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Seven Days in film poster from Seven Days in MayMay (1964)

"A voice next to me said, "do you intend to make a movie out of Seven Days in May?"

I turned.  President Kennedy!  "Yes, Mr. President."

"Good."  He spent the next twenty minutes, while our dinner got cold, telling me that he thought it would make an excellent movie."  (Ragman's Son, 349)

History caught up with Kirk Douglas's production of Seven Days in May.  Based on a 1962 best-selling novel by Charles V. Bailey and Fletcher Knebel, it revealed a plot to overthrow US President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) by members of his own administration, led by conspirators Gen. James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) and narrowly foiled by Col. Martin "Jiggs" Casey, played by Douglas.  Set in the then-distant future of 1974, it seemed to reflect the real-life clash between General Curtis Le May and President John F. Kennedy over the Cuban missile crisis.  A Universal executive declined to consider it because of the negative image it might project abroad.  "If…the Executive branch of the Government were to encourage the making of this film, I'd certainly be happy to reconsider it with you at that time," he wrote.

Apparently Douglas got the go-ahead he needed directly from the President himself.  Rod Serling adapted the novel to the screen and John Frankenheimer not only directed but took a co-production interest.  A letter to Douglas from Leon Kaplan, his business/legal advisor, demonstrates the complex partnership and financing arrangements that underlay independent production in the early 1960s. Promotion began long before production even started. In an early example of product placement, special arrangements were made with Bulova for the provision of its state of the art Accutron wristwatches for the picture.

Douglas sent the screenplay out for comment to various interested and influential figures.  Authors Bailey and Knebel suggested a long list of improvements and Douglas's former director Stanley Kubrick also made suggestions.  The care that Douglas himself took in shaping the film's message can be seen in a long memo to Bryna head producer Edward Lewis reacting to one of the first cuts of the film. 

However, by the time the film was released in February 1964, the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas the preceding November made it seem strangely prescient.  Douglas watched the reviews carefully, with particular attention to reactions in Europe, where it proved a considerable success.  In the end, Douglas and his company successfully negotiated the pitfalls inherent in such controversial and timely subject matter.  The film received a Blue Ribbon Award from the National Screen Council and was nominated for 2 Academy Awards.  Edmond O'Brian won a Golden Globe for his supporting role as Senator Raymond Clark.  Serling received a nomination from the Writers Guild of America for his screenplay.

-- Michele Hilmes, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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