Very late in posting this but had a great time last Saturday moderating a panel at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. A A 40-year-old CBC TV-movie was saluted: “The Making of the President 1944.” Among the distinguished guests on the panel was the author of the original short story upon which the movie was based, Mr. Morley Torgov. The story, about a Jewish congregation in Sault Ste. Marie struggling to elect a president in wartime, starred Melvyn Douglas — one of Torgov’s Hollywood heroes. Torgov said he could hardly speak he was so excited to meet the star of his all-time favourite movie and one of Gretta Garbo’s last, “Ninotchka.”
Torgov was less pleased about the ending that was slapped onto his short story in order to bring “The Making of the President” up to an hour-long TV drama. His story was all about the in-fighting and machinations within the Jewish community when it came to going down a list of possible candidates to choose from for a new leader. There was no resolution in Torgov’s work (the group just got down to the R’s); in the teleplay, the young lad of the local tailor — a piano prodigy — is ultimately selected to represent the Jewish community at the civic bond rally reception.
The film would be lost to history if not for the CBC archive. What survives are terrific performances from Douglas, the great character actor Nehemiah Persoff (still with us at 98 and living in California) and Paul Soles, who was also on Saturday’s panel. As for the lad who played the 12-year-old piano player, he went on to have a bit of a career as comedian: Mike Myers.
Producer Robert Sherrin (“Bethune,” “Love and Larceny”) was also on the panel and while he had little memory of Myers — who read many of his lines on roller skates — he did recall that the film was shot in a fairly cramped little studio on Jarvis Street in Toronto. Douglas was offered the part of the town baker (and chief among elders) because, back then, says Sherrin, CBC could offer a lead to an American actor and Douglas’ name happened to be on the list of stars who were available.
Luba Goy — also on the panel — had a small part as Soles wife and Myers’ mom. “Blink and you’ll miss me!” quipped the Air Farce comedy legend, who treated the two sold out festival audiences Saturday to live readings of her three lines.
There was a lively discussion as to whether the screenplay could be used today. Aside from the fact CBC is nowadays pretty much out of the TV-movie business, some of the characters (including one played off the top of the hour by Harvey Atkin) seem broadly written, especially in these “professionally sensitive” (as Bill Maher puts it) times. Torgov defended the characterizations, however, as true to the 1944 setting. The story is based on his own upbringing within a Jewish community in the near north as chronicled in his novel “A Good Place to Come From.”
There’s nothing 1944 about Torgov, a career law partner, Stephen Leacock medalist and Order of Canada recipient. At 90, he’s fit and spry and still cranking out detective novels.
Soles, it turns out, wasn’t the first choice as the tailor. That part was originally offered to another up-and-coming Canadian actor — Kenneth Welsh — who apparently ran afoul of director Robert Stevens (The Twilight Zone). Others in the production recalled director Stevens as “tough”; Sherrin admired the job he did given the budget that was provided.
Soles — 87 and still at it in the funny CBC digital series “My 90-Year-Old Roommate” — recalled his father’s advice when it came to his Jewish heritage and the arts: “Blend in.” He did invoke the counter argument, however, as always maintained by the late, great Johnny Wayne of Wayne & Shuster fame: “Stand out.”
The Toronto Jewish Film Festival continues through May 13 with a terrific array of contemporary and archival presentations. Follow this link for more information.