As everyone knows, the electric chair was invented in 1887 by a dentist named Alfred P. Southwick, who was part of a NY State committee to find a “more humane” system of execution. Up until that point, the predominant method of putting do-badders to death was the tried-and-true fatal drop of the hanging noose. Southwick approached none-other than the “Wizard of Menlo Park”, Mr. Thomas Edison, to help him build the device. Edison, a champion of his method of “direct current” (DC) saw it as an opportunity to discredit the “alternating current” method of his competitors, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, by associating AC with horrible death. By Edison’s thinking, consumers would be unenthusiastic with having the same “dangerous” AC electricity in their house. And thus, an AC electric chair was built by his employees, Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly. The first man to be executed in this manner was William Kemmler in 1890. In 1899, Sing Sing prison sent the first woman to the hot seat, namely one Martha M. Place. Fascinatingly, both were convicted of ax-related murders. Place’s execution went much better than first-timer Kemmler, whose head caught fire after the second attempt to put him to death. These things happen. Heck, murderer Willie Francis was sent to the electric chair twice—his 1946 electrocution failed to kill him, but the Supreme Court didn’t see this as a matter of double jeopardy, so they sent him back to the chair in 1947.
Of course, Capital Punishment has been a liberal hot-button issue (no pun intended) for most of modern civilized history and after an extensive legal debate in the early ‘70s was decreed unconstitutional clear across the country. While this was eventually overturned in 1976, allowing the good folks of these United States to fry criminals again, the 1972 abolition was seen as a huge leap forward for human rights.
The ongoing debate (and its likely outcome of abolishment) of capital punishment may very well have inspired Garrie Bateson to write the script for The Traveling Executioner, a black comedy vehicle for Stacey Keach, under the direction of Jack Smight (Harper). Set in 1918, the movie’s titular character is one Jonas Candide, a former carnie who provides the service to southern prisons for the king’s fee of $100 per butt in the chair. An opportunist to be sure, but Candide is no ghoul. While strapping a condemned man in, he tells a beautiful story about the afterlife’s “Fields of Ambrosia”, where it’s always a lovely spring day and the beautiful maidens sit naked by a stream and ask a man to lie down beside them—“they don’t care what you done or how you look.” Mesmerized by the story, the condemned dies with a smile on his face, courtesy of Candide’s special ratio of weight vs. voltage.
Candide’s latest job, a double-header for which he bought a brand new jacket and top hat, is that of German immigrants Willie and Gundred Herzallerliebst. Willie seemingly goes quietly but it’s soon discovered that the chair didn’t kill him. Candide blames the prison surgeon, the surgeon blames the medical examiner and the argument continues all the way down the hall as they drag poor Willie back to the chair. Fortunately for all, he dies along the way. The Warden sees it as a minor error—“One mishap in eight years ain’t so bad,” he reasons—and retains his confidence that Jonas will get the job done when Gundred runs out of appeals.
But Jonas falls for Gundred in a big way, and she convinces him that if he figures out a way to help her escape the chair, he’ll be rewarded. Coming up with a plan to fake her death, Jonas sets forth on a veritable comedy of cons involving both his assistant, a young mortician named Jimmy, the prison doctor and the latter’s high fee of $500 for overcoming his own delicate sensibilities against committing such a fraud. Now all Jonas has to do is race against time—which isn’t on his side and certainly isn’t on Gundred’s—to raise the money. He’ll gamble, pimp, even temporarily disable his beloved “throne”—with a hammer and a staged theft—to keep the stall going.
On paper, it all sounds like rollicking, ill-mannered and non-PC fun, but The Traveling Executioner suffers from choppy editing, a muddy script and a good deal of odd direction on the part of Smight. Keach’s wonderful performance as the roguish Candide holds the movie together, however, making up for the missteps (not to mention the awful panning and scanning of the only available VHS image). While death and its methods of delivery have made for the best dark comedies, Bateson’s script strives to have things both ways by decrying capital punishment and having fun with the situation. Candide’s compassionate “Fields of Ambrosia” speech is meant to give the condemned a sense of serenity and closure before the jolt, but his lying and chicanery to get Gundred off the hook isn’t borne out of anything but base lust and infatuation. Inevitably, capital punishment will continue with or without Candide, of course, and his replacement will likely have a less-gentle disposition regarding dispatch. Smight and Bateson seem to be saying, if you have to execute prisoners, better to have a likable ax man than a cold and calculating “just a job” guy.
At the time of its very brief release, The Traveling Executioner must have seemed a shocking (no pun intended) anti-capital punishment film, urging for the abolition of the “barbaric” practice. While the movie shies away from the ugly details (at first, anyway), it inches slowly towards a climax modern audiences will likely see coming before the head credits are over. Fitting in neatly with social comedies of the time (M.A.S.H. and The Longest Yard the most obvious examples, at least in tone if not subject matter), it highlights the jaded callousness most people have towards execution, so long as they aren’t the inhabitants of the chair, of course.
Difficult if not impossible to run down today, The Traveling Executioner seems to have suffered some studio problems prior to MGM’s limited release and seeming disowning of the movie. The editing certainly does little to serve the story, rendering some scenes truncated and others dragging painfully along. But the biggest drawback is that none of the other characters are as well-drawn as Candide. Keach dominates every scene he’s in and devours it, leaving little room for supporting actors. And this is due to the fact that none of the other characters ever come to life. It isn’t that Keach is overwhelming the others; it’s that none of the other players have anything to do. As Jimmy, Bud Cort’s trademark quiet strangeness is simply subdued here. Even the magnitudinous M. Emmett Walsh seems sleepy as the prison’s warden.
Most disappointing is that The Traveling Executioner never travels, literally or figuratively. Confined to the single prison or the nearby town, Candide’s larger-than-life personality and profession are just as imprisoned as the character’s he’s meant to execute. So Keach overflows. In 1993, Joel Higgins (of Best of the West and Silver Spoons fame) and Martin Silvestri loosely adapted the movie into a play called “The Fields of Ambrosia”. It isn’t difficult to imagine this story playing better in the confines of a stage, pre-limited by the environment. On stage, Jonas Candide could be let loose to dominate his world. But with such a narrow cinematic scope, the damning of capital punishment is relegated to one area, dampening the impact of this being a country-wide problem. If that, indeed, is the actual message.
For another take on this movie, please check out Joe Baltake’s excellent column “The Passionate Moviegoer”)