Long lost political drama is now available on DVD...
Mamie Van Doren is hot, but Ted Knight steals the show...
The Candidate is a film thought to be lost for decades. Even its star, Mamie Van Doren, claimed she'd never seen it.
Van Doren's fans and biographers have often speculated that a 1964 movie about a blond bombshell and a presidential candidate might have something to do with the alleged affair involving Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy. Actually, the film was based on a seedy story involving Secretary of the Senate Bobby Baker, an advisor to Lyndon Johnson who was investigated in 1963 for claims of arranging sexual favors in exchange for votes and government contracts.
The film came at the right time for Van Doren, for by 1964 her career was entirely overshadowed by her well-publicized love life, especially her high profile romance and breakup with Los Angeles pitcher Bo Bolinsky. Another story from that year involved Van Doren dropping in at L.A.'s Whiskey a Go-Go only to be doused by a drink thrown by Beatle George Harrison. The act wasn't malicious; the skinny moptop had been aiming at a pesky reporter when Van Doren was caught in the crossfire. But if ever there was needed a sad symbol of the changing times, one couldn't do better than a soaked Van Doren. She was in her 30s, strictly a 1950s phenom; The Beatles were giving a new generation tips on how to have fun.
Still, Van Doren was making a valiant effort to keep her career going. She’d been in three films that year, the third of which was The Candidate. In her 1987 autobiography she wrote, “It was a good script and I was excited about doing a role that was a departure for me. I played a senator’s secretary who was a Washington party girl working her way up, rather than the all-too typical dumb blond.”
Schlockmeister Maurice Duke was producing. A notorious promoter of grade Z fare, Duke began his career at Monogram in the 1940s, helming a series of high school comedies usually starring the lovely Noel Neill (who later went on to play Lois Lane in the 1950s Superman TV show). Duke's lowpoint may have been Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), which was just as dumb as it sounds. (Some would argue that Duke's worst was The Atomic Kid, where Mickey Rooney became radioactive and helped the FBI break an enemy spy ring, but schlock is in the eye of the beholder, eh?) After producing films for over-the-hill stars Sabu and Louis Prima, Duke set his sights on Van Doren for The Candidate. She was just Duke's type - like Lugosi, Rooney, Sabu, and Prima, her popularity was fading and she was looking for work.
"THE MOST EXPLOSIVE FILM EVER PRODUCED IN HOLLYWOOD..."
The directing task was given to Robert Angus, a 44-year-old whose claim to fame was producing 25 episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet a decade earlier. He hadn't worked much since. Script duties were given to first time screenwriters Joyce Ann Miller and Quentin Vale. Duke was assembling his typical team: the has-been star; the out of work TV journeyman; the neophyte writers. Yet, Stanley Cortez was brought in as cinematographer, a man with an astounding list of credits including Night of the Hunter (1955), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Shock Corridor (1963). The film was also given an impressive be-bopping score by Steve Karmen, who had scored a handful of teen gang films and would later write the famous beer jingle, "When You Say Budweiser, You've Said it All." If nothing else, the movie was going to look and sound good.
Duke, of course, was going to make sure everyone knew The Candidate was coming, announcing it with the aplomb of a forecaster predicting a hurricane. Duke doubled up on the sex appeal by casting former Playboy model June Wilkinson in a role, and titillated the press with talk of nude scenes and champagne baths being shot for the film's European distribution.
"The Europeans are far more advanced than we are when it comes to watching films," Duke said. "But I predict in a few years the American audience will be more accepting of this type of material."
Van Doren and Wilkinson also gave interviews talking about nudity in films, and topless beaches. They were playing their part in Duke's plan. Since both had posed in Playboy, speculation grew that they would be showing some skin in The Candidate.
Another rush of publicity involved a kissing scene between Van Doren and Eric Mason, the actor playing Baker's stand-in, "Buddy Parker." Duke boasted it was the longest screen kiss in history. Van Doren did stick her tongue in Mason’s ear, which may have been a Hollywood first.
Despite Van Doren's adventurous tongue, The Candidate didn’t stand a chance upon its Oct. 1964 release. Competing with Goldfinger, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Longest Day, a melodramatic tale about a Washington scandal was doomed. What little press it received was mostly negative. The Boston Globe mentioned the prolonged kissing scene and deemed the film "tasteless," warning readers that The Candidate was appearing at the local Capri theater, where Russ Meyer's Lorna, a scandalous film with plenty of sex and nudity, had just played.
Ironically, The Candidate comes off now as a mild, at times solemn courtroom drama. Told in flashback, we learn about Buddy Parker and his ruthless climb to the top of the Washington ladder. With the help of his secretary/girlfriend (Van Doren), Parker secures beautiful young women to "entertain" D.C. bigshots. As played by Mason, Parker is a cynical go-getter. But the film never feels like a '60s film. Somehow, Mason scowls his lines like a character from a 1930s Clifford Odetts drama, constantly talking about how a person has to kick and punch his way to success, and not care about who he hurts. The story doesn't kick in until we meet Frank Carlton (Ted Knight), a shy senator who falls hard for one of the girls (Wilkinson). A rather stiff and conservative sort, Carlton comes undone by Wilkinson's charms.
Knight, who had only been in a handful of movies, walks away with The Candidate. As the other actors chew the scenery, he underplays his character. He's charming enough to be a politician, but also believable as a man who has never been close to anything resembling love. He's earnest as a schoolboy when he laments to Parker that he'd always been clumsy around women. He seems to be thinking all the time, carefully weighing his actions, but for all of his thought and consideration, he continuously makes the wrong choices. We watch in sympathy as he walks directly into this doomed relationship. Parker is eventually punished for his actions - the real Bobby Baker resigned from his post the month The Candidate was released - but it's Knight we remember. It's almost impossible to fathom that the Knight of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Caddyshack is the same Knight playing Senator Carlton.
The Candidate spent a few years as a part of drive-in double features, billed alternately as Party Girls for The Candidate, and Playmates for the Candidate, usually matched with something far more risqué. There was an explosion of fleshy films in the next few years, and by the time The Candidate hit the screens, it was tame enough to serve as an opening act, but not a main feature.
Duke made news briefly in 1973 when he announced his plans to rerelease his movie on the heals of a new Warner Bros. film bearing the same name starring Robert Redford. Duke backed off when Warner Bros. threatened him with legal action, including a half-million dollar lawsuit.
The Candidate, now available from Vinegar Syndrome (on a double bill with a little known noir Johnny Gunman) and shown on various video streaming services such as Snagfilms.com, has a few good things going for it, including: reasonably good dramatic performances from Van Doren, Wilkinson, and Mason; a bizarro party scene where Washington insiders dance while wearing vintage horror movie masks ("See the wild sex parties that rocked the nation's capital!" roared the trailer, although the scene feels more like Laugh-In meets Famous Monsters of Filmland); and of course, a surprisingly moving performance from Ted Knight.
Ultimately, though, the film might best be remembered as Maurice Duke's attempt to go legitimate. He was a scrapper, a survivor of childhood polio who entered show business and found a niche for himself. His career was one of flops and misfires -- he once produced a TV series for Mickey Rooney where the Mick played a teenager working in an office building. That Rooney was in his late 30s and had already been through several ugly divorces didn't seem to phase Duke -- the show was canceled quickly, and Duke soldiered on, knowing that all he needed was a has-been willing to work cheap and a story he could exploit. He was a typical small-time producer of the era, a fast-talker who never found the right idea that would put him into the big time. The Candidate was his swing for the fences. He missed.