Talk about a “mid-life crisis”!

The Arrangement
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Deborah Kerr, and Richard Boone
Warner Bros., 1969, 125 minutes

Following the release of his previous film, “America America” (1963), director Elia Kazan turned to writing fiction. His semi-autobiographical novel, “The Arrangement,” was surprisingly the highest-selling fictional work of the year when it was published in 1967. Kazan adapted the novel to the screen two years later.

Plot

Middle-aged Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas) is a successful advertising executive living a very comfortable, upper middle-class lifestyle with his wife, Florence (Deborah Kerr), in a sprawling California home complete with servants and an in-ground pool. But Eddie secretly despises the “arrangements” and compromises he’s made in his life and unsuccessfully attempts suicide on the highway. While recovering, Eddie has flashbacks of his unsatisfying career and of the young, outspoken, co-worker, Gwen (Faye Dunaway), who goaded him to follow his own desires and who he partnered with in an extramarital affair. Following his recovery, Eddie reluctantly returns to the job he hates but finds he cannot tolerate it and surrealistically buzzes the company office tower in his private plane as his final parting shot.

As Florence wonders WHAT is going on with her suddenly unhinged husband, Eddie is summoned to New York City to be with his ailing father (Richard Boone). He also uses the opportunity to visit Gwen, who had moved to the Big Apple primarily to get away from Eddie. Although Gwen has a new boyfriend, Eddie is undeterred. Meanwhile, Florence chases Eddie to New York to keep close tabs on her unpredictable husband.

Eddie sneaks his father out of the hospital in the middle of the night according to his wishes and brings him back to the old family homestead. The old Greek is suffering from dementia and insists Eddie take him to the bank for a loan to restart his rug business. At the house, Eddie has painful childhood flashbacks of his domineering and abusive father.

After the family absconds with the father and commits him to a nursing home, Eddie walks in on a meeting with Florence and her lawyer, Arthur (Hume Cronyn), as they draw up divorce papers. Eddie is arrested after setting fire to the old family home (symbolizing the extirpation of the painful childhood memories) and being shot by Gwen’s jealous boyfriend. Eddie is subsequently committed to a mental institution where he’s satisfied to stay, but Gwen prods him into leaving and moving forward with his life. The father dies and the family gathers at the cemetery; Eddie and Gwen are together while Frances appears to have found a new provider in Arthur.

Commentary

While the film is not completely autobiographical, it does draw very heavily on the director’s life experiences. Kazan later wrote extensively on his troubled relationships with his father, his first wife, Molly Thatcher, and his spirited mistress and second wife, actress Barbara Loden. He had also experienced a bit of a personal, water-shed crisis after becoming extremely dissatisfied with his role as a theatrical director while desiring to be a writer.

Kazan admitted later that alpha-dog, Douglas, was all wrong for the part of troubled Eddie. His take-charge personality could not be concealed from the camera. Dunaway is bit over-dramatic as the strong-willed mistress. Kazan originally envisioned Barbara Loden playing the part of Gwen, which would have equated to the former-mistress-turned-wife portraying herself. Boone is spot-on as the overbearing father and Kerr is okay as the painfully long-suffering wife.

Kazan employs a number of questionable techniques in this film which serve as distractions. There’s some cartoonish “Ka-pow” graphics straight out of the then-popular Batman television show. The conflicted Eddie is made to debate his successful and sales savvy alter-ego within the same scene. Adult Eddie is present as an observer in flashbacks to his youth. There’s also plenty of flashy editing that was “cutting edge” hip in the late 60s.

“The Arrangement” was not well-received by the public. Kazan later blamed the film’s failure on some missing key elements from the novel that had to be left out of the script for brevity’s sake. This film has only a few redeeming qualities, but Kazan fans will appreciate the many references to his own personal life, which he elaborated on in great detail in his fascinatingly candid 1988 autobiography. “The Arrangement” was one of the first films dealing with “finding one’s true path,” a theme that would later preoccupy Hollywood. The 2007 DVD offers no commentary although the trailer and an interesting but short promotional documentary are included.

Additional thoughts from a believer

We’re all aware of the fabled, “mid-life crisis.” We’ve seen others go through it to some degree and, if we’re old enough, we’ve seen it in ourselves. A person reaches their forties or fifties and is confronted with their mortality. They ask themselves, “Is this all there is to life?” After working hard for so many years to please others by conforming to family or societal expectations, some resolve to please only themselves with the remaining time they have. Sometimes they go to sadly comical, stereotypical extremes like the 55-year-old guy who buys a high-performance, red convertible sports car and dumps his wife for a 30-year-old girlfriend.

The protagonist in “The Arrangement” is suffering through a “mid-life crisis” on steroids. Will he find true and lasting happiness and fulfillment as a struggling writer living with his former mistress? Me thinks not. Much of “The Arrangement” reminds me of the Book of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:1-2). Without Jesus Christ as your Savior, life is empty, life is meaningless, life is hopeless. Accept Christ as your Savior. Christ can save you from the coming judgement for your sin and give your life everlasting meaning in Him.

Kazan went on to write five more novels, but none would reach even a fraction of the popularity of “The Arrangement.” He began divorce proceedings against Loden in 1978, but dropped the suit when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was followed by terminal liver cancer.

Trivia: “The Arrangement” is actually something of a sequel to “America America.” Eddie is the nephew of the protagonist of the 1963 film, Stavros Topouzoglou. In “The Arrangement,” the much-older Stavros is shown covetously eyeing the shoes of his dying brother, eliciting memories of the importance of a pair of shoes in the earlier film. Grizzled actor, Richard Boone, who portrayed Douglas’ father in the film, was actually six-months younger than his co-star.

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“I believe, I believe that in America, I believe I will be washed clean.”

America America
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Stathis Giallelis, Lou Antonio, John Marley, Paul Mann, and Linda Marsh
Warner Bros., 1963, 168 minutes

After directing fifteen films based on the ideas and scripts of others, Kazan worked up the nerve to write the screenplay of “America America” by himself. The movie loosely chronicles the immigration of Kazan’s uncle to America.

Plot

With the Armenian and Greek minorities facing increasing intolerance and persecution in 1890’s Turkey, the Greek Topouzoglou family sends their eldest son, Stavros (Giallelis), from their small village to Constantinople in the hope that he can establish the family in the relatively safer environs of the city. But Stavros secretly dreams of immigrating to the mythical America, with its promises of security and prosperity. Along the journey to the city, the naive and trusting Stavros is robbed of his family’s cherished possessions by a comical Turkish rascal (Antonio) and arrives at his cousin’s rug store with only the clothes on his back. Stavros balks at his cousin’s scheme to marry a wealthy merchant’s unattractive daughter and begins working as a lowly hamal (porter) to buy passage to America. After months of back-breaking toil, he is robbed of his savings by a prostitute. Stavros associates with a group of anarchists and is nearly killed in a government ambush. He returns half-dead to his cousin and disingenuously agrees to marry the daughter of merchant Aleko Sinnikoglou (Mann). Stavros has feelings for the plain Thomna (Marsh) and is tempted by the comforts of domesticity, but won’t be swayed from his goal. The middle-aged wife of one Sinnikoglou’s wealthy customers takes a shine to young Stavros and arranges for his ocean passage to America as her traveling “companion.” When her husband learns he’s been betrayed, he tries to have the young Greek returned to Turkey, but Stavros takes the identity of a deathly-sick Armenian friend (Gregory Rozakis), who voluntarily jumps overboard so that Stavros may realize his dream. Stavros arrives at Ellis Island and kneels down to kiss American soil. He shines shoes in New York City with a passion, saving his hard-earned coins in order to eventually bring his family to America.

AAA
Stavros (Stathis Giallelis) is tempted by Thomna (Linda Marsh) and her family to remain in Constantinople and enjoy the pleasures of domesticity

Comments

Kazan based his novel, “America America” (1962), and the subsequent film adaptation on the journey of his uncle, Joe Kazan, who had a cameo in one of Kazan’s early films; “Boomerang.” Kazan moved the filming to Greece because of Turkish censorship. The breathtaking black and white cinematography was done by the legendary Haskell Wexler. Newcomer Giallelis’ performance at times borders on the amateurish and his broken English is occasionally undecipherable, but his facial expressions are wonderfully dramatic. The 22-year-old Greek actor had to learn English for this role. Kazan employed a large number of weathered native non-actor extras who sharply contrast with the professionals of Kazan’s Actor’s Studio. Linda Marsh breaks your heart as the rejected bride-to-be and deserved an Oscar nomination. Paul Mann is outstanding as the domineering but big-hearted future-father-in-law. The film won an Oscar for Best Art Direction and was also nominated for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

“America America” was Kazan’s favorite film. It’s extremely long at almost three hours, but I would have a hard time deciding which scenes to cut. This is a wonderful movie, an epic testament to the courage and determination of our immigrant ancestors who sought the freedoms of America. They pined for an America where they heard the streets were literally paved with gold and where they would be “redeemed” and washed clean (of the injustices of the old homeland), as Stavros says in the film. However, after they arrived in America, many immigrants found the conditions in the late 19th and early 20th-century urban sweat shops and tenements to be as oppressive as conditions in the “old country.”

Warner Bros. finally released this film on DVD in 2011. Film historian, Foster Hirsch, provides an informative and infectiously enthusiastic commentary. Kazan would go on to complete the trilogy of Stavros’ epic tale with the novels, “The Anatolian” (1982), and “Beyond the Agean” (1994). Spoiler alert: In his later years, Stavros becomes disillusioned with America and yearns for the old homeland.

See one of the trailers for “America America” here.

Additional thoughts from a believer

Kazan directed “America America” when he was 54 years old. Once the celebrated “golden boy” of Hollywood and Broadway, the despised, friendly-witness of the 1952 House Un-American Activities Committee would direct only three more films. Like “America America,” they would all be commercial failures. Kazan always felt uncomfortable as a Greek immigrant outsider in Hollywood’s illusory world of homogenized glamour. With this movie, Kazan embraced his ethnic roots and, in a certain sense, tried to come to terms with his strained relationship with his deceased father.

Everyone who doesn’t know the Lord has a spiritual void they seek to fill. When I walked away from the Lord for many years, I tried to fill the vacuum by reading many books about my ethnic heritage. It became an obsession. Millions of Americans log into Ancestry.com every day to try to determine exactly who they are in this rootless society. In the end, it doesn’t satisfy. The only Rock and sure foundation is the Lord, Jesus Christ. If He is not your personal Savior, you don’t have anything.

Elia Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass” hit me hard when I was a young teen

 

It’s been several months since posting a review of one of Elia Kazan’s films, so it’s time to get back on track with the director’s fifteenth and last profitable project.

Splendor in the Grass
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle, and Audrey Christie
Warner Bros., 1961, 124 minutes

After the dismal commercial failures of his three previous films (the so-called “Southern Trilogy”), Kazan turned to popular playwright, William Inge, for a box-office-friendly teenage melodrama.

Plot

Arthur “Bud” Stamper (Beatty) and Wilma Dean “Deanie” Loomis (Wood) are king and queen of their high school in 1928 Kansas and madly in love. Bud is from a wealthy family and the top jock on campus (although not a gifted student), while Deanie is from a much more modest background, but is one of the school’s most attractive and popular girls. Together, they’re an ideal couple, but must increasingly battle the temptation to become more intimate. Deanie’s materialistic mother (Christie) counsels her daughter to remain chaste because Bud is the “catch of a lifetime” and he surely wouldn’t marry a “bad girl.” In the meantime, Bud tells his Type-A-on-steroids father, Ace Stamper (Hingle), that he can no longer fight lustful temptations, so he’s determined to marry Deanie immediately after graduation and run the family ranch, but the small town oil baron insists that academically-challenged Bud go to Yale in order prepare himself to take the oil business to the next level. Bud’s scandalously immoral older sister, Ginny (Barbara Loden), has brought shame to the Stamper name and Ace hopes Bud can redeem the family’s reputation.

Recognizing that he can no longer control himself, Bud cools the relationship with “good girl,” Deanie, but lets off some steam with Juanita (Jan Norris), the school “floozy,” thereby humiliating Deanie, and sending her into an emotional breakdown. Somewhat recovered and desperate to win back her boyfriend, she forces herself on Bud, but he rejects her uncharacteristic advances. Deanie becomes so distraught, she attempts suicide. As Deanie teeters on the verge of a complete mental collapse, her doctor advises an anxious Bud to end all contact for her health’s sake.

Bud goes to Yale, but his heart isn’t in it and he’s failing all of his subjects. An Italian waitress, Angelina (Zohra Lampert), befriends him in his lovesick misery. His father visits Yale in an attempt to rally Bud, but ends up jumping from a New York City skyscraper when the stock market crash of 1929 totally destroys his business. In the meantime, Deanie is sent to a sanitarium to recover her mental and emotional stability. There, she befriends a male patient and a lukewarm romance blooms. When Deanie is released after a long, thirty-month stay, she returns home, and immediately asks to see Bud to determine if there’s any spark left in their relationship. She visits Bud on his struggling ranch and learns he’s married to Angelina, with one infant child and another on the way. Disappointed but not broken, Deanie stoically commits to going forward with her life, finding “strength in what remains behind.”

Commentary

“Splendor” resonated with audiences across the country. Inge won an Oscar for his screenplay (Kazan had a large amount of input) while Wood was nominated for her performance. This was Beatty’s film debut, another notable “find” for Kazan. Hingle’s full-throttle performance is quite memorable but skirts with being “over the top.” Most of the movie was shot around New York City.

I first watched “Splendor” when I was in my early teens and was floored by the unorthodox conclusion (the attached video captures the final 3.5 minutes). Kazan stated in later interviews that the last reel was his favorite of all of his films. It certainly wasn’t a stereotypical Hollywood ending. Two characters in love are supposed to live “happily ever after,” but real life is never so orderly, which is why “Splendor” struck a chord. I remember being quite smitten with the lovely and vulnerable Deanie character, probably like many of the film’s teenage male viewers. The startling uniqueness of this film launched my decades-long study of its director.

The two DVD’s of “Splendor in the Grass” released by Warner Brothers unfortunately provide no commentary or remarkable bonus features.

Trivia alert: Screenwriter, Bill Inge, has a small role as a Protestant minister saddened by the spiritual emptiness of his church’s biggest contributor, Ace Stamper.

Additional thoughts from a Christian believer

Kazan was a Marxist atheist who rebelled against religious and societal norms of morality. Perhaps more than any of his previous films, Kazan used “Splendor” to attack “middle-class materialism” and “puritanical morality.” Antagonists Ace Stamper and Mrs. Loomis are presented as the duplicitous enemies of the pure love of their children. Bud and Deanie struggle to adhere to their parents’ hypocritical moral code, ultimately destroying their love.

“Splendor” was somewhat revolutionary in its day for its exploration of teenage sexuality, but by today’s standards it hardly raises an eyebrow. It’s interesting to note that Leftist crusader, Kazan, carried on an affair with Loden throughout the filming of “Splendor,” returning to his wife and children each evening at his comfortable estate in the tony suburb of Newtown, Connecticut. Hypocrisy?

Christians understand we cannot satisfy the ultimate moral code, the Ten Commandments. But God the Father sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty for our sins on the cross. He conquered sin and death and offers eternal life and fellowship with God to all those who accept Him as Savior by faith alone. As Christians, we attempt to follow the Lord in obedience, albeit imperfectly. As a teenager, I struggled with sexual temptation. Those hormones were firing like a well-tuned 350 V-8 engine. It’s a common experience, right? These days, teens are experiencing even greater pressure to give in to temptation at an even earlier age. The Lord gave us guidelines for a reason. To protect our physical and emotional well being and the well being of others. Rampant premarital and extramarital sexuality have led to all kinds of individual and social problems. Perhaps the church would have done better to present sexuality positively, as a natural and wonderful gift of God for married couples, rather than negatively, as something dirty and not to be spoken of. After all, The Song of Solomon is in the Bible. But a person must accept Christ as Savior before they can follow Him in obedience.

Natalie Wood left her then-husband, Robert Wagner, for co-star Beatty during the filming of “Splendor,” much to the delight of Kazan, who sought emotional reality from his actors. Wood would reunite with Wagner in 1972. She died under suspicious circumstances in 1981 while on an excursion on the Wagners’ boat, the ironically-named “Splendour.” William Inge committed suicide in 1973. Beatty would go on to achieve fame mainly as Hollywood’s celebrated #1 Lothario. But now they castigate Harvey Weinstein?

After watching “Splendor,” I can remember scrambling to the library to read William Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” (1804), with the famous passage cited in the film:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.

Scholars still debate whether Wordsworth (1770-1850) was a Christian. Most of his earlier poetry glorifies nature as a semi-deific force. Later poems displayed a much more orthodox Christian view. In his “Ode,” the poet admonished his readers to move forward with their lives rather than dwell in the past.

God’s Word has much to say about looking back. Believers are to focus on Christ and Christian service and not look back at the world’s temptations with desire.

“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” – Philippians 3:13

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” 1 Peter 1: 24-25

See here for more Bible verses about looking forward in Christ.

SPLEN

SPLEND
Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood aboard the “Splendour”

Pushing aside the little guy for the “greater good”

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

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

Plot

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

Commentary

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

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

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

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

Additional thoughts from a believer

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

“Demagogue in Denim”

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

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

Plot

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

Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

Additional thoughts from a believer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plot

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

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

Commentary

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

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

Additional thoughts from a believer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plot

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

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

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

Commentary

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

Additional thoughts from a believer

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

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

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I recently posted a general review of the 1954 landmark film, “On the Waterfront” (see here), but I would like to further explore some of the historical and religious aspects of the movie that were mentioned in the “Who Is Mr. Big?” documentary that was included in the Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.

The “Waterfront” story was based on the wholesale corruption of those who controlled New York City’s and New Jersey’s docks. The labor required to load and unload ships on the bustling 19th-century New York City piers was both physically demanding and dangerous and was increasingly left to the Irish immigrants. By the 1920s, the Irish completely controlled the docks. William “Mr. Big” McCormack (see photo) controlled all of the stevedore companies. Joe Ryan, the figure-head president of the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) and the inspiration for the Johnny Friendly character in the film in reality reported to McCormack. That would be like the cat taking orders from the mouse. Racketeering and inhumane labor practices were rampant on the docks with nowhere to appeal. McCormack had city, state, and national politicians in his back pocket.

The Irish pier bosses also fostered close ties with the Catholic archdiocese of New York City. The relationship was symbiotic. McCormack, Ryan, and their associates contributed heavily to the diocese and the church big wigs, in return, blessed all union endeavors. Ryan attended daily mass at Guardian Angels church near the Chelsea piers in Manhattan. The pastor of the church was monsignor John J. O’Donnell, Cardinal Spellman’s right-hand man and “chaplain” of the murderous ILA. O’Donnell once commented on the union’s bloody boss, “He keeps his hands off the spiritual things of my church and I keep my hands off his business.”

Lovely.

When a loose cannon, Jesuit “liberation theology” priest, John Corridan, began making inquiries into the working conditions on the docks, O’Donnell warned him to back off “or else.” The subsequent investigations of waterfront crime relied heavily on Corridan’s observations and experiences. Karl Malden’s father Peter Barry character in the film was based upon Corridan.

The Irishmen who ran the piers dishonestly and often with blood on their hands were practicing and “pious” Catholics. Spellman and the archdiocesan hierarchy just looked the other way because the money was good and everyone respected each other’s “racket.” And Spellman had his own personal indiscretions to deal with. Jesus Christ was not present in any of these men. None of them knew the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It was all about power, control, and cash. That’s just the way it was.

I imagine priests had the same “see no evil…” relationship with the Mafioso Dons in the Italian enclaves. Where was the priest at Don Corleone’s daughter’s wedding reception in “The Godfather”? You know that in real life Mafioso weddings the priest would have been feted as one of the most honored guests.

Postscript: Generations of “Waterfront” viewers have been stymied by the scene at the 1 hour and 29 minute mark when an apparently wealthy older man shuts off the television after watching the waterfront crime commission proceedings and tells his butler not to take any more calls from Johnny Friendly. Who exactly was this mysterious figure? The suspense is over. Screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, was referencing Bill “Mr. Big” McCormack.

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

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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

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

Plot

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

Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

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

Thank you, Jesus, for reaching down for me!

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

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

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

Plot

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

Commentary

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

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

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

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

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

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