'Death Of A Salesman' Came With A Short Film To Warn You Not To Take The Story Seriously

Columbia Pictures wanted to assure the public they weren't criticizing America. The result: 'Career of a Salesman."
'Death Of A Salesman' Came With A Short Film To Warn You Not To Take The Story Seriously

The famous play Death of a Salesman is about Willy Loman, a failed salesman who (spoiler) dies. Watch the play, and you'll probably come away thinking it's an indictment of the American system overall. That was a dangerous idea in 1951, when you risked being blacklisted or worse for spreading such un-American beliefs.

So when Columbia Studios put together a film adaptation, they tweaked the script a little to make Willy more unstable—they wanted this to be a story of one man, not about society. Playwright Arthur Miller didn't like those changes at all, and Columbia wasn't done burying his message. To further ensure that the public didn't think they were criticizing America, Columbia commissioned a short, Life of a Salesman, which proclaimed the sales profession to be alive and well.

The short comes off like a parody—you probably best know that old timey accent and narration from government propaganda films. It also kind of has a point. Of all possible lives you could have in 1951, being an American salesman was surely one of the more promising ones. Some salesmen do succeed. If someone's talking about Death of Salesman to a class of 1950s college students studying sales (that's what happens in the short), it might make sense to give a speech just like the one Columbia filmed.

But Columbia didn't film this for sales students. They wanted to air the short before every single screening of Death of a Salesman. They wanted to air a short that would explicitly undermine the film (even if the speaker ends by saying "I hope you will see this film, Death of a Salesman"). Arthur Miller was furious, of course. "Why the hell did you make the picture if you’re so ashamed of it?" he demanded. 

He threatened to sue, not just on the vague grounds of artistic integrity but because he owned a share of the film, so if they were sabotaging it, that would hurt him directly. In the end, Columbia agreed to scrap the short. Despite this, or because of it, the film bombed. Anti-communists successfully protested Death of a Salesman, and so the smash play totally failed on the big screen. 

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