It was September 23, 1952. The Republican Party ticket for the upcoming election was in dire straits. Not for the last, Richard Nixon would come under scrutiny for misappropriation of campaign funds. That night he took the airwaves and gave a speech about respectable Republican cloth coats and a dog named Checkers. Since “Checkers Speech” has a bit more zing to it than “What Respectable Republican’s Wife Would Be Caught Dead Wearing a Plain Cloth Coat Speech” we can now celebrate Checkers Day every September 23. Many people remain under the assumption that Checkers Day is about the board game. Clearly it is about the role of dogs in politics. But since there are not that many movies about that subject, how watching some movies about memorable speeches on Checkers Day?
They Won’t Forget
“They Won’t Forget” is a 1930s cinematic retelling of the real life murder of Mary Phagan. Claude Rains plays one of the most heartlessly cynical Southern prosecutors in the history of movies. Everything about “They Won’t Forget” is cynical. But it is Rains’ moment in the spotlight that makes its appropriate for Checkers Day. Rains waits nearly the whole movie for his chance to turn on his prosecutorial charisma in the courtroom to nab a guilty verdict for a guy he may or may not think is guilty. Guilt is beside the point; the point of the speech is to get him into the Georgia Governor’s Mansion. One of the greatest courtroom speeches in Hollywood history and it is all but unknown.
The Incredible Shrinking Man
Checkers Day seems to be about political speeches, but in reality Mr. Nixon’s speech was pure theater with not much political meat to it. In a sense, Checkers Day celebrates a speech that seems more like something from a science fiction movie than reality. On the other hand, the speech that closes “The Incredible Shrinking Man” carries all the power of a great speech by a real philosopher. This may be a B-movie, but it has more philosophical weight to it than Oscar’s biggest winners like “Ben-Hur” and “Titanic.” All those great old-school special effects are mere eye candy for a movie that is really asking what place in the massiveness that is the universe do we tiny human beings really have. And the final speech succinctly sums up the thematic drive of this unexpectedly profound B-movie by suggesting that mere existence lends everyone’s life some kind of meaning.
You may not often think of sermons as speeches, but the best ones by the most charismatic preachers are as carefully choreographed as a Broadway musical. “Elmer Gantry” forwards what is probably the best evangelical sermon in Hollywood history for its entry as a movie appropriate to watch on Checkers Day. In a way, Nixon’s speech about his dog and his wife’s cloth coat has a bit of the evangelical sermon about it. Not in terms of theatrics, of course, but in terms of selling something based purely on faith. Burt Lancaster earned a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar and doubtlessly part of that honor belongs to unplanned Christmas sermon to a bunch of barflies. It’s a classic.
The Crying Game
There they sit. A white IRA soldier and his captive black English soldier. Tragedy hangs heavy in the air as these men who don’t quite have their heart in the gameplay that sets them up as enemies toward each other. The black British soldiers gives a quiet little speech to the white IRA soldier that is actually a parable about a scorpion that hitches a ride across a river on the back of a frog. Against every fiber of self-preservation, the speech reveals that the scorpion stings the frog halfway through the trip, dooming them both a watery grave. The moral of the story is that even self-preservation is held captive by what’s in a person’s nature. And what could be more appropriate for Checkers Day than that?