I recently posted a general review of the 1954 landmark film, “On the Waterfront” (see here), but I would like to further explore some of the historical and religious aspects of the movie that were mentioned in the “Who Is Mr. Big?” documentary that was included in the Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.
The “Waterfront” story was based on the wholesale corruption of those who controlled New York City’s and New Jersey’s docks. The labor required to load and unload ships on the bustling 19th-century New York City piers was both physically demanding and dangerous and was increasingly left to the Irish immigrants. By the 1920s, the Irish completely controlled the docks. William “Mr. Big” McCormack (see photo) controlled all of the stevedore companies. Joe Ryan, the figure-head president of the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) and the inspiration for the Johnny Friendly character in the film in reality reported to McCormack. That would be like the cat taking orders from the mouse. Racketeering and inhumane labor practices were rampant on the docks with nowhere to appeal. McCormack had city, state, and national politicians in his back pocket.
The Irish pier bosses also fostered close ties with the Catholic archdiocese of New York City. The relationship was symbiotic. McCormack, Ryan, and their associates contributed heavily to the diocese and the church big wigs, in return, blessed all union endeavors. Ryan attended daily mass at Guardian Angels church near the Chelsea piers in Manhattan. The pastor of the church was monsignor John J. O’Donnell, Cardinal Spellman’s right-hand man and “chaplain” of the murderous ILA. O’Donnell once commented on the union’s bloody boss, “He keeps his hands off the spiritual things of my church and I keep my hands off his business.”
When a loose cannon, Jesuit “liberation theology” priest, John Corridan, began making inquiries into the working conditions on the docks, O’Donnell warned him to back off “or else.” The subsequent investigations of waterfront crime relied heavily on Corridan’s observations and experiences. Karl Malden’s father Peter Barry character in the film was based upon Corridan.
The Irishmen who ran the piers dishonestly and often with blood on their hands were practicing and “pious” Catholics. Spellman and the archdiocesan hierarchy just looked the other way because the money was good and everyone respected each other’s “racket.” And Spellman had his own personal indiscretions to deal with. Jesus Christ was not present in any of these men. None of them knew the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It was all about power, control, and cash. That’s just the way it was.
I imagine priests had the same “see no evil…” relationship with the Mafioso Dons in the Italian enclaves. Where was the priest at Don Corleone’s daughter’s wedding reception in “The Godfather”? You know that in real life Mafioso weddings the priest would have been feted as one of the most honored guests.
Postscript: Generations of “Waterfront” viewers have been stymied by the scene at the 1 hour and 29 minute mark when an apparently wealthy older man shuts off the television after watching the waterfront crime commission proceedings and tells his butler not to take any more calls from Johnny Friendly. Who exactly was this mysterious figure? The suspense is over. Screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, was referencing Bill “Mr. Big” McCormack.