American Experience: Cold War Roadshow (DVD Review)12 Jan, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Boasting footage from presumably the only time Nikita Khrushchev and Eddie Fisher found themselves in the same room, this chronicle of the “career-best” story for a lot of the journalists who covered it looks back at the time the Soviet Premier visited the U.S. in 1959 — late in Eisenhower’s term and before the Soviets shot down our U-2 spy plane, an incident that put the kibosh on an intended reciprocal visit by Ike, planned for 1960. Until that later boo boo, the “roadshow” resonated nicely with everyone after a rocky start partly engendered by someone in authority putting out the ill-received word to Khrushchev (once described by Jack Paar as looking like “an old Mr. Clean”) that he would not be allowed to go to Disneyland.
But high on the itinerary was a visit to 20th Century-Fox, which was then filming Can-Can with Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine and Juliet Prowse (a last name Dean Martin lasciviously used to pronounce as “Praaaal-zzzzzzzzze”). It was here that Fisher made the invitational cut, and we see him a couple times at the best banquet table money could buy (wearing glasses) along with then wife Elizabeth Taylor, who would soon almost take the studio down (and certainly him down) by starring in Cleopatra with Richard Burton. What we don’t get here, to my surprise, is Khrushchev’s subsequent reference to the decadence the movie and its flashed, if clothed, femme posteriors represented — a big story at the time. This is the second consecutive PBS portrait (the other was the spectacularly good recent “American Masters” Bing Crosby bio) that might have used an extra half hour, though this may be strictly a personal view. I’d liked to have seen more footage of the famed Khrushchev “Kitchen Debate” with Richard Nixon from the previous summer in Moscow, a most amusing table-setter that was good for some of the best TV in the land at the time.
On the other hand, we do get to see the premier go off topic at a podium — in an incident I didn’t recall — when he pretty well lambasted the mayor of Los Angeles in a public forum after the latter made light of something the Soviet guest had said (quite funny, by the way). Khrushchev didn’t really care for the la-de-da events officials planned for him and much preferred visiting a Midwest farmer who was the kind of guy more in sync with his own agrarian upbringing, sans much formal education. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear that, strictly as a guy, Nixon-in-the kitchen preferred the premier to those snooty Kennedys.
Helping to put the story over are some super-clean kinescopes of Dave Garroway on the Today show, of Chet Huntley-David Brinkley and of pre-Cronkite CBS mainstay Douglas Edwards — the last someone I watched every night as a little kid when he (or his sponsors) were trying to induce me to someday smoke Camels. This is a treat by itself, as are the first-hand recollections of the always-classy Susan Eisenhower (granddaughter of Ike) and Sergei Khrushchev (son of you-know-who), who seems like a good guy even before we are reminded that he became an American citizen. But like his dad, he probably knows — and it is a sad truth — than Can-Can really didn’t turn out to be a very good movie (enjoyable soundtrack album or not).