One of the earliest theatrical features to be shot on videotape, Give ’em Hell, Harry! is a live recording of a one-man stage show, complete with audience reactions, and the subject is the eventful presidency of Harry Truman, America’s commander-in-chief from 1945 to 1953. The versatile James Whitmore stars, and his ability to command attention for nearly two hours is impressive. Replicating Truman’s brash Midwestern persona—an amiable tangle of combativeness, humor, and straight-shootin’ aphorisms—Whitmore attacks the role, and yet his desire to entertain never seems desperate. Rather, he comes across like an actor who respects that the audience’s time is valuable, and that theatergoers deserve to see and hear something interesting during every minute they spend looking at the stage. Whitmore earned Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for the picture, and he won a Grammy for an LP recording of the stage show’s audio. Written by Samuel Gallu and codirected by Peter H. Hunt (who mounted the stage show) and Steve Binder (who orchestrated the film version), the play covers Truman’s entire presidency—the partial term he inherited when FDR died, and the full term to which he was elected—while also providing snippets of his earlier life.
Gallu’s text employs a number of awkward gimmicks. Whitmore reads letters aloud as he writes them. He engages in conversations with people who are neither heard nor seen, meaning that Whitmore says his lines, pauses, and then paraphrases what the other person said. Whitmore also periodically slips into costumes, such as a doughboy uniform, when the text refers to earlier periods. Given the affability and vigor of Whitmore’s performance, the in-your-face artificiality works fairly well, especially because Gallu presents the show as a greatest-hits recitation of colorful moments. And if a bit too much emphasis is placed upon Truman’s salty humor, suggesting that he had a Will Rogers-style quip ready for every occasion, one can’t fault the team behind Give ’em Hell, Harry! for wanting to ensure continuous audience engagement.
Beyond the laugh lines, the most resonant portions of Give ’em Hell, Harry! involve Truman espousing high principles. In one scene, Truman describes hatemongering Sen. Joseph McCarthy as “that most lamentable mistake of the Almighty’s,” and in another scene, Truman laments that “financial control is in the hands of two few.” (Sadly, that line rings as true now as it ever did.) Arguably the high point is Truman’s verbal confrontation with an angry mob of KKK members after the Klan issues death threats against Truman. Whitmore infuses this scene with moralistic passion, righteous indignation, and understandable fear. Yes, this movie’s vision of Truman is idealized. However, seeing as how Truman changed history as the first world leader to employ a nuclear weapon in combat—surely one of the weightiest decisions a human being has ever made—there’s no question that his presidency merits examination, as well as a degree of reverence.
Give ’em Hell, Harry!: GROOVY