Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Twelfth Film: “Baby Doll”

Today, as we re-start our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s twelfth film, “Baby Doll.” The review below was first posted on April 25, 2017 and has been revised.

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Baby Doll
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Karl Malden, Carroll Baker (nee Karolina Piekarski) 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 and also begin his “Southern Trilogy.”

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 young 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 public’s knowledge of Archie Lee’s wedding pledge to Baby Doll’s father to refrain from consummating 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 the Meighans’ furniture is repossessed. Even the poor 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 (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 preoccupied processing the cotton with his ramshackle gin, Vaccaro and Baby Doll remain at the mansion. He coyly coaxes her into signing an affidavit admitting that 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.”

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 to Archie Lee

Commentary

Baker, Dunnock, Tennessee Williams (screenplay), and Boris Kaufman (cinematography) were all nominated for Oscars, but it was Malden who stole the show as the tragically comic foil. The movie was filmed in Benoit, Mississippi at the abandoned Burrus Plantation, 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 destroying what he views 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

Next up: “A Face in the Crowd”

Kazan Redux Resumes!

Nope, I’m not a movie fan by any stretch of the imagination (especially Star Wars movies! 😖), however, I’ve been a student of film and theater director, Elia Kazan (1909-2003), for fifty years. Some of you younger readers may have never heard of him, but back in the late-1940s and 1950s, Kazan was widely considered to be the most influential film and theatrical director in the United States. Many of the topics he tackled in his movies and plays were very controversial at the time. Kazan loved to expose the foibles and hypocrisies of humanity/society and I enjoy culling spiritual lessons and applications from his material.

I had previously reviewed all of Kazan’s nineteen films over the period of December 2016 to December 2017. If you blog long enough, you’re liable to repeat yourself, so in January 2020 I got the bug to re-watch and re-review all of Kazan’s films, but I only got as far as #11, “East of Eden,” back in July. What prompted the long pause? I forget, but my email inbox has been flooded with demands to get back on track! 🤭 Not!

One of my blogging resolutions for 2021 is to resume the Kazan Redux series where I left off and finish the eight remaining films. Hopefully, I’ll publish the first of the re-reviews next week. Once I’m done with this series, folks, I seriously don’t foresee a Kazan re-redux series down the road.

Below are handy links to my 2020 Kazan Redux re-reviews of the director’s first eleven movies:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) – 5 Stars – A family clings to hope despite the ravages of alcoholism – featuring Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell, and Peggy Ann Garner

The Sea of Grass (1947) – 2 Stars – A cattle baron competes with homesteaders – Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, and Robert Walker

Boomerang (1947) – 4 Stars – A district attorney resists pressures to prosecute an innocent man – Dana Andrews, Jane Wyatt, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur Kennedy, Cara Williams, and Karl Malden

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) – 4 Stars – A Gentile journalist feigns a Jewish identity in order to expose anti-Semitism in the U.S.A. – Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Celeste Holm, and John Garfield

Pinky (1949) – 4 Stars – A bi-racial woman navigates bigotry in the Deep South – Jeanne Crain, Ethel Waters, and Ethel Barrymore

Panic in the Streets (1950) – 5 Stars – A New Orleans medical examiner must stem a virus outbreak before it turns into an epidemic – Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Walter (Jack) Palance, and Zero Mostel

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) – 5 Stars – A distraught and desperate Southern Belle enters into what she believes is a safe harbor only to discover it’s a cobra’s den – Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter

Viva Zapata! (1952) – 4 Stars – A Mexican revolutionary fights for the peasantry – Marlon Brando, Jean Peters, and Anthony Quinn

Man on a Tightrope (1953) – 4 Stars – A ramshackle circus attempts to escape Soviet Eastern Europe – Fredric March, Terry Moore, Gloria Grahame, and Cameron Mitchell

On the Waterfront (1954) – 5 Stars – A longshoreman takes on his corrupt union – Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger

East of Eden (1955) – 5 Stars – A rebellious son tries to win the affection of his unloving father – James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, Richard Davalos, and Jo Van Fleet

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Eleventh Film: “East of Eden”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s eleventh film, “East of Eden.” The review below was first posted on April 11, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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

5 Stars

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

Plot

In Salinas, California in 1917, aging rancher, Adam Trask (Massey), is determined to make his mark on the world before he dies by developing a process for shipping fresh, ice-packed lettuce to the East via railroad. His loving and dutiful son, Aron (Davalos), supports and encourages him in the endeavor, but his other son, Cal (Dean), continuously rebels against the father’s stern and “puritanical” 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 profitable 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 take out their frustrations on a German immigrant. 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 investment profits 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, which he interprets as another demonstration of his father’s lack of love, Cal declares he hates Adam and brings Aron to Monterey to vengefully reveal to him the truth about their mother, knowing it will destroy him. Subsequently 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 all 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 alone, through faith alone, 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.

 

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Tenth Film: “On the Waterfront”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s tenth and finest film, “On the Waterfront.” It was a pleasure, as always, to re-watch this landmark film for this redux series. The review below was first posted on March 21, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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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

5 Stars

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 having named the names of former fellow-communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952. Despised by most of his peers, 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 dockworkers’ corrupt 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 bosses and the rank-and-file. 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 inspirational 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 for 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 realistic mobster muscle including 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

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!

 

 

Next Up: “East of Eden” (1955)

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Ninth Film; “Man on a Tightrope”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s ninth film, “Man on a Tightrope.” I enjoyed re-watching the film for this re-review and appreciate it a bit more each time through. The review below was first posted on February 26, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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

4 Stars

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 projects.

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 corpse of 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 had been on the Hollywood 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 viewers 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 provides some comedic relief. 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 reassure audiences regarding Kazan’s loyalties, 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 domination from 1945 until 1989. Liberals still hate Kazan (d. 2003) as the ultimate rat fink, but how were American communists and their sympathetic Leftist fellow travelers able to square their theoretical ideology with the deadly realities of Stalinism and the Iron Curtain?

Trivia alert: Don’t blink or you’ll miss a cameo from Fess “Davy Crockett” Parker as one of the U.S. border guards at the end of the film. Also, the elderly woman who plays Cernik’s mother was actually Mme. Brumbach, the great dame of the actual Circus Brumbach.

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

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 a Roman prison 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!

 

 

Next up: Kazan’s masterpiece, “On the Waterfront”

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Eighth Film; “Viva Zapata!”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s eighth film, “Viva Zapata!” This movie has always been one of my least-favorite of Kazan’s nineteen projects, but as I re-watched it for this re-review, I actually developed a new appreciation, until I got to the ham-fisted ending. The review below was first posted on February 18, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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

4 Stars

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) in Washington D.C. was also interested in Kazan because he had been a member of the American Communist Party from 1934 to 1936 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 a veiled 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, Francisco 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 the peasant rebels 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. Also, revolutionary, Pancho Villa, is portrayed by Alan Reed who would eventually end up as the voice of Fred Flintstone. 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.

On deck: “Man on a Tightrope” (1953)

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Seventh Film; “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s seventh film, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” As I re-watched “Streetcar” for this post, I thought about how viewers have been ambivalently fascinated and repulsed by this story for seventy years.

The review below was first posted on February 11, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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[Mitch confronts Blanche after he learns of her scandalous past.]
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

5 Stars

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 ramshackle apartment in the seedy French Quarter. The aristocratic and genteel Blanche is both repulsed by and attracted to the animalistic Stanley. A relationship soon blossoms between Blanche and Mitch (Karl Malden), one of Stanley’s few well-mannered 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 definitely 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 in 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 he added some on-location scenes shot at a bowling alley, a factory, and the New Orleans train station. 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, rather they’re symbolic of humanity. Here we see the perennial conflict between “civilization” with its art, education, ceremonial religion, and social courtesies versus the baser instincts of dog-eat-dog survival. Yet, the refined Blanche is not all she pretends to be and Stanley is more than happy to confront her hypocrisy.

“Streetcar” was considered to be somewhat 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 sinfulness. I’ve read that the stunned audience stood and applauded the Broadway play 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 Jesus Christ, where do we go? Who will take us in? To whom can we turn?

Thank you, Jesus.

 

 

Next up: Kazan’s eighth film, “Viva Zapata!”

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s fifth film; “Pinky”

I thoroughly enjoyed re-watching “Pinky,” Elia Kazan’s exposé of racism in America for this Kazan Redux series. The review below was originally published on January 5, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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Pinky
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Jeanne Crain, Ethel Waters, and Ethel Barrymore
20th Century Fox, 1949, 102 minutes

4 Stars

Always on the lookout for a “social message” script, 20th Century Fox liberal studio mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck, followed the success of “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (Best Picture, 1947), which tackled the issue of anti-Semitism, with “Pinky,” a film dealing with prejudice against African-Americans. Legendary director, John Ford, had already begun working on the film, but dropped out early in the production after clashes with actress, Ethel Waters. Zanuck enlisted Elia Kazan to replace Ford.

Plot

Patricia “Pinky” Johnson (Jeanne Crain) returns home to Alabama after graduating from nursing school in Boston. She is of mixed Caucasian and Black race, but has absolutely no physical characteristics common to Blacks and easily “passed” herself as racially “pure” White in the North. When her Black granny, Dicey (Ethel Waters), asks Pinky to nurse her dying friend, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore), matriarch of the nearby, crumbling former plantation, Pinky acquiesces after serious misgivings, but eventually befriends the old dame. All the while, Pinky encounters blatant racism whenever the White townsfolk discover she’s actually of mixed race. When her White boyfriend (William Lundigan) from up North tracks her down, he is startled to learn from Pinky that she is bi-racial, but wishes to continue the relationship. After Miss Em’s death, the entire town and most especially, Em’s racist cousin, Melba (portrayed by Evelyn Varden in a remarkable performance), is shocked to learn that she willed her estate to Pinky. Melba contests the will in court, but the judge unbelievably upholds it. Rejecting her suitor’s invitation to leave the town and conceal her true racial identity, Pinky turns the old plantation into “Miss Em’s Clinic and Nursery School” for Black nursing students and Black children.

Commentary

In later interviews, Kazan stated that he was not altogether pleased with “Pinky” and referred to it as an emasculated morality play. The casting of white-as-the-driven-snow Jeanne Crain as the bi-racial protagonist ensured there would be few objections showing the film in the South, but it took the teeth out of the picture. Crain in the arms of William Lundigan was fine, but a light-skinned, African-American actress such as Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge (who had both solicited for the part) in the arms of a White actor at that time would have been entirely unacceptable. It is certainly difficult for the viewer to suspend belief and accept Crain as dark-skinned Water’s granddaughter, but “Pinky” does portray racism in a convincing manner in several scenes. “Pinky” may seem tame by today’s standards, but it was controversial when it was released in 1949.

Controversy aside, the cast is fantastic and I’ve come to appreciate “Pinky” a bit more with each viewing. Both Waters and Barrymore, the First Lady of the Theater, were nominated for Oscars for their portrayals. Most memorable in minor roles are Frederick O’Neal as rascally Jake Walters, Evelyn Varden as Melba Wooley, Nina Mae McKinney as Rozelia, and Basil Ruysdael as Judge Walker. Dan Riss as Wooley’s bombastic lawyer is absolutely delightful in his small role. Kazan was very critical of Jeanne Crain in several of his later writings and interviews for her extremely limited emotional scale. Of all the many actors Kazan directed in his nineteen films, I don’t believe he criticized anyone else so fiercely. Surprisingly, Crain was nominated for Best Actress for her tense, one-dimensional performance.

“Pinky” turned out to be much more than a liberal crusade for Zanuck; the controversial subject matter generated great interest among movie-goers resulting in “Pinky” being the highest-grossing film for Fox in 1949 despite some opposition in the South. With “Pinky,” Kazan continued to raise the suspicions and ire of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

At this point in his career, Kazan was chaffing against studio control. Like “Gentleman’s Agreement” before it, the director was forced to shoot “Pinky” largely in the studio and backlot.  Kazan was still searching for his signature style when he directed “Pinky,” his fifth film, but he would find it while making his next picture, the gritty film noir thriller, “Panic in the Streets.”

Film historian, Kenneth Geist, provides an unremarkable commentary for the “Pinky” DVD. Unfortunately, his remarks have much more to do with the overall careers of Waters and Barrymore than with the details of “Pinky.” Also, the DVD picture quality is sub-par.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

It’s hard to believe from today’s perspective how American Christians of yesteryear used the Bible to justify bigotry, intolerance, and persecution. No doubt more than a few sermons included such exhortations as, “Slavery’s in the Bible, so therefore it’s okay for us to own slaves” and “The Old Testament forbade intermarriage and intermingling with other ethnicities and races (those commandments were specifically for the Israelites) so we must do the same.” I was just a kid at the time of the civil rights marches and legislation, and race riots. America as a nation has come a long way since then, but still has a long way to go. We Christians should have no prejudices in regards to ethnicity and race.

Next up: We’ve already re-reviewed Kazan’s sixth film, “Panic in the Streets,” so on-deck is the director’s seventh film, “A Streetcar Named Desire”

 

 

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Sixth Film; “Panic in the Streets”

It’s time for another film review in our Elia Kazan 2020 Redux series, but today we’re going to do a flip-flop. The next installment in our cavalcade was supposed to be Kazan’s fifth film, “Pinky,” but in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I thought it would be appropriate to first re-review Kazan’s sixth-film, the provocatively titled, “Panic in the Streets,” which deals with an outbreak of pneumonic plague in the city of New Orleans. We’ll get to “Pinky” in a couple of weeks. The review below was first posted on February 5, 2017 and has been revised.

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Panic in the Streets
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

5 Stars

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 will 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 prematurely cashing out of a card game. 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 “the only perfect film I made.” All filming was 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, Widmark also brings a bit of film noir edginess. There’s a couple of touching domestic scenes with Widmark and Barbara Bel Geddes as Reed’s wife that counterbalance the frenzied manhunt. Kazan admired the cast, however he was critical of Paul Douglas in the role of police chief. 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 small-time crime boss. There’s few film portrayals more menacing 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. Later black-listed by the film industry, Mostel, became a sought after commodity on Broadway. Screenwriters, Edward and Edna Anhalt, brought home an Oscar for Best Story.

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 eventual 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 sin and accept Him as their Savior by faith alone.

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?

“Panic in the Streets” and most of Kazan’s other 18 films are available via Amazon video streaming.

Next up: “Pinky”

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”