Readings — From the May 2014 issue

Buried in Ruble

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From a February 1952 letter sent by the film and theater director Elia Kazan to Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at Twentieth Century-Fox. Zanuck rejected the proposal, calling it “original and amusing” but “a ‘one joke’ idea.” That year, the studio released Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, written by John Steinbeck. The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, edited by Albert J. Devlin with Marlene J. Devlin, was published last month by Knopf.

Dear Darryl:

For the last few months we’ve been thinking of an idea for a comedy. It is an outgrowth of an experience that John had during the Second World War. It seems to us the basis of a very funny moving picture. Naturally we’ve been wondering whether you’d be interested in it.

A small-town boy — Jimmy Stewart type, of Ukrainian or Polish or Czech descent — has conceived an active dislike for the forces behind the Iron Curtain, which have destroyed his mother’s family. He is in love with a snobbish blonde whose eminence lies in the fact that her family has been in America two generations instead of one. The boy, suing for her hand, takes her to lunch. He tries to pay for the lunch with a ten-dollar bill. The bill is counterfeit.

Through a series of steps that we won’t go into, he gets the idea of using counterfeit money as a weapon of war. It is his conviction that money dropped in great quantities from the air would set off a chain reaction in people more horrible than the atomic bomb. (This we happen to believe also.)

Profoundly stirred by his conviction, he goes to Washington on his own to try to sell his idea to the powers that be. We have then a series of scenes dealing with the difficulty of getting to see anyone, particularly if you have an idea.

He meets and is instructed by the various boys who conduct business in the capital and eventually is able to put his weapon in the hands of the proper authorities.

Their reactions are various. Some think it will work. At any rate we get to a point where the idea is tried out. The experiment is conducted on the boy’s own hometown. The town is isolated and warned that counterfeit money is going to be dropped as an experiment and that the counterfeit money is so close that it will be almost impossible to detect it. People are warned not to pick it up or try to spend it. Then, one day, the money is dropped by plane, and we leave the results to your fruitful imagination. Chaos!

The insane scheme seems to be a success. The boy finds himself a great hero. He is suddenly even acceptable to the snooty blonde (love story incidental but present). The weapon is prepared for dropping on a test area behind the Iron Curtain. Ten-ruble notes cleverly contrived and well-aged together with messages of hope from the outside. A double-edged weapon. These are to be released by the million via balloon from Western Europe.

We don’t go to Europe or behind the Iron Curtain, but from the embassies in Washington it is apparent that all hell has broken loose. Suddenly, however, the realization begins to creep over the official people that humans are more fissionable than plutonium. In other words we would be as much in danger from this weapon as anyone else. The scheme is quickly abandoned. And now the Jimmy Stewart character is no longer a hero.

He goes back home.

John took this idea to Roosevelt during the war. FDR loved it and sent it to Morgenthau. Morgenthau was so scared he blurted out: “I put counterfeiters in jail.” Mr. Roosevelt’s reaction was: “For the cost of one destroyer we could make enough of this weapon to immobilize a community economically for years.” That’s enough to give you an idea. What do you think?

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