union. Extremely shameful, just as the fact that before the USA entered the war, two non-Jewish English directors, Chaplin and Hitchcock, arguably made Hollywood’s best “prematurely” anti-Nazi films.)
Cook’s Murrow certainly comes off as brave, reporting from his studio while the blitz raged around him in London, but Finest misses an opportunity to further embellish his sheer heroism. Years before CNN broadcast warfare live at Iraq (“The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated,” as Bernard Shaw pithily put it), Murrow did this (albeit with a microphone, if not a TV camera). As bombs burst across the British capital, Murrow sometimes risked his neck by literally reporting on rooftops, delivering his signature intro “This is London” as American listeners heard explosions in the background. It’s really hard to fathom such sheer courage, putting one’s self in harm’s way in order to inform America - and, perchance, to arouse its conscience.
Nevertheless, enjoying this thrilling re-enactment of the politician and the broadcaster who joined forces to fight for freedom against fascism are among the finest two hours this reviewer has ever spent in a theater. For those who love sexually liberated women, crusading journalists and leaders with preternaturally gifted oration in the face of tyranny, don’t miss it. Would that my namesake was here to expose Trump, like he did those other fascists, Hitler and McCarthy (who shared a lawyer with Trump, the truly odious Roy Cohen, whom Nathan Lane just won a Tony for portraying in the revival of Angels in America). A nation turns its lonely ears to you, Edward R….
Now, more than ever, audiences need to be reminded of those who valiantly fought the good fight. Good night, and good luck, indeed!
Answer To The Trivia Pursuit Question: “We’ll Meet Again” is heard during the grand finale of Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, as a series of thermonuclear explosions blow the world up.
Their Finest Hour: Churchill and Murrow plays Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through July 22 at Write Act Repertory @ the Brickhouse Theatre, 10950 Peach Grove Street, North Hollywood, CA 91601. Info: http://www.writeactrep.org/index.html.
L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting a Paul Robeson birthday celebration with re-enactor K.B. Solomon on June 28 as part of the “Marx @ 200: The Marxist Movie Series”(see: https://www.gofundme.com/marx-200-the-marxist-movie-serie). The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”co-authored by Rampell is now available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ .