Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s fourth film; “Gentleman’s Agreement”

Today, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s fourth film; “Gentleman’s Capture129Agreement.” It’s easy to dismiss this cautious exposé of anti-Semitism from today’s perspective, but it was quite courageous back in 1947. Sadly, some ministers and churches of that era perpetuated bigotry and racism. Protestant minister and political demagogue, Gerald L. K. Smith,* is specifically cited in this film as a promoter of anti-Semitic hatred. The review below was first posted on January 1, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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Gentleman’s Agreement
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Celeste Holm, and John Garfield
20th Century Fox, 1947, 118 minutes

4 Stars

Fox studio mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck, frequently examined social injustice in his films and he eagerly sought the rights to Laura Z. Hobson’s 1947 novel, “Gentlman’s Agreement,” which dealt with anti-Semitism in the United States. Zanuck had a personal dog in the fight. He had applied for membership to the “prestigious” Los Angeles Country Club, but was denied because it was assumed (incorrectly) that he was Jewish. The heads of the other Hollywood studios, all Jewish, pleaded with Zanuck, not to make the picture, fearing a backlash, but the Fox boss pressed ahead, selecting rising talent, Elia Kazan, to direct.

Plot

Journalist Phil Green (Gregory Peck) moves to New York City with his young son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell), and mother (Anne Revere) to write an expose on anti-Semitism for a liberal, weekly news magazine. Green racks his brain trying to come up with a story angle, eventually deciding to pose as a Jew himself. His fiance, Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), is privy to the scheme, but tensions arise when she insists on letting her family know her boyfriend isn’t actually Jewish. Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), a writer at the magazine who is more in synch with Green’s values, competes with Kathy for his affections. Green discovers prejudice everywhere, even at the liberal magazine’s offices. His good friend, discharged serviceman, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), an actual Jew, wants to move his family to New York, but (amazingly) not one Gentile in the entire NYC metropolitan area will sell him a house! Green’s expose is finally published, Kathy overcomes her accommodation of bigotry, and the two live happily ever after.

Commentary

“Gentleman’s Agreement” was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won Best Picture while Kazan won Best Director and Holm took home Best Supporting Actress. Peck, McGuire, Revere, editor Harmon Jones, and writer Moss Hart were also nominated. Wooden Indian Peck plays one note throughout the movie as the over-earnest, crusading journalist. Dorothy McGuire is actually quite good as the effete, high-society snob. Kazan would later pay McGuire a back-handed compliment by saying she was perfect for the part. The repeated tiffs between Phil and Kathy begin to grate after awhile. Holm plays a decent part as the romance-starved, gal Friday. June Havoc does a great job in the role of Green’s Gentile-ized Jewish secretary while Garfield shines in his small but important part. Young Dean Stockwell does a nice job as Tommy.

Although the success of “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Kazan’s fourth film, catapulted him to the Hollywood director A-list, he was highly critical of the movie in his later writings and interviews. While it might seem like a candy-coated look at bigotry from today’s perspective, as was his next film, “Pinky,” it was brave and cutting-edge cinema for its day. The scene where Green attempts to book a room as a Jew at a restricted hotel is absolutely riveting even seventy-years later. However, Ann Revere’s unfortunate “Popular Front” soapbox soliloquy at the end of the film practically begged the House Un-American Activities Committee to intervene and they complied by subpoenaing Kazan, Zanuck, Revere, and Garfield. Revere was eventually blacklisted, as was Garfield, who died of a heart attack at the age of 39 that many ascribed to the stress of the committee proceedings. Kazan eventually testified as a friendly witness in 1952, which earned him the lifelong condemnation of the American Left

The “Gentleman’s Agreement” DVD includes an informative commentary from film critic, Richard Shickel, with additional comments from Celeste Holm and June Havoc.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

Anti-Semitism was quite popular in 1947 and continues even today. The Lord certainly condemns all forms of hatred and bigotry. Christians are to love everyone, even our enemies. However, while Christians must abhor hatred and prejudice, we are called to remain faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation. Such fidelity is frowned upon in today’s climate of relativism, plurality, and tolerance. It’s also not acceptable in the judgement of many to point out pseudo (c)hristian denominations and sects that do not preach the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, but we must please our Lord and Savior rather than men.

*”Protestant” minister, Gerald L.K. Smith (d. 1976), was a close ally of the infamous, anti-Semitic, radio priest, Charles Coughlin. Smith’s enduring legacy to his hateful and contradictory brand of (c)hristianity is his “Christ of the Ozarks” monument and religious theme park complex at Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

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Dorothy McGuire, Gregory Peck, and Elia Kazan on location during the filming of “Gentleman’s Agreement”

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Third Film, “Boomerang”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s third film, “Boomerang.” The movie was important for Kazan because, while the story was unremarkable and the ham-fisted conclusion was flawed, it established a precedent for filming on-location and using non-actors. Watching the movie once again in preparation for this re-post was a pleasure despite its shortcomings.

The review below was first posted on December 25, 2016 and has been slightly revised.

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Boomerang
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Dana Andrews, Jane Wyatt, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur Kennedy, Cara Williams, and Karl Malden
20th Century Fox, 1947, 88 minutes

3 Stars

Fox producer, Louis de Rochemont, creator of “The March of Time” theatrical monthly newsreels and father of the “film noir” genre, enlisted Elia Kazan to direct “Boomerang.” De Rochemont’s movies were filmed on location and included non-actors to help achieve a semi-documentary sense of realism. The experience of directing “Boomerang” would have a profound effect upon Kazan’s career.

Plot

A popular Episcopalian* priest, father George Lambert (Wyrley Birch), is murdered in cold blood on a busy street corner of a small Connecticut city. As days go by without an arrest, a daily newspaper controlled by the ousted conservative (Republican) party foments public indignation. Demands for the newly elected reform (Democrat) government to find the killer reach fever pitch. A suspect, John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), is finally arrested and police chief, Harold “Robbie” Robinson (Lee J. Cobb), coerces a confession. As the district attorney, Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews), prepares to prosecute the case, he uncovers some disturbing evidence that seems to exonerate Waldron. A corrupt reform government official, Paul Harris (Ed Beagley), fears that drawn out court proceedings will expose a pending illegal property deal and he threatens Harvey to press for a conviction. While presenting the evidence against Waldron, Harvey defies all proper courtroom protocol (you’ll have to see it to believe it) to conclusively prove the accused wasn’t the murderer, prompting Harris to commit suicide. At the film’s conclusion, the audience learns from the narrator that the actual killer (a mentally disturbed man who stalked the courtroom during the trial) was the victim of a fatal auto accident and that the honorable DA went on to become the United States Attorney General.

Commentary

“Boomerang,” Kazan’s third film, was loosely based on the unsolved murder of Catholic priest, Hubert Dahme, in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1924. Filming was done in nearby Stamford rather than Bridgeport because of legal difficulties. “Boomerang” is often included in the film noir category although purists would object that it doesn’t meet all the criteria. This is a so-so story but the film is considered a significant step for Kazan because of it’s on-location, docu-drama realism. The cast is pretty good although leading man, Dana Andrews, plays his single pensive note throughout, looking most natural with a drink tumbler in his hand as Kazan later pointed out.  Jane Wyatt (“Father Knows Best”) portrays Harvey’s naive wife who stays busy primarily serving drinks to “the boys.” Lee J. Cobb is outstanding as the tough-as-nails police chief while corruption oozes out of every one of Ed Beagley’s sweaty pores. Cara Williams (baby boomers will remember her from the early-60s TV show, “Pete and Gladys”) plays an excellent femme fatale as Waldron’s ex-girlfriend. Sam Levene gives an entertaining performance as the wily reporter from the opposition newspaper. Yes, that’s playwright Arthur Miller making a cameo in a police lineup and Kazan’s elderly Uncle Joe plays a small part as one of the witnesses. Numerous Stamford locals were featured in the film. Many of Kazan’s future movies would employ the on-location, docu-drama techniques that he first utilized in “Boomerang” as he continued to move further towards realism.

The ending of this movie is quite unsatisfying. Everyone exits the courtroom applauding the DA for exonerating an innocent man, but they all seem to have forgotten that the killer remains at large. It’s also a bit unbelievable that Harris’s courtroom suicide didn’t seem to faze anyone after the gunsmoke had cleared. Richard Murphy’s script was inexplicably nominated for an Oscar.

“Boomerang” is an indictment of both political parties for corruption and some have also suggested the film was Kazan’s thinly-veiled critique of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its politically-motivated “witch hunts.” Kazan was eventually pressured to testify before HUAC as a friendly witness in 1952, earning the wrath of liberals throughout the remainder of his life.

The recently released Blu-ray edition of “Boomerang” includes two interesting audio commentary tracks; one from film noir historian, Imogen Sara Smith, and the other by film historians, Alain Silver and James Ursini.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

The priest’s murderer nervously watches the courtroom proceedings hoping Waldron is convicted in his place. When the case against Waldron collapses, the killer flees the courtroom in a panic.

We are all guilty of breaking God’s commandments and we all deserve eternal punishment. We can’t hide our sins from an omniscient and holy God. But God loves us so much He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay our sin debt on the cross of Calvary. Jesus rose from the grave, defeating sin and death, and offers eternal life and everlasting fellowship with God to all those who accept Him as their Savior by faith alone. Christ paid your penalty so you could go free. Will you accept Him as your Savior?

*In my original review, I mistakenly wrote that George Lambert was a Catholic priest, but after watching the movie again, I noted that he was referred to as an Episcopalian priest in one scene.

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s sophomore stumble: “The Sea of Grass”

Today, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s second film; “The Sea of Grass.” Looking back over his nineteen-film career, Kazan advised people not to bother watching just one of his movies and this is the one. A couple of thoughts after revisiting this film: 1) Did any actor have a more affected acting style than Katherine Hepburn? and 2) after several viewings of “The Sea of Grass,” I increasingly enjoy Robert Walker’s portrayal of spoiled bad boy, Brock Brewerton. The card game scene (begins at the 1:39:04 mark) where high-stakes gambler, Joe Horton (Douglas Fowley), repeatedly taunts Brock by calling him “Judge,” an unsubtle reference to his illegitimacy, is the highlight of this unexceptional film.

The review below was first posted on December 14, 2016 and has been slightly revised.

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The Sea of Grass
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, and Robert Walker
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1947, 131 minutes

2 Stars

Bud Lighton, the producer of Elia Kazan’s debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” persuaded the young director to consider “The Sea of Grass” for his second film. Kazan was impressed by Conrad Richter’s 1936 novel and imagined the wonderful adventure he would have filming on-location on the Western prairie. But when he arrived at the fabled MGM Studio in Hollywood, producer Pandro Berman informed Kazan that the script, casting, and wardrobe were already in place. In addition, massive amounts of outdoor footage had already been shot. Kazan was told he would film entirely at the studio using the previously-filmed footage as rear-projection background. So much for shooting on location!

Plot

Lutie Cameron (Hepburn), a St. Louis high-society belle travels to New Mexico to marry cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Tracy). Brewton’s disdain for homesteaders and his devotion to the prairie eventually drives a wedge between him and his new wife. Lutie turns to Brewton’s bitter rival, liberal crusading attorney (and future judge), Brice Chamberlain (Douglas), for comfort which results in pregnancy. Brewton becomes aware of his wife’s unfaithfulness and forces her to leave town and abandon her daughter and newborn son. Brewton raises the boy, Brock, as his own. With gossip about his illegitimacy constantly swirling around town, Brock Brewton (Walker) grows up with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, eventually running afoul of the law and dying in a shootout. Returning to New Mexico for a visit, Lutie learns of Brock’s death and reunites with Brewton and their daughter, Sara Beth (Phyllis Thaxter).

Commentary

Kazan was extremely critical of “The Sea of Grass” and often referred to it as his worst film. Tracy’s performance is cinematic sleepwalking and he’s thoroughly unconvincing in the role of a rugged outdoorsman. If Tracy wasn’t bad enough, the viewer is also asked to accept Connecticut blue-blood, Hepburn, as a happy transplant to the sleepy cattle town of Salt Fork, New Mexico. Her flamboyant costumes in such a setting border on the comical. Kazan later griped that Hepburn’s constant retreats to the movie set washroom to “freshen up” drove him up a wall until he finally gave up on both of his pampered stars. One of the few enjoyable performances in the film comes from Edgar “Uncle Joe” Buchanan as crusty cook, Jeff. This is the first of Kazan’s films to feature the “progressive crusader” character, a mainstay of several of his early movies.

After his dismal experience with the “The Sea of Grass,” Kazan would insist upon artistic control in subsequent films. Going forward, he would generally avoid spoiled marquee headliners like Tracy and Hepburn and shooting in the studio. Unlike his first effort, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” there are absolutely no distinguishing features in this movie that would characterize it as a Kazan project. In his 1988 autobiography, Kazan warned his readers not to see the movie. I have seen it, several times, and I second the motion. “The Sea of Grass” was released on DVD in 2011. No special features were included.

Trivia note: Tracy and Hepburn are one of film’s most fondly remembered acting teams. They made nine movies together, and “The Sea of Grass” was amazingly the highest grossing.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

The viewer will be struck by Colonel Brewton’s complete devotion to the prairie. The grassy plain comes before his wife and before the lives of the squatters who threaten it. We would call Brewton a pompous fool, but how often do we put the idols of our life ahead of the Lord?

Next up: “Boomerang” (1947)

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s first film: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

Today, we begin our series re-reviewing all of director Elia Kazan’s nineteen films. We begin with Kazan’s excellent debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” In preparation for this post, I watched the movie once again and my wife happened to walk in at the tail end. She asked to see it and I gladly sat through it for a second time. The cast is stellar and twelve-year-old Peggy Ann Garner’s performance is not to be missed. For some strange reason, this film regrettably is not available on DVD or Amazon streaming. My review below was originally posted back on December 9, 2016 and has been slightly revised.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell, and Peggy Ann Garner
Twentieth Century Fox, 1945, 128 minutes

5 Stars

Elia Kazan’s growing reputation as a Broadway theatrical director came to the attention of Hollywood movie studio mogul, Darryl. F. Zanuck, who tapped the 35-year-old to direct “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” which was based on Betty Smith’s popular 1943 novel.

Plot

Twelve-year-old, Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner), and her younger brother, Neeley (Ted Donaldson), live in a Brooklyn tenement in 1900. Their mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), struggles to keep the family afloat as their father, Johnny (James Dunn), an alcoholic, squanders his sparse paychecks at the corner saloon. Johnny still dreams of being a famous singer, but only finds irregular employment as a singing waiter. Despite his shortcomings, he and Francie have a loving bond. In addition to having to deal with her alcoholic husband, Katie tries to shield her children from the influence of her free-spirited sister, Sissy (Joan Blondell). Officer McShane (Lloyd Nolan), the neighborhood flatfoot, assists the Nolans on a several occasions and takes a private shine to Katie.

Katie loves Johnny, but has become hardened and embittered by his failures. She finally confronts him and brings his pipe dreams crashing to the ground. When Francie, a bright girl, desires to attend a better public school in a nicer neighborhood, Johnny makes the arrangements by notifying school officials she has moved in with relatives. It is the one thing Johnny can do for his daughter, even if it is dishonest.

When Katie becomes pregnant, she moves the family upstairs to a cheaper, less-desirable apartment to save money. Johnny is so distraught he sits down at a piano left behind by the previous tenant and sings a tearful rendition of “Annie Laurie,” acknowledging the broken promises of his marriage.

The Nolans enjoy a few festive moments on Christmas Eve before Katie informs Johnny that Francie must drop out of school and go to work to help support the family. Crushed by the thought of Francie having to give up her dreams, Johnny walks out into the frigid winter night in search of steadier work.

After Johnny goes missing for a week, the family is informed he died of pneumonia after working as part of a subway tunnel digging crew. Although he was a drunk and a failure, the neighborhood deeply misses the affable Johnny, much to Katie’s amazement. The neighborhood saloon keeper offers the Nolan children part-time jobs, enabling Francie to stay in school. While in labor, Katie reaches out to Francie and makes amends for her past coldness. Francie and Neeley graduate from grammar school and Officer McShane proposes to Katie, offering the security and stability Johnny was never able to provide the family.

Comments

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a thoroughly enjoyable film and a remarkable directorial debut for Kazan who stated that he relied heavily on renowned cinematographer, Leon Shamroy. The cast is top-notch. Peggy Ann Garner is a complete delight in her Oscar-winning portrayal. Jimmy Dunn was also awarded a well-deserved Oscar. Dunn was a washed-up alcoholic in real life and was basically playing himself in the role. Kazan did Dunn a favor by offering him the part, but demanded he abstain from booze during the shooting. Dunn’s “Annie Laurie” scene is extraordinary. Dorothy McGuire gives a fine performance in her third film role as the tough-as-nails matriarch although Kazan later complained the convent-raised actress was too refined for the part. McGuire also had a reputation for being a bit of a diva on the set, as Peggy Ann Garner reflected on much later; “Kazan had a marvelous quality. He even knew how to handle Dorothy McGuire, and there was a certain way you had to handle that lady.” Joan Blondell is an audience pleaser as the coquettish Sissy, who nags her sister to cut Johnny some slack. Even young Ted Donaldson is enjoyable as the grumpy Neeley. The settings and the performances are thoroughly realistic and evoke the rough and tumble environment of 1900 Brooklyn with its immigrant enclaves. Writers Tess Slesinger’s and Frank Davis’s script also received an Oscar nomination. Although Kazan later dismissed “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” as sentimental corn pone, the young director did a wonderful job telling a heart-warming story, which appealed to war-time audiences and was the studio’s third-highest grossing film of the year.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” amazingly is not available in the USA as an individual DVD but it is included as one of the fifteen films in the “Elia Kazan Collection” box set (2010). An interesting commentary is provided with analysis from Richard Schickel, Kazan, Ted Donaldson, and Norman Lloyd. Special features also include “The Making of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” documentary along with “An Appreciation of Dorothy McGuire.”

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective:

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” pays homage to human determination and perseverance despite adverse circumstances, symbolized by the Ailanthus tree determinedly growing through the cracks of the Nolan’s tenement courtyard. But attitude and ambition don’t always guarantee worldly success. The Irish/Austrian-American Nolans seem to have a certain amount of religion in their lives; there’s nightly perfunctory Bible reading (an unusual practice for a Catholic family), Francie’s prayers for her father, and a pious Catholic ceremony at Johnny’s grave side with a priest offering prayers for a merciful judgement. But Jesus Christ is not present in the hearts of these characters. When her teacher recites Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” a distraught Francie questions out loud if her father’s fervent love (beauty) compensates for his egregious faults (truth). The teacher is befuddled by the question, leaving the viewers to decide the answer for themselves. The film insinuates that Francie will grow up to be a successful writer. But then what? In God’s great plan, worldly success is as short-lived and as unfulfilling as Johnny’s tragic life. The Nolans, director Kazan, screenwriters Slesinger and Davis, and author, Betty Smith, are all searching for truth and beauty outside of life in Jesus Christ. It is only in Christ that we find everlasting happiness, beauty, and truth.

Next up: Kazan’s sophomore stumble, “The Sea of Grass” (1947)

Excellent preface to 2020 Kazan Fest

Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey
By Michel Ciment
Bloomsbury, 1988, 238 pp.

5 Stars

I can still vividly remember watching a particular movie on television as a young teenager back in the early 1970s. The flick was, “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), and I was so startled by the unconventional, un-Hollywood-like ending that I took special note of the name of the director, Elia Kazan, in the closing credits.

Over the many decades that followed, I’ve enjoyed watching all of Kazan’s nineteen films and reading the many books written by him or about him.

“Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey” is an interesting collection of disconnected articles and notes written by Kazan regarding his directing career. The text is supplemented with many interesting photographs, some of which I’ve never seen before. Be aware that this volume is intended more for Kazan fans who are already knowledgeable about the director and his films. It’s no place to start for a neophyte.

French film critic, Michel Ciment, previously presented a collection of interviews with Kazan, “Kazan on Kazan” (1973), in which the director spoke briefly about each of his films. See my review here.

Reading “Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey” was a timely prelude to the upcoming launch of my Elia Kazan Film Festival, 2020 Redux series. I was happy to be able to purchase this handsome volume from an Amazon used-book seller at a very cheap price. Bloomsbury used to do an excellent job with these semi-coffee table books back in the day.

This Wednesday: Kazan’s excellent directorial debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

Elia Kazan Film Festival, 2020 Redux

Way back in December 2016, I began a series on director Elia Kazan’s nineteen films. Wow! Was it actually that long ago? It took me all of 2017 to complete that ambitious project (see here) and by the time I was done, I definitely needed a break from Kazan (photo above).

Well, I’m getting the itch again, so I will be viewing all of Kazan’s films in 2020, about one every three weeks. Since I already reviewed each movie pretty thoroughly three years ago, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, after watching each movie, I’ll re-post the archived review with a few new insights that I’ve culled.

Sound good? Dust off the popcorn popper and dim the lights for another year-long Kazan film festival!

Coming soon: Kazan’s remarkable 1945 debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” featuring Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, James Dunn, and the precocious, Peggy Ann Garner.

The Criterion Collection releases Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd”

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

4 Stars  for the film itself.

3 Stars  for this Criterion Collection DVD release.

A couple of weeks ago, I received my copy of the Criterion Collection’s new DVD release of director Elia Kazan’s 1957 film, “A Face in the Crowd.”

I reviewed “A Face in the Crowd” at length a couple of years ago (see here) as part of my series on Kazan’s nineteen films, so I’ll just note a few thoughts I have about the movie and this DVD release:

“A Face in the Crowd” was a box office flop in 1957, but has garnered an increasing number of admirers over the decades. The reason? The film’s warning of the manipulative power of television and marketing in relation to politics was eerily prescient. More than a few contemporary commentators have cited this film in relation to president Donald Trumps’ populist appeal, which is no doubt the main reason why Criterion selected it.

Most people are familiar with actor, Andy Griffith, who became a national celebrity in his 1960s television role as the friendly sheriff of Mayberry. Few people are aware of Andy’s strikingly contrasting film debut in “A Face in the Crowd” in which he played an ornery drifter turned power hungry, megalomaniac and political kingmaker. Griffith is a hoot and Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa, and Lee Remick also played excellent parts. The film’s ending falls a little flat, but that’s a minor criticism,

I’m pleased Criterion selected “A Face in the Crowd” as one of its premium releases and I appreciate now having the film in Blu-ray high-definition. Criterion normally provides a large number of bonus features with its releases, but, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with “A Face in the Crowd.” I did enjoy the new interview with Ron Briley, author of “The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan” (see my review here), as well as the new interview with Evan Dalton Smith, author of the forthcoming biography, “Looking for Andy Griffith.” Also included is the documentary short, “Facing the Past” (2005), featuring interviews with Griffith, Neal, Franciosa, and screenwriter, Bud Schulberg, but this extra was previously included in the Warner Bros. 2005 DVD release. I enjoyed the DVD package booklet featuring an excellent essay by film critic April Wolfe, excerpts from Kazan’s introduction to the movie’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith. However, I’m disappointed that an audio commentary from a film critic/historian was not provided. That’s a major oversight.

Criterion selects Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd”

Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services are quickly making DVDs a thing of the past, however, Criterion continues as a resource for outstanding, classic films. Criterion selects films it deems to be significant and presents them in high-quality resolution along with many bonus features.

No, I’m not a film buff even by the slightest stretch of the imagination. I’d much rather read a good non-fiction book than invest two hours in a Hollywood fantasy. But readers of this blog know that I am a fan of the films of director, Elia Kazan (1909-2003). His quintessential method-acting movie, “On the Waterfront” (1954), was previously released by Criterion in 2013. I now see that Criterion will be releasing Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) on April 23rd.

“A Face in the Crowd” is a fascinating movie featuring a pre-Mayberry Andy Griffith as the folksy ne’er-do-well-turned-populist-kingmaker, Lonesome Rhodes, and Patricia Neal as the radio producer who discovered him, much to her regret. See my 2017 review of the film here.

Criterion’s summary of the film on it’s website is as follows:

“A Face in the Crowd chronicles the rise and fall of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a boisterous entertainer discovered in an Arkansas drunk tank by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), a local radio producer with ambitions of her own. His charisma and cunning soon shoot him to the heights of television stardom and political demagoguery, forcing Marcia to grapple with the manipulative, reactionary monster she has created. Directed by Elia Kazan from a screenplay by Budd Schulberg, this incisive satire features an extraordinary debut screen performance by Griffith, who brandishes his charm in an uncharacteristically sinister role. Though the film was a flop on its initial release, subsequent generations have marveled at its eerily prescient diagnosis of the toxic intimacy between media and politics in American life.”

Special features listed for the upcoming Criterion release include the following:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with Ron Briley, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan
  • New interview with Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith
  • Facing the Past, a 2005 documentary featuring actors Griffith, Patricia Neal, and Anthony Franciosa; screenwriter Budd Schulberg; and film scholars Leo Braudy and Jeff Young
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic April Wolfe, excerpts from director Elia Kazan’s introduction to the film’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith

“A Face in the Crowd” was a box office disaster when it was released in 1957, but its warning regarding the corrupting influence of the media upon politics is certainly an important issue in our current era and the reason why Criterion added it to its collection.

 Face in the Crowd – from the Criterion Collection web site
https://www.criterion.com/films/28703-a-face-in-the-crowd

A Face in the Crowd – Trailer

Digging deep into the corruption that inspired Kazan’s “On the Waterfront”

On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York
By James T. Fisher
Cornell University Press, 2009, 370 pages

Director Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” is widely recognized as one of the top twenty American films ever made. It’s probably my favorite of Kazan’s nineteen films (see my review here). In this book, historian James Fisher documents the corruption on the docks of New York City and New Jersey that inspired the film. I’d been aware of this book for quite a long time and finally borrowed a copy from the library. I’ll always remember it as the book that kept me company during my wife’s recent 24-hour hospital Emergency Department visit.

In nineteenth-century New York City, Irish immigrants were consigned the very dangerous and strenuous work of physically loading and unloading ships. Over time, the Irish eventually usurped control of the docks. In the mid-twentieth-century, Joe Ryan and his corrupt union, the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA), ran the piers with an iron fist. Ryan ultimately reported to “Mr. Big,” Bill McCormack, who controlled a variety of industries in the New York City metropolitan area including all of the stevedore companies. McCormack, Ryan, and their lieutenants were in cahoots with local politicians and the Catholic prelates. Everyone benefited from the symbiosis except for the rank-and-file longshoreman, who were beholden to the union bosses each day for a chance to work a ship. Ryan and McCormack, devout Catholics, attended daily mass in the early morning and authorized intimidation, violence, and murder the rest of the day.

Jesuit priest, John “Pete” Corridan, was frustrated by the corruption on the docks and launched a one-man crusade against Ryan, the ILA, and McCormack. Investigative journalist, Mike Johnson, became aware of Corridan’s fight with the syndicate and wrote a series of exposés for one of the New York dailies. The articles came to the attention of novelist and screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, who acquainted himself with Corridan and the fight against corruption on the docks and eventually fashioned the script that became “On the Waterfront.”

Serious students of “Waterfront” and Kazan will definitely enjoy this book, but it’s not for the casual fan. Fisher’s history is extremely detailed and gets into quite a bit of minutiae. Jesuit priest Corridan’s work on the piers of New York was a precursor of the Jesuits’ propagation of “Liberation Theology” in Latin America and elsewhere. Corridan was the inspiration for priest, Pete Barry, in the film, played by Karl Malden, while the corrupt union boss character, Johnny Friendly, was somewhat based on Joe Ryan. For more on “Mr. Big,” Bill McCormack, see my previous post here. It’s interesting to note that shortly after “On the Waterfront” was released, the need for longshoreman would rapidly decline with the introduction of mammoth container ships.

Director Elia Kazan talks about his films

Kazan on Kazan
By Michel Ciment
Cinema One Series #26
Secker & Warburg Limited Publishing, 1973, 199 pages

I felt the need for some light reading material recently so I purchased a used copy of this book from Amazon. “Kazan on Kazan” may have been the first book I ever read about director, Elia Kazan, after having borrowed a copy from our local library way back in the 80s or early-90s. I enjoyed re-reading Kazan’s personal insights into his nineteen films. This is a short book, but there are many others available that cover the director and his films in far greater detail.

I’ve previously mentioned that I became interested in Kazan back when I was a young teen after watching the very unconventional ending of his 1961 film, “Splendor in the Grass.” Over the years, I became very familiar with all of Kazan’s work and even reviewed his nineteen films here at WordPress over the course of 2017 (see here). I haven’t posted anything about Kazan since then because I needed a break following that marathon.

Kazan (1909-2003) was a remarkable fellow. At the high point of his career in the mid-1950s, he was considered America’s finest director, both in Hollywood and on Broadway. He revolutionized film and the theater by popularizing Konstantin Stanislavski’s method of training actors (i.e., “The Method”) and brought a level of realism to his productions that was unlike anything seen in America at the time.

Kazan quit the American Communist party in 1936, but remained a Marxist and atheist the remainder of his life. However, he would earn the unceasing ire of the American Left for his friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Kazan had been brought up in the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, but ultimately rejected the ritualism and legalism of institutional religion.

Why do I continue to value Kazan’s films? There was no such thing as the “good guys” versus the “bad guys” in Kazan’s later movies. The most notable characteristic of Kazan’s later work was the ambivalence of the main characters. They were motivated by both “good” and “bad” ideals, unlike the other American films of the time, which always portrayed the main character as a stereotypical “good guy.” Kazan’s characters were deeply flawed and that mirrored the reality that I knew. The director had fantastic insights into humankind and American society and wasn’t afraid to rub his audience’s noses in it, even as his films drew smaller and smaller box office.

So, Kazan stated the problem correctly; people are flawed, people are sinners. However, as an atheist, he could offer no solutions to man’s dilemma. He had no Gospel, no Good News to present to his audience.

“Kazan on Kazan” is strictly for Kazan aficionados.