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The Politics of Art: Elia Kazan and the Scandal Over On the Waterfront

By Daidria Curnutte

Daidria Curnutte is an artist and writer. She has studied at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The Cincinnati Art Academy. She is currently pursuing a degree in Art Therapy at Capital University, in Columbus, Ohio.


"Anybody who informs on other people is doing something disturbing and even disgusting. It doesn't sit well on anybody's conscience. But at that time I felt a certain way, and I think it has to be judged from the perspective of 1952." - Elia Kazan (1)

The climate of paranoia that existed in Hollywood in the early 1950s had reached an almost frenzied point by the time of legendary Elia Kazan's damaging testimony against fellow filmmakers who had "named names". At that time, America was in the midst of heightened Communist awareness. The Communist Party had infiltrated certain sectors of the Hollywood community, and the general public, along with the United States government, were paralyzed with fear of the Red. The Cold War was being fought every day on domestic turf and suddenly Hollywood's elite found themselves at the center of the Communist controversy.

Senator Joseph McCarthy was at the helm of a new federal entity called the House Un-American Activities Committee, an organization charged with weeding out those who were sympathetic to the Communist Party. Through his affiliation with the Communist Party (which, by the time of the HUAC's reign of power, was really cursory at best), Kazan was called before the HUAC and required to name anyone that he knew of that also had Communist affiliations. That he did so, seemingly without hesitation, is something that has become, not only the stuff of Hollywood canon, but also a point of contention amongst stars, filmmakers and critics alike, especially those who have trouble separating the man from the artist.

In 1954, Kazan released what was probably the crowning achievement in his cinematic career, the working-class message film On the Waterfront. The story of an average Joe, a palooka who rises above his athletic failures to become a leader of a worker's union after ratting out the Mafia strong-arms that control it, On the Waterfront was immediately viewed as an underhanded attempt by Kazan to make excuses for his testimony to the HUAC, "an apologia for a stool pigeon". (2) It's a comparison that warrants not only the focus that it attained, but a revisitation after years of history have put it out of the public consciousness.

On the Waterfront is an unabashedly political picture, less a meditation than an outright battle cry. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a has-been boxer who has fallen in with a tough crowd of local thugs. The boss of the gang, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) is an affable enough leader, one who manipulates Terry into service. In addition, Terry's brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger) has finagled a cozy position for himself, using Terry's gullibility as a trump card (Terry regularly threw fights to earn Johnny and Charlie "short-end" money).

Adding to the mix are a headstrong priest (Karl Malden) who is hell-bent on breaking up the Mafia control and Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of a recently murdered street kid who is stubbornly remaining in town until she finds out who her brother's killer is. Kazan sets all of these characters up as mechanisms by which Terry will learn how to take control of his life back and do whatever is necessary to get back his dignity.

The context in which this film takes place is worth noting. The HUAC was not merely an anti-Communist organization. It was, in effect, an anti-liberal organization, one that took advantage of public fears and capitalized on them. While supposedly aimed at ending Communism in America, it essentially became a kind of social dictatorship, "forcing people to do things they did not want to do, controlling their thoughts". (3)

Kazan was a part of a dignified group of motion picture and theater actors and directors. His peers included Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Lee Strasberg. He staged the most legendary performances of Williams' seminal work, A Streetcar Named Desire, and then brought the play to screen as an Oscar-winning production. Kazan, while embroiled in the turmoil of the HUAC mess, was a filmmaker in peak form, producing some of the most challenging, technically superior studio films in Hollywood history.

The testimony itself has passed by the wayside. Most know nothing of its content. In fact, Kazan's contribution was essentially negligible. The four people he named were widely known to be members of the Communist Party. It's almost surprising that the HUAC was satisfied with his "outing" of known Communist sympathizers. Even more surprising is the fact that Kazan openly informed them that he was going to name them, in advance of his testimony.

"I told…them beforehand. I told Clifford Odets. He said he was going to do the same thing. I told Mrs. Strasberg, I told another guy…I was open to that extent about it. I didn't duck it". (4)

There were accusations that Kazan testified for money. In fact, after his testimony, his directing fees were cut in half. He gained nothing from his testimony, except the freedom to make films in the ways which he saw fit, as the studios no longer backed him as supportively as they had before his reputation had been tarnished.

So Kazan resigned himself to starting over, in a sense. After Arthur Miller backed out of a project that the two of them had been working on about life on the New York waterfront, (due to Kazan's testimony), Kazan contacted a fellow testifier, Budd Schulberg . (5) On the Waterfront, as closely as it resembles (albeit symbolically) Kazan's situation, was actually based on a script that Budd Schulberg had been working on, "based on a prize-winning newspaper series describing how the Mafia took a bite out of every piece of cargo moving in and out of the ports of New York and New Jersey" . (6) Kazan decided to shoot the picture on location and took to the waterfront with his talented cast and a mob of labor union extras for authenticity. Brando, who considers Kazan a good friend, spoke about his feelings about taking the part of Terry in the film:

The part I would play was that of Terry Malloy […] I was reluctant to take the part because I was conflicted about what Gadg had done and knew some of the people who had been deeply hurt. It was especially stupid because most of the people named were no longer Communists. […] Gadg had to justify what he had done and gave the appearance of sincerely believing that there was a serious threat to America's freedoms. […] I finally decided to do the film, but what I didn't realize then was that On the Waterfront was really a metaphorical argument by Gadg and Budd Schulberg: they made the film to justify finking on their friends. Evidently, as Terry Malloy I represented the spirit of the brave,courageous man who defied evil. Neither Gadg nor Budd Schulberg ever had second thoughts about testifying before that committee. (7)


Still, On the Waterfront's inherent apologetic tone suggests that something more snuck into the narrative after Kazan's HUAC experience. In fact, Kazan has never actually denied the correlation, though he does make light of it.

…when people said there are some parallels to what I had done, I couldn't and wouldn't deny it. It does have some parallels. But I wasn't concerned with them nor did I play on them. They were not my reason for making the film. I had wanted to do a picture about the waterfront long before any of the HUAC business came up. (8)

But is this really an adequate explanation? For anything resembling an answer, the film's tone must be addressed.

On the Waterfront is, to be sure, a sensational work. Brando's performance is one of the finest in film history. His "I could' a been a contender" speech is one of the most quoted lines in the American film lexicon. But there's something to be said about its message, that of the underdog taking on the big, bad conglomerate, though in this case it's a crime syndicate. The film contains numerous scenes of dock workers stammering about, fighting over work tokens, and collecting their shabby wages. Terry, comfortable as the brother of the boss' right hand man, is able to lounge around, not really working much, and collecting the same wage as everyone else.

But Terry has become caught up in a shady murder, that of an amicable kid named Joey. Though Terry was merely a decoy in a more elaborate plot, his guilt over the role he played in the murder has clouded his life with doubt. As he grows close to Edie, Terry begins to wrestle with the knowledge he has about the ways the syndicate runs the union and covers up its criminal, often violent, methods of doing business. When Federal agents approach him, he must make a choice: turn witness and rat out the scum, or keep quiet and maintain his street credibility. Early on, Terry's gentility is made clear. He keeps pigeons on the roof of his tenement building. He is physically pained by what he knows. The outcome of his decision is not what is in question, really. What is the bigger question, the one that Kazan obviously had to come to terms with, is what effect Terry's actions would have. In fact, his fellow workers, the very people that he was sticking up for, shun Terry. His brother is murdered for failing to prevent Terry's testimony. Finally, Terry decides to confront Johnny Friendly alone, suffering a brutal beating at the hands of Friendly's thugs, but gaining the support of his co-workers back. Having finally overcome Friendly as a unified front, Terry and company march back into the factory to work.

Kazan's decision to make Terry the defacto martyr, savior and hero belies his need to make amends with his actions. All his protesting aside, On the Waterfront is, without a doubt, a film that promotes forgiveness and atonement. Many have argued that Terry is let off too easy, that Kazan made a film compromised by his own political and social agenda.

The picture was criticized by a lot of people - especially the ending. People thought I made the Brando character into a Jesus figure, leading the workers back to work. Lindsay Anderson, the English critic turned director, thought it was a Fascist picture. Schulberg didn't like my ending either. He thought it would be better if Terry were killed. (9)

Indeed, despite the film's eventual acclaim, winning the Oscar for Best Picture and several other accolades, On the Waterfront remains a controversial work and Kazan a filmmaker that continues to infuriate Hollywood and the public.

When he received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, the Hollywood audience was split into two camps: those who valued the man and his artistic contributions and those who reviled his salacious past.

Ultimately, On the Waterfront is no easier to pigeonhole than is Kazan himself. Despite its undercurrent of apologia, the film remains an amazing work of art and a prime example of what can be wrought from artistic zeal and political fervor. To be sure, the debate will continue, but it can no longer be questioned: On the Waterfront is an important film, both in its cinematic context and its socio-political leanings, one that will be studied and argued over for years to come.


Notes:

1. Jeff Young, Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films. (New York: New Market Press, 1999), p. 118.

2. Young, 117.

3. Michel Ciment, Kazan on Kazan (New York: Viking Press, 1974), p. 83.

4. Young, 119.

5. Marlon Brando with Robert Lindsey, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me (New York: Random House, 1994), p. 194.

6. Brando, 194.

7. Brando, 195. "Gadg" is a nickname that Brando uses in reference to Kazan.

8. Young, 118.

9. Ciment, 106.



On the Waterfront