“Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story” is a Nixon-era satire with the kind of slapstick political humor that might have shown up on “Laugh-In” or “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
In all likelihood, the 25-minute film, commissioned by a public television station but never aired, would have disappeared into the dustbin of history by now, if not for one crucial fact: It was made by Woody Allen.
Allen wrote and directed the 1971 film and stars as Harvey Wallinger, a supposed top aide to then-President Nixon.
Wallinger, we are told by a stereotypically deep-voiced narrator, is a powerful man whose father died in childbirth and whose four brothers studied aviation but ended up coal miners “because of a bad sense of direction.”
Harvey himself graduated 96th in a class of 95 at Harvard, but went on to become Nixon’s closest adviser due to shared political beliefs: “They both love Richard Nixon.”
Shots of Allen are intercut with dubbed archival footage to make it appear Wallinger played a role in McCarthy-era hearings on alleged Communist infiltration of the U.S. government. He nonsensically grills a witness about his involvement in the Boy Scouts.
Politicians of the era are shown at their clumsiest: Vice President Spiro T. Agnew serving a tennis ball into the back of his doubles partner’s head; Nixon stumbling through an explanation of where Agnew’s office will be located in the White House.
Allen made the spoof for New York’s WNET-TV during a lull in his feature film work, after finishing “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask),” said Jack Kuney, who produced “Wallinger.”
The film both foreshadows and echoes other Allen works.
“Annie Hall” star Diane Keaton appears as Wallinger’s ex-wife. The “mockumentary” format is similar to that of Allen’s first feature film, “Take the Money and Run.” The insertion of Allen into a photograph of Nixon and Agnew would be done, with greater sophistication, in “Zelig.”
And, of course, there are the familiar obsessions of any Woody Allen project: sex and Judaism.
In one scene, Wallinger, on the telephone, orders: “I want you to get an injunction against The Times. It’s a New York, Jewish, Communist, left-wing, homosexual newspaper - and that’s just the sports section.”
Later, he says, “I don’t like un-American sex. … If you’re ashamed of it, it’s American sex. … I think sex without guilt is bad, because it almost becomes pleasurable.”
The movie was scheduled to air in February 1972, as Nixon was preparing for what would be a landslide re-election. But it was pulled before it ever hit the screen - apparently because it was too racy and political for public television.
It languished for more than a quarter-century, becoming a WNET legend.
James Day, who was president of WNET at the time “Wallinger” was made, told The New York Times that the Public Broadcasting System’s managers didn’t want to air a film that might anger the government.
“They were afraid to kill it, because they’d look chicken,” Day told the newspaper. “But they didn’t want to upset the politicians and get their money cut.”
Station president William Baker said that when he started working at the station a decade ago, the film was “one of those kind of things that the old-timers talked about.”
“I’ve spent five years asking about it,” he said, “saying it must exist in somebody’s attic somewhere.”
Last month, Baker said, a videotape of the film showed up on his desk, left there by Mary Ann Donahue, an assistant producer of the film who is WNET’s director of programming. She had gotten a copy from Kuney.
Baker is campaigning to run the film on WNET. Because the station never finished negotiating with Allen for the rights to it, Baker needs the filmmaker’s permission.
“It’s really in the hands of Woody Allen,” Baker said. “If he says yes, it’s on the air.”
Leslee Dart, a spokeswoman for Allen, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.