Tag: Elia Kazan

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

Easy-going father-daughter sentimentality in Kazan’s debut, which softens up an already gentle novel

Director: Elia Kazan

Cast: Peggy Ann Garner (Francie Nolan), Dorothy McGuire (Katie Nolan), Joan Blondell (Aunt Sissy), James Dunn (Johnny Nolan), Lloyd Nolan (Officer McShane), Ted Donaldson (Neeley Nolan), Ruth Nelson (Miss McDonough), John Alexander (Steve Edwards)

In 1912 an Irish-American family, the Nolans, struggle to make ends meet in Brooklyn. Mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) keeps a close eye on the purse strings to ensure she can keep a roof over the head of her children: 13-year-old Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) and young Neeley (Ted Donaldson). Problem is, Katie also has a third child: her husband Johnny (James Dunn), a happy-go-lucky dreamer and “singing waiter” who is also a hopeless drunk. Johnny, with his “live-your-dreams” outlook on life, natural charm and instinctive understanding of people, is Francie’s idol. With another child on the way, and the Nolan cash reserves at breaking point, can the family hold together?

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn drips with sentimental, old-fashioned, easy-watching charm. Adapted from a best-selling novel by Betty Smith, it strips out most of the plot (which covers nearly 17 years rather than the single one featured here) and considerably waters down the original’s content. (It also, hilariously, avoids any appearance at all of the eponymous tree at the centre of the Nolan tenement block, which is cursorily referenced only twice.) Smith’s book was a semi-auto-biographical chronicle of a life of struggle survived by a daughter who flourishes, but the film is more of an optimistic fable of the triumph of family love.

It feels strange that this is the first film of Elia Kazan, who would become better known for hard-hitting, location-shot, method-tinged dramas rather than the tear-jerking charm here. Kazan was later sceptical about the film – highly critical of what he considered his overly theatrical staging, particularly of the scenes set in the Nolan home – and even at the time stated he was so unsure about what he was doing that the film was effectively co-directed by cinematographer Leon Shamroy. But Kazan’s skill with actors shines through and he invests it with a great deal of pace and emotional truth.

His main benefit is the very strong performances from Garner and Dunn in the film’s most important relationship. Both actors won Oscars (Garner the juvenile Oscar, Dunn for Best Supporting Actor) and it’s the loving meeting of hearts and minds between father and daughter that lies at the film’s heart. Francie is a young girl dedicated to education – slavishly, but obsessively, reading through the local library in alphabetical order, regardless of suitability of the books – who dreams of going to a better school and bettering her life. It’s a dream that her mother struggles to grasp – largely unable to see beyond the immediate needs of putting food on the table – but which her father understands and is desperate to support.

This bond is partly what leads to Francie’s idolising her doting dad. And Johnny is doting. He’ll do things her mother won’t dream of doing – including weaving an elaborate fantasy to win her a place at that better school. He’ll joke and laugh, sing songs and entertain her while indulging her artistic leanings. Unfortunately, he’ll also make promises to reform he won’t keep, stumble home late at night or be found, drunk in the street, having boozed away every penny he’s earned.

Dunn poured a lot of himself into this self-destructive dreamer. A vaudeville comedian who had a successful run of films with Shirley Temple in the 1930s, he had blown most of his fortune in bad investments. By the 1940s was struggling to find work with his drink problem widely known. But he was also charming, decent and kind, but seen to lack the drive to build a successful career. In effect, Johnny was a version of his own life, and Dunn not only nails Johnny’s charm but also laces the performance with a rich vein of sadness, guilt and shame, but still loved by all.

While Johnny jokes and laughs with the neighbours, Katie cleans the hallway of their tenement block to earn extra bucks and moves the family to a smaller room to save what money she can. Played with a fine line in drudgery and put-upon stress by Dorothy McGuire (in a role as thankless as Katie’s life is), Katie remains unappreciated by her daughter (who sees her as a moaner who won’t cut her father a break) and by her husband as being too obsessed with the purse-strings.

The major flaw, for me, of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is that the film falls almost as uncritically in love with Johnny as Francie. Getting older it’s hard not to see Johnny as essentially irresponsible and selfish, a well-meaning but destructive force on the family, the cause of the poverty which has made Katie crushed, dowdy and increasingly stressed and bitter. She essentially suffers everything – skipping meals, slaving over multiple jobs, saying no to every desire Francie has – while Johnny flies in, cracks jokes, says yes to everything and disappears when its time to work out how to deliver.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, however, wants to tell a sentimental story of a father-daughter bond and hasn’t got too much time for Katie – or for making Francie really face the flaws in her father and the virtues of her mother (for all the film gives mother and daughter a late reconciliation). There is something fake about this (tellingly the book gives a sharper realisation for Francie and subtly changes Johnny’s fate to make it less idealised). But all edges are shaved off here and the family divisions are bridged as easily as poverty is eventually solved. (There is also considerable watering down of the liberated lifestyle of Katie’s sister, engagingly played by Joan Blondell).

It makes for a film that’s warm, comforting and essentially light and even a little forgettable. It’s all too easy to drop off in front of it on a Sunday afternoon. Try as you might, you can’t say that about other Kazan films. A little more grit to this would have increased its impact considerably.

Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

Gregory Peck takes on anti-Semitic prejudice in Gentleman’s Agreement

Director: Elia Kazan

Cast: Gregory Peck (Philip Schuyler Green), Dorothy McGuire (Kathy Lacey), John Garfield (Dave Goldman), Celeste Holm (Anne Dettrey), Anne Revere (Mrs Green), June Havoc (Elaine Wales), Albert Dekker (John Minify), Jane Wyatt (Jane), Dean Stockwell (Tommy Green), Sam Jaffe (Professor Fred Lieberman)

What was daring 60 years ago, often seems tame today. In 1947, Gentleman’s Agreement, an expose of anti-Semitism in America, was a potential career-ending risk for its stars. It won three Oscars, including the Big One (beating the similarly themed Crossfire, an anti-Semitic murder mystery – and better, more entertaining film). Today, Gentleman’s Agreement seems like a time capsule on celluloid: extremely earnest Hollywood movie-making at its most socially responsible – and only scratches the surface of prejudice and its dangers, capping everything with a neat happy ending.

Journalist Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) is commissioned to write a series of expose pieces on anti-Semitism. His editor doesn’t want the “cold facts”, he wants the sort of unique “angle” that’s Green’s specialism. Phil decides to pass himself off as a Jew so he can find out what it’s really like. Only Phil’s fiancée Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) will know the truth. Phil finds out first-hand the knee-jerk prejudice and barriers Jews in New York face – something hammered home as he begins to relate to the experiences of his Jewish school-friend-turned-war-hero Dave Goldman (John Garfield). Phil starts to realise even Kathy may talk the talk of opposing prejudice, but doesn’t always walk the walk.

Gentleman’s Agreement is an extraordinarily earnest piece of film-making, that doesn’t just wear its liberal heart on its sleeve, it stretches it across its entire shirt. The plot frequently halts for someone to deliver a set-piece speech on the evils of prejudice, and Phil’s son (well played by a young Dean Stockwell) serves as an audience surrogate for Peck to fill us in on how prejudice is the enemy-within. There is no doubting, watching the film, everyone passionately believes in its importance (Garfield, a Jew born in Brooklyn, took a huge pay cut to be involved). It’s just a shame that the film itself is to flat, overburdened by its own sense of importance.

It’s as least as interesting for what it doesn’t say. There is something damning about the fact Hollywood only felt comfortable making films about anti-Semitism after the Holocaust. A Jewish character objects to the Phil’s article with the standard line used by Hollywood Jewish studio owners – drawing attention to it only makes the problem worse (remember all references to Jewishness was removed from The Life of Emile Zola). Additionally, there are only passing references (if that) to sexism or any other form of racism or prejudice, and virtually every character we see is white, WASPY and middle-class. Hollywood could only handle one prejudice at a time, apparently.

Gentleman’s Agreement is strong on the everyday nature of prejudice – off-hand remarks about money and facial characteristics, a character protesting “that some of my best friends…” and so on. But, considering it was made in the shadow of one of the worst racially-motivated atrocities in history (the closest reference to the Holocaust is Peck refering to anti-Semitism being not just happening “far away in some dark place with low-class morons”), the film could (and should) have gone further on the dangers of prejudice. Saying that, this was still a big step for Hollywood. And while the film frequently appears preachy, po-faced and stodgy today, it was still a brave piece of film-making, even if it’s gingerly taking kid-steps towards confronting a problem.

Phil’s investigation of anti-Semitism is unfocused and vague. He speaks to only three Jews – a schoolfriend, an atheist Einstein figure (played by Sam Jaffe) he bumps into at a dinner party, and a secretary ashamed of her heritage who despises “the wrong sort” of Jew. Never once do we see him go to a Synagogue, visit a Jewish community or step outside the bounds of his world of country clubs, posh hotels and gated communities. The story may be about how prejudice exists in places we wouldn’t expect, but a film on anti-Jewish prejudice really should have a place in it for more than this, rather than Jewishness being a label Phil puts on and shrugs off later with a “ta da, gotcha!”

The film’s heart is in showing how “someone like us” could be prejudiced, sometimes without even realising it. Phil’s fiancée Kathy (a decent performance in a thankless part by Dorothy McGuire) turns out to have more than a few anti-Semitic bones in her body. Kathy is the classic liberal, believing every word of her own press about equal opportunities, while quietly urging people to fit in and be like her (gentile) friends. The film slowly exposes Kathy’s subconscious unease, her willingness to accept certain inequalities to avoid confronting the status quo. Watching today, it’s hard not to see Kathy as a pretty dreadful, hypocritical person. But while Gentleman’s Agreement wants to shake us, it still wants a happy ending – so she repents and learns her lesson.

It’s a shame, as this rather dull love plot is the film’s weakest thread. Far more interesting would have been seeing Phil actually out in the real world (Kazan’s immersive location shooting, which he used for Panic on the Streets and On the Waterfront, would have improved this film ten-fold). It’s also unfortunate Phil’s colleague Anne (played with Oscar-winning charisma by Celeste Holm) not only seems better suited to Phil, but a much nicer, braver person – it’s hard not to watch the whole film rooting for Phil to dump the tiresome Kathy for the engaging Anne.

Gentleman’s Agreement’s study of prejudice seems very tame, but its heart is in the right place. For even tackling the issue it deserves praise, even if it’s rather stunted dramatically. Kazan’s direction is as earnest (and at times lifeless) as the film, but he does fine work with actors. Peck is at his most morally certain, with a great sense of affronted liberalism, McGuire is very good, Garfield wonderfully humane, Holm marvellous, Anne Revere excellent as Phil’s drily witty mum. A braver film could (and should) have been made – and Crossfire makes all the same points, but quicker and with a lot more dramatic interest. Gentleman’s Agreement sometimes feels like a rather self-important bore at a dinner party, but at least you know it has conviction and means well.

On the Waterfront (1954)

Marlon Brando reinvents film acting in On the Waterfront

Director: Elia Kazan

Cast: Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy), Karl Malden (Father Barry), Lee J. Cobb (Johnny Friendly), Rod Steiger (Charley “The Gent” Malloy), Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle), Pat Henning (Timothy Dugan), John F Hamilton (“Pop” Doyle), Ben Wagner (Joey Doyle), James Westerfield (Big Mac)

When’s the right time to speak out for what you know is right? It’s a question we’ve all faced at some point, and it’s the question that changes the life of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) after he is indirectly, and unwittingly, involved in the murder of a fellow dock worker. The killing was ordered by the corrupt, mob-connected union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), who rules the workers of the shipyards of Hoboken, New Jersey with an iron fist. The victim was going to talk to the cops, and suddenly Terry finds himself in the middle of a major ethical bind: should he give evidence or play “D and D” (deaf and dumb) like the rest of the workers.

His bind grows ever tighter as the local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) takes up breaking the power of the union as his own personal mission. Not to mention Terry’s growing closeness to the victim’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), with whom he finds himself slowly falling in love. On the other side is his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), a lawyer and right-hand man of Johnny Friendly, who has been running his brother’s life forever, ruining Terry’s boxing career by ordering him to take a dive so Friendly could make a killing on the betting circuit. What will Terry do?

Elia Kazan’s multiple Oscar winner is a powerful, beautifully made, engrossing and uplifting modern morality drama that still packs a wallop today. Shot largely on location in New Jersey, with lashings of Kazan’s brilliant realism and ability to bring poetic beauty and emotional force to the most everyday of settings, On the Waterfront is sublime, a film to make you rail against the injustice of corruption and the unthinking cruelty of everyday folk when given a chance to stigmatise someone.

Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg (whose script is a beautifully judged mixture of soulful dialogue and the rhythms of every day conversation) were both drawn towards the story after their engagement with McCarthyism in Hollywood. In this hunt for reds under the Hollywood bed, both Kazan and Schulberg named names. Both of them felt that they had been lied to and exploited by the communist movement in Hollywood – and also that Stalinist Russia was not a cause worth defending – but that didn’t stop many people rejecting them for breaking the rule of silence (the same rule that runs through this film). On the Waterfront is a heartfelt defence of the whistleblower (or the informer), and why that can sometimes be the only option open.

Based on a true story, Kazan’s film is a masterclass in carefully controlled, intelligent direction bringing out brilliant acting performances (always one of Kazan’s major strengths as director). Leading the way here is Marlon Brando, giving possibly the most famous, most influential acting performance in film history in the lead role. It’s not really an understatement to say it changed the face of movie acting. Brando here performs with a low-key, casual, almost tender naturalism that stands completely at odds with the more exhibitionist performers of the late 40s. And he funnels all this beautifully into Terry Malloy, a tough guy whom he inhabits with a vulnerability and gentleness that never once feels out of place with his temper and pride. There is instead an awe-inspiring transformation here, of the actor becoming the mumbling, uncertain character – not afraid for words to be lost, not worried about making eccentric or unexpected choices as a performer.

Two scenes stand out. In the first, Brando has his first long conversation with Edie Doyle, having rescued her from being set on by union men. In a single take – a carefully orchestrated willingness to let the actors explore the emotional truth of the scene from Kazan – Brando’s Terry shyly, gently, haltingly asks about her life and tries to explain his own. At one point, Edie drops her glove and Brando picks up the glove, fiddles with it and then puts it on – the sort of inspired naturalism that feels like nothing on paper, but on film carries a strange emotional force, a physical representation of the bond between them (and don’t underestimate the way Saint pulls the glove gently from his hand). The entire scene has the air of reality to it, Brando chewing gum, Saint wondering how much of herself to show to a man she isn’t sure she can trust. It’s masterful.

The other scene is of course possibly one of the most famous scenes in movies ever: I coulda been a contender. For films, this is like the To Be or Not To Be speech, a speech that has been quoted and riffed on ever since. But again, Brando resists the temptation throughout for histrionics – when Charley pulls a gun, Brando reacts not with shock or anger but sadness, almost tenderly pushing the gun aside and letting his voice fill with a world of regret for what has become of their relationship. Steiger is superb in this scene, but you can’t look at anyone except Brando here, awkward, sad, struggling to work out what to do with his life and finally confronting the broken past between the brothers with pointed regret and calm realisation rather than the anger and rage that other actors would have chosen. This is an actor who redefined his profession, at the top of his game.

The film is crammed with excellent performances. Eva Marie Saint (Oscar winning) has just the right measure of gutsy determination, fear and tender sweetness as the woman who opens Terry’s eyes to right and wrong. The film gained three Supporting Actor nominations (they all lost). Steiger is cocksure but self-loathing as Terry’s ambitious brother. Lee J. Cobb rages as only he can as the blowhard bully Friendly, demanding absolute loyalty. But on this rewatch, I loved Karl Malden’s moral certainty, courage and stubbornness as Father Barry. In any other film Barry’s speech railing against the dockers for being part of the system that oppresses them, all the time being pelted by food, would be the highlight of the film: here it’s just one of several stand-out moments.

Kazan was a superb visual stylist, this black-and-white masterpiece brilliantly shot by Boris Kaufman to create a world that feels the perfect mixture between the documentary realism and the theatrical. And working with a superb script that he felt such investment in helps to create a story that carries real emotional force, carefully investing you right from the start in Terry’s fundamental goodness and naivety, inviting you to feel rage on his behalf as he is sent to Coventry by his workmates. Topped off with a beautiful score by Leonard Bernstein – part jazzy, part wonderful orchestral stylings – this has barely aged a day in it’s over 60 years.

Panic in the Streets (1950)

Paul Douglas and Richard Widmark race against time to prevent plague in Panic in the Streets

Director: Elia Kazan

Cast: Richard Widmark (Lt Commander Clint Reed), Paul Douglas (Captain Tom Warren), Barbara Bel Geddes (Nancy Reed), Jack Palance (Blackie), Zero Mostel (Raymond Fitch), Alexis Minotis (John Mefaris), Dan Riss (Jeff), Guy Thonajan (Poldi), Tommy Cooke (Vince Poldi)

It feels like a very modern nightmare: a plague of catastrophic proportions breaking out in a major city and threatening to wipe out thousands of people. This feeling helps to make Panic in the Streets feel more like a film from today rather than the 1950s. The only thing missing is a terrorist angle – everything else could have been pulled from the nightmare fuel of our modern age.

In New Orleans, a murdered man is found near the docks. The emergency button is pressed when the coroner detects a deadly infection. Naval doctor (and emergency co-ordinator) Lt Commander Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) quickly takes command and determines that the victim carried pneumonic plague before being shot. Tracking down the men who killed him, and who may also be carrying the disease, becomes urgent, before the infection spreads. The authorities don’t want panic, so Reed and Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) – initially of course reluctant partners – must work together to quietly track down the killers. The killers meanwhile, Blackie (Jack Palance) and his crew, continue regardless with their small-town crime empire building.

Panic in the Streets was one of the first films to shoot extensively on location – and it’s a brilliant choice, as Elia Kazan’s use of real life, grimy, New Orleans locations, from back streets to the docks, is pivotal for the sense of urgency and realism that runs through the entire film. Kazan’s camera work is brilliant throughout, and it adds a real gritty sense of danger to the entire film. It’s also brilliant that he selects possibly the least attractive parts of New Orleans for his locations – Blackie’s world of run-down buildings and dives just feels perfect for the film.

Kazan keeps the focus tight and avoids too many distractions from the film’s narrative – except maybe some tiresome insights into Reed’s slightly troubled domestic life (with Barbara Bel Geddes in a particularly thankless role as his wife, who alternates between supportive and the inevitable just wanting him at home more). Other than that, the film follows Reed’s search in forensic detail, from questioning suspects to working out the radius of possible infection. There is more tension here in a meeting with the city mayor to try and wrestle the authority Reed needs to carry out his job than in dozens of car chases.

The script is tightly written, and focused on plot over character, but still allows moments for character beats that good actors can seize upon. Widmark makes Reed a driven professional, who still has enough personal insight to register that his flaws include arrogance and impatience. In many ways an interesting piece of counter-casting, Widmark’s slightly menacing air is inverted really well as a doctor frustrated by the lack of understanding he encounters from those he is trying to save from a potentially deadly infection. He’s the perfect actor for a character who is a hard-bitten professional with a ruthless streak, and who’s a little hard to like.

He has a great foil in Paul Douglas as a professional, down-to-earth, but skilful and whip-smart police detective. One of the film’s pleasures is the bond that slowly grows between this odd couple – it’s not unexpected if you’ve ever seen a movie before, but it is very well done. The film, however, is almost stolen by Jack Palance as the villainous heavy, intent on empire building and oblivious to the fact that he is probably carrying a deadly plague that could wipe out half the population. Equally good is Zero Mostel as his weaselly, sweaty side-kick.

It’s odd watching it now that the authorities aren’t more terrified by the prospect of such a deadly infection – but that is a sign of how things have changed since the film was released. It’s sometimes a rather cold film, fascinated by slimmed down procedure – from the procedures of tracking people down, to the inoculations Reed administers right, left and centre to those who may be exposed. Despite this general mood, Kazan still gets the tone just right for the later shoot out that tops off the film.

Panic in the Streets does have a few too many slower moments. The scenes showing Reed’s home life are particularly drab – although we do get a marvellous scene with his wife where Reed acknowledges that his attitude to Captain Warren has been arrogant and condescending. The politics of lowlife New Orleans criminals are completely dependent on the charisma of the actors – remove Palance and Mostel’s performances and they would be exposed as dull and irrelevant. But the rest of the time, the film has a genuine feeling of grimy reality and keeps the pace up a treat. It’s a little B movie gem that feels ripe for discovery in our terror-obsessed modern world.