Albert Schweitzer and Henry Fonda’s Lost Special

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Albert Schweitzer was born in Alsace-Lorraine in 1875. Though he took theology at university, studying at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Universität in Strasbourg and at the Sorbonne in Paris before publishing his PhD thesis – on The Religious Philosophy of Kant – at the University of Tübingen in 1899, he first found acclaim as a scholar of music. In 1905, he published a study of Bach in French, entitled J. S. Bach: Le Musicien-Poète, which explicated the pictorial aspect of the composer’s art and offered practical guides to the performance of his works. Schweitzer expanded his study for a German edition, in two volumes, in 1908; including more biographical material and setting Bach in the context of his musical precursors. An English translation, expanded further still, was published in 1911. 

In 1906, Schweitzer’s pamphlet Deutsche und Französische Orgelbaukunst und Orgelkunst stressed the value of the organ for the catalogue of Bach, and included notes towards the proper building of organs. Amended and republished in 1927, Schweitzer’s work impelled the Organ Reform Movement, which had a decisive influence on organ building throughout the twentieth century.

Later in 1906, Schweitzer published Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung. The work was translated into English by William Montgomery in 1910, as The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Reviewing more than a century of research into the historicity of Jesus – led by scholars including David Friedrich Strauss and Ernest Renan – Schweitzer argued that much of this research showed the prejudices of its authors and their religious and social milieus. He asserted that the ‘historical Jesus’ which had emerged was ‘a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in a historical garb’.

Instead, based on a close reading of the New Testament, Schweitzer argued that Jesus’ life ought to be read in the context of late Jewish eschatology. He sought to show how, following Jesus’s own convictions, Christians of the first century believed that the day of judgement and the end of the world was imminent. According to Schweitzer, the development of Church dogma across subsequent centuries broke decisively with the beliefs of first-century Christianity, as Jesus’ teachings were reconfigured in order to cohere with the fact that the day of judgement had not yet come. Schweitzer’s work brought to an end the ‘first quest’ for the historical Jesus; the ‘second quest’ would not begin until Ernst Käsemann delivered a lecture on ‘The Problem of the Historical Jesus’ at the University of Marburg in October 1953.

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Albert Schweitzer on the cover of Life, in the year of his death

Not content with his foundational work in the fields of musicology and theology, Schweitzer began to study medicine. Resigning from his post as principal of the Theological College in Strasbourg, he undertook a doctorate in medicine; then in 1912, he and his wife Helene travelled to Lambaréné, in present-day Gabon. Working as a doctor, by the end of 1913 the couple had built a small hospital of corrugated iron; and they remained in Lambaréné until 1917 when, suffering illness, they returned to France. Schweitzer returned to Lambaréné in 1924: the hospital he had founded and which still bears his name grew, and he spent much of the rest of his life there, including a spell between 1939 and 1947 when war prevented his return to Europe; before dying in Lambaréné in 1965, aged 90.

In 1952, Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in Lambaréné. An impassioned critic of colonialism, Schweitzer was equally opposed to nuclear weapons testing, and his ‘Declaration of Conscience’, broadcast worldwide via Radio Oslo in 1957, spurred the foundation of The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. He would become – along with Bertrand Russell, Martin Buber, and Pablo Casals – one of SANE’s most prominent international sponsors.

In 1959, Steve Allen – the first host of The Tonight Show – held a meeting which inaugurated Hollywood SANE. Members included Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, Harry Belafonte, and Henry Fonda.

Henry Fonda was by this point midway through an illustrious career on screen and on the stage. A struggling actor in New York City in the early 1930s, sharing an apartment with James Stewart, Fonda’s lead performance in The Farmer Takes a Wife – which opened on Broadway at the end of October 1934 – saw him make his way to Hollywood. He made his on-screen debut in the film adaptation of the play, a comedy released in 1935, and soon found wider success: starring in Fritz Lang’s second American picture, You Only Live Once; opposite Bette Davis in Jezebel; and in Young Mr. Lincoln, directed by John Ford. The beginning of the 1940s saw some of Fonda’s most popular film work, with The Grapes of Wrath, The Lady Eve, and The Ox-Bow Incident; before he returned after the war in 1946 with one of Ford’s most esteemed Westerns, My Darling Clementine.

Still of Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men

In the mid-50s, Fonda featured in Ford’s Mister Roberts; alongside Audrey Hepburn in War and Peace, an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel directed by King Vidor, produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Paulo Conti, and with music by Nino Rota; in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man; and then in 12 Angry Men, which Fonda also produced. Throughout the 1960s he appeared in a number of Western and war pictures, including the ensemble films The Longest Day and How the West Was Won, and cast against type in 1968 for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

Some of Fonda’s most acclaimed film and theatre work was still to come; but the close of the 1960s finds an anomaly in Fonda’s career, and in the posthumous reputation of Albert Schweitzer. For in 1969, Fonda narrated a one-hour television special, produced by Warner Brothers, documenting Schweitzer’s life: but this documentary aired only once and has not been heard from since.

An unattributed reference on Schweitzer’s Wikipedia page alleges:

‘Weeks prior to his death, an American film crew was allowed to visit Schweitzer and Drs. Muntz and Friedman, both Holocaust survivors, to record his work and daily life at the hospital. The film The Legacy of Albert Schweitzer, narrated by Henry Fonda, was produced by Warner Brothers and aired once. It resides in their vault today in deteriorating condition. Although several attempts have been made to restore and re-air the film, all access has been denied.’

Very little is available on the internet to corroborate any of this: even the existence of the hour-long film is barely documented: it appears, for instance, neither as an individual entry nor on Fonda’s filmography on the Internet Movie Database at IMDb.com. That The Legacy of Albert Schweitzer existed is, however, attested by virtue of this advertisement found in the 21 April, 1969 issue of Broadcasting: The Businessweekly of Television and Radio:

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Warner Bros.-Seven Arts had formed in 1967 when – with the movie industry suffering a period of decline following the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age – Jack Warner sold his controlling interest in the studio and its various music labels to Seven Arts Productions, headed by co-founder Eliot Hyman and his son, Kenneth, for $32 million. The company lasted in this form for little more than two years. In late 1969, the Hymans negotiated the sale of the company to Kinney National for $64 million, and Kinney at once restored the Warner Bros. name.

The 1969 special narrated by Fonda and produced by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts was not Schweitzer’s first engagement with the world of television and film. Twelve years earlier, Albert Schweitzer had been released, and it went on to win the 1958 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The film was in fact a cross between a documentary and a biographical drama: with Schweitzer appearing particularly in the second half of the film, which follows him during a full day’s work in Lambaréné; while his early life is recalled in flashback, and portrayed by actors. Burgess Meredith served as the film’s narrator, while Fredric March provided Schweitzer’s voice.

A further curiosity – and an additional point of connection between Fonda and Schweitzer – emerges in the Chicago Daily Tribune of 19 November, 1953. In a column entitled ‘Looking at Hollywood’, bearing the heading ‘Films Lose Hank Fonda Again, Another Play Set for Him’, Hedda Hopper speculates upon a Rodgers and Hammerstein ‘musical based on a John Steinbeck story’ which, she writes, is set to keep Fonda from returning to the big screen. This musical was Pipe Dream, based on Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday. Though Fonda was the first casting choice of the musical’s producers Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, after months of singing lessons, Fonda – in his own words – ‘still couldn’t sing for shit’, a view apparently shared by Richard Rodgers. Thus Fonda was out, and the role of Doc went instead to William Johnson, who was nominated for a Tony for his performance after the musical opened in late 1955.

From Fonda Hopper segues inconsequently in the same passage to a ‘strange story’ concerning Schweitzer. Apparently Marion Preminger – the ex-wife of Otto Preminger, who had directed Fonda in Daisy Kenyon in 1947 – had at the time ‘just received $48,000 in back alimony from her former husband’. According to Hopper, she intended to use this money to travel to Africa replete with ‘crates of drugs and medicines’ for use at Schweitzer’s hospital. Hopper’s article included quotes courtesy of Marion, in which she described Schweitzer as a ‘living saint’. She purportedly intended to write a biography of Schweitzer, called ‘The Thirteenth Apostle’.

This is an interesting sequence of connections in its own right; but it brings us no closer as to why the 1969 special remains hidden from view. Perhaps this owes something to the changing ownership of Warner Bros. at the time, and to the fact that The Legacy of Albert Schweitzer was a Seven Arts-period endeavour; or perhaps the documentary has been disavowed by the estate of Schweitzer, of Fonda, or both. We may wonder whether the alleged refusal of Warner Bros. to restore and release the film marks the assertion of a neocolonial and militaristic worldview.

Tantalisingly, one of the only other references to the film I have found comes from the website of Henry Fonda’s daughter, Jane. In the comments to the republication of a tweet which Jane Fonda made on 22 October, 2010, a lady calling herself ‘Leslie’ writes:

‘Hi Jane,

I hit reply on your e-mail but am not sure it went through to you, so I’m attempting to reach you this way.

Your Dad’s audio recording of the film “The Legacy of Albert Schweitzer” has at long last been found! The tape itself has faded to pink, but can be restored.

As I mentioned before, your dad said it was the thing of which he was most proud of doing and Jane, he was magnificent! This film is so an overwhelming, profound experience, something that when seen becomes a life changing event.

So I guess my question to you is; have you any interest in this project? In the meantime I am working on getting the script as well as the audio.’

Jane’s response simply states: ‘I am not sure what you mean by “involvement.” I am not able to produce it cause I am too swamped with projects.’ And so the mystery of The Legacy of Albert Schweitzer remains, refused and uncovered.