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”

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

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

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

3 Stars

By 1952, director Elia Kazan had achieved extraordinary artistic and commercial success on Broadway and in Hollywood. But the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington D.C. was also interested in Kazan because he had been a member of the American Communist Party from 1934 to 1936 and his films advocated social progressivism. Perhaps in deference to increasing pressure from HUAC, Kazan made “Viva Zapata,” a salute to the revolutionary proletariat, but also a veiled indictment of Stalinism. “Viva Zapata” was released in February 1952 and Kazan was called to appear before HUAC in April when he testified as a friendly witness, naming names of fellow communists and earning the undying wrath of liberals. Kazan’s following two films, “Man On A Tightrope” (1953) and “On The Waterfront” (1954), also attacked Stalinism and attempted to justify his HUAC friendly testimony.

Plot

A group of Mexican peasants petitions right-wing dictator, President Diaz, for land reform. The patronizing Diaz notes the insolence of one particular individual, Emilio Zapata (Marlon Brando). Zapata grows in stature as a leader of the people with his spirited brother, Eufemio (Anthony Quinn), at his side. His peasant army joins in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to overthrow Diaz and install liberal reformer, Francisco Madero, as president. As Zapata’s fame and influence rises, he marries Josefa (Jean Peters), the daughter of a rich merchant. Impatient with the well-meaning but befuddled Madero, Zapata continues the fight for agrarian reform. Madero is felled in a coup led by General Huerta. Zapata and the the other rebel generals eventually drive Huerta into exile. Zapata is appointed president of Mexico, but quickly resigns in frustration. Mexico’s new rulers, former leftist revolutionaries, hunt down Zapata, eventually killing him in an ambush. Journalist, Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman), a shadowy figure and former adviser to Zapata and the other revolutionary leaders, has a hand in Zapata’s death.

Commentary

Unfortunately, acclaimed novelist John Steinbeck’s script does not flow easily. You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of all of the politicos and los comandantes. First, the bad guy is Diaz. Then it’s Madero. Then Huerta. Then Carranza. Ay, caramba! We know from later interviews with Kazan that the Aguirre character was meant to represent unscrupulous Stalinism, but the average viewer would never make that connection on their own. Zapata and his revolutionary compadres are romanticized a great deal by Kazan. The last reel is as hokey as it gets with the peasant rebels denying Zapata’s death and his white horse galloping off into the sunset. One hundred years after the Revolution, Mexico continues to struggle politically and economically. Brando, Peters, and Quinn turn in fine performances with Quinn winning a supporting Oscar. As a trivia note, Jean Peters was the second wife of the eccentric Howard Hughes. Also, revolutionary, Pancho Villa, is portrayed by Alan Reed who would eventually end up as the voice of Fred Flintstone. The “Viva Zapata” Blu-ray was released in 2013, but offers no commentary or special features other than the trailer.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

Perhaps the most truthful moment of this film is when Zapata has ascended to the presidency and a group of peasants present him with their grievances. Zapata angrily takes down the name of the most insolent peasant just as as Diaz had taken down his name several years before. The oppressed become the oppressors. The hearts of men are desperately wicked.

People look to their nation, government, and society for their identity and fulfillment. While God’s Word says Christians are to be law-abiding citizens so as to be a good testimony to our unbelieving neighbors, our primary citizenship is in Heaven. We are ambassadors and emissaries for our Heavenly King as we journey through this world. Real freedom and fulfillment come through rebirth and identity in Jesus Christ, not through nations, governments, political parties, or revolution.

 

On deck: “Man on a Tightrope” (1953)

Inside the Vatican – Worldly grandeur but no Gospel

Inside the Vatican
Oxford Films, 2019, 1h 54m
Originally broadcast on PBS April 28, 2020

1 Star

(Note re: single star: While the production standards of this documentary are quite high, the false “spirituality” it promotes is deadly)

I noticed an advertisement for this 2-hour, PBS documentary, but wasn’t able to watch the entire production the night it was broadcast on April 28th. I’m pretty strict about my “lights out at 10 p.m.” policy. However, I was able to watch the entire documentary the following day via the PBS website (see link at bottom).

Evangelical Vatican-watchers will find this “inside look” at the Vatican somewhat interesting as well as grievous and disturbing. The Vatican, of course, is the home of the pope and the central administration headquarters of the Roman Catholic church, with a population of 800 residents and 4600 employees working within the walls of this 120 acre, city-state (roughly the size of Central Park in NYC).

The filmmakers focus on several of the Vatican departments and individual employees including members of the following:

  • Diplomatic corps
  • Ushers aka “sediari” or chair-bearers
  • Choir
  • Preservation/maintenance workers aka “sanpietrini”
  • Groundskeepers
  • Social Media
  • Language translators
  • Security

Interspersed with these examinations of the Vatican’s various working departments are adulatory segments devoted to pope Francis. The pope is portrayed as a high-minded, progressive reformer (an admiring journalist says he’s no less than a “radical”) determined to neutralize the conservative and traditionalist opposition within the church. We see Francis as the enemy of clerical privilege; Francis as the protector of children from predatory priests; Francis as the champion of the planet’s environment; Francis as the benefactor and sponsor of immigrants, the homeless, and the incarcerated.

This documentary is a Francis “puff piece” on a grand scale. A couple of Francis’s conservative Catholic opponents are interviewed (a journalist and the founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute), but they’re merely a few gnats in this very pro-Francis ointment. Many conservative and traditionalist Catholics rue the day that Francis was elected pope and pray for a quick end to his tenure. Francis views his doctrine-bending reforms as pragmatic necessity in order to maintain the church as a relevant world institution while conservatives view his reforms as heterodoxy and even heresy. The film points out that Francis has been busy “stacking the deck” by appointing like-minded cardinals to ensure the next pope shares his progressive views.

Some off-the-cuff observations while watching this documentary:

  • There’s plenty of “impressive” pageantry and ceremony at the grandiose Vatican, but the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone is nowhere in sight. The Roman Catholic church teaches a false gospel of salvation via sacramental grace and merit.
  • In close to two hours of watching this documentary, with all of its recorded religious pageantry and spectacle, I did not hear the name of Jesus Christ mentioned one time. Jesus Christ and His apostles would have had nothing to do with this grand-scale pomp and ostentatiousness. This documentary doesn’t delve into church history, but the Roman bishops adopted the Caesarean imperial model including the pursuit of wealth, territory, and political control. The regal trappings of the papacy outdid those of European monarchs. “But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” – Acts 3:6.
  • One of the featured personalities, Mark Spyropoulos, a lead vocalist in the Sistine Chapel Choir, reluctantly admits on camera that he’s an agnostic. The chorister speaks for hundreds of millions of “cultural Catholics.” For those Catholics who say that they do “believe” in God, what they actually believe in is their obligation to merit their salvation, as their institutional church teaches.

“For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” – Romans 10:2-4

I would recommend this documentary only to evangelicals who are curious to see the worldliness of the Roman Catholic religion.

https://www.pbs.org/video/inside-the-vatican-o0uz0h/

Video availability expires 5/26/20.

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

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

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

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[Mitch confronts Blanche after he learns of her scandalous past.]
Mitch: I thought you were straight.
Blanche: Straight? What’s straight? A line can be straight or a street. But the heart of a human being?

A Streetcar Named Desire
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter
Warner Brothers, 1951, 122 minutes

5 Stars

By the late 1940s, Elia Kazan was widely acknowledged as one of the nation’s premier directors, both on Broadway and in Hollywood. Kazan had successfully staged Tennessee Williams’ play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which had a Broadway run of two years and had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948. When plans were being made to adapt the play to film, Williams pressed upon a reluctant Kazan to direct.

Plot

Completely out of other options, a frazzled Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter) and brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), in their ramshackle apartment in the seedy French Quarter. The aristocratic and genteel Blanche is both repulsed by and attracted to the animalistic Stanley. A relationship soon blossoms between Blanche and Mitch (Karl Malden), one of Stanley’s few well-mannered friends. Increasingly annoyed by her condescending airs, Stanley learns of Blanche’s disreputable past and ends her relationship with his friend. Without any hope, Blanche is driven to madness and taken away to an asylum.

Commentary

Movie theater audiences were stunned by “Streetcar.” Williams’ dark portrayal of humanity was definitely not typical Hollywood fare. And what about Brando’s performance? Audiences had never seen anything so brutally raw and realistic on the screen prior to this. “Streetcar” was nominated for twelve Oscars and three of the leads (Leigh, Malden, and Hunter) would win. Brando’s method-acting performance was just too shocking in 1951 to garner official recognition. But with “Streetcar,” Brando and Kazan had revolutionized acting and the American film industry. Kazan shot the film in much the same way the play was staged, with most of the action taking place in the Kowalskis’ decrepit two-room flat, but he added some on-location scenes shot at a bowling alley, a factory, and the New Orleans train station. Harold Stradling’s cinematography is excellent as is Alex North’s jazzy score. The American Film Institute twice selected “Streetcar” as one of the fifty-best American movies ever made (#45 in 1998, #47 in 2007).

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

Many books and articles have been written about the meaning of Williams’ lyrical “Streetcar.” The characters aren’t meant to be actual people, rather they’re symbolic of humanity. Here we see the perennial conflict between “civilization” with its art, education, ceremonial religion, and social courtesies versus the baser instincts of dog-eat-dog survival. Yet, the refined Blanche is not all she pretends to be and Stanley is more than happy to confront her hypocrisy.

“Streetcar” was considered to be somewhat scandalous back in 1951, although it wouldn’t cause even a ripple on today’s prime-time television. As a believer in Jesus Christ, I’m a big fan of this film. Why? Because it shows people as they really are; sinners and hypocrites. Underneath the pretense. Without the sugar coating. Williams and Kazan don’t give you the Gospel in this movie, but they rub your nose in man’s “inhumanity” and sinfulness. I’ve read that the stunned audience stood and applauded the Broadway play premier for thirty minutes after the final curtain went down. But why were they applauding? Williams was holding up a mirror and showing them exactly who and what they were without Jesus Christ.

Blanche was desperately searching for a “safe harbor.” Without Jesus Christ, where do we go? Who will take us in? To whom can we turn?

Thank you, Jesus.

 

 

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

Just one look, back, at the Hollies

It’s time for a little pandemic lockdown frivolity!

The Hollies: Look Through Any Window, 1963-1975
Eagle Rock Entertainment, 2011, 120 minutes

4 Stars

I’ve told the story several times about how I became a fan of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young) back in 1969 at the age of thirteen. I liked the group so much that I delved into the back catalogs of the members’ previous bands; David Crosby’s Byrds and Steve Stills’ (and Neil Young’s) Buffalo Springfield. To each their own, but of the three amigos, I liked Graham Nash’s songs the least. They were way too heavy on the saccharine for my taste. But being the nerdy completist that I was, I also lightly delved into the back catalog of Nash’s previous band, the Hollies.

During this COVID-19 quarantine, I was looking to fill some time and stumbled across this documentary on Amazon and decided to queue it up on the turntable for a spin for nostalgia’s sake.

Graham Nash and Allan Clarke grew up as grammar school mates in Manchester, England and both had a talent for singing. With the rise of rock and roll, the pair aspired to forming their own band. The duo founded the Hollies in 1962, and after several personnel changes, they cemented their hit-making line-up in 1966 with Clarke as the lead vocalist and frontman, Nash on rhythm guitar (barely) and vocals, Tony Hicks on lead guitar and vocals, Bernie Calvert on bass guitar, and Bobby Elliot on drums. The band had phenomenal success in the U.K.  – 18 Top Ten singles – and to a lesser degree, in the States (6 Top Ten). The Hollies were especially noted for their unique vocal blend with Nash’s high harmonies nicely complementing Clarke’s tenor lead and Hicks rounding out the bottom.

Like the Beatles and most of the other bands that were part of the early years of the British Invasion (1964-1967), the Hollies were strictly a pop band that played songs with simple melodies and simple lyrics for their teeny bopper audiences. But whereas the Beatles and others progressed into more sophisticated musical forms, the Hollies largely stayed in their bubble-gum lane. A frustrated Nash prodded the group to expand their horizons, resulting in the slightly-adventurous albums, “Evolution” (1967) and “Butterfly” (1967), but the increasing tensions caused him to finally part with the band in 1968 and begin his tenure with CSN&Y.

This documentary traces the history of the Hollies from their start to their less-successful, post-Nash years. There’s interesting interviews with Nash, Clarke, Hicks, and Elliot. Twenty-two song performances are included in the video. Some are live and some are lip-synched. The only criticism I have of this documentary is that each song is played in its entirety. Many of the lesser-known songs should have been sampled and the interview segments expanded.

Clarke retired from the band in 2000 and Hicks and Elliot soldier on as the Hollies with journeymen filling the slots. The Hollies were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.

The Hollies’ 18 U.K. Top Ten singles:

  • 1963 – Stay
  • 1964 – Just One Look – Here I Go Again – We’re Through
  • 1965 – Yes I Will – I’m Alive – Look Through Any Window
  • 1966 – I Can’t Let Go – Bus Stop – Stop, Stop, Stop
  • 1967 – On A Carousel – Carrie-Anne
  • 1968 – Jennifer Eccles
  • 1969 – Sorry Suzanne – He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother
  • 1970 – I Can’t Tell The Bottom From The Top
  • 1974 – The Air That I Breathe
  • 1988 – He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother (re-release)

Three “shoulda been Top Tens”: One of my favorite Hollies songs, “Dear Eloise” (1967), wasn’t released as a single in the U.K. and only made it to #50 in the U.S. Although it performed only modestly in the U.K. (#32), “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” (1971) was a huge #2 hit in the U.S.  The excellent “Long Dark Road” (1972) was released only in the U.S. and peaked at a disappointing #26.

Postscript: As the documentary ends and the closing credits roll, an excellent 1971 rendition of the Hollies singing “Amazing Grace” a capella plays in the background.

Throwback Thursday: “Spotlight” exposes predatory priests and cover-up

Welcome to this week’s “Throwback Thursday” installment. Today, we’re going to revisit a post that was originally published back on November 27, 2015 and has been completely revised.

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Prior to 2002, sporadic reports of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests had been relegated to the back pages of newspapers, if reported at all. But in 2001-2002, the “spotlight” investigative journalism team of the Boston Globe uncovered large scale clerical sexual abuse within the archdiocese of Boston as well as the systematic cover-up by cardinal Bernard Law and other diocesan administrators. The film, “Spotlight” (2015), depicts the efforts of the newspaper team to bring the truth to light despite opposition from all sides.

Spotlight
Directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci
Open Road Films, 2015, 129 minutes

5 Stars

Plot

It’s 2001 and the Boston Globe’s newly-hired editor (Schreiber) directs Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton) and his three-person, crack investigative team to dig into the possibility that the Boston archdiocese hierarchy has been covering up for priest sexual abusers. One of the journalists, Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), contacts a lawyer (Tucci) who has been advocating for multiple victims of priest abuse, although with little success up to that point. The team gets to work and begins to uncover the enormity of clerical abuse within the archdiocese. They begin with a list of twenty pedophile priests, which eventually grows to ninety. Circumstantial evidence shows cardinal Law repeatedly transferred abusive priests within the archdiocese. There’s also evidence that public safety and court officials cooperated with the church hierarchy in keeping the abuse “problem” under wraps. Robby and the spotlight investigative team eventually unearth hard documentation proving Law’s enablement of the abusers and the systematic cover-up. The Globe begins publishing a series of articles on the scandal in early-2002. The movie’s epilogue states that cardinal Law (d. 2017) resigned his office in 2002 and was immediately transferred to Rome and that a total of 249 priests and brothers in the Boston archdiocese were eventually credibly accused of abuse (as of 2015).

Comments

“Spotlight” is admittedly a tough movie to sit through because of its tragic and sordid subject matter. The story is well-written, although somewhat difficult to follow because of the preponderance of names that are mentioned by necessity. It’s tough to tell the “players” without a scorecard. I saw this film at the theater when it was originally released in 2015, but I was able to follow along much better when I watched it the second time via Amazon streaming in April 2020. The cast does an excellent job, especially the spotlight team members, Keaton, Ruffalo, and McAdams. In 2016, “Spotlight” was nominated for six Oscars (including nominations for Ruffalo and McAdams for their supporting roles) and won Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Many theater-goers didn’t want to deal with the film’s controversial subject material. “Spotlight” was the second-lowest domestically grossing film to win Best Picture in the past four decades.

I’m so grateful this film was produced and the public got to see the sordid story of the widespread abuse by priests and the systematic cover-up by church officials. Starting in Boston, the breadth of this scandal has been revealed to be nationwide and worldwide with similar circumstances of abuse and hierarchical cover-up. In the last two years, the scandal turned into a tsunami with abuse being exposed in the highest offices of the church. Multiple states have lifted statutes of limitations allowing survivors to sue their dioceses several decades after the abuse was committed. To date, 21 dioceses in the U.S. have filed for bankruptcy to protect their assets from survivors.

In one scene, Ruffalo’s character angrily rails against the totally corrupt church for destroying his “faith.” The faith that’s represented is misplaced. Roman Catholics need to repent of their sin and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior by faith alone and then ask the Lord to lead them to an evangelical church in their area that preaches the Gospel without compromise.

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

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

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

4 Stars

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

Plot

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

Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

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

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

 

 

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

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

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Panic in the Streets
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Walter (Jack) Palance, and Zero Mostel
20th Century Fox, 1950, 96 minutes

5 Stars

After achieving remarkable success with his first five films, Fox allowed director, Elia Kazan, an incredible amount of freedom in his next project, the film noir thriller, “Panic in the Streets.” This movie is a relatively simple story, but Kazan made the most of it by controlling all aspects of the creative process including casting and daily revisions of the script. Also, filming was done entirely on location in New Orleans. Some contemporary viewers will watch “Panic” and not be impressed, but in 1950 it revolutionized American cinema by the way it captured the grittiness and grime of The Big Easy. New Orleans, in essence, became the film’s main character.

Plot

A sick man is murdered on the New Orleans waterfront by some petty thugs for prematurely cashing out of a card game. When the dead body shows up at the morgue, Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) of the U.S. Public Health Service determines the person was infected with highly contagious pneumonic plague. Police Captain, Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), is directed to find the killer/s in forty-eight hours to stem an epidemic. A dragnet ensues and Reed and Warren are eventually led to Poldi (Guy Thomajan), Fitch (Zero Mostel), and crime boss, Blackie (Jack Palance). A chase takes place with Fitch and Blackie scampering through a dock warehouse like a couple of diseased rats. The pair is apprehended and New Orleans is safe from the dreaded plague.

Commentary

“Panic in the Streets” is an absolutely delightful film. Kazan often stated it was the first of his films that he actually liked, even going so far as to say it was “the only perfect film I made.” All filming was done on location in New Orleans in some of the “less savory” sections of the city. Many, many non-actors are used adding to the film’s powerful sense of realism. Cinematographer, Joseph MacDonald, does some extraordinary work on this picture. The cast is fantastic and I’m not exaggerating. Film noir veteran Widmark’s performance is very enjoyable. Even though his character is a thoroughly likeable guy, Widmark also brings a bit of film noir edginess. There’s a couple of touching domestic scenes with Widmark and Barbara Bel Geddes as Reed’s wife that counterbalance the frenzied manhunt. Kazan admired the cast, however he was critical of Paul Douglas in the role of police chief. I agree the ham-fisted lug is a bit “over the top” at times, but in my opinion he’s perfect for the part. His interplay with Widmark is the core of the film. Palance is simply superb in his film debut as the small-time crime boss. There’s few film portrayals more menacing than Palance’s short-fused Blackie. His previous career as a boxer as well as reconstructive surgery following a wartime plane crash left Palance with a face that could terrify with just a scowl. Mostel, as Blackie’s cowering but tightly-coiled stooge, is a treat. Later black-listed by the film industry, Mostel, became a sought after commodity on Broadway. Screenwriters, Edward and Edna Anhalt, brought home an Oscar for Best Story.

For all of you trivia buffs, the little person who appears in a couple of scenes with Blackie is Pat Walshe who played Nikko, the leader of the winged monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.” Tommy Rettig, who gives a natural performance as the Reeds’ young son, would go on to play Jeff in the first three years of the popular television series, “Lassie.” For a final piece of trivia, don’t blink or you may miss a cameo of Kazan sweeping the floor in an early scene.

Kazan reached a level of realism and authenticity in “Panic in the Streets” that startled Hollywood and theater audiences and set the foundation for a string of movies that established him as the most important American filmmaker of the 1950s.

“Panic” was released on Blu-ray in 2013. Special features include a knowledgeable commentary from film experts, James Ursini and Alain Silver, as well as biographies of Widmark and Palance.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

In two of the film’s scenes, Widmark pleads with the New Orleans city government to keep the manhunt under wraps lest the citizenry panic, flee the city, and spread the epidemic to the rest of the United States and the world. This kind of “global community” socialist message was a favorite of entertainment industry Marxists like Kazan and elicited great interest from the House Un-American Activities Committee, which would eventually subpoena Mostel and Bel Geddes, leading to their blacklisting. Kazan would also be called before the committee, but his eventual friendly testimony earned him the undying wrath of liberals.

Believers are aware that a different epidemic plagues mankind; the epidemic of sin. We are all born with sinful natures. The Bible says the wages of sin is death and eternal punishment. There is no escaping it on our own. But God provided the “cure” for man’s sin by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty for sin. Jesus rose from the grave, conquering sin and death and offers eternal life and fellowship with God to all those who repent of their sin and accept Him as their Savior by faith alone.

All local and national government health agencies train to confront potential threats to public health. Christians, how are we doing bringing the hope of Jesus Christ to the world?

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

Next up: “Pinky”

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

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

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

4 Stars

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

Plot

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

Commentary

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

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

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

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

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

Plot

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

Commentary

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

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

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

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

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

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

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

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