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.

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s sophomore stumble: “The Sea of Grass”

Today, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s second film; “The Sea of Grass.” Looking back over his nineteen-film career, Kazan advised people not to bother watching just one of his movies and this is the one. A couple of thoughts after revisiting this film: 1) Did any actor have a more affected acting style than Katherine Hepburn? and 2) after several viewings of “The Sea of Grass,” I increasingly enjoy Robert Walker’s portrayal of spoiled bad boy, Brock Brewerton. The card game scene (begins at the 1:39:04 mark) where high-stakes gambler, Joe Horton (Douglas Fowley), repeatedly taunts Brock by calling him “Judge,” an unsubtle reference to his illegitimacy, is the highlight of this unexceptional film.

The review below was first posted on December 14, 2016 and has been slightly revised.

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The Sea of Grass
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, and Robert Walker
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1947, 131 minutes

2 Stars

Bud Lighton, the producer of Elia Kazan’s debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” persuaded the young director to consider “The Sea of Grass” for his second film. Kazan was impressed by Conrad Richter’s 1936 novel and imagined the wonderful adventure he would have filming on-location on the Western prairie. But when he arrived at the fabled MGM Studio in Hollywood, producer Pandro Berman informed Kazan that the script, casting, and wardrobe were already in place. In addition, massive amounts of outdoor footage had already been shot. Kazan was told he would film entirely at the studio using the previously-filmed footage as rear-projection background. So much for shooting on location!

Plot

Lutie Cameron (Hepburn), a St. Louis high-society belle travels to New Mexico to marry cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Tracy). Brewton’s disdain for homesteaders and his devotion to the prairie eventually drives a wedge between him and his new wife. Lutie turns to Brewton’s bitter rival, liberal crusading attorney (and future judge), Brice Chamberlain (Douglas), for comfort which results in pregnancy. Brewton becomes aware of his wife’s unfaithfulness and forces her to leave town and abandon her daughter and newborn son. Brewton raises the boy, Brock, as his own. With gossip about his illegitimacy constantly swirling around town, Brock Brewton (Walker) grows up with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, eventually running afoul of the law and dying in a shootout. Returning to New Mexico for a visit, Lutie learns of Brock’s death and reunites with Brewton and their daughter, Sara Beth (Phyllis Thaxter).

Commentary

Kazan was extremely critical of “The Sea of Grass” and often referred to it as his worst film. Tracy’s performance is cinematic sleepwalking and he’s thoroughly unconvincing in the role of a rugged outdoorsman. If Tracy wasn’t bad enough, the viewer is also asked to accept Connecticut blue-blood, Hepburn, as a happy transplant to the sleepy cattle town of Salt Fork, New Mexico. Her flamboyant costumes in such a setting border on the comical. Kazan later griped that Hepburn’s constant retreats to the movie set washroom to “freshen up” drove him up a wall until he finally gave up on both of his pampered stars. One of the few enjoyable performances in the film comes from Edgar “Uncle Joe” Buchanan as crusty cook, Jeff. This is the first of Kazan’s films to feature the “progressive crusader” character, a mainstay of several of his early movies.

After his dismal experience with the “The Sea of Grass,” Kazan would insist upon artistic control in subsequent films. Going forward, he would generally avoid spoiled marquee headliners like Tracy and Hepburn and shooting in the studio. Unlike his first effort, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” there are absolutely no distinguishing features in this movie that would characterize it as a Kazan project. In his 1988 autobiography, Kazan warned his readers not to see the movie. I have seen it, several times, and I second the motion. “The Sea of Grass” was released on DVD in 2011. No special features were included.

Trivia note: Tracy and Hepburn are one of film’s most fondly remembered acting teams. They made nine movies together, and “The Sea of Grass” was amazingly the highest grossing.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

The viewer will be struck by Colonel Brewton’s complete devotion to the prairie. The grassy plain comes before his wife and before the lives of the squatters who threaten it. We would call Brewton a pompous fool, but how often do we put the idols of our life ahead of the Lord?

Next up: “Boomerang” (1947)

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s first film: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

Today, we begin our series re-reviewing all of director Elia Kazan’s nineteen films. We begin with Kazan’s excellent debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” In preparation for this post, I watched the movie once again and my wife happened to walk in at the tail end. She asked to see it and I gladly sat through it for a second time. The cast is stellar and twelve-year-old Peggy Ann Garner’s performance is not to be missed. For some strange reason, this film regrettably is not available on DVD or Amazon streaming. My review below was originally posted back on December 9, 2016 and has been slightly revised.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell, and Peggy Ann Garner
Twentieth Century Fox, 1945, 128 minutes

5 Stars

Elia Kazan’s growing reputation as a Broadway theatrical director came to the attention of Hollywood movie studio mogul, Darryl. F. Zanuck, who tapped the 35-year-old to direct “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” which was based on Betty Smith’s popular 1943 novel.

Plot

Twelve-year-old, Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner), and her younger brother, Neeley (Ted Donaldson), live in a Brooklyn tenement in 1900. Their mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), struggles to keep the family afloat as their father, Johnny (James Dunn), an alcoholic, squanders his sparse paychecks at the corner saloon. Johnny still dreams of being a famous singer, but only finds irregular employment as a singing waiter. Despite his shortcomings, he and Francie have a loving bond. In addition to having to deal with her alcoholic husband, Katie tries to shield her children from the influence of her free-spirited sister, Sissy (Joan Blondell). Officer McShane (Lloyd Nolan), the neighborhood flatfoot, assists the Nolans on a several occasions and takes a private shine to Katie.

Katie loves Johnny, but has become hardened and embittered by his failures. She finally confronts him and brings his pipe dreams crashing to the ground. When Francie, a bright girl, desires to attend a better public school in a nicer neighborhood, Johnny makes the arrangements by notifying school officials she has moved in with relatives. It is the one thing Johnny can do for his daughter, even if it is dishonest.

When Katie becomes pregnant, she moves the family upstairs to a cheaper, less-desirable apartment to save money. Johnny is so distraught he sits down at a piano left behind by the previous tenant and sings a tearful rendition of “Annie Laurie,” acknowledging the broken promises of his marriage.

The Nolans enjoy a few festive moments on Christmas Eve before Katie informs Johnny that Francie must drop out of school and go to work to help support the family. Crushed by the thought of Francie having to give up her dreams, Johnny walks out into the frigid winter night in search of steadier work.

After Johnny goes missing for a week, the family is informed he died of pneumonia after working as part of a subway tunnel digging crew. Although he was a drunk and a failure, the neighborhood deeply misses the affable Johnny, much to Katie’s amazement. The neighborhood saloon keeper offers the Nolan children part-time jobs, enabling Francie to stay in school. While in labor, Katie reaches out to Francie and makes amends for her past coldness. Francie and Neeley graduate from grammar school and Officer McShane proposes to Katie, offering the security and stability Johnny was never able to provide the family.

Comments

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a thoroughly enjoyable film and a remarkable directorial debut for Kazan who stated that he relied heavily on renowned cinematographer, Leon Shamroy. The cast is top-notch. Peggy Ann Garner is a complete delight in her Oscar-winning portrayal. Jimmy Dunn was also awarded a well-deserved Oscar. Dunn was a washed-up alcoholic in real life and was basically playing himself in the role. Kazan did Dunn a favor by offering him the part, but demanded he abstain from booze during the shooting. Dunn’s “Annie Laurie” scene is extraordinary. Dorothy McGuire gives a fine performance in her third film role as the tough-as-nails matriarch although Kazan later complained the convent-raised actress was too refined for the part. McGuire also had a reputation for being a bit of a diva on the set, as Peggy Ann Garner reflected on much later; “Kazan had a marvelous quality. He even knew how to handle Dorothy McGuire, and there was a certain way you had to handle that lady.” Joan Blondell is an audience pleaser as the coquettish Sissy, who nags her sister to cut Johnny some slack. Even young Ted Donaldson is enjoyable as the grumpy Neeley. The settings and the performances are thoroughly realistic and evoke the rough and tumble environment of 1900 Brooklyn with its immigrant enclaves. Writers Tess Slesinger’s and Frank Davis’s script also received an Oscar nomination. Although Kazan later dismissed “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” as sentimental corn pone, the young director did a wonderful job telling a heart-warming story, which appealed to war-time audiences and was the studio’s third-highest grossing film of the year.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” amazingly is not available in the USA as an individual DVD but it is included as one of the fifteen films in the “Elia Kazan Collection” box set (2010). An interesting commentary is provided with analysis from Richard Schickel, Kazan, Ted Donaldson, and Norman Lloyd. Special features also include “The Making of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” documentary along with “An Appreciation of Dorothy McGuire.”

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective:

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” pays homage to human determination and perseverance despite adverse circumstances, symbolized by the Ailanthus tree determinedly growing through the cracks of the Nolan’s tenement courtyard. But attitude and ambition don’t always guarantee worldly success. The Irish/Austrian-American Nolans seem to have a certain amount of religion in their lives; there’s nightly perfunctory Bible reading (an unusual practice for a Catholic family), Francie’s prayers for her father, and a pious Catholic ceremony at Johnny’s grave side with a priest offering prayers for a merciful judgement. But Jesus Christ is not present in the hearts of these characters. When her teacher recites Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” a distraught Francie questions out loud if her father’s fervent love (beauty) compensates for his egregious faults (truth). The teacher is befuddled by the question, leaving the viewers to decide the answer for themselves. The film insinuates that Francie will grow up to be a successful writer. But then what? In God’s great plan, worldly success is as short-lived and as unfulfilling as Johnny’s tragic life. The Nolans, director Kazan, screenwriters Slesinger and Davis, and author, Betty Smith, are all searching for truth and beauty outside of life in Jesus Christ. It is only in Christ that we find everlasting happiness, beauty, and truth.

Next up: Kazan’s sophomore stumble, “The Sea of Grass” (1947)

Excellent preface to 2020 Kazan Fest

Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey
By Michel Ciment
Bloomsbury, 1988, 238 pp.

5 Stars

I can still vividly remember watching a particular movie on television as a young teenager back in the early 1970s. The flick was, “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), and I was so startled by the unconventional, un-Hollywood-like ending that I took special note of the name of the director, Elia Kazan, in the closing credits.

Over the many decades that followed, I’ve enjoyed watching all of Kazan’s nineteen films and reading the many books written by him or about him.

“Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey” is an interesting collection of disconnected articles and notes written by Kazan regarding his directing career. The text is supplemented with many interesting photographs, some of which I’ve never seen before. Be aware that this volume is intended more for Kazan fans who are already knowledgeable about the director and his films. It’s no place to start for a neophyte.

French film critic, Michel Ciment, previously presented a collection of interviews with Kazan, “Kazan on Kazan” (1973), in which the director spoke briefly about each of his films. See my review here.

Reading “Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey” was a timely prelude to the upcoming launch of my Elia Kazan Film Festival, 2020 Redux series. I was happy to be able to purchase this handsome volume from an Amazon used-book seller at a very cheap price. Bloomsbury used to do an excellent job with these semi-coffee table books back in the day.

This Wednesday: Kazan’s excellent directorial debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

Elia Kazan Film Festival, 2020 Redux

Way back in December 2016, I began a series on director Elia Kazan’s nineteen films. Wow! Was it actually that long ago? It took me all of 2017 to complete that ambitious project (see here) and by the time I was done, I definitely needed a break from Kazan (photo above).

Well, I’m getting the itch again, so I will be viewing all of Kazan’s films in 2020, about one every three weeks. Since I already reviewed each movie pretty thoroughly three years ago, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, after watching each movie, I’ll re-post the archived review with a few new insights that I’ve culled.

Sound good? Dust off the popcorn popper and dim the lights for another year-long Kazan film festival!

Coming soon: Kazan’s remarkable 1945 debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” featuring Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, James Dunn, and the precocious, Peggy Ann Garner.

The birth of “folk-rock” in the hills of Los Angeles

Echo in the Canyon
Directed by Andrew Slater and featuring Tom Petty, Brian Wilson, Jakob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, John Sebastian, and Lou Adler
Greenwich Entertainment, 2018, 82 min

4 Stars

In the early-1960s, young people gravitated to two types of music; there was rock-and-roll for teeny boppers and the “unsophisticated,” and there was folk music for college students and the “socially conscious.” Both groups eyed each other and their music with contempt. But when the Beatles came to America in 1964 and took the country by storm with their infectious brand of rock-and-roll, a few young folk musicians took notice.

In Los Angeles, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn hooked up with fellow struggling folkies, Gene Clark and David Crosby, to form the Byrds and together they created a synthesis of folk music and rock-and-roll. It was one of those rare moments of “game-changing” creativity. The new style of music, dubbed “folk-rock,” was a huge success and had a powerful influence. Both the Beatles and Bob Dylan, folk music’s premier troubadour, were paying attention and changed course; the Beatles became more cerebral and Dylan plugged in. Young musicians and songwriters who were hip to the new sound flocked to Los Angeles where it was “happening.” With some serious paychecks now coming in, Crosby bought a house in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles and was followed by many other like-minded artists. For a brief period, 1965-1968, Laurel Canyon was THE place to be.

Former record company executive, Andrew Slater, put together this documentary to capture some of the excitement of that particular time and place. Host, Jakob Dylan (son of Bob), takes the audience on a journey that includes archived footage and interviews. Dylan and his young friends (Beck, Jade Castrinos, Justine Bennett, Regina Spektor) ruminate on the impact the Laurel Canyon sound had on popular music and perform some of the old chestnuts in concert.

I had been meaning to catch “Echo in the Canyon” at Rochester’s art house movie theater. Having missed it there, I was pleased to see it was already available via Amazon Prime videos. Being an old Byrds/Buffalo Springfield fan, I really enjoyed this documentary. But I was even happier when I listened to my wife describe the film to one of our sons over the phone the next day. She told him the Laurel Canyon musicians sang about peace, love, and universal brotherhood, but they couldn’t get along themselves. Hey, that’s my line! Yup, Jesus Christ is the ONLY answer.

Postscript: Many have asked why one of Laurel Canyon’s most celebrated former residents and artists, Joni Mitchell, is conspicuously missing from this documentary? Well, Joni has been scathingly critical of Bob Dylan in several interviews and I’m sure Jakob Dylan was not enthusiastic about featuring her in any form or fashion. Peace? Love? Harmony?

I don’t usually sit around and watch paint dry…

…but when I do it’s because my wife has one of the “Star Wars” movies on the TV in the other room.

 

Disclaimer: I don’t mean to offend those who do enjoy “Star Wars.” However, I have a reputation for being very closed-minded about the “Star Wars” franchise that I need to uphold and this frivolous idea somehow popped into my head last night that I thought some might enjoy. 🙂