The Great Impostor (1961)

112 mins | Biography, Comedy-drama | February 1961

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HISTORY

The opening credits include the following written statement: “This story is based on the book by Robert Crichton relating the facts of the many amazing careers of Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr.—who is still very much alive and continuing to prove that ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’” The film begins with Tony Curtis, as Demara, watching as one of his elementary school students writes the Abraham Lincoln quote, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” After the children leave, Demara wipes out the “not” in “cannot.” The closing credit title reads “The End,” over an image of Curtis shaking his head in contradiction. An acknowledgment in the closing credits reads, “‘We wish to thank the Royal Canadian Navy and the United States Coast Guard for their assistance in the production of this motion picture.’ –Technical advisor, Commodore James Plomer, RCN.”
       As depicted in the film, Demara (1921--1982) assumed many identities during his lifetime, utilizing his sharp intellect and memory to gain infamy as an impostor. He attended Catholic high school, but did not graduate, instead entering a Trappist monastery before joining the Navy in 1941. His many exploits included adopting the identity of Dr. Joseph Cyr and serving in the Canadian Navy as a surgeon. After being discovered and dismissed from service, he went on to impersonate a zoologist, law student, cancer researcher and many others. He was the subject of Robert Crichton's popular biography The Great Impostor , but considered the book inaccurate.
       In Mar 1959, LAT reported that Universal had ... More Less

The opening credits include the following written statement: “This story is based on the book by Robert Crichton relating the facts of the many amazing careers of Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr.—who is still very much alive and continuing to prove that ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’” The film begins with Tony Curtis, as Demara, watching as one of his elementary school students writes the Abraham Lincoln quote, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” After the children leave, Demara wipes out the “not” in “cannot.” The closing credit title reads “The End,” over an image of Curtis shaking his head in contradiction. An acknowledgment in the closing credits reads, “‘We wish to thank the Royal Canadian Navy and the United States Coast Guard for their assistance in the production of this motion picture.’ –Technical advisor, Commodore James Plomer, RCN.”
       As depicted in the film, Demara (1921--1982) assumed many identities during his lifetime, utilizing his sharp intellect and memory to gain infamy as an impostor. He attended Catholic high school, but did not graduate, instead entering a Trappist monastery before joining the Navy in 1941. His many exploits included adopting the identity of Dr. Joseph Cyr and serving in the Canadian Navy as a surgeon. After being discovered and dismissed from service, he went on to impersonate a zoologist, law student, cancer researcher and many others. He was the subject of Robert Crichton's popular biography The Great Impostor , but considered the book inaccurate.
       In Mar 1959, LAT reported that Universal had bought Crichton's book and assigned it to producer George Englund, with Stewart Stern set to write the screenplay. The next month, DV stated that Robert Arthur would produce, with Alec Coppel to write the screenplay. On 18 Dec 1959, DV noted that director Robert Mulligan had begun preparations for filming, but a writer’s strike postponed the start date until Apr 1960. During this time, a Feb 1960 HR news item reported, the studio allowed Mulligan a leave of absence to work on a television project. On 24 May 1960, HR noted that a tidal wave had hit Los Angeles Harbor, “seriously disrupting” the shooting schedule.
       Mulligan stated in a 12 May 1960 LAT article that he approached many seasoned actors to take “vignette roles” in The Great Impostor , but all refused until Karl Malden agreed to play the small role of “Father Devlin.” On 18 May 1960, HR mistakenly reported that Harry Carey, Jr., who portrayed “Dr. Joseph C. Mornay,” was to play a prison warden. As noted in a 4 Sep 1959 DV article, at the same time that The Great Impostor was being produced, the real Fred Demara was portraying a physician in the 1960 Allied Artists film The Hypnotic Eye (see below). According to 26 Jun 1960 LAEx article, some scenes were shot on location in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. The picture marked the feature film debuts of Robert Crawford and Sue Ane Langdon. As stated in a 26 Jan 1961 HR news item, Henry Mancini recorded the film’s instrumental title song and a love theme called “Love Music” for RCA Victor. Although similar in theme to the 2002, Steven Spielberg-directed film Catch Me If You Can , the two films are otherwise unrelated and based on different real-life personalities. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
28 Nov 1960.
---
Daily Variety
16 Apr 1959.
---
Daily Variety
4 Sep 1959.
---
Daily Variety
22 Nov 60
p. 3.
Film Daily
23 Nov 60
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
5 Feb 1960
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
21 Apr 1960
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Apr 1960
p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter
26 Apr 1960
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
27 Apr 1960
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Apr 1960
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
18 May 1960
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
24 May 1960
p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter
2 Jun 1960
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Jun 1960.
---
Hollywood Reporter
28 Jun 1960
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Nov 60
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
4 Jan 1961.
---
Hollywood Reporter
16 Jan 1961.
---
Hollywood Reporter
26 Jan 1961.
---
Los Angeles Examiner
7 Apr 1960.
---
Los Angeles Examiner
26 Jun 1960
Sec. 5, p. 12.
Los Angeles Times
12 Mar 1959.
---
Los Angeles Times
12 May 1960.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
26 Nov 60
p. 932.
New York Times
30 Mar 61
p. 24.
Time
3 Mar 1961.
---
Variety
23 Nov 60
p. 6.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
and co-starring
as
Herbert C. Lytton
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
Edward Muhl in charge of production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCER
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Asst cam
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
2d art dir
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
COSTUMES
MUSIC
MAKEUP
Makeup
Makeup
Makeup
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Unit prod mgr
Scr supv
Unit pub
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the book The Great Impostor by Robert Crichton (New York, 1959).
DETAILS
Release Date:
February 1961
Premiere Information:
World premiere in Toronto, Canada: 15 February 1961
Production Date:
late April--29 June 1960
Copyright Claimant:
Universal Pictures Co., inc.
Copyright Date:
18 December 1960
Copyright Number:
LP24330
Physical Properties:
Sound
Westrex Recording System
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
112
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
19698
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

On New England’s Haven Island, Coast Guard agents arrest Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. for impersonating numerous professionals, including his current alias, that of an elementary school teacher. Demara is handcuffed to his berth and escorted to the mainland, but all the while his concern resides mainly with the welfare of the students he has left behind. During the journey, Demara recalls the events that have brought him to his present predicament: As a child, Demara’s grandiose ideas and bright curiosity are encouraged by his father, whose subsequent professional failures distress the young boy. Despite the sober counsel of local priest Father Devlin to “face facts” and settle for less, Demara continues to enjoy grandiose dreams. As a young adult, he quits high school in order to teach himself, not realizing that this will impede him when he joins the Army and attempts to become an officer. Prohibited from officers’ training school, Demara then falsifies his credentials to match those of an accomplished stranger, Yale graduate Robert Lloyd Gilbert, and is immediately commissioned by the Marines. They inform him, however, that his papers will be sent to the FBI, and in order to avoid arrest, Demara fakes his own suicide and swindles his way into a Trappist monk monastery. There, Demara struggles with the ascetic rules of silence, piousness and, above all, lack of food. Although he strives resolutely, he is soon expelled. Outside the monastery, a farmer offers Demara a ride to town and his first taste of moonshine, which immediately lands him in jail. Soon discovered there by the FBI, he is sentenced to six years in a military disciplinary barracks, but Demara’s charm and intelligence so impress ... +


On New England’s Haven Island, Coast Guard agents arrest Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. for impersonating numerous professionals, including his current alias, that of an elementary school teacher. Demara is handcuffed to his berth and escorted to the mainland, but all the while his concern resides mainly with the welfare of the students he has left behind. During the journey, Demara recalls the events that have brought him to his present predicament: As a child, Demara’s grandiose ideas and bright curiosity are encouraged by his father, whose subsequent professional failures distress the young boy. Despite the sober counsel of local priest Father Devlin to “face facts” and settle for less, Demara continues to enjoy grandiose dreams. As a young adult, he quits high school in order to teach himself, not realizing that this will impede him when he joins the Army and attempts to become an officer. Prohibited from officers’ training school, Demara then falsifies his credentials to match those of an accomplished stranger, Yale graduate Robert Lloyd Gilbert, and is immediately commissioned by the Marines. They inform him, however, that his papers will be sent to the FBI, and in order to avoid arrest, Demara fakes his own suicide and swindles his way into a Trappist monk monastery. There, Demara struggles with the ascetic rules of silence, piousness and, above all, lack of food. Although he strives resolutely, he is soon expelled. Outside the monastery, a farmer offers Demara a ride to town and his first taste of moonshine, which immediately lands him in jail. Soon discovered there by the FBI, he is sentenced to six years in a military disciplinary barracks, but Demara’s charm and intelligence so impress Warden Ben W. Stone that he releases the young man after innocently providing him with detailed information about his own background. Demara then pretends to be Stone in order to gain work at a Texas prison, where Warden Chandler is enough impressed by his credentials and attitude to assign him to the maximum security cell block. There, Demara bravely eschews guard Lt. R. C. Brown’s method of vicious control in favor of humane treatment, soon winning the respect and trust of the hardened inmates. He offers each man release from maximum security in return for a promise of contrition, but the men’s brutal code of honor prevents them from accepting, which would be a tacit admission of weakness. While Demara’s success grows, he also attracts the attention of Chandler’s vivacious daughter Eulalie. One day, inmate Clifford Thompson attacks Brown with a knife. Demara restrains Brown from beating Cliff and instead challenges the inmate to a fair fight. Although Cliff is stronger than Demara, he allows the assistant warden to triumph, knowing that this way he will save face and Demara will treat him fairly. Soon after, Cliff is the first to break “the code” by asking to leave maximum security. Demara earns a promotion, but is then approached by a new inmate, Barney, who served with Demara in military prison and now threatens blackmail. With no other choice, Demara flees Texas and returns home, where he confesses his many personas to Father Devlin. Unable to convince Demara to turn himself in, Devlin prays for him to fall in love, an event that will force him to become honest. Undeterred, Demara joins the Royal Canadian Navy with the phony credentials of esteemed physician Dr. Joseph C. Mornay. By reading voraciously and following the previous doctor’s orders, Demara manages to gain medical knowledge. One day, he spots nurse Catherine Lacey and falls in love at first sight. Although he tries to tell her the truth about his background, she refuses to listen, preferring the romance of the unknown. His love for Catherine, as Devlin has predicted, spurs Demara to want to clear his name, and to this end, he transfers to Korea and promises Catherine that once he “wipes away his guilt,” he will return for her. Demara boards a Naval ship where the captain needs an emergency dental procedure, and although he administers an excess of anesthetic, the captain enjoys his long sleep and considers Demara a professional. When a recently attacked Korean ship approaches, bearing dozens of men in critical condition, Demara works day and night to treat them all, performing several miraculous operations. Months later, Demara has opened a hospital in Chinnampo and is earning worldwide press as “The Miracle Doctor.” Unfortunately, the real Dr. Mornay soon sees Demara’s photo in the newspaper and exposes him as a fraud. The news about “The Great Impostor” spreads throughout the world, reaching each of his old contacts and lovers, including Catherine. As Demara faces a Canadian board of inquiry to determine if he should be court-martialed, his lawyer informs him that each of his former employers has volunteered to speak in his behalf. Demara is pleased until he hears that Catherine is coming to visit and, ashamed, insists on addressing the board. There, he convinces them to spare themselves further embarrassment by allowing him to leave the country quietly. He awakens in the present, on the Coast Guard boat, unaware that Devlin and Catherine await him on shore with the news that she still wants to marry him and the Haven Island board of education insists that he return to them. By the time the boat docks, Demara has escaped out the port hole. Years later, the FBI hopes that their new expert agent, Sgt. Wilkerson, will crack the current search for Demara. What they fail to realize is that Wilkerson is, in fact, Demara in yet another disguise. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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