2000s >> 2003 >> no-1191-november-2003

Death of a film-maker

Death of a film-maker

Elia Kazan, born Kazanjoglous in Constantinople of Greek parents, who was taken to America when he was four years old, died in September aged 94. He became an actor, theatre and film director and, later, an author. He was not always considered to be a particularly nice person, and was something of a loner and individualist “anarchist”. Writing his obituary in the Guardian (September 30), David Thomson observes that “he was a demon, a man who left his mark everywhere”. He was, says Thomson, a genius. And according to the Times obituarist (30 September), “he was responsible for some of the most creative filmwork to come out of America”.

Kazan went first to school in New York and, then, from 1930 to 1932 he studied drama and acting at Yale School of Drama. From there, he joined the Group Theater, first as an actor and later as a stage manager and director. Prominent in the New York Group Theater was Clifford Odets. In 1933, Odets began writing plays; and in 1935, he wrote in three days a one-act play, Waiting for Lefty, which won him the New York Theater League contest. Elia Kazan played Lefty at the Group Theater. And Lefty, the hero of the play? He was Sam Orner, a New York taxi-cab driver who, as a teenager in 1913, joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the unofficial, leftist youth section of the reformist Socialist Party of America. After travelling all over the United States as an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, the “Wobblies”, Orner joined the Socialist Educational Society of New York, largely formed in 1921 by expatriate members of the SPGB, in 1923. The SESNY later became the New York Local of the Workers Socialist Party of the United States.

In the early 1930s, Sam Orner became the organizer for the New York cab drivers. In 1934, they went on strike, and it was this strike and Orner’s part in it that formed the subject of Clifford Odets’s play. Kazan and Odets of course knew Orner who, following the strike, fell foul of the Mafia mobsters who were attempting to get control of the union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. They badly beat him up, and he was hospitalized. But a comrade managed to get him out of the hospital before the mob could kill him. Sam Orner remained an active member of the WSP(US) until his death in 1973.

In December, 1930, the Workers’ Film and Photo League was formed, which was a Communist Party “front” organization. The focus of its film production was newsreels and documentaries. Conflicts soon arose, however, between those who wanted to continue with documentaries and those who wanted to produce fiction movies of a social realist type. The schism led to the formation of Nykimo Films.

The most celebrated, but now largely unknown, work by Nykimo was Pie in the Sky, a fifteen-minute satire starring Elia Kazan. What there was of a story, or plot, involved two tramps in a junkyard mocking so-called middle-class, bourgeois, values. In the words of Dan Georgakas (Encyclopedia of the American Left): “The film has considerable verve, with the tramps taking on organised religion in a manner not seen since the Industrial Workers of the World assaults on the Salvation Army”. In 1938, Kazan directed his first film, a 20-minute documentary, People of the Cumberland, about the plight of Tennessee miners.

With his wife, Molly Thatcher, Elia Kazan joined the Communist Party in 1934. But he was not cut out to be a loyal and obedient party member. He commented twenty years later:

“The streets were full of unemployed and shaken men. I was taken in by the Hard Times version of what the Communists’ advertising and recruiting technique claimed to have as a cure for depressions, and a cure for Nazism and Fascism.”

He said that he was disgusted with the Communist Party’s “system of discipline that suppressed personal opinions, and tried to dictate personal conduct”. He hated the secrecy and paranoia of the Stalinists. He claimed that he resigned from the Communist Party, but another version has it that he was expelled either in 1935 or 1936.

In 1942, Kazan directed his first important play, Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, on Broadway. He also developed a close association with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. During this time, his career took off as a movie director. In 1947, he won an Oscar for his direction of Gentleman’s Agreement, an indictment of anti-Semitism. And in the same year Elia Kazan cofounded with Robert Lewis the influential Actors’ Studio, which was responsible for developing the natural, psychological and realist “method” style of acting first evolved by Roman Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre during the 1920s, and which launched the career of Marlon Brando. First, there was A Streetcar Named Desire and, by 1949, Death of a Salesman.

Elia Kazan’s first Hollywood film using the “method” style of acting was Viva Zapata!, from a script by John Steinbeck. In it, Brando played Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary. Inevitably, the ten-year conflict had to be telescoped into a few short episodes. The storyline was, however, reasonably accurate; Brando was plausible, and “there was a feeling of heat and dust”, in the words of Thomson. Nevertheless, the script does distort certain events, and is in part complete invention.

In 1954, Elia Kazan directed another powerful film, On the Waterfront, also with Marlon Brando, which exposed the mob’s control of the union Local in the New York docks. In the film, Brando is beaten up just like, in real life, Sam Orner was in the 1930s. Kazan probably remembered that.

The so-called Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States emerged just before the end of the Second World War. Almost overnight, allies became enemies. And the chief threat allegedly facing the United States was said to be “the worldwide international communist conspiracy”, represented primarily by Soviet Russia. The “enemy within” was the Communist Party in particular and its “fellow travelers” and, in general, “reds”, “lefties” and anyone who did not consider American capitalism to be the best of all possible systems.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which had existed under various titles since 1930, became a permanent inquisitorial committee in 1946. It was armed with the power to compel testimony anywhere in the United States under subpoena. Witnesses summoned before the HUAC were judged to be either “friendly” or “unfriendly”. All known Communists, sympathisers and many others who had been little more than vague anti-Fascists in the 1930s and 1940s, were hauled before the Committee. A few were jailed (the Hollywood Ten), and many were either fired from their jobs or found it impossible to obtain a job. The Committee was particularly concerned with so-called “reds in the film industry.

Elia Kazan was summoned to the Committee on April 11, 1952. He was considered to be a friendly witness; and, like his old comrade, Clifford Odets, he “named names”. He said that it was “a difficult moral dilemma”, after “much soul-searching”. And, anyway, he claimed that all the individuals that he named were already known to the HUAC as Communists or fellow-travelers. But Kazan was never forgiven by the Communists, many former Communists as well as many others who said that he should have never co-operated with the state.

Elia Kazan was no socialist but, within the limitations imposed by a profit-making film industry, he was able to highlight, sometimes quite dramatically, some of the problems as well as the struggles of ordinary workers, in a number of the movies that he directed. And that, at least, was something.

'Waiting for Lefty' - based on Sam Orner, who became a well-known Socialist 'contender' and member of the WSP-US
‘Waiting for Lefty’ – based on Sam Orner, who became a well-known Socialist ‘contender’ and member of the WSP-US

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