Elia Kazan Reconsidered
JUNE 27, 2012 by BRUCE EDWARD WALKER
The short list of best American film directors will forever include Elia Kazan, whose cinematic efforts include many good films, several great ones, and a couple of immense quality that have fallen through the cracks due to poor timing, comparison to his other landmark accomplishments, or perhaps critical negligence. Identified by none other than Stanley Kubrick as “without question, the best director we have in America,” Kazan rebounded from the public relations disaster of testifying as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, where he gave up the names of eight former associates with whom he shared Communist Party affiliations nearly 20 years earlier. Whatever his regrets and explanations, they were never sufficient to assuage the left’s anger, and many used his testimony as a cause célèbre, choosing to sit on their hands rather than applaud when Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1998.
By 1952 Kazan’s film resume already boasted early noirs (Boomerang!, 1947; Panic in the Streets, 1950); his auspicious Hollywood debut, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945); an Irish-American bildungsroman; Pinky (1949), a film about racial relations; and an Academy Award for Best Director for 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which dealt with the prevalence of anti-Semitism. Another film, Sea of Grass (1947), was his only misfire of the period—featuring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in what is certainly their only unwatchable onscreen collaboration.
After 1952 many of Kazan’s films can be viewed as, alternately, an apologia for choosing to inform on his former Communist Party (CP) comrades, expressions of an immigrant’s love of the American ideal, and illustrations of his distrust of centralized government control. Along the way, he managed to direct Marlon Brando in some of his finest film performances: Viva Zapata! (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954), as well as 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire; James Dean and Julie Harris in East of Eden (1955); Andy Griffith, Lee Remick, and Walter Matthau in A Face in the Crowd (1957); and Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass (1961).
Note the prevalence of avowedly leftist thespians eager to hitch their talent to informant Kazan’s wagon. Beatty, in particular, was confrontational with Kazan about the director’s testimony, and went on to star in and direct Reds, his cinematic homage to communist John Reed. It’s telling that a 2008 American Film Institute poll of 1,500 members determined Reds as the ninth-best epic film of all time. And hardly surprising. No sooner had the art form been established than cinema became an expression of the political, social, and economic views of filmmakers. The rise of cinema as an affordable and portable art and entertainment medium in the first decades of the twentieth century coincided with the political upheavals and revolutions occurring throughout the world, including World War I and the Russian Revolution. Early masters such as D. W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein stirred in heavy dollops of their respective—and sometimes repulsive—worldviews in films such as The Birth of a Nation and Battleship Potemkin.
By the advent of the talkies in the late 1920s and during the Great Depression, the movies increasingly reflected a decidedly statist worldview. Seemingly no world problem existed that couldn’t be solved by smart government employees. Implicit throughout many of the films of this era was tacit approval if not outright championing of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs—in essence, propaganda that, eventually, FDR’s policies would right the ship by returning the country to untold prosperity. The films of the World War II years championed patriotism in general and the U.S. war effort specifically but, leaving aside the body of work left by John Wayne, the common perception is that the entertainment industry at large, and Hollywood in particular, has been and is increasingly in the tank for left-statist causes and big-government remedies.
Of course the statist impulse was curtailed somewhat by the insanity of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings, which resulted in the 1947 blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten—including director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr. and Dalton Trumbo—and ruined the careers of dozens more in perhaps the most unintentionally ironic defense of American freedom and constitutional rights.
Inserted in the middle of this imbroglio was director and screenwriter Elia Kazan, a Greek immigrant from Istanbul who had studied acting at Yale. Kazan had reached prominence first as a member of the famed Group Theater in the 1930s, and had gone bicoastal thereafter as a Broadway stage director responsible for the debuts of such theatrical classics as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and After the Fall, and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as such Hollywood cinematic fare as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gentlemen’s Agreement, and Pinky. With Lee Strasberg, Kazan founded the Actors Studio in 1947, introducing the psychological realism of Method acting to both theater and film.
It was while cutting his theatrical teeth in the early 1930s that Kazan joined the Communist Party, as did many of the Big Apple’s stage community. Disgusted with the CP’s micromanaging of artistic content—such as its insistence on romanticizing the working class rather than depicting them warts and all, in realistic fashion—Kazan resigned from the Party in February 1935 after 18 months of membership.
While no one can assert definitively why Kazan willingly cooperated with HUAC (despite convoluted explanations from Kazan himself, as well as those given by film historians of every political stripe), the fallout was immediate and his legacy will forever be haunted by it. For example, when the 89-year-old Kazan received his honorary Oscar in 1998, J. Hoberman, critic for the Village Voice, cattily remarked: “There’s never been an industry acknowledgment of the careers that the blacklist cost.” And his point is well taken if not a bit strained—what good would the destruction of one other Hollywood reputation—Kazan’s—accomplish?
Further, the fact remains that Hollywood gave comfort and fat paychecks to a fair share of communists. In Richard Schickel’s biography of Kazan, the film critic relates the reaction of the director’s irrepressible first wife, Molly, to claims made by playwright Arthur Miller that the HUAC hearings were akin to witch hunts: “[Miller] was convinced that the parallels between the search for people possessed by the devil in seventeenth-century New England and the search for secret Communists in twentieth-century America was clear and powerful and would indeed write The Crucible to make that point. Molly observed to him that witches had not, in fact ever existed, whereas Communists really did.”
Kazan’s autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life, recounts a conversation with the novelist John Steinbeck, with whom he collaborated on the film Viva Zapata!:
I had a good friend at the Yale Drama School; his name was Albert Maltz. In the spirit of the time, we both became members of the Communist Party. I was in the Group Theatre and he was with a theatre closer to the Party line, the Theatre Union. Maltz was an honorable man with an honest heart; I liked him and I respected him. By the time I left the Party in February of 1935, I’d lost touch with him and even forgotten about him, until the year 1946, when he did something I considered heroic. He wrote an article in the New Masses, the Party’s magazine, the gist of which was that he’d come to believe that the accepted understanding of what “revolutionary art” is—a weapon in the class struggle—was not a useful guide for writers on the left but a—and I remember the phrase—a “straightjacket.” Maltz felt this about his own work and he’d felt it about the work of other “comrades.” Then he said something that was bold and, in the context of his continuing membership, even foolhardy. “It has become necessary for me to repudiate that idea and abandon it,” he declared. . . .
Albert’s statement in the Masses gave hope to many artists in the left movement. . . . Even though I was out of the Party by then, I still considered myself of the left, and I thought what Albert had written was the truest thing I’d ever read about literature from any comrade and a kind of liberation for so many writers. I believed fine things would now come from Maltz and others, who’d been heartened by his challenge to the old laws of the Party. But what happened was not that at all. Party leaders arrived in California from New York to reeducate Maltz and straighten him out. There were many ideological meetings, kangaroo courts, as it were, to persuade him to recant, then to demand it. And he did. He took it all back. Later, I believe, he made a trip to Europe, one they’d suggested, to “clear his mind.”
Perhaps even more important to Kazan was his perception of his own hypocrisy: “Did I really want to change the social system I was living under? Apparently that was what I’d stood for at the time. . . . Everything I had of value I’d gained under that system. After 17 years of watching the Soviet Union turn into an imperialist power, was that truly what I wanted here? Hadn’t I been clinging to once-held loyalties that were no longer valid?”
Kazan related in his autobiography what commentator Arthur Schlesinger wrote on the matter, best capturing the double standard of the left that would’ve enjoyed seeing the Greek’s head on a platter:
After searching his conscience, he wrote, Kazan published an explanation in the form of a newspaper advertisement which to my depraved sensibilities seemed a reasonable and dignified document. But to The Nation, Kazan’s whole performance seemed beneath contempt. . . . But if Kazan had been an ex-Nazi or even an ex-Klansman, telling the same story, would not The Nation’s reaction been completely different?
This unfortunately is the prologue to what deserves to be a much longer appreciation of the films Kazan made both before and after the 1952 HUAC testimony. For as much as they seem dated by today’s standards, his films dealing with prejudice in the 1940s were edgy and thematically groundbreaking for their time. His movies during and after HUAC reveal his distrust of government solutions and politicians. In Viva Zapata!, for example, Kazan and Steinbeck take liberties with the biography of the Mexican revolutionary to depict a man too pure to accept the reins of political leadership. The regrettably often-overlooked Man on a Tightrope, made in 1953, features the true story of a circus troupe’s escape from behind the Iron Curtain. Featuring Frederick March, Gloria Graham, Terry Moore, and Cameron Mitchell, the film captures life under communism in bleak black-and-white detail.
On the Waterfront, scripted by Budd Schulberg, is perhaps the closest Kazan came onscreen to defending his HUAC behavior. Brando’s Terry Malloy is prompted by his girlfriend, a priest, and his own conscience to inform on racketeering and murderous union bosses. In A Face in the Crowd, Kazan and Schulberg once again teamed up to depict a cautionary tale of what happens when opportunistic media personalities—especially those like Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, chillingly portrayed by Andy Griffith—have a too-easy path to political power.
In 1960’s Wild River, Kazan both wrote and directed a tale of a Tennessee Valley Authority agent (Montgomery Clift) sent to uproot a backwoods clan led by Ella Garth (Jo Ann Fleet). Themes of racial inequality are prevalent, but secondary to the property rights theme as expressed poignantly by the stoic Ella. In fact, when lecturing on property rights and the exercise of eminent domain, I frequently show a clip of Fleet’s Garth explaining why she refuses to leave or sell her family’s land by government coercion or otherwise.
Kazan made other films that I have left off this list deliberately for space and topic considerations, but the final one I’d like to discuss is my personal favorite: America, America (1963). The film abjures the Communist Party approach of depicting the proletariat as strictly noble actors in a class war. Instead, Kazan uses the story of his uncle who struggled both valiantly and amorally to leave Turkish-controlled Anatolia for a better life in the United States. The character, Stavros, leaves his family to slowly wind his way onboard a steamer bound for America. Along the way, he is robbed, taken advantage of by an Armenian he eventually kills, manipulates himself into the family of a wealthy rug merchant, and serves as a gigolo to ensure his passage to America. The point isn’t that Stavros is the typical high-minded, moral immigrant most often depicted in Hollywood films, but that the lure of the freedoms to be found in the United States is so great that, sometimes, bad actions are committed to fulfill the immigrant’s dreams. Viewers may not love Stavros for all his faults and misdeeds, but they are moved certainly by his kissing American soil on leaving Ellis Island. Special consideration goes to the glorious black-and-white cinematography provided by leftist filmmaker Haskell Wexler, who despised Kazan over HUAC, and went on to win an Academy Award of his own for his work, ironically, on Bound for Glory, a biography of the socialist-leaning folksinger Woody Guthrie.
Next time you go to your online video queue and worry that all that’s available is statist propaganda, keep in mind that you could do a lot worse than the films of Elia Kazan. He wasn’t a free-market proponent by any stretch of the imagination, but at least he recognized that the comparative economic and political freedoms available to artists in the United States were far preferable to those residing elsewhere during the twentieth century. And the result is a pretty staggering body of work—impressive by any measure—that hasn’t been equaled since.