Pushing aside the little guy for the “greater good”

Wild River
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet
20th Century Fox, 1960, 110 minutes

Director Elia Kazan had visited the Cumberland area of Tennessee in the early 1930s as an idealistic, young communist. He admired the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which tamed the flood-prone Tennessee River while providing much-needed hydro-electric power. For many years, Kazan desired to make a film about the tensions involved in the push for the greatest common good as represented by the TVA versus the disruption of individuals’ lives caused by the project.

Plot

It’s the 1930s and the TVA is on the verge of damming the Tennessee River and flooding several river valleys. Chuck Glover (Clift), a TVA bureaucrat based in Washington, is sent down to Garthville, Tennessee with the mission of removing the last remaining holdout, eighty-year-old Ella Garth (Van Fleet), who has no intention of selling her soon-to-be-flooded river island. Her widowed granddaughter, CarolM&L (Remick), is attracted to the urbane Glover and the two quickly form a relationship. Glover persuades Ella’s Black tenant farmers to leave the island along with their families but the matriarch remains adamant. At the same time, resentment mounts among the local White citizenry towards Glover’s policy of paying Blacks the same wages as Whites to help clear trees. Carol aggressively pursues the ambivalent Glover, asking him to marry her at the very moment the rednecks arrive at her house in order to send Glover packing. He can only admire Carol’s spunky defiance of the gang of good ol’ boys and asks her to elope. A federal marshal is finally brought in to evict Ella from the island. She is provided a small house on higher ground but dies of heartbreak shortly after. On their way to Washington D.C. via airplane, Glover, Carol, and her two children view the river and the only portion of Garth Island still above water; the family cemetery containing Ella’s fresh grave. Glover admired Ella for her foolhardy stubbornness but she stood in the way of “progress” and had to be sacrificed.

Commentary

Kazan filmed “Wild River” on location in the towns of Charleston and Cleveland, Tennessee. Close to one-hundred locals were used as extras. Emotionally crippled Monty Clift barely held it together throughout the filming. Kazan’s accounts of the actor’s performance are quite interesting. While Kazan bragged that he bullied Clift into remaining sober throughout the shoot, town lore has it that the McClary sisters regularly snuck liquor up to his room at the Cherokee Hotel. Twenty-five-year-old Lee Remick is superb as the young, love-starved widow. When she confidently and aggressively courts Clift, it’s all he can do just to sit alone, gape-mouthed, on the couch, leaving every viewer scratching their head. Jo Van Fleet is fantastic as Ella, skillfully portraying the eighty-year-old matriarch at the age of forty-five. Albert Salmi is entertaining as the alpha good ol’ boy. Overall, it’s a wonderful cast which includes several Kazan regulars.

“Wild River” was one of Kazan’s favorite films although its limited art house release guaranteed unprofitability. Fox was convinced 1960 movie audiences would not be interested in a film about the TVA. The movie was rarely shown on television and was only recently (2013) released on DVD.

Kazan had attempted to write the film script himself but eventually hired seasoned screenwriter, Paul Osborne. Kazan especially admired the conflict between Glover and Ella in which both held to positions that were simultaneously right and wrong. Relations between Blacks and Whites in the 1930’s segregated Deep South are portrayed quite candidly for a movie made in 1960.

I’ve seen “Wild River” many times but I appreciated watching it for the first time in HD on Blu-ray. Commentary is provided by Time magazine film critic, Richard Schickel, who doesn’t hide his deep admiration for “Wild River” or for Kazan and Remick. This is a pretty good film but Remick’s performance as someone attempting to straddle both “tradition” and “progress” was Oscar-worthy outstanding.

Additional thoughts from a believer

The Black workers on Garth island and Carol and her children regularly sing old Gospel hymns, with “In the Garden” featured most prominently. Kazan contrasts Christianity and “traditional” values (which includes negative attitudes such as racism) with utopian Liberal Progressivism. I’m all for improving people’s physical circumstances but true redemption can’t be found in either progressive or conservative politics. Jesus Christ transcends politics and physical conditions. But in all fairness to Kazan, one of the main messages of this film is that even the most “successful” progressive social engineering project will have its share of victims.

“Demagogue in Denim”

A Face in the Crowd
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, and Lee Remick
Warner Brothers, 1957, 125 minutes

Director Elia Kazan and writer Bud Schulberg had had a huge success with “On the Waterfront” in 1954 and teamed up one more time for this quirky and extremely prescient movie.

Plot

A radio show producer, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), discovers a talented drifter, Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), in a small-town Arkansas jail, and presents him with the moniker, “Lonesome.” Rhodes is given a slot on a local radio station and his folksy, irreverent humor is so popular he’s soon invited to host a Memphis television program. Although Rhodes infuriates the show’s sponsor, his audience loves him. A wheeler-dealer office gopher, Joey DePalma (Tony Franciosa), sets himself up as an agent and brokers a deal on behalf of Rhodes for a nationally televised show broadcast from New York City. Predictably, Rhodes’ soaring popularity and influence goes to his head. He’s rude to his staff and dumps fiancé Marcia for a 17-year-old baton twirler, Betty Lou Fleckum, (Lee Remick). Rhodes’ politically conservative sponsor soon has him playing kingmaker by having him stump for ultra-right-wing Senator Fuller for President. Staff writer, Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), attempts to turn Marcia against Rhodes, but she’s already souring on her discovery. When Rhodes candidly berates his viewership during the closing credits of his show, Marcia, unbeknownst to him, manipulates the sound board, purposely broadcasting his insults over the airwaves. His audience and sponsors abandon Rhodes overnight. When no one shows up at his gathering for conservative politicians and corporate big wigs, Rhodes calls Marcia threatening suicide. She goes to Rhodes’ penthouse to reveal she was the one who betrayed him. The movie ends with Rhodes screaming for Marica to come back as she rides away in a taxi cab.

Commentary

Andy Griffith is an absolute hoot in his film debut. Few people saw this, his finest performance, but Griffith would find his audience three years later on “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-1968) on television, playing a character quite unlike Lonesome Rhodes. Patricia Neal gives a great performance. The film did poor box office, which is understandable given the protagonist is an unlovable monster. There’s no doubt the movie was ahead of its time as Bud Schulberg’s script eerily foretold the role of television in politics. Sources reveal the character of Rhodes was inspired in part by Arthur Godfrey and Will Rogers.

“A Face in the Crowd” has some wonderful scenes and some great performances but it’s not quite a five-star movie. Schulberg and Kazan over-reached the mark with this undisguised left-wing, preachy, soapbox. One gets the feeling that with “A Face in the Crowd,” Schulberg and Kazan were saying, “Sure, we may have named names before HUAC but see, we’re still good liberals!”

Ted Turner’s Turner Movie Classics (TMC) cable channel aired “A Face in the Crowd” repeatedly during the 2016 presidential primaries and campaign. Evidently, the folks at TMC felt there were more than a few parallels between Lonesome Rhodes and candidate Donald Trump’s blustering brand of populism.

The DVD includes no commentary but there is an interesting documentary, “Facing the Past” (2005), featuring interviews with Schulberg, Neal, and Griffith.

Trivia alert: Kazan filmed the opening scenes of “A Face in the Crowd” in Piggott, Arkansas. As in most of Kazan’s later films, many non-actor locals were used in small parts and as extras. The house with the swimming pool was the home of businessman Karl Pfeiffer who often entertained his sister and her husband, Ernest Hemingway, poolside.

Additional thoughts from a believer

With “A Face in a Crowd” Kazan and Schulberg warn of the burgeoning influence of television and right-wing manipulation via media demagogues. Sixty years later, we’ve witnessed both ends of the political spectrum attempting to sway public opinion through the media but the reality is that the Left has actually become much more adroit at media manipulation than the Right.

So then, what is our bottom line? Atheist Kazan saw society in terms of a battle between Left and Right, in which the Right had to be defeated in order for society to advance. But are political solutions the answer to man’s overarching problems? Is either the Right or the Left capable of ushering in a “Great Society” of peace and prosperity for all?

As believers, our hope is in our Savior and Lord and we anticipate His coming kingdom. The political ebbs and flows of this world may affect us in varying degrees, but our focus is always on our Heavenly King as we endeavor to fulfill our mission as His ambassadors and emissaries on our brief journey through this world.

Baby Doll: “Sometimes, big shot, you don’t seem to give me credit for very much intelligence at all. I’ve been to school in my life – and I’m a magazine reader!”

Baby Doll
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach
Warner Bros., 1956, 114 minutes

All of Elia Kazan’s previous eleven films contained some type of hard-hitting social message. With the farcical, dark comedy, “Baby Doll,” Kazan would break the mold.

Plot

Middle-aged, Archie Lee Meighan (Malden), is at the end of his rope. He had bought the dilapidated Mississippi Delta plantation mansion, Tiger Tail, with plans to renovate it for his child-bride, Baby Doll (Baker), but a modern, syndicate cotton gin plant has put the small independent ginners in the area, like Archie Lee, out of business. Compounding his financial humiliation is the publics’ knowledge of Archie Lee’s wedding pledge to Baby Doll’s father not to consummate the marriage until her twentieth-birthday, just a few days away. But Baby Doll is repulsed by the financially strapped and increasingly unhinged Archie Lee. The last straw comes when all of their furniture is repossessed. Even the Black folk of the area hold Archie Lee in derision.

Archie Lee gets revenge for his misery by burning down the syndicate gin. The owner, Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach), suspects Archie Lee is the culprit and the very next day arrives at Tiger Tail with a convoy of raw cotton. While Archie Lee is gleefully occupied processing the cotton at his broken-down gin, Vaccaro and Baby Doll remain at the mansion and he coaxes her into signing an affidavit admitting her husband was responsible for burning down the syndicate gin. That evening, Archie Lee returns to the mansion, and with the affidavit safely in his pocket, Vaccaro goads him to the breaking point. Archie Lee grabs his shotgun while Vaccaro scoots up a tree. When the local sheriff hauls Archie Lee off to prison, Vaccaro victoriously proclaims he’ll be back the next day with more cotton to gin. Baby Doll turns to her demented Aunt Rose Comfort (Mildred Dunnock) and says with a mixture of hope and despair, “Well, let’s go in now. We got nothing to do but wait for tomorrow and see if we’re remembered or forgotten.”

Commentary

“Baby Doll” was quite controversial when it was released in 1956. The Catholic church gave it a C – “Condemned” – rating, meaning anyone who saw the movie committed a “mortal” sin. Francis Cardinal Spellman, archbishop of New York City, ordered parish priests to position themselves in theater lobbies to intimidate parishioners from seeing the movie, although we now know that Spellman was personally racking up a truckload of “mortal” sins “behind closed doors” at the time. Due to the controversy, “Baby Doll” was pulled from theaters after only a short run. My, things have certainly changed. “Baby Doll” would probably earn no higher than a PG-13 rating today.

Baker, Dunnock, Tennessee Williams (screenplay), and Boris Kaufman (cinematography) were all nominated for Oscars. Malden is excellent as the tragically comic foil. The movie was filmed in Benoit, Mississippi and the nearby abandoned Burrus Plantation Mansion, which has only recently been renovated (see here). As in many of his other films, Kazan used local citizens to augment the cast, including many African-Americans. There are several examples in the film of the segregation of the Deep South in 1956. It’s ironic that Archie Lee seeks swift justice for the perceived wrongs he has suffered while the segregated Blacks of the town must silently endure systematic abuse from Archie Lee and the rest of the White population.

Additional thoughts from a believer

Although it’s a simple farce without much of a plot or message, “Baby Doll” is ultimately about revenge and justice. Archie Lee seeks revenge and justice by burning down what he sees as the cause of all of his problems, the rival syndicate gin. Vaccaro seeks revenge and justice by seeing that Archie Lee is successfully charged with arson. Baby Doll wants to extricate herself from her hopeless situation and sees in the suave Vaccaro a possible escape.

Can a follower of Jesus Christ garner anything from this “tiger’s tail”? Elia Kazan may have been an atheist but his films often had excellent critical insights into the “human condition.” How much of our energy goes into striving to rise above others through our jobs/careers and number of possessions? How much of our self-worth is tied to money, the things we own, and social status? When we suffer loss or embarrassment, is our kneejerk reaction to seek revenge? How many of our undesirable circumstances are the “other guy’s” fault. How much do we live by, “Doeth unto them before they doeth unto you”? Why does it feel so good to hang onto a grudge?

We are all sinners full of self-serving hypocrisy and until you can admit to that, there is no hope for you. But God provided a way out from the eternal punishment we deserve through His Son, Jesus Christ. Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior by placing your faith in Him alone.

“I did not come to call the [self-proclaimed] righteous [who see no need to repent], but sinners to repentance [to change their old way of thinking, to turn from sin and to seek God and His righteousness].” Luke 5:32 AMP

“East of Eden”: The “gospel” according to two atheists

EOE

East of Eden
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, and Jo Van Fleet
Warner Brothers, 1955, 117 minutes

John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, “East of Eden,” had been very well-received by the public and director Elia Kazan used the last third of the book as the basis for his eleventh film.

Plot

Adam Trask (Massey), an aging rancher in Salinas, California in 1917, is determined to make his mark on the world before he dies by originating the process of shipping fresh ice-packed lettuce to the East via the railroad. His loving and dutiful son, Aron (Richard Davalos), supports and encourages him in the endeavor but his other son, Cal (Dean), continuously rebels against his stern and “puritanical” father’s authority. Cal has a change of heart and decides to help Adam with the lettuce venture but he also learns his mother (Van Fleet) is not dead as Adam had told the boys, but has become the no-nonsense matron of a successful brothel in nearby Monterey, information Cal initially keeps to himself. Cal becomes friendly with Aron’s girlfriend, Abra (Harris), who is beginning to chafe at the thought of marrying the prudish brother.

When Adam’s lettuce venture fails, Cal secretly borrows money from his mother and contracts a crop of beans, speculating that America’s entry into World War I will drive commodity prices sky high, enabling him to recoup his father’s lost fortune. As Cal and Abra’s relationship grows warmer, tensions in Salinas reach a boiling point as America enters the war and the town folk seek to take out their frustration on a German immigrant. The pacifist Aron tries to intervene but yelling and pushing turn to fisticuffs when Cal enters the melee. Brother then turns on brother.

Cal attempts to present his father with the money he earned as a birthday present after Aron preempts him by announcing he and Abra are engaged, much to her displeasure. Adam refuses the money, which he sees as war profiteering. Humiliated by the rejection and another demonstration of his father’s lack of love, Cal declares he hates Adam and brings Aron to Monterey to reveal to him the truth about their mother, knowing it will destroy him. Disillusioned and in a drunken stupor, Aron joins the army. Adam runs to the train station just as Aron’s train is leaving and suffers a stroke. Lying in bed, Adam is close to death. Abra pleads with him to express some love to Cal before it’s too late. Adam responds by asking Cal to take care of him rather than his condescending nurse. Feeling loved and accepted by his father for the first time, Cal sits down next to Adam’s bed.

Commentary

After the release of “East of Eden” Dean swiftly became an icon among young movie-goers as a symbol of teenage angst and rebellion. He would die in an automobile accident just six months after the film’s release. Julie Harris gives a wonderful performance. Kazan later gave her a great amount of credit for steadying the moody and mercurial Dean throughout the filming. The rest of the cast does a good job. Van Fleet won an Oscar for her portrayal while Dean, Kazan, and screenwriter Paul Osborn were nominated. Kazan specifically chose to dramatize the last third of Steinbeck’s novel because the conflict between father and son reminded him of his difficult relationship with his own overbearing father. I’ve had the Blu-ray version of “East of Eden” for quite a while but I watched it for the first time only recently. It was a real pleasure watching this familiar movie in Hi-Def. This was Kazan’s first color film and it was also shot in wide-angle Cinemascope. Kazan and cinematographer Ted McCord took some successful risks and deliver an excellent film.

Additional thoughts from a believer

There are obviously many religious undertones in this film drawn very loosely from the Genesis narrative of Cain and Abel. Adam the father is a stern and pious Christian who wishes to impose his faith on his sons. Bible reading at the dinner table is a mandatory and joyless exercise. The message from atheists Steinbeck and Kazan is that what appears to be “good” (Adam and Aron) is not always good, and what appears to be “bad” (Cal) is not always bad. It’s no wonder the writer and director got it wrong. Too often we Christians present our faith as a joyless attempt to impose our morality on others. Better we should focus on spreading the Good News! of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone and humbly letting others know we are sinners saved by grace rather than taking the attitude of pious churchgoers looking down our noses at everyone else.

Pious Roman Catholic, Bill “Mr. Big” McCormack, and the bloody docks of NYC

WMcC

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.”

Lovely.

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.

“You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contenda. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

OTW

On the Waterfront
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger
Columbia Pictures, 1954, 108 minutes

By 1954, Elia Kazan was recognized as one of America’s most important and influential film and theater directors. But he was also widely despised for naming the names of former fellow communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952. Kazan threw his energy into his craft and created what would be the masterpiece of his career; “On the Waterfront.” Students of Kazan see in the director’s previous nine films his gradual ascent to “Waterfront” and in the nine films that follow, we can see his gradual decline.

Plot

A longshoreman and ex-boxer, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), is indirectly involved in the murder of a fellow longshoreman who was scheduled to testify at crime commission hearings on the corrupt dockworkers’ union. Terry’s brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger), is the right-hand man of the ruthless union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry becomes increasingly conflicted about his involvement in the murder, especially after he begins a relationship with Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the victim’s sister. When Terry is subpoenaed to testify against the union, he wavers. A Catholic priest, father Barry (Karl Malden), encourages Terry to do the right thing. Friendly murders Charlie because he can’t keep his brother in line. Terry finally testifies against Friendly but is viewed disdainfully as a stool pigeon by his fellow longshoreman. Terry goes down to the docks to work but is shunned by both the union men and the longshoremen. He confronts Friendly and a fight ensues. Terry is beaten to a pulp by Friendly’s goons but staggers to his feet with the help of Barry and triumphantly leads his fellow longshoremen back to work.

Commentary

Budd Schulberg based his screenplay on investigations into union corruption on the docks of New York City and New Jersey. Schulberg and Kazan were unable to interest Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox or the other studio heads in a movie about longshoremen so they turned to independent producer, Sam Spiegel. “Waterfront” was filmed in only five weeks and almost completely on-location in Hoboken, New Jersey on a shoestring budget. The film was enthusiastically embraced by the public. It was nominated for twelve Oscars and earned eight: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Brando), Supporting Actress (Saint in her film debut), Screenplay, Cinematography (Boris Kaufman), Art Direction, and Editing. Cobb, Malden, and Steiger had all been nominated for their performances as well. Leonard Bernstein’s powerfully moving nominated score should have won also. Waterfront has twice been voted by the American Film Institute as one of the 20 best American films ever made; #8 in 1998 and #19 in 2007.

Waterfront was a revelation to movie audiences in 1954. Most had never seen that level of realism in a film before. Brando’s performance in “Waterfront,” became the standard of American acting for decades. The rest of the method-trained main cast did an outstanding job and the film is remarkable for its use of many non-actors. Shulberg was able to get several of his ex-boxer friends bit parts in the film as mob muscle: Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello, Abe Simon, and Lee Oma. Brando’s and Steiger’s taxi cab scene is widely considered one of the most memorable moments of American cinema. Brando’s “I coulda’ been a contenda” was voted the third best movie quote ever by AFI in 2005.

Many viewed Terry’s testimony against the union in “Waterfront” as Schulberg’s and Kazan’s defense of their HUAC testimonies. There’s certainly parallels but to what extent fiction mirrored fact will continue to be debated.

“On the Waterfront” was released as a Criterion Collection Blu-ray in 2013 with the following bonus features:

  • Commentary featuring authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young
  • Conversation between filmmaker Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones
  • Elia Kazan: Outsider (1982), an hour-long documentary
  • Documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with scholar Leo Braudy, critic David Thomson, and others
  • Interview with actress Eva Marie Saint
  • Interview with director Elia Kazan from 2001
  • Contender, a 2001 documentary on the film’s most famous scene
  • Interview with longshoreman Thomas Hanley, an actor in the film
  • Interview with author James T. Fisher (On the Irish Waterfront) about the real-life people and places behind the film
  • Visual essay on Leonard Bernstein’s score

Trivia fact: Towards the end of the film, Terry stares past Edie to a large passenger ship moving down the Hudson River. The ship was the Andrea Doria, which would make international headlines when it sank in 1956 off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

I love this movie. Can you tell? I can’t help but break up a little bit each time I watch it. Kazan mentioned in an interview that even audiences in the Midwest could relate to Terry the New Jersey longshoreman because everyone is searching for love and “redemption.” Yes, everyone has a spiritual emptiness that they try to fill with relationships, careers, entertainment, hobbies, education, empty religion, fitness workouts, food, drugs and alcohol, etc. But the only One who can truly fill that spiritual void and actually redeem us from the chains of sin and unworthiness is Jesus Christ, the Lord!

Thank you, Jesus, for reaching down for me!

“I might have been a commie when I was young and stupid but see, now I’m all about the red, white, and blue.”

moat

Man on a Tightrope
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Fredric March, Terry Moore, Gloria Grahame, and Cameron Mitchell
Twentieth Century-Fox, 1953, 105 minutes

Following his friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, director Elia Kazan’s reputation was under assault from both sides of the political spectrum. The New York and Hollywood Left were outraged that he had named names of former fellow communists while the studio heads were concerned about the moviegoing public’s reaction to the news that their leading director was an ex-Red. Fox mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck, convinced Kazan to direct “Man on a Tightrope,” to demonstrate his loyalty to his country. The film was one of several anti-communist propaganda pieces released during the height of the Red Scare. Kazan reluctantly agreed to direct the film but he made it clear in later interviews that it was definitely not one of his fondest memories.

Plot

Mild-mannered Karel Cernik (Frederic March) and his broken-down circus struggle to survive in post-war, communist-controlled Czechoslovakia. The state security apparatchiks constantly harass Cernik and the circus looking for “irregularities” and affronts to “the people.” Cernik finally has enough and secretly plots the circus’s escape to West Germany, but the situation is complicated by his wife Zama’s (Gloria Grahame) disdain for him and her very public infidelity and by his daughter Tereza’s (Terry Moore) attraction to a mysterious new roustabout, Joe Videk (Cameron Mitchell), a possible state spy. When Cernik senses the communists are close to discovering his plan, he sets things in motion and Zama suddenly has a newfound respect for her now-decisive husband. As the circus travels toward the border crossing, it’s revealed that Krofta (Richard Boone), Cernik’s foreman, is actually the state’s spy. Krofta is killed in a struggle but manages to mortally wound Cernik. The circus successfully crosses the border into West Germany with the dead messiah-figure, Cernik, in tow.

Commentary

This film is based upon the true story of the Circus Brumbach, which escaped from East Germany to Bavaria in 1950. Kazan filmed on location in West Germany and actually used Circus Brumbach for the project. Frederic March was on the blacklist because of his Far Left sympathies but Kazan used his influence to get him casted. Kazan balanced the playbill by casting the politically Far Right actor, Adolphe Menjou, as one of the lead security apparatchiks. The pairing of 55-year-old March with 30-year-old, film noir femme fatale, Grahame is a stretch. When Zama goads Cirnik into slapping her and then smiles approvingly because her husband has finally displayed some manly backbone, today’s viewer will be quite shocked. Sorry, that won’t fly today. Alex D’Arcy as the cowardly lion tamer and the object of Zama’s unrequited affections is a hoot. The romantic sub-plot involving Cam Mitchell and the constantly overwrought Terry Moore should have been left on the cutting room floor.

I like this movie a little bit more with each viewing. There’s no mistaking that it’s a Red Scare propaganda piece meant to placate audiences regarding Kazan’s loyalty but the film has some very good performances (March, Grahame, Menjou, Pat Henning, Paul Hartman) and it’s entertaining to watch how this rag tag (and I mean RAG TAG) circus manages the impossible of escaping to freedom right under the noses of the Czech communist security apparatus. Propaganda piece or not, Eastern Europeans endured unbelievably great hardship under Soviet communist rule from 1945-1989. Liberals still hate Kazan (d. 2003) as the ultimate rat fink but how were American communists and their sympathetic fellow travelers able to square their theoretical ideology with the deadly realities of Joseph Stalin and the Iron Curtain?

Trivia alert: Don’t blink or you’ll miss a cameo from Fess Parker (Davy Crockett) as one of the U.S. border guards at the end of the film.

“Man on a Tightrope” is one of three of Kazan’s nineteen films not available as a single DVD. However, it is available as one of the fifteen films in The Elia Kazan Collection box set. No commentary or any other bonus features were included.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

I thank the Lord I live in a (still) free country although individual freedoms have been gradually eroding here for quite some time. But spiritual freedom in Jesus Christ trumps political freedom every time. The world could never comprehend it but the apostle Paul, bound in Rome prior to his execution, was the spiritually free man while the Roman emperor (Nero?) was the actual prisoner – to sin. Praise the Lord Jesus Christ for leading believers out of darkness to eternal life!

♫ You say you want a revolution… ♫

Viva Zapata!vz
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Marlon Brando, Jean Peters, and Anthony Quinn
Twentieth Century-Fox, 1952, 113 minutes

By 1952, director Elia Kazan had achieved extraordinary artistic and commercial success on Broadway and in Hollywood. But the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was also interested in Kazan because he had been a member of the American Communist Party from 1934-36 and his films advocated social progressivism. Perhaps in deference to increasing pressure from HUAC, Kazan made “Viva Zapata,” a salute to the revolutionary proletariat but also an indictment of Stalinism. “Viva Zapata” was released in February 1952 and Kazan was called to appear before HUAC in April when he testified as a friendly witness, naming names of fellow communists and earning the undying wrath of liberals. Kazan’s following two films, “Man On A Tightrope” (1953) and “On The Waterfront” (1954), also attacked Stalinism and attempted to justify his HUAC friendly testimony.

Plot

A group of Mexican peasants petitions right-wing dictator, President Diaz, for land reform. The patronizing Diaz notes the insolence of one particular individual, Emilio Zapata (Marlon Brando). Zapata grows in stature as a leader of the people with his spirited brother, Eufemio (Anthony Quinn), at his side. His peasant army joins in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to overthrow Diaz and install liberal reformer Madero as president. As Zapata’s fame and influence rises he marries Josefa (Jean Peters), the daughter of a rich merchant. Impatient with the well-meaning but befuddled Madero, Zapata continues the fight for agrarian reform. Madero is felled in a coup led by General Huerta. Zapata and the the other rebel generals eventually drive Huerta into exile. Zapata is appointed president of Mexico but quickly resigns in frustration. Mexico’s new rulers, former leftist revolutionaries, hunt down Zapata, eventually killing him in an ambush. Journalist, Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman), a shadowy figure and former adviser to Zapata and the other revolutionary leaders, has a hand in Zapata’s death.

Commentary

Unfortunately, acclaimed novelist John Steinbeck’s script does not flow easily. You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of all of the politicos and los comandantes. First, the bad guy is Diaz. Then it’s Madero. Then Huerta. Then Carranza. Ay, caramba! We know from later interviews with Kazan that the Aguirre character was meant to represent unscrupulous Stalinism but the average viewer would never make that connection on their own. Zapata and his revolutionary compadres are romanticized a great deal by Kazan. The last reel is as hokey as it gets with peasants denying Zapata’s death and his white horse galloping off into the sunset. One hundred years after the Revolution, Mexico continues to struggle politically and economically. Brando, Peters, and Quinn turn in fine performances with Quinn winning a supporting Oscar. As a trivia note, Jean Peters was the second wife of the eccentric Howard Hughes. The “Viva Zapata” Blu-ray was released in 2013 but offers no commentary or special features other than the trailer.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

Perhaps the most truthful moment of this film is when Zapata has ascended to the presidency and a group of peasants present him with their grievances. Zapata angrily takes down the name of the most insolent peasant just as as Diaz had taken down his name several years before. The oppressed become the oppressors. The hearts of men are desperately wicked.

People look to their nation, government, and society for their identity and fulfillment. While God’s Word says Christians are to be law-abiding citizens so as to be a good testimony to our unbelieving neighbors, our primary citizenship is in Heaven. We are ambassadors and emissaries for our Heavenly King as we journey through this world. Real freedom and fulfillment come through rebirth and identity in Jesus Christ, not through nations, governments, political parties, or revolution.

“I thought you were straight.”

[Mitch confronts Blanche after he learns of her scandalous past.]sc
Mitch: I thought you were straight.
Blanche: Straight? What’s straight? A line can be straight or a street. But the heart of a human being?

A Streetcar Named Desire
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter
Warner Brothers, 1951, 122 minutes

By the late 1940s, Elia Kazan was widely acknowledged as one of the nation’s premier directors, both on Broadway and in Hollywood. Kazan had successfully staged Tennessee Williams’ play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which had a Broadway run of two years and had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948. When plans were being made to adapt the play to film, Williams pressed upon a reluctant Kazan to direct.

Plot

Completely out of other options, a frazzled Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter) and brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), in their run-down French Quarter apartment. The aristocratic and genteel Blanche is both repulsed by and attracted to the animalistic Stanley. A relationship blossoms between Blanche and Mitch (Karl Malden), one of Stanley’s more civilized friends. Increasingly annoyed by her condescending airs, Stanley learns of Blanche’s disreputable past and ends her relationship with his friend. Without any hope, Blanche is driven to madness and taken away to an asylum.

Commentary

Movie theater audiences were stunned by “Streetcar.” Williams’ dark portrayal of humanity was not typical Hollywood fare. And what about Brando’s performance? Audiences had never seen anything so brutally raw and realistic on the screen prior to this. “Streetcar” was nominated for twelve Oscars and three of the leads (Leigh, Malden, and Hunter) would win. Brando’s method-acting performance was just too shocking for 1951 to garner official recognition. But with “Streetcar,” Brando and Kazan had revolutionized acting and the American film industry. Kazan shot the film in much the same way the play was staged, with most of the action taking place in the Kowalskis’ decrepit two-room flat but added some on-location scenes at a train station, bowling alley, and factory floor. Harold Stradling’s cinematography is excellent as is Alex North’s jazzy score. The American Film Institute twice selected “Streetcar” as one of the fifty-best American movies ever made (#45 in 1998, #47 in 2007).

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

Many books and articles have been written about the meaning of Williams’ lyrical “Streetcar.” The characters aren’t meant to be actual people but they’re symbolic of humanity. Here we see the perennial conflict between civilization with its art, education, religion, and manners versus the baser instincts of survival. Yet, Blanche is not all she pretends to be and Stanley is more than happy to confront her hypocrisy.

“Streetcar” was considered quite scandalous back in 1951 although it wouldn’t cause even a ripple on today’s prime time television. As a believer in Jesus Christ, I’m a big fan of this film. Why? Because it shows people as they really are; sinners and hypocrites. Underneath the pretense. Without the sugar coating. Williams and Kazan don’t give you the Gospel in this movie but they rub your nose in man’s inhumanity and man’s sinfulness. I’ve read that the audience stood and applauded the Broadway premier for thirty minutes after the final curtain went down. But why were they applauding? Williams was holding up a mirror and showing them exactly who and what they were without Jesus Christ.

Blanche was desperately searching for a “safe harbor.” Without Christ, where do we go? Who will take us in? To whom can we turn?

Thank you, Jesus.

Things never actually get to the point of people panicking in the streets but it made for a catchy title

Panic in the Streetsps
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Walter (Jack) Palance, and Zero Mostel
20th Century Fox, 1950, 96 minutes

After achieving remarkable success with his first five films, Fox allowed director, Elia Kazan, an incredible amount of freedom in his next project, the film noir thriller, “Panic in the Streets.” This movie is a relatively simple story but Kazan made the most of it by controlling all aspects of the creative process including casting and daily revisions of the script. Also, filming was done entirely on location in New Orleans. Some contemporary viewers can watch “Panic” and not be impressed but in 1950 it revolutionized American cinema by the way it captured the grittiness and grime of The Big Easy. New Orleans, in essence, became the film’s main character.

Plot

A sick man is murdered on the New Orleans waterfront by some petty thugs for cashing out of a card game early. When the dead body shows up at the morgue, Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) of the U.S. Public Health Service determines the person was infected with highly contagious pneumonic plague. Police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) is directed to find the killer/s in forty-eight hours to stem an epidemic. A dragnet ensues and Reed and Warren are eventually led to Poldi (Guy Thomajan), Fitch (Zero Mostel), and crime boss, Blackie (Jack Palance). A chase takes place with Fitch and Blackie scampering through a dock warehouse like a couple of diseased rats. The pair is apprehended and New Orleans is safe from the dreaded plague.

Commentary

“Panic in the Streets” is an absolutely delightful film. Kazan often stated it was the first of his films that he actually liked, even going so far as to say it was his only “perfect” movie. All filming was all done on location in New Orleans in some of the less “savory” sections of the city. Many, many non-actors are used adding to the film’s powerful sense of realism. Cinematographer, Joseph MacDonald, does some extraordinary work on this picture. The cast is fantastic and I’m not exaggerating. Film noir veteran Widmark’s performance is very enjoyable. Even though his character is a thoroughly likeable guy in this movie, Widmark gives him a bit of a film noir edge. There’s a couple of touching domestic scenes with Widmark and Barbara Bel Geddes as Reed’s wife that counterbalance the frenzied manhunt. Kazan loved this cast perhaps more than any other although he was critical of Paul Douglas. I agree the ham-fisted lug is a bit “over the top” at times but in my opinion he’s perfect for the part. His interplay with Widmark is the core of the film. Palance is simply superb in his film debut as the crime boss, Blackie. It’s debatable whether there was ever a more menacing portrayal caught on film than Palance’s short-fused Blackie. His previous career as a boxer as well as reconstructive surgery following a wartime plane crash left Palance with a face that could terrify with just a scowl. Mostel, as Blackie’s cowering but tightly-coiled stooge, is a treat. Black-listed by the film industry, Mostel, became a sought after commodity on Broadway.

For all of you trivia buffs, the little person who appears in a couple of scenes with Blackie is Pat Walshe who played Nikko, the leader of the winged monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.” Tommy Rettig, who gives a natural performance as the Reeds’ young son, would go on to play Jeff in the first three years of the popular television series, “Lassie.” For a final piece of trivia, don’t blink or you may miss a cameo of Kazan sweeping the floor in an early scene.

Kazan reached a level of realism and authenticity in “Panic in the Streets” that startled Hollywood and theater audiences and set the foundation for a string of movies that established him as the most important American filmmaker of the 1950s.

“Panic” was released on Blu-ray in 2013. Special features include a knowledgeable commentary from film experts, James Ursini and Alain Silver, as well as biographies of Widmark and Palance.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

In two of the film’s scenes, Widmark pleads with the New Orleans city government to keep the manhunt under wraps lest the citizenry panic, flee the city, and spread the epidemic to the rest of the United States and the world. This kind of “global community” socialist message was a favorite of entertainment industry Marxists like Kazan and elicited great interest from the House Un-American Activities Committee, which would eventually subpoena Mostel and Bel Geddes, leading to their blacklisting. Kazan would also be called before the committee but his friendly testimony earned him the undying wrath of liberals.

Believers are aware that a different epidemic plagues mankind; the epidemic of sin. We are all born with sinful natures. The Bible says the wages of sin is death and eternal punishment. There is no escaping it on our own. But God provided the “cure” for man’s sin by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty for sin. Jesus rose from the grave, conquering sin and death and offers eternal life and fellowship with God to all those who repent of their sins and accept Him as their Savior by faith.

All local and national government health agencies train to confront potential threats to public health. Christians, how are we doing bringing the hope of Jesus Christ to the world?