‘On the Waterfront’: When Film Meets Life (I)

May 3, 2013 1:49 pm

It wasn’t the first time ‘realism’ hit the cinema screens. However, ‘On the Waterfront’ (1954) was the first major commercial and critical breakthrough of its kind.

The very term – ‘social realism’ – was first coined in the fledgling Soviet Union, after the 1917 Russian Revolution, to describe such films as ‘October’, ‘Battleship Potemkin’ and ‘Strike’ by director Sergei Eisenstein. Their subject matter covered ‘realistic’ themes that took place in something called ‘real life’, usually including social or psychological elements – hence, ‘social realism’.


Constantin Stanislavski

So much for the making of realistic dramas on film, stories of ordinary people living their lives, portraits of society from the bottom up. But, even in Eisenstein’s films, the individual acting still left a lot to be desired. In this respect, they were no different than any other film of the silent era – over-exaggerated, over-expressed gestures and facial expressions projecting miles beyond the camera – a style that, these days, creaks with age and prompts laughter by the wagon load.

Enter, stage left, fellow Russian Konstantin Stanislavski. Born to a wealthy middle class family in pre-revolutionary Russia, Stanislavski explored new ways of portraying characters for the theatre. In his now classic book ‘An Actor Prepares’ , Stanislavski examined how an actor can create a character from the inside and work outwards. How an actor can seek the ‘psychological truth’ of  characters. They can delve into their motives, their fears and allow the physicality of a role to achieve a new subtlety or sensitivity rather than to bludgeon the audience with the sledgehammer of crude ‘indication’. No hand waving wanted, in other words, or dramatic flourishes.

The mere act of standing with a hand on your slouched hip gives out something of an indicator of character than somebody stood stock upright, like they’ve got a broom shoved up their arse, waiting to deliver a line, can only enrich a character. Intensive rehearsals, often using improvisation, unearthed more worked out performances and created ‘back story’ to characters that would not necessarily be part of the performance but would inform the actor’s role.

Traditionally, theatre actors, to reach all of their audience (particularly those at the back) had to exaggerate performance and shout their lines (even when ‘whispering’. Hence the old cliche of holding a hand up to the side of the mouth to indicate a secret was being shared though the actor still spoke in a loud voice!). Stanislavski toured his company around smaller, provincial theatres where ‘loud acting’ could be banished, voices controlled, gestures toned down.

Watch most films shortly after the advent of sound and you can watch many an accomplished theatre actor’s performance turn laughable before your eyes as they ‘perform’ for the camera in a way nobody would act in ‘real life’. It took some time for them to ‘get it’. As one frustrated director is said to have shouted after, no doubt, the nth take: ‘Don’t just do something, stand there!’

Profound influence

A handful of actors got the message. They became the top stars or the best character actors of their day, the 1930s and 1940s – Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, less was more. But they were too few and far between. Stanislavski’s ‘Method’ would change everything as far as screen acting was concerned.

Two followers of Stanislavski’s ‘Method’ – Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya – having left Russia for America, launched the American Laboratory Theatre by 1925, espousing their mentor’s ideas. One of their students, Lee Strasberg, along with Cheryl Crawford and Harold Clurman, initiated their own theatre company based on the Stanislavskian ‘Method’ in 1931 in New York.

Irwin Shaw

Irwin Shaw

They gathered about them like-minded people, actors, writers, directors, set designers, lighting directors – Stella Adler, John Garfield, Clifford Odets, Will Geer, Irwin Shaw, Lee J. Cobb and a Greek-American called Elia Kazan. They called themselves the ‘Group Theatre’.

These were heady times. America, in fact, most of the industrial world, was suffering under the effects of the disastrous 1929 Wall Street Crash that unleashed economic instability across the globe. It was the severest depression in history – mass unemployment, the rise of fascism and the radicalisation of working class people.

When the Democratic Party’s Franklin Roosevelt was swept to the presidency in 1933, his ‘New Deal’ – the pumping in of government money to help revive the economy and create jobs – went some way to alleviate the pain. Yet then, as now, big business was far more reluctant to invest. Hence, workers employed and unemployed alike became more militant, many of them propelled to the Left who joined the American Communist Party, including some members of the Group Theatre.

Their productions showcased the lives of ordinary people in every day life situations – hunger, poverty, homelessness – ‘Waiting for Lefty’, about a taxi-drivers’ strike, was one of their most noted successes that made their name throughout the 1930s.

Different story

The Group Theatre was finally wound up by early 1941. It was the approach of the impending war that did it. The fact that several of their number had been seduced by the fat cheques of Hollywood. Talent scouts forever kept a close eye on what went down well on Broadway. There were also inevitable frictions among the company. But their influence on American theatre, acting and, eventually film, was profound.

Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ programmes for recovery were beginning to stall by 1937, government having invested all it was prepared to invest, and only the approach of World War II would fully re-ignite the American economy. First, it began to cash in on being the quartermaster to the besieged Great Britain as it stood alone against Nazi Germany by 1940. Then, when the USA was finally dragged into the war, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December, 1941, the ‘quartermaster’ became the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’. The full potential of its massive economy was brought to bear on the conflict.

By 1945, the end of the war saw America, alongside the USSR, the main beneficiaries of victory over the Axis powers. Together, they shared the spoils. Stalinist Russia gained influence over half of the European continent and the respect of those emerging countries of the former colonies of the old European imperialist powers. America posed as the ‘Leader of the Free World’ and set about pouring billions of dollars into Western Europe, including Britain, to restore the political balance – and to prevent the rest of Europe and elsewhere ‘turning red’.

Nevertheless, from out of the upheaval of WWII, hopes for a better way of life after the deprivation of the 1930s years of depression and the struggles of the bloodiest war, were on the agenda. The pre-war social values were questioned, challenged, if not in some instances, swept away. In some ways, the world had changed forever and people had seen and done things they could never have dreamed of – life, quite simply –  for millions –  would never be the same again.

Yet the post-war world held high hopes. Even during the war, propaganda films to help keep people at work, to inspire the troops at the front, conjured the bright future with ‘What we are fighting for’. The newly formed United Nations promised a new world of co-operation and peace, financial and food aid, the paternalism of liberal government that may provide security. The harrowing pictures of the extermination camps were fresh in the minds of the public and to build a better world was the priority. But, beneath the surface, were new enemies – the rise of communism, the beginnings of a terrifying nuclear age and the Cold War of mutually assured destruction (MAD).


Elia Kazan

And, amidst all this world of plenty and economic boom, still there were pockets of poverty and deprivation, even in the richest country in the world. Cinema goers could relax with a sigh of relief as the likes of John Wayne saddled up again and held off the Indians as they circled the wagon train. It seemed like ‘business as usual’. In Europe, it was a different story. They were still coping with the aftermath of war. The US Cavalry couldn’t come to everybody’s rescue. Millions had been displaced, homes had been turned to rubble and whole economies had been dislocated. Their films told a different story.

In contemporary settings, on the streets, in real slums, often non-professional actors and known actors played against type. The Italian ‘neo-realist’ cinema produced a string of films that showed characters in the their real locations contending with every day problems, searching for every day solutions. Often they improvised dialogue that gave more of an authentic feel.

In the USA, Elia Kazan, formerly of the Group Theatre, made his first film by 1945 – ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ – based on a book by the same name. He, too, sought to showcase ordinary lives, ordinary struggles, in this case the coming of age of a young woman, the daughter of an alcoholic father who died wanting the best for her. Kazan looked for social issues that inspired him. Issues that may question the validity of the ‘brave new world’. But, in some quarters, to question convention, to doubt the feasibility of the status quo, means to rock the boat, challenge authority.

In some quarters, that amounted to heresy, to attacking the American Dream, that was decidedly ‘un-American’, communistic.

And we know what happens to heretics.


To be continued – ‘On the Waterfront’: When Film Meets Life (II)


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