2014 Film Essays

From The Archive: Booze and Bad Choices in Robert Gist’s ‘An American Dream’ (1966)


The Chicago-born Robert Gist made his acting debut as the “Department Store Window Dresser” in George Seaton’s 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street and began a ten-year run as a television director from 1960-1970. In between, Gist directed one feature film called An American Dream (a Norman Mailer adaption), which was subsequently re-titled See You in Hell, Darling. While nowhere near a great Hollywood film, Gist’s single adventure into features contains a few hilarious surprises.

An American Dream begins with the best visuals of the entire film, as the boozed-up Deborah Rojack (Eleanor Parker in a small but well-peformed role) rolls around in bed and watches a tough-talking commentator on television. The man unleashing a verbal smack down upon the mafia is her war hero husband, Stephen Rojack (Stuart Whitman), who intends to take down the crime boss Eddie Ganucci (Joe De Santis). In one of the more extreme cases of cinematic drunk dialing, Deborah calls her separated lover and whispers sweet nothings to the startled host. As a result, Mr. Rojack (classic tough guy name) pays a visit to his wife and it does not go well. In other words, Rojack survives a flying object assault, flirts with the maid and pushes his wife off a 30th floor balcony.

Director Gist almost put together a late 60s gem with An American Dream but endlessly elaborates on the inconsequential. For example, Rojack wisely attempts to leave his wife’s high-rise penthouse, but inexplicably takes a few moments to flirt with the robe-wearing maid. The scene establishes the suave Rojack as a womanizer, but the following moments with nightclub singer Cherry McMahon (Janet Leigh) could have done the trick. Despite a high-profile persona, Rojack doesn’t seem to have a high intellect. He’s able to dish out charming one-liners to dames, but seems utterly perplexed when a string of eloquent sentences are put together by others. The most hilarious moment comes with an investigator says, “Procrastination is the thief of time,” which inspires Rojack to deliver a “WHAT?!” and this face:


“Umm…could you repeat the part of the stuff where you said all about the things?” – Homer Simpson

Perhaps Rojack has suffered brain damage from the war (seriously), but Gist doesn’t offer up enough backstory to explore the idea. The first 45 minutes of An American Dream delivers a warm blaze of suspense, but the second half loses focus and produces even more cheesy dialogue. Rojack attempts to convince the cops that he didn’t push his wife off a balcony (while trying to progress his anti-mafia program) but somehow decides to bed up with Ms. Cherry McMahon — the girlfriend of Ganucci’s nephew, Nicky (Les Crane) Oh, Rojack.


Post Sexy-Time

While Stuart Whitman demands attention with his tough-guy persona, the iconic Janet Leigh was unfortunately outperformed by her enormous fur coat:


Stuart Whitman and A Fur Coat featuring Janet Leigh’s Head

The fun doesn’t stop there. One of the main investigators, Sgt. Walt Leznicki (J.D. Cannon) bares a striking resemblance to Steve Carell’s Brick Tamland from Anchorman. In fact, his awkward demeanor mirrors the bumbling weatherman as well. Silence fills the room during the initial investigation, but Leznicki lightens up the mood with, “We now pause for a commercial.” He seems to admire the idea of a personally knowing the television star and leaves the bad-cop routine to his buddy Lt. Roberts (Barry Sullivan).


1966 Steve Carell (right)

An American Dream has its moments and even received an Oscar nomination for Best Song (“A Time For Love”), but Robert Gist couldn’t pull everything together to maximize the talents of his supporting cast. It would have been nice to see a second feature from Gist, but he went back to television and his career was over by the early 70s.

Follow Q.V. Hough on Twitter and check out An American Dream on Warner Archive Instant


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