Columbia's Waterfront Haul --- Part One
Watching a grown-up picture and staying up late to do it was shared ritual for lots of us growing up, On The Waterfront early for me among those to be regarded seriously as opposed to monsters and mayhem sleep was forfeited to look at. Now it seems backlash has rooted among online thinkers. They're backing off On The Waterfront as settled paragon and asking selves if this is more an object to be admired than enjoyed. I came away from a recent look (after ten years' break) with similar mixed emotion --- so how much do we change between viewings of a familiar show? Darryl Zanuck counseled Kazan and Schulberg to avoid too much soap boxing over social themes during Waterfront's early development at Fox. I believe that the evil of the waterfront situation should be the background ... and that the personal story must predominate. They'd halfway take his advise. Would OTW have been plainer film noir coming from 20th? Now it strikes me as more political than issue oriented pics Zanuck supervised to completion. What's more noirish is bitter tea so many drank for being eased off this Waterfront, cash and proper credit lost despite time/effort expended on a Best Picture (1954) winner's behalf. Elia Kazan argues his side compellingly in a 90's memoir, but others told a different story. Truth of success having many fathers got much confirmation on Waterfront's road to revered status.
I enjoy On The Waterfront for its on-location atmosphere and slice of gritty urban life. No wonder city folk went nuts for it (21 weeks at New York's Astor Theatre). You'd not top Kazan for knowing how to get most out of locations. Neither was he far wrong calling Marlon Brando's the best performance movies tendered to that time, but was this actor's appeal so different from, say, Gary Cooper starting out? Both dealt quiet intensity and clicked best being diffident during love scenes. Difference was Cooper and golden-agers building on this toward stardom uninterrupted 'till death or retirement. Brando got ideal casting of a Waterfront and much misstepping from there. Could studio affiliation and careful grooming have yielded three On The Waterfronts for every Desiree instead of the other way around Brando experienced for being free-lance and choosing own projects? Here was Hollywood's most valued property in 1954, a name to guarantee any project going forward, and his psychiatrist is calling shots. Studios wanted Brando so much as to put up with anything. There'd been a walkout on Fox's The Egyptian for which he'd ultimately be forgiven, and Waterfront producer Sam Spiegel spent weeks on bended knee getting Brando to sign for what won him a Best Actor statue. Certainly it was this star people came to see in On The Waterfront. They'd wait for him to do another as good for years after, then give up by a 60's decline. Surprising it must have been by 1972 and The Godfather to realize only eighteen years had passed since Waterfront.
I'm just twisted enough to like Johnny Friendly best of anyone in Waterfront. Certainly Lee Cobb generates most fun with his performance. With that gaggle of method hoods eager to get in words edgewise (does Fred Gwynne ever say anything?), Johnny strikes me as an A-list Leo Gorcey beset with dumb and dumber retinue. And how does he manage such willy-nilly killing in what appears a pretty insular neighborhood where body count around docks would surely be remarked upon if not more vigorously investigated? I kept waiting for somebody in the loading hole to yell, Hey, did'ja see Johnny Friendly nod just before they dropped all these crates on the dead guy? That would have interrupted Father Karl Malden's looong speech, during which I feared for that body ripening in such airless and cast-crowded space. Brando's Terry Malloy says he never figured on a pal getting tossed off the roof in Waterfront's opener, but letting go the victim's pigeon suggested to me awareness if not compliance. There's a briefest glimpse of presumed Mr. Big who pulls Johnny's strings --- we know he's chief heavy for fact there's a television in his living room. Ever presume to rewrite a classic while you're watching? I imagined a different third act for Waterfront, one where Terry drags Johnny Friendly to the crime committee after a sound thrashing. As it stands, a coat-and-tie Brando meekly testifying goes against expectation of score-settling I'd have preferred. Wouldn't informant Terry have digested easier with a little vigilante seasoning?
Could be that's something else Zanuck would have fixed. He was piqued when Schulberg wrote in The New York Times of a studio executive (unnamed but clearly DFZ) more dedicated to widescreen horse operas than films about real people. Kazan seized high roads as well. He could afford to after Waterfront broke big. Studio "ostriches" were an industry's bane, he said to Variety in December 1954: They continue to stick their heads in the sand and make the same movies their fathers made before them. Here was a director fed up with just plain nonsense themes, speaking mind freely now that industry doors opened widest to him. Both Kazan and Schulberg would gloat over success of a gamble that almost every major studio rejected at one time or another, but would Hollywood remember high-handed talk when later A Face In The Crowd came a cropper? I do admire Kazan admittting how roguish producer Sam Spiegel manipulated him throughout On The Waterfront. "S.P. Eagle" as he was then known gives impression of one who'd duck out of hotels without paying the tab, as I'm sure he often did. What comfort it must have been for artists dealing with outright con-men if not borderline criminals, but weren't likes of Spiegel a reality Kazan and Schulberg had known all their professional lives?