Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Fifteenth Film: “Splendor in the Grass”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s fifteenth film, “Splendor in the Grass.” The review below was first posted on October 16, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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

5 Stars

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 (Warren Beatty) and Wilma Dean “Deanie” Loomis (Natalie 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 (Audrey 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 (Pat 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 family 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 devastates 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 video below 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 rarely 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.

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.

Below, the final poignant scene of “Splendor in the Grass”:

Next up: Kazan’s sixteenth film: “America America”

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Fourteenth Film: “Wild River”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s fourteenth film, “Wild River.” The review below was first posted on June 27, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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

5 Stars

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

M&L

It’s the 1930s and the TVA is on the verge of damming the Tennessee River and flooding several river valleys. Chuck Glover (Monty 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 (Jo Van Fleet), who has no intention of selling her soon-to-be-flooded river island. Her widowed granddaughter, Carol (Lee 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 in preparation for the controlled flooding. 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 look down and view the river and the only portion of Garth Island still above water; the family cemetery plot 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.

Comments

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 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 Blu-ray 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 circumstances. 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.

Next up: Kazan’s fifteenth film, “Splendor in the Grass” (1961).

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Thirteenth Film: “A Face in the Crowd”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s thirteenth film, “A Face in the Crowd.” The review below was first posted on June 6, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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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

4 Stars

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 amazingly 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 right-wing U.S. Senator, Worthington 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.

Comments

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 homespun heroes, 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.

In 2019, Criterion released “A Face in the Crowd” on Blu-ray as part of its collection of distinguished films (joining Kazan’s “On the Waterfront”). Regrettably, a commentary from a film critic/historian was not included.

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-four-years later, we’ve witnessed both ends of the political spectrum attempting to sway public opinion through the medium, 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? Marxist and 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, Jesus Christ, and we anticipate His coming Kingdom. The political ebbs and flows of this fallen world may affect us to 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.

Next up: Kazan’s fourteenth film, “Wild River” (1960)

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

American Gospel: Christ Crucified

American Gospel: Christ Crucified
Directed by Brandon Kimber
Transition Studios, 2019, 176 minutes

5 Stars

In his previous documentary, “American Gospel: Christ Alone” (2018), Brandon Kimber confronted the false prosperity gospel. See my review here. In this latest film, Kimber turns his attention to the “emerging church movement” (ECM).

The leaders of ECM adopted a post-modern, relativistic approach to the Bible, insisting that God is strictly a God of love and acceptance and dismissing those passages in God’s Word that proclaim God’s wrath against sinners, His judgement, and the eternal damnation of unbelievers in hell. ECMers are especially roiled by the doctrine of the “penal substitutionary atonement” of Jesus Christ; that God the Son voluntarily bore the wrath of God the Father and the penalty for sin in the place of sinful mankind, and that only those who repent of their sin and trust in Jesus as Savior by faith alone are redeemed and born-again as God’s children.

What ECMers teach is an updated form of Universalism; that most/all people are destined for Heaven/Nirvana/paradisaical bliss. Some of the most prominent proponents of the ECM false gospel are featured in this documentary, including Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Rob Bell, and Catholic Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr. Opinionated atheist, Bart Campolo, is prominently featured as an example of how ECM is a foundationless, slippery slope and naturally progresses into outright atheism.

Counterposing the ECMers are defenders of God’s Word and the genuine Gospel, including Voddie Bauchman, Alistair Begg, Ray Comfort, Steven Lawson, John MacArthur, Justin Peters, and Paul Washer. The spine of the documentary is the journey of believer, Alisa Childers, who was being misled by a crypto-ECM pastor, but by God’s grace became an outspoken critic of the ECM heresy.

Observations and comments

I enjoyed this documentary quite a bit. Several of the ECMers come across as quite “snarky,” especially Tony Jones, Rob Bell, and the two young, know-it-all brats manning the Deconstructionist Podcast (Adam Narloch and John Williamson). In all fairness, believers can be arrogantly “snarky” as well. I was glad to see Kimber include William Paul Young, the author of “The Shack,” as one of the ECMers. Unwitting evangelicals eagerly consumed Young’s Universalist kool-aid. Kimber and company did an excellent job of breaking down the all-important doctrine of “penal substitutionary atonement,” a theological term that sounds dauntingly complicated, but is at the heart of the Good News. The documentary begins by rapidly juxtaposing interview segments with ECMers and orthodox believers, which can be confusing for viewers who don’t know who’s who. I had to stop the documentary and explain to my wife what was going on. After an interval, the viewer is be able to differentiate between the “bad guys” and the “good guys,” but it’s confusing at first. As with the previous documentary, the title, “American Gospel: Christ Crucified,” is regrettably incongruent; a subtitle normally complements the main title rather than contradicts it.

Kimber included Stephen J. Nichols as one of the defenders of the genuine Gospel, which leads me to my closing thought. Kimber has now examined two heretical movements; the prosperity gospel and the emerging church. I wish that his next documentary would examine the growing ecumenism with Roman Catholicism within evangelicalism. Stephen J. Nichols wrote a children’s book, which included Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuits, as a “hero of the faith.” There’s A LOT of that kind of ecumenical compromise and betrayal of the Gospel floating around within evangelicalism these days.

“American Gospel: Christ Crucified” is available via Amazon video streaming as a 48-hour rental for $4.99.

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.

 

Aileen Wuornos: Monster?

Aileen Wuornos: Mind of a Monster
Arrow Media, 2020, 1 hr 24 min

4 Stars

Several weeks ago, I was doing my routine, bedtime channel surfing and came across the documentary, “Aileen Wuornos: Mind of a Monster,” on the ID, Investigation Discovery, cable channel.

I had done a lot of reading about Aileen “Lee” Wuornos many years ago, so I watched about 30 minutes of the documentary until I had to go to sleep. The next day, I watched the entire film from start to finish via on-demand.

For those of you who have never heard of Aileen Wuornos, she was America’s first female serial killer. It’s not a pleasant story. Wuornos (b. 1956) turned to prostitution as a teenager in Troy, Michigan. She moved down to Florida in 1976 where she continued “hustling.” Over a one-year period, from November, 1989 to November, 1990, she murdered and robbed seven of the many men who had picked her up as she solicited on the side of the highway. Florida police were finally able to track her down and made an arrest in January, 1991. She was eventually convicted on six counts of murder and was executed by lethal injection in October, 2002 at the age of 46.

How does a person become a serial killer? Wuornos was born into very challenging circumstances. Her mother was married at the age of 14 to an abusive sociopath who eventually committed suicide in prison. The single mother then abandoned Aileen and her older brother when the girl was four-years-old. The maternal grandparents adopted the two children, but both adults were hardcore alcoholics and the grandfather was chronically abusive. At the age of fourteen, Aileen was raped by one of her grandfather’s friends, became pregnant, and the baby was given up for adoption. The grandmother died in 1971 and shortly afterwards the grandfather threw Aileen out of the house at the age of fifteen. She supported herself on the streets for the next twenty years.

While Wuornos was in prison in Florida, a born-again woman reached out to her in friendship and became her legal guardian. Wuornos heard the Gospel. But the media circus that surrounded Aileen was a temptation. The guardian saw dollar signs and changed from an advocate into an opportunist who tried to cash-in on some of the media offers.

Wuornos was a deeply disturbed and violent person and deserved the death penalty for the seven, cold-blooded murders. But she wasn’t a monster. Yes, we’re all responsible for our actions, but Wuornos got her start in a snake pit. In her rambling death-row interviews, she talked about Jesus Christ and going to Heaven, but only God knows what happened to her soul.

This documentary provides an informative overview of the Wuornos case. Several of the detectives, lawyers, and prosecutors who were directly involved are interviewed. The spine of the story is the relationship of Wuornos and her childhood friend, Dawn Botkins, that improbably endured to the end.

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.

capture30Man on a Tightrope
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”