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MASH Notes: The Story Behind "Suicide is Painless"

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader.

The unlikely origin of an instantly recognizable theme song.

THE MOVIE

Early in his career, Robert Altman had a reputation for being difficult. When he was still directing TV shows like Maverick and Bonanza, he’d been fired several times over “creative differences” with his bosses. He was recognized as talented, but his rancorous nature slowed his work to a trickle. Finally in 1969, after nearly two decades of struggling, he got a big break. He was offered the opportunity to direct a film version of MASH, Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel about three doctors’ misadventures in a mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) during the Korean War. Altman wasn’t the studio’s first choice. In fact, he wasn’t even their tenth choice. More than a dozen other directors had rejected the project, and with good reason: at a time when the war in Vietnam was a very controversial topic, MASH’s mix of crude hijinks and badly injured soldiers had the smell of a box-office disaster. But Altman didn’t have a lot to lose, so he took the job.

FACING THE MUSIC

Analyzing the script, Altman was aware that he was walking a tightrope between slapstick and tragedy. But if he could craft a scene that successfully combined both, he felt that he could probably figure out the rest of the movie. He settled on a scene he nicknamed “The Last Supper,” in which Captain Walter “Painless Pole” Waldowski decides to kill himself after an embarrassing failure in the bedroom, and in response, his friends wine and dine with him in a pre-death “wake” in which his seat of honor is a casket.



Altman quickly saw that the absurdity of the scene wasn’t quite working as written. It needed a song— solemn… but so bad that it was funny. Altman called on a friend— composer Johnny Mandel, who’d recently won an Oscar for his song “The Shadow of Your Smile” from the movie The Sandpipers. Mandel accepted the job, but not without some trepidation. The last film he’d done with Altman (That Cold Day in the Park) had been an embarrassing flop, and he knew that, in Hollywood, another flop could do serious damage to his career.

Although a movie score is usually handled in postproduction, after filming and editing, Altman asked Mandel to be present during the planning of “The Last Supper.” That’s when he asked Mandel to write a song for actor Ken Prymus to sing while playing the guitar. Altman’s two stipulations: the song had to be called “Suicide Is Painless,” and it had to be “the stupidest song ever written.”

SINS OF THE FATHER

Altman may have sensed Mandel’s lack of enthusiasm in aspiring to stupidity. He told Mandel to stick with the music and forget about the lyrics— Altman would write them himself. Easier said than done. Altman discovered that stupidity wasn’t as simple as it looks. “I can’t write anything nearly as stupid as what we need,” he reported after a few days of trying. But he had a trump card: his 14-year-old son, Michael. Whether Mike should’ve been flattered or insulted, his father was confident that he had within him “the stupidest song ever,” and Mike didn’t disappoint. He came through with lines like “The sword of time will pierce our skins / The pain grows stronger, watch it grin,” and Altman declared them perfect. Award-winning songwriter Mandel wasn’t so sure. In fact, he was mortified when Altman decided to use the song for the movie’s title song as well. Mandel couldn’t see how the “stupid song,” performed in an easy-listening style, fit the scenes of helicopters, stretchers, carnage, and patients in pain. But somehow it did.

(YouTube link)

IRONIES IN THE FIRE

Amazingly, “Suicide Is Painless” became Mandel’s biggest hit… and Michael Altman’s only hit. When producer Ingo Preminger asked what he wanted for writing the lyrics, the 14-year-old said that all he wanted in return was a guitar. Instead, producer Preminger gave him a standard songwriter’s contract. Lucky for Michael. The song was recorded by dozens of musicians, from Henry Mancini to Marilyn Manson, and it was used for the TV version of M*A*S*H.

Robert Altman went on to become a hugely successful filmmaker; Johnny Mandel scored many more movies. Michael, though, retired from songwriting and focused on his career as a painter. He could afford to. In the 1980s, his dad good-naturedly complained to Johnny Carson that he’d been paid only $ 70,000 for directing the movie, while his son had become a millionaire from the song.

(YouTube link)

_______________________________

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader. The latest annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series features fascinating history, silly science, and obscure origins, plus fads, blunders, wordplay, quotes, and a few surprises

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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