The Sunday Dozen: Elia Kazan

Elia Kazan on the docks in New Orleans.

You read about my argument with my father about Elia Kazan earlier today. If you haven’t done so yet, click here.

It’s time to focus on the man and his movies.

Kazan was an irascible and difficult man. There are more than a few ugly stories about him. But he was a brilliant stage and film director who brought Tennessee Williams’ plays to a wider audience than the playwright thought possible.

Kazan’s nickname was Gadge for his uncanny ability to fix things when he was a young man with the Group Theatre. Gadge is short for Gadget.

Kazan began his film career as a supporting actor. His most memorable performance was in one of my favorite Cagney movies, City For Conquest:

Elia Kazan flanked by Frank McHugh and Jimmy Cagney.

Kazan was a pioneer. He was one of the first American directors to insist on shooting on location whenever possible. He called himself a realistic director, but it was a highly stylized and theatrical realism. Elia Kazan in a word: Intense.

Kazan made many important and socially aware movies. He was not noted for his sense of humor but as a dramatic director he had equals but no superiors.

I dealt with Kazan’s political controversies in my Story Time post, if you want to know what I think of them, click here. This post is long enough as it is.

The movies are listed in order of preference and reflect my own opinions, not my father’s. But I can quote Lou’s stock line about Greek Americans: “Elia Kazan is Greek. He’s doing very well, you know.”

I’ve done something different this time. The boldfaced  titles are links to that film’s TCM page.

On with the show, this is it.

I give you The Elia Kazan Dozen.

I’ve seen On The Waterfront a dozen times and get something different from it each time. Directing actors was Kazan’s strong suit, so the movie is full of fabulous performances from Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Lee J Cobb, and the glorious Eva Marie Saint.

The cab scene is justifiably famous but I’m partial to the rooftop scene with Brando, Eva Marie, and the pigeons. Not to be confused with Walter Pidgeon or the Pigeon Sisters from The Odd Couple.

America America is just an inch behind On The Waterfront as Kazan’s masterpiece even if it inspired that epic argument with my father. Oh well, what the hell.

A Streetcar Named Desire made Kazan, Tennessee Williams, and Marlon Brando household names. Williams was vexed with Kazan for making Stanley, not Blanche the main character of the play and movie. That didn’t stop the two from working together. Nobody interpreted Tennessee better than Gadge Kazan.

Streetcar was the number one movie on both my Louisiana and New Orleans listicles. It comes in third on this list by a narrow margin. On The Waterfront and America America are that good, making them greater than great. Uh oh, I’m sounding like Tony the Tiger of Frosted Flakes fame.

If you’ve only seen Andy Griffith in his eponymous teevee show and as Matlock, you’re in for a surprise with A Face In The  Crowd. Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes who’s a drifter turned teevee demagogue and political kingmaker. Lonesome Rhodes is a combination of Elvis and Howard Beale with a dash of Trump.

The movie reunited Kazan with the writer of On The Waterfront, Budd Schulberg. The script is brilliant taking us to unexpected places in unexpected ways.

East Of Eden is a good example of Kazan’s cruel but crafty side. James Dean and Raymond Massey played father and son in this Steinbeckian tale. Kazan knew that the two men despised one another: he used that to great effect while shooting the movie. Their mutual loathing is real. Massey played Abe Lincoln but was nothing like him IRL.

Panic In The Streets was filmed entirely in my hometown of New Orleans. The pandemic put this 1950 classic on my mind. I used several images from the movie to illustrate my First Draft Potpourri posts during the lockdown.

Panic was the movie in which Richard Widmark morphed from playing villains to good guys. In contrast, it established Jack Palance’s screen persona as an evil evil-doer doing evil things as well as one-armed pushups.

Panic In The Streets was number two on my New Orleans list and number four on my Louisiana listicle.

Like most Hollywood historical dramas, Viva Zapata takes liberties with the facts. It also casts Anglo actors as Mexicans. But the movie is so exciting and well-done that I just removed my amateur historian hat and put on my fan boy sombrero.

It’s a helluva good movie full of great scenes and performances. The black and white cinematography by Joseph MacDonald is to die for. Viva black and white.

Anthony Quinn steals every scene he’s in and was rewarded with his first Oscar. I met two of Viva Zapata’s principals: Quinn and John Steinbeck. I told the story of meeting the novelist in a 2019 post.

I was lucky enough to meet John Steinbeck when I was a kid. He was an old friend of my father’s second cousin. I met him at a barbecue at said cousin’s house in Salinas. I wish I had been old enough to have read anything other than The Red Pony, but even precocious 10-year-olds don’t read Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath so I didn’t get to say, “Tell me about the rabbits, George.” Mercifully, he was spared my imitation of James Dean in East Of Eden. I can brood with the best of them, y’all.

We return to our regularly scheduled programming.

 Boomerang could be called Kazan noir or true crime Kazan. It’s about a vagrant who is falsely accused of a crime and the honest prosecutor played by Dana Andrews who helps set him free. It’s heightened realism, Kazan style. It remains one of Gadge’s most underrated flicks.

Gentleman’s Agreement was a big hit in 1948 and won a boatload of Oscars including best picture and director. It was one of the first American films to take on an important subject: Anti-Semitism.

I’d always considered it a tame and dated treatment of the topic. But I revisited the movie recently and decided I was too hard on it.

As usual in a Kazan film, the performances are excellent, especially John Garfield and Dorothy McGuire as the bigoted socialite.

Kazan preferred working in black and white. Wild River is one of only three color films on the list. It’s a big story about a big subject: the Tennessee Valley Authority. That called not just for color but for Cinemascope.

The film is stolen by Jo Van Fleet as the recalcitrant property owner who refuses to be eminent domained off her land. Is domained a word? If not, it should be.

Baby Doll was wildly controversial when it came out in 1956. It’s tame stuff by 2023 standards but it might scandalize some evangelical Trumpers but not the man himself.

I dig Baby Doll because of its downright weird characters, especially the ones portrayed by Karl Malden and Eli Wallach. Tennessee Williams specialized in weird characters. Elia Kazan specialized in making the writer’s work come alive on stage and screen.

Splendor In The Grass was a collaboration between Kazan and playwright William Inge whose script won an Oscar for best original screenplay. As with most of Inge’s work, it takes place in Kansas.

The movie tells the story of sexual repression and forbidden love during the Roaring Twenties. What really roared was the star power of Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in his film debut. Another day, another new star courtesy of Elia Kazan.

The quad poster is from the UK release hence the alternate spelling of splendor.

That concludes the Elia Kazan Dozen.

Here’s a quick and dirty list of the movies:

  1. On The Waterfront
  2. America America
  3. A Streetcar Named Desire
  4. A Face In The  Crowd
  5. East Of Eden
  6. Panic In The Streets
  7. Viva Zapata
  8.  Boomerang
  9. Gentleman’s Agreement
  10. Wild River
  11. Baby Doll
  12. Splendor In The Grass

That’s all for this week. The Sunday Dozen returns next week with a tribute to my birthday twin, John Huston.

The last word goes to Elia Kazan, Warren Beatty, and Natalie Wood on the set of Splendor In The Grass.


2 thoughts on “The Sunday Dozen: Elia Kazan

  1. The first film he directed, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” (1945) is one of my all-time favorites.

    1. Excellent movie. Just missed my list. Uncharacteristic Kazan.

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