#258) Primary (1960)

Coin Toss Before Presidential Debate

#258) Primary (1960) 

OR “The Dairyland Diaries”

Directed & Written by Robert Drew

Class of 1990

The Plot: It’s 1960 and the White House is up for grabs in the upcoming presidential election. Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey is the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination, but Senator John Kennedy from Massachusetts thinks he can rock the vote. After easily winning the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy challenges Humphrey in the Wisconsin primary of April 1960 to prove he can carry the kind of mid-west state that Humphrey prides himself on having a connection with. Humphrey pounds the pavement: shaking hands, kissing babies, pledging to look out for the average farmer once elected. Kennedy, along with his glamorous wife Jackie and the rest of his famous family, sets out to prove that his Catholic upbringing is nothing Protestant America needs to fear. And in the midst of all of this, filmmaker Robert Drew is using the proceedings to create a new kind of documentary.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “new territory in documentary film making” and states that “[m]odern political and news reporting owes much to the audacity of this film’s invasive technique.”

But Does It Really?: Oh of course. “Primary” was a game-changer for documentaries. Long before we had wall-to-wall news coverage of every political movement, “Primary” was a rare glimpse at what it takes to run for president in this country, and the toll it takes on anyone who thinks they’re up to the task. The film is engaging, surprisingly suspenseful (considering that you know how it ends), and worth a watch for its artistic merits as well as for its historical significance. Plus it’s less than an hour long. Any filmmaker who can make that big an impact in only 53 minutes is worthy of recognition.

Everybody Gets One: This isn’t his only NFR appearance, but attention must be paid to Robert Drew. Drew was a writer for Life magazine and had a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard when he started to focus on filmmaking, specifically asking the question, “Why are documentaries so dull?” He founded Drew Associates, hired a murderers’ row of future notable filmmakers, and in the process created what we now know as Direct Cinema. Minimal narration, no forced storylines, just a camera covering real life in real time. What it all means is left up to you, the audience.

Wow, That’s Dated: Kennedy’s campaign song was a rewritten version of the then-current hit song “High Hopes”.

Seriously, Oscars?: I’m not sure if “Primary” premiered in theaters or on television in 1960, but the Oscar winner that year for Best Documentary was “The Horse with the Flying Tail”. So to answer your question: no, the Oscars weren’t quite ready to embrace direct cinema in 1960. Robert Drew was never nominated for an Oscar, but he did win an Emmy in 1969 for a documentary about choreographer Edward Villella. So that’s something.

Other notes

  • Yes yes, I am aware that the photo I used for this post is from the West Virginia primary a month after the events of this film. But hey, it’s the best photo I could find.
  • The cameramen used for the film were all employees of Robert Drew’s film company Drew Associates. Among them, future documentarians Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker.
  • Part of me says we should bring back campaign songs, and part of me definitely does not want that.
  • Remember the film professor I mentioned who always name-dropped Errol Morris? Apparently he’s one of the younger volunteers for the Kennedy campaign in this movie. He brought that up a lot too. Weirdly, he always referred to Jackie Kennedy as “Jackie O”, even though she didn’t get that nickname until she married Aristotle Onassis in 1968.
  • Speaking of, I hate when people get their kids involved in campaigning. I know it’s important to teach your kids about democracy, but I’m not voting for Kennedy just because your daughter thinks he’s “dreamy”.
  • Don’t know a lot about Hubert Humphrey, other than he was Johnson’s VP and lost to Nixon in ’68, but he seems like everyone’s uncle. I suspect like Adlai Stevenson before him, Humphrey didn’t cut it because he wasn’t “exciting” enough.
  • Say what you will about Kennedy, he knew how to work a crowd.
  • Does anyone know the Polish phrase that Jackie says? Subtitles only tell me that it’s “Non-English Speech”. Real helpful.
  • Man, I knew Kennedy’s Catholicism was an issue in his campaign, but I did not realize just how big an issue it was. Some people were worried Kennedy would take his orders from the Pope. A president being controlled by a foreign leader? What a ridiculous thing that’s actually happening.
  • Jeez after all of that, they’re “about where they stood before the primary”? Democracy sucks.

Legacy

  • Every documentary made since 1960 can trace its lineage back to “Primary”. Not that’s a legacy.
  • Although Kennedy defeated Humphrey in the Wisconsin primary, it was by such a small margin (in a predominantly Catholic state) that Humphrey stayed in the race. He eventually dropped out when Kennedy won the West Virginia primary in May 1960.
  • Also in the running for the 1960 election was Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Kennedy selected Johnson as his running mate shortly after clinching the party nomination.
  • Robert Drew got access to the Kennedy White House in fellow NFR documentary “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment”.

Further Viewing: The 1960 presidential election was the first to feature televised debates. Kennedy faced Republican nominee Richard Nixon on four separate occasions, with Nixon learning about how to appear “TV friendly” along the way.

Listen to This: “The First Family” was a gentle satirizing of JFK and his time in the White House. The album was a surprise runaway hit, led by comedian Vaughn Meader’s pitch-perfect impression of Kennedy. As quickly as he rose, however, Meader’s star plummeted following Kennedy’s tragic assassination. While largely forgotten now, “The First Family” was a breakthrough for comedy albums, and proof that sketch comedy wasn’t just relegated to the sanitized airwaves of broadcast television. For the record: Kennedy thought the lampooning was hilarious and allegedly gave out copies of the album as Christmas gifts.

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