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

May 8, 2013 1:49 pm

It began with a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles that appeared in the New York Sun newspaper in 1948. Malcolm Johnson was the journalist determined to expose the corruption, graft and racketeering in his seminal work – ‘Crime on the Waterfront’.

It was hard going, especially when he came up against the ‘D and D’ (‘Deaf and Dumb’) wall of silence. That wasn’t all. He received threats to his life and to his wife and son. But Johnson was a tough cookie. He had been threatened before, by the KKK in the Deep South when he covered a story around lynchings in that racist neck of the woods. Moreover, he had followed the US Marines in their island-hopping campaigns in WWII right up to, and including, the killing grounds of Okinawa.

The docks of New York, Manhattan and Brooklyn were the hub of international, cross-Atlantic trade, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. For decades, they were in the control of local mafia families such as the Costellos, the Anastasias, the Meyer Lanskys and, most of all, the ‘boss of bosses’, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano.

These mobsters had the unions firmly in their grip. Violence, intimidation, pay-offs and outright collusion from corrupt union officials all ensured that nothing moved, in or out, without the say so of the mob. They had their place men in the unions. They brought their own ‘people’ in, ex-convicts were given key jobs. They decided who worked and who didn’t as hard-pressed dock workers would wait in a pen by the dockside to be selected for work on any given day.

If you worked hard, kept your mouth shut, you were picked the next day. If you were a ‘trouble-maker’, if you rocked the boat, as it were, you were simply left to starve or scratch a living elsewhere. Some who tried to speak out, who tried to organise fellow workers, were branded ‘commies’ and were persona non grata or worse. A visit from some of ‘the boys’ might help you ‘think straight’. If you persisted, then you ended up floating face down in the harbour – ‘sleeping with the fishes.’

‘You scratch my back’

Lucky Luciano

Lucky Luciano

It wasn’t only union officials who received pay-offs. Local politicians and police were drawn in to turn a blind eye.

During the war, ‘Lucky’ Luciano had been approached by the government. He had been serving a twelve year prison sentence in Dannemora prison for running brothels, among other things. But the war effort demanded the smooth operation of the eastern seaboard. The government didn’t want workers downing tools for more wages when it was expected they work longer hours. Luciano smoothed the way for them. He enforced a ‘no strike deal’. His reward? He was moved to a plush jail with a more amenable regime. He was eventually paroled on the proviso he returned to his native Sicily. He was in a win-win situation. It was from there, after the war, that he oversaw a new, burgeoning international heroin trade.

But then, the authorities always had this symbiotic, ‘you scratch my back, we’ll scratch yours’ with the mob. While organised crime flourished, those on the left of politics, particularly Communists, were hunted down. This was the time of the House UnAmerican Committee (HUAC) newly-commandeered by one Senator Joe McCarthy, witch-hunter exemplar. The FBI seemed to have a hands off policy attitude towards the mob and concentrated its fire on ‘Communism’. Hardly surprising, since J. Edgar Hoover, its long-standing director and rabid anti-communist, knew that somewhere, locked in the safe of one of these gangster families, there were, allegedly, photographs of him dressed as a woman with his hidden away boyfriend.

Johnson’s articles revealed the rottenness beneath the surface and he was lauded accordingly. As a result, under the investigations of the ‘Waterfront Crime Commission’, hearings were held and a few sacrificial heads rolled and some were dutifully thrown in the slammer until the next generation of grafters and mobsters moved up. It did, however, create enough interest that fed into Senator Estes Kefauver’s investigations into organised crime later on in the 1950s, championed and extended by Robert Kennedy, brother of the future president, JFK. Actions that would cost the Kennedy clan dear – if conspiracy theories are to be believed.

Johnson’s groundbreaking, prize-winning articles inspired the interest of Elia Kazan who was, by 1951, casting around for projects to add to his already growing reputation. Kazan had struck theatrical gold in Broadway in the late 1940s. His main success being ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, a Tennessee Williams ‘steamy’ classic of sexual cruelty that showcased the rising acting prowess of Marlon Brando, one of the many students he brought from the Actors’ Studio.

Best actor of his generation

Kazan’s film work had gone from strength to strength. Building on his successful Oscar winning ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ (1945), in 1947 his ‘A Gentleman’s Agreement’ won three more. 1949 saw his documentary-like ‘Panic in the Streets’, with Richard Widmark, gain another statuette. The film of ‘Streetcar’ brought four more Oscars. His lead actor Brando, as the thuggish Stanley Kowalski, was nominated but failed to win on that occasion. ‘Viva Zapata!’ – Kazan’s portrayal of the Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, with Brando in the title role – gained an Oscar for supporting actor Anthony Quinn.

Viva Zapata!

Viva Zapata! Poster

Clearly, Kazan had made an astounding transition from his work on the stage to the screen. He was reknown now for his choice of subject matter – usually hard-hitting subjects such as ‘antisemitism’ (‘A Gentleman’s Agreement’), racism (‘Pinky’) and now revolution (‘Viva Zapata!’). It was hardly surprising that a story about corruption in the docks would attract his attention. Since 1951, he and writer Budd Schulberg set to work doing their own research. Like Kazan, Schulberg was also a former member of the Communist Party. Schulberg spent a year researching, interviewing dock workers, local people, the parish priest, Father Corridan.

They submitted the finished screenplay to 20th Century Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck who hated it on sight. He told them: “Who’s gonna be interested in watching a film about sweaty longshoremen?”

Zanuck had envisioned giving Kazan’s next film the new Cinescope, widescreen, Technicolor treatment but the director wanted the black and white, semi-documentary look, the ‘social realism’ that was then his trademark. That was exactly what he was offered when Sam Spiegel, the independent film producer, came on the scene. He clinched him a deal with Columbia Pictures and saw Frank Sinatra in the lead role as Terry Malloy to the point where Sinatra attended costume fittings.

For Kazan, there was only one actor he wanted for the part – the one whose career he had been guiding since he appeared in his Broadway production of ‘Truckline Cafe’, playing the part of the working man who murders his wife, the one who made ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ such a success. The one who brought Zapata to life on screen. Much to Sinatra’s disgust, and lifelong enmity, the role was taken from him. He thought he was tailor-made for Terry Malloy. The crooner even hailed from the same area where it was to be filmed on location, Hoboken. He even, rumour had it, had real life connections with the local mob.

But no, the man for Kazan was the best actor of his generation. The one actor who epitomised the Stanislavskyian ‘Method’ of acting – Marlon Brando. Sinatra would have to take his horse’s head elsewhere and pester some other director. He was to resent Brando forever afterwards, referring to him as ‘Mumbles’.

Climate of fear

Brando resisted Kazan’s overtures for quite some time. He was concerned about being typecast as ‘everybody’s prole’, always in a ripped t-shirt, coarse and crude. His portrayal of Stanley in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, though having won him critical accolades, he had also been lampooned and mimicked remorselessly and misrepresented, being likened to the parts he played. The criticism had stung him so completely he fought and won the part as Mark Antony in ‘Julius Caesar’ (1953) alongside experienced Shakespearean actors such as John Gielgud and Edmund O’Brien where he acquitted himself quite well. He demonstrated there was more than one string to his bow.

But there were other reasons why Brando had resisted working with Kazan again.

This was the time of the McCarthy HUAC hearings. The communist witchhunt was in full gear. Careers, even lives, had been devastated by this self-proclaimed guardian of public morals. Many had lost their jobs and reputations, particularly in Hollywood, where blacklists were in operation preventing anyone with the slightest affiliation or acquaintance with anyone on the Left continuing their careers, creating a climate of fear.

Both Kazan and Schulberg had been called to testify. Where others had refused and taken the fifth amendment (the right to silence so not to incriminate themselves or others) both director and writer had already been named as having once been members of the Communist Party. It was a time of fear and paranoia, the height of the Cold War where communist influence was feared at all levels of society from postal workers to the very height of politics. To challenge McCarthy was to bring suspicion on oneself. In the film world, future president Ronald Reagan was a known pro-McCarthy figure, seeking out those under communist influence. Those who refused to co-operate and declared their right to silence were baited and derided for colluding with communists.

Kazan and Schulberg named people who they knew to have been Communist Party members. Many were former members of the Group Theatre where Kazan had started his career.

To others, Kazan and Schulberg were informers.

By producing a film like ‘On the Waterfront’, where a worker breaks his silence over the bullying, corruption and intimidation, who breaks through the ‘D and D’, were writer and director trying to justify their actions?


NEXT: The Third and Final Instalment of ‘On the Waterfront’: When Film Meets Life


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