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.

capture30

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.

List: The Nineteen Films of Elia Kazan with Reviews

Over the last year, I’ve had the pleasure of rewatching and reviewing all nineteen films of one of America’s most influential directors, Elia Kazan (1909-2003). Whew! That was a fun as well as challenging project. Thanks to all of you who accompanied me on this “journey.” Below is a handy listing of all of Kazan’s movies and links to my reviews.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
A hopeful young girl grows up in a poor family racked by alcoholism.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/elia-kazans-first-film-a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn/

The Sea of Grass (1947)
A tyrannical rancher withstands the onslaught of homesteaders.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/kazans-sophomore-stumble-the-sea-of-grass/

Boomerang (1947)
An honest DA must fight the temptation of an easy conviction.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2016/12/25/director-elia-kazans-third-film-boomerang/

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
A journalist discovers anti-Semitism permeates American society.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/gentlemans-agreement-moves-elia-kazan-to-the-top-of-the-directors-list/

Pinky (1949)
A bi-racial nurse confronts bigotry in her small corner of world.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/kazan-examines-racial-bigotry/

Panic in the Streets (1950)
A medical examiner has only hours to stem a city-wide epidemic.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/nobody-in-the-streets-ever-really-panicked-but-it-made-for-a-catchy-title/

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
A harrowing game of cat and mouse as a Southern belle descends into madness.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/02/11/i-thought-you-were-straight/

Viva Zapata! (1952)
The politically oppressed must resist the temptation of becoming the oppressors.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/%e2%99%abyou-say-you-want-a-revolution-%e2%99%ab/

Man on a Tightrope (1953)
This Red Scare propaganda piece was Kazan’s penance for having been a member of the American Communist Party.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/02/26/i-might-have-been-a-commie-when-i-was-young-and-stupid-but-see-now-im-all-about-the-red-white-and-blue/

On the Waterfront (1954)
Longshoremen rebel against their corrupt union and Kazan defends his HUAC testimony.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/you-dont-understand-i-coulda-had-class-i-coulda-been-a-contenduh-i-coulda-been-somebody-instead-of-a-bum-which-is-what-i-am-lets-face-it/

East of Eden (1955)
Two very dissimilar sons compete for their father’s affections.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/04/11/east-of-eden-the-gospel-according-to-two-atheists/

Baby Doll (1956)
Everyone’s seeking justice in this Southern black comedy.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/baby-doll-sometimes-big-shot-you-dont-seem-to-give-me-credit-for-very-much-intelligence-at-all-ive-been-to-school-in-my-life-and-im-a-magazine-reader/

A Face in the Crowd (1957)
A “ne’er do well” transforms into a populist Pied Piper.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/demagogue-in-denim/

Wild River (1960)
An elderly matron stands up to the federal bureaucratic steamroller.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/pushing-aside-the-little-guy-for-the-greater-good/

Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Young love disintegrates under family pressures.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/10/16/elia-kazans-splendor-in-the-grass-hit-me-hard-when-i-was-a-young-teen/

America America (1963)
Kazan retraces his uncle’s journey to America.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/i-believe-i-believe-that-in-america-i-believe-i-will-be-washed-clean/

The Arrangement (1969)
A successful but frustrated advertising executive tries to find happiness.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/talk-about-a-mid-life-crisis/

The Visitors (1972)
The horrors of the Vietnam War come home to America.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/kazans-look-at-vietnam-on-a-shoestring-budget/

The Last Tycoon (1976)
A cutthroat movie studio executive meets his match.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/kazans-fade-to-black/

Kazan’s fade to black

The Last Tycoon
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Robert De Niro, Ingrid Boulting, Robert Mitchum, Theresa Russell, and Jack Nicholson
Paramount, 1976, 123 minutes

Film producer, Sam Spiegel, tapped successful playwright, Harold Pinter, and director, Mike Nichols, to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel, “The Last Tycoon,” to the screen. When Nichols bailed on the project, Spiegel desperately turned to his “On the Waterfront” director, Elia Kazan. “The Last Tycoon” would be Kazan’s last film.

Plot

Monroe Stahr (De Niro) is the ruthless, arrogant, production executive at a major film studio in 1930s-era Hollywood. He’s so successful he routinely flouts the studio president, Pat Brady (Mitchum). When an earthquake causes a flood on the lot, Stahr spots Kathleen Moore (Boulting) clinging to a massive floating movie prop; the head of the Hindu god, Shiva, and instantly falls in love with this young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife. Brady’s daughter, Cecilia (Russell), has a schoolgirl crush on Stahr, but he only has eyes for Kathleen.  A relationship ensues, but Kathleen attempts to break it off by leaving a note stating she’s engaged. Stahr won’t take no for an answer and pursues the enigmatic Kathleen at the expense of his studio responsibilities. When Kathleen telegrams him that she married her fiancé, Stahr is crushed. He attempts to vent his anger and frustration in a meeting with a union organizer (Nicholson), but succumbs to a forceful right hook. While Cecilia consoles the physically and emotionally battered Stahr, Brady and the studio board smell blood. Stahr is dismissed and takes one final, lonely walk through the lot.

Commentary

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished, last novel was inspired by MGM’s legendary, golden-boy producer, Irving Thalberg. Sixty-seven-year-old Kazan had not directed a film in four years, but he accepted Spiegel’s offer to direct “The Last Tycoon” mainly as an opportunity to move from New York to California so that his terminally-ill mother could escape the bitterness of another New York winter. Unlike his previous film projects, Kazan had no input into the script. There is very little about this movie that distinguishes it as a Kazan film.

There’s none better than De Niro in portraying a mafia goon, but he’s out of his league playing the sharp-as-a-tack Stahr, who must deftly orchestrate ten or twenty film projects in his head nineteen hours a day. De Niro lost forty-pounds in preparation for the role of the sickly executive. Boulting is so detached in her performance she simply can’t muster any interest from the audience. One of the few bright spots in this movie is Theresa Russell in her film debut. A number of screen notables make appearances including Tony Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Ray Milland, Dana Andrews, John Carradine, Anjelica Huston, and the legendary French film actress, Jeanne Moreau.

“The Last Tycoon” is a paper-thin story that generates little audience interest. While there are a few decent performances, it’s not enough to save this clunker. Kazan wrote later that he immediately knew he had a dog on his hands the day of the first private screening. Unfortunately, the great director finished his film career on this sour note.

There are no extras with the DVD.

Additional thoughts from a believer

Like the character, Monroe Stahr, and his inspiration, Irving Thalberg, Elia Kazan had also been one of the entertainment industry’s wunderkind “golden boys.” In the 1940s and 1950s, no other American director could rival Kazan’s combined standing in Hollywood and Broadway. But as Kazan became increasingly involved in autobiographical projects in the 1960s, audiences lost interest and his star began to descend. Kazan would finish his life writing novels for an ever-dwindling readership. He died in 2003.

Kazan’s rise and fall is another reminder to us that life without Christ is unfulfilling and ultimately, deadly. Kazan achieved great career success and was the toast of both coasts, but was also haunted by his friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Atheist Kazan had remarkable insights into human beings; their strengths and especially their weaknesses. But he had no answers, only questions.

LTyc

Kazan’s look at Vietnam on a shoestring budget

Elia Kazan had been one of America’s most celebrated and influential film and theatrical directors in the 1940s and 50s, but by the early 1970s, after the financial failure of five of his previous six movies, he could not find backing for a new film project written by his son, Chris Kazan, which explored themes regarding the unpopular Vietnam War. Kazan opted to film “The Visitors” himself on a shoestring budget using a 16mm camera.

The Visitors
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring James Woods, Patricia Joyce, Steve Railsback, Chico Martinez, and Patrick McVey
United Artists, 1972, 88 minutes

Plot

Bill (Woods) and Martha (Joyce) and their infant child live in a Connecticut farmhouse owned by Martha’s domineering father, Western pulp fiction writer, Harry (McVey). They are not married and their relationship seems to be somewhat strained.

Two visitors, Sarge aka Mike (Railsback) and Tony (Martinez), show up at the house unexpectedly. They had served together in the same platoon with Bill in Vietnam, but Bill had testified against them at a court martial for wartime atrocities. The pair had been released due to a legal technicality after having been imprisoned for two years and had driven from Kansas to Connecticut to find Bill. The intentions of the visitors are unclear and Bill is nervous and fearful.

Harry stops by for a visit. He’s an overbearing redneck who enjoys the company of the two manly guests as much as he openly despises his daughter’s passive boyfriend.

As the night progresses, Martha learns from Bill the details of the wartime atrocity, which involved the rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl, and she angrily confronts Sarge. While she abhors him, she is also strangely attracted to his aggressive demeanor. Bill breaks things up and attacks Sarge. A fight ensues and Bill is beaten to a bloody pulp. Martha is also attacked. The visitors leave, satisfied that they have meted out justice. After Bill regains consciousness, he asks Martha if she’s all right. She just stares back at him with silent contempt.

The moral of the story: It was bad enough to see the violence of Vietnam on the television screen, but it was something altogether different when it crossed over your threshold.

Commentary

Kazan stated in an interview that “The Visitors” was an “anti-war picture,” and that it was about “the price of the Vietnam War on the soul of the American people.”  While the production quality is unsurprisingly low given the budget constraints, the rising tension between the characters is palpable. Railsback’s character is especially convincing as a coiled cobra patiently waiting to strike its victim. The script was loosely based on a portion of Daniel Lang’s book, “Casualties of War” (1969), which also inspired Brian De Palma’s same-titled 1989 film.

Like the Bill character, Kazan had also testified against his friends at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1952 when he named the names of former associates of the American Communist Party. While I haven’t read of Kazan having ever been physically attacked because of his testimony, he was widely ostracized by liberals on both coasts until his death in 2003.

The shoestring-budget movie was filmed at Kazan’s home and property in Sandy Hook, Newtown, Connecticut (yes, THAT Sandy Hook where 20 elementary school children and 7 adults were massacred by a disturbed young man in 2012). It’s unique among all of Kazan’s films because of its extremely basic, no-frills production quality. “The Visitors” had an extremely limited release. Of all of Kazan’s nineteen films, “The Visitors” is the only one not on DVD, but it is available as a VHS tape and through Amazon streaming.

Additional thoughts from a believer

The United States’ protracted involvement in the Vietnam War wore down the resolve of the American people. By the time Kazan made “The Visitor” in 1972, the nation had had enough. In 1973, America ceased military operations in Vietnam. South Vietnam eventually fell to the North Vietnamese-led forces in 1975.

The First World War was proclaimed to be “the war that would end all wars.” International organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations were established to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts. But conflicts and wars continue. As the Bible says, the hearts of men are desperately wicked. Individuals have a difficult time maintaining harmonious relationships let alone nations. The only lasting peace comes through a relationship with the Lord, Jesus Christ. Accept Jesus Christ as your Savior.

picture-65