Ranking the Films of Director Elia Kazan (part 2): The Essentials
10: Gentleman’s Agreement
Perhaps a bit tame by today’s standards, but Kazan’s message drama was an extremely important film in 1947, marking one of the first times that the word Jew was explicity used in a Hollywood picture. Kazan was known throughout his career as a champion of social causes, and Gentleman’s Agreement earned him the first of two Best Director wins (out of five such nominations). Agreement follows a respected gentile journalist (Gregory Peck) hired by a magazine publisher (Albert Dekker) to write a gutsy expose about anti-Semitism. In order to deliver a true, honest and powerful story, he decides to present himself as Jewish everywhere he goes. Gregory Peck gives unquestionably the second best performance of his career. His strong, steady portrayal earned him a Best Actor nomination (although not a win).
– Ricky D
9: Wild River
Set during the early 1930s when American life was being uprooted from its simple agrarian existence and pushed into a complicated state of constant progress- Elia Kazan’s exquisite Wild River remains shamefully underseen. It follows Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift), an optimistic agent of the Tennessee Valley Authority who comes to a small town in a last ditch effort to nicely evict the last remaining resident standing in the way of clearing land for a dam. Not caring or trusting that the dam is supposed to make Tennessee River residents safe from flash floods and generate electricity- 80-year-old Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) will not let her family home be destroyed by the government for any amount of money that slick, sweet-talking out-of-towners have to offer. It is a masterfully executed film that sorrowfully lingers as much on the dangerous, untamed majesty of nature as it does on how the human spirit weathers the worst of times. At first deceptively quiet and mundane, Wild River candidly comes to question the absolute authority of the federal government and in no uncertain terms (despite only being released in 1960) boldly confronts racism as something that needs to be actively challenged. The impassioned monologues that Jo Van Fleet directs to a humble looking Clift are wrenching. No one during the rest of the movie is able to match the energy, gumption and strength behind her delivery. For Ella staying on her land is not about holding onto material goods but about standing by memories that symbolize hard won victories over the trials she’s encountered in life. There is an intriguing dynamic put in place between generations that showcases the elderly Ella as unyielding and stubborn while her young granddaughter Carol (Lee Remick of Anatomy of a Murder and Days of Wine and Roses) has become an indecisive widower who has largely lost the will to live. Remick’s forlorn bright blue eyes passively stare at life until she sees something within Chuck that reignites a spark to move forward. The main characters each impressively fight back against external or internal changes and Kazan uses this to sculpt a movie that vivaciously pulses with resistance. Rendered almost unrecognizable from a serious car accident a few years before, Clift’s rearranged face is vulnerable yet steadfastly tenacious when facing confrontation. Whether he was making concrete decisions for his character or this was part of Clift’s ongoing battle with addiction- he generously gives his co-stars more than enough room to let loose and take the spotlight. This is a story to slowly soak in, admire and dwell upon for years afterward. Breathtakingly emotional and unpredictable, it makes for a shockingly well-spun tale of American backbone.
– Lane Scarberry
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
As Elia Kazan’s first cinematic effort, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn fosters strong performances and demonstrates strong sensitivity. Based on the bestselling novel by Betty Smith, it portrays the difficult life of a struggling Irish immigrant family living in turn of the century Brooklyn. The film zeroes in on the relationship between the family’s oldest daughter, Francie, and her loving but alcoholic father, Johnny. The film excels at portraying a nostalgic but painful vision of the past. As it suggests the life of this family trying to overcome their social and economic status, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn paints an alternative version of the American dream. The film straddles an interesting interpretation of this ideal, as it suggests it’s possibility but as one built on multiple generations and over the course of decades. It transforms the American dream from being an individualist and capitalist quest, to something more complex and family oriented. It is also far more delicate though, and the literal survival the family seems constantly at risk. This ambition and optimism about moving up in the world, however, is in direct conflict with Johnny. For all his faults, Johnny is portrayed as being an ultimately loving man. His heart is filled with poetry and he is able to see the world unlike any other. The film is really brought together by a grouping of great actors and performances, no surprise from Kazan who elevates all his films by bringing forward the souls of the faces he is working with.
– Justine Smith
8: Viva Zapata!
Following his wildly successful screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan joined forces with Marlon Brando again for the spirited Viva Zapata! Based on the real life of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, it’s a rousing drama that’s well-suited to the raw talents of Brando and Anthony Quinn in their prime. Although considerably less stirring than Kazan’s previous works, it’s a satisfying footnote to cinematic history. Making it uniquely engaging are absorbingly savvy performances and positive portrayals of hispanics that were amazingly created amidst the oppressive heyday of 1950s Hollywood. Novelist John Steinbeck (who would also provide Kazan with East of Eden) scripts Zapata as an ordinary man of little means who feels compelled to take extraordinary action in order to topple a deeply corrupt government that feels free to steal land from defenseless citizens. While quickly becoming popular with dissidents for his straightforward thinking and swift righting of wrongs, the larger-than-life legend that his supporters build him up to be immediately overshadows the truth. Letting Zapata’s legend run wild benefits his cause but obscures the flawed, illiterate and often brutish man he really is. Steinbeck’s well-known admiration for poor, working-class people is omnipresent but sentimentality is purposely put in check by a thorough acknowledgement of their imperfections. Much like Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski- Zapata is overly defensive, dangerously proud of his heritage and treats his woman’s feelings like dirt. This movie triumphs by fleshing out an alternative picture of masculinity in crisis where a man like Kowalski doesn’t need to disgracefully direct his rage toward a frail southern belle but can face inadequacies head-on while fighting the true source of his disenfranchisement. Some of the dialogue feels weighed down by the relentless praise of Zapata but it ends up providing excellent friction between the lauded Emiliano and his abrasive brother Eufemio (Quinn)- whose selfishness while riding the the coattails of his sibling give the film a distinctly hard edge. At times Quinn’s fierce and bawdy performance threatens to drown out Brando’s contemplative presence but their dueling personalities work surprisingly well together in the tensest of moments. This respectful portrait of heroism in Mexico is slightly tarnished by the casting of whites in most of the major parts and the odd makeup that’s put on Brando to make him look authentic. Although it’s indelibly marked by the prejudiced age it was made in, the actual content of the movie speaks to the genuinely good intentions behind the storytelling. The strong yet often dormant idealism alluded to in Viva Zapata that we so desperately need to awaken in order to move humanity forward is amplified by smartly deconstructing the real man behind the hero and seeing that courage can easily come from unlikely places and not yet remarkable people.
– Lane Scarberry
7: Panic In the Streets
Elia Kazan’s second entry in the noir genre proves a taught, suspenseful thriller that clicks along nicely under the director’s guidance. Save a couple of elements which are shortchanged to an extent, Panic in the Streets is an example of a filmmaker impressively branching the noir genre in a slightly different direction than is usually the case all the while respecting its overall themes and style. The movie is easy to recommend for how it ratchets up the the tension from scene to scene and for the many stellar performances.
– Edgar Chaput
6: Baby Doll
Two of Tennessee Williams’ one-act plays – Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton and The Long Stay Cut Short –are the basis for Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll. The film stars Karl Malden as a sexually frustrated, dimwitted, middle-aged owner of a Southern cotton gin, and Carroll Baker (in her debut) as his luscious teenage-trophy wife, who desperately holds on to her virginity until she reaches the age of 20. Her nickname is “Baby Doll” – appropriate, since she sleeps alone in a baby crib, sucking her thumb and wearing only a short nightie, as her husband Archie spies on her through a hole in the wall. Eli Wallach (also making his first big screen appearance) shows up as a a shady Sicilian businessman named Silva Vacarro, who takes advantage of Archie’s troubles and tries to claim Baby Doll as “compensation” for a fire set to his business. Things heat up, and Baby Doll finds herself caught in a romantic love triangle, with both men intent on deflowering the Southern belle.
The film broke new ground in depicting sexual situations incorporating themes of lust and seduction. With a plot that pivots around whether or not the virgin bride commits adultery – Baby Doll has been called notorious, salacious, revolting, morally repellent and provocative. The entire second act which plays like a cat and mouse chase, follows Silva trying to seduce Baby Doll, who pretends she’s not interested, but teases him just enough to convince us otherwise. When first released, Time magazine called it “possibly the dirtiest American picture ever legally exhibited,” and the film was condemned for lewdness by the Legion of Decency. Its easy to see why. The borderline attempted rape when Baby Doll takes a bath, and the notorious porch-swing scene with the lusty Silva, still sizzles, even today.
This landmark film is one of the most erotic cinematic works ever made, and one of Kazan’s trashiest efforts. Essential viewing for fans of the director’s work.
– Ricky D
5: East of Eden
Kazan followed his string of successful films from A Streetcar Named Desire to On the Waterfront with East of Eden, once again using unknown actors. Here he introduced audiences to Julie Harris and James Dean, who like Brando became an early Method star after his first major screen role in a Kazan film. Notably, this film is the only one of James Dean’s three films that was released during his lifetime and the only one that Dean saw in its entirety before his death. East of Eden draws on the age-old redemptive story of Cain and Abel, updating it to 1917 Monterey, California. Two brothers, Cal (Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos), are torn apart by their father’s favoritism toward Aron and their love for Abra (Harris). While trying to understand his own identity, Cal obsesses over earning the approval and affection of his deeply religious father (Raymond Massey). This already delicate situation is made worse by Cal’s discovery that their long-believed dead mother (Jo Van Fleet) is in fact alive and running a brothel. The film benefits from Kazan’s landmark depiction of the vibrant atmosphere of southern California, as the combination of CinemaScope and on location shooting give Eden an incomparably beautiful expansive view of these California settings. The film was highly praised upon its release for its actors’ down to earth performances and the irony of these troubled lives being played out against such beautiful backdrops. Based on the second half of the John Steinbeck novel, the film boasts striking performances from its newcomers and an overall stellar ensemble. Eden saw Kazan’s success continue, earning Dean, Harris, and Kazan Oscar nominations and a win for Fleet.
– Katherine Springer
4: A Face In The Crowd
Elia Kazan followed up his controversial success Baby Doll with a film that reunited him with On the Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg and would launch the career of Andy Griffith, A Face on the Crowd. Upon its release, the film received mixed reviews from critics for Griffith’s bombastic performance – superb in its intensity and vigor, yet overpowering the rest of the cast. While there is truth to this criticism, the importance of the cultural commentary of the film has since been recognized.
In A Face in the Crowd, Kazan presents a none too subtle cautionary tale of the dangers of unchecked popular culture. Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes, a jailed drunk, is plucked from obscurity and becomes an overnight sensation on radio and TV, thanks to radio producers (Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau) believing they can mold public opinion for the good. And Lonesome Rhodes does just that. Claiming to speak in the authentic voice of the people, Rhodes becomes a touchstone for the nation. His words are instantly consumed by viewers eager to follow in the footsteps of their “wielder of public opinion.” In truth, Lonesome is a tool for mass persuasion, a fact which does not escape this cunning demagogue.
Kazan highlights Rhodes’ growing monstrous ego with the evocative use of shadow in this nightmare of populism and mass media. Kazan’s films were always major training grounds for actors, allowing them to push the limits of Method acting and high-intensity, emotive performances. Griffith is no exception here, portraying an insatiable megalomaniac drunk on both fame and alcohol in an unrelenting assault on the audience’s senses. Remarkably prescient in its depiction of the triumph of television, A Face in the Crowd may have been one of Kazan’s few critical disappointments but remains a provocative and electrifying parable of the dangers of politics, media, and charismatic demagogues.
– Katherine Springer
3: A Streetcar Named Desire
Probably Elia Kazan’s best known film, A Streetcar Named Desire is emblematic of his style and boundary pushing ethics (I am speaking of course, in relation to his art, not his life). Based on Tennessee William’s play (which Kazan also directed when it first premiered on Broadway) the film faced difficulties in it’s translation from stage to screen due to it’s controversial content. Kazan was in constant battles with studio heads, as well as the production board, in order to preserve the dignity and power of Williams’ text. His battle was well fought and though the film carefully skirts some of the more difficult insinuations of the play, it nonetheless maintains the steamy spirit and difficult sexual politics of the play. The film though, is a showcase of acting talent above all. Kazan’s artistic legacy is without a doubt his handling of performers and this is perhaps his strongest cast. Brando, in particular, illuminates the screen with his raw energy and sexual bravura that has rarely been matched on the silver screen. With his performance and with the nurturing talents of Kazan, he helped usher in a new way of acting. In direct conflict is the far more classically trained Vivien Leigh, who maintains a sort of old hollywood glamour in her performance. The actors come face to face in terms of style, which ultimately serves the themes and mood of the film, creating an even greater emotional and psychological gap between performers. Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Dubois is theatrical and out of touch, her almost histrionic performance only enhances her character’s psychosis and lends an uncomfortable energy to her interactions with the rest of the cast, who maintain a far more naturalized style.
– Justine Smith
2: Splendour in the Grass
Sex. Pre-marital sex. Teen pre-marital sex. From clerics to politicians, these continue to be buzzwords in the great debate of God vs. Country. Splendour in the Grass tackled this subject matter with passion-filled aplomb through the able hands of Elia Kazan, and that was more than 50 years ago.
Set in 1928 Kansas, high school seniors Bud (Warren Beatty) and Deanie (Natalie Wood) are in love with each other, though Deanie’s hesitant to take it to “heels-over-head” status. Although in their early 20s, Beatty and Wood bring to the screen convincing portrayals of the pent-up urges we all remember from our formative years, even if we didn’t face the same fates. Well-to-do Bud wants to have sex and not-as-well-to-do Deanie is reluctant to take that step without marriage. True to form, Bud’s parents object to the couple getting married so young, especially with their hopes of him attending Yale. With his father’s encouragement, Bud leaves Deanie and seeks to vent his sexual frustration elsewhere. Things go from bad to worse to unhinging for Deanie as she ends up in an institution after being nearly raped by another classmate after being dumped by Bud. If all of that isn’t jarring enough, the film ends with the notion that Bud and Deanie do end up happily ever after, but not with each other. He on a ranch with an Italian wife, foregoing Yale after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and she with a doctor she met while institutionalized (shady).
Heart-aching in its realism, Splendour in the Grass hits the core of first love and the complications sex brings, especially combined with social reputation and status, albeit on the more theatrical level that we’d expect from Kazan. This bittersweet look on first love in Middle America paved the way for films like Peter Bogdonavich’s Last Picture Show and Terrence Malick’s Badlands along with its influence being felt in the song “Martha” by Tom Waits. On a trivia note, if the plot wasn’t salacious enough, this also marks the film debut of Warren Beatty, soon to become Hollywood lothario, and the first official French kiss in a Hollywood movie.
– Diana Drumm
1: On the Waterfront
There is an aching sadness that radiates beneath the surface of On the Waterfront. The film’s almost witch hunt theme isn’t a coincidence. It was a deeply personal film for Elia Kazan who in 1952 testified in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and identified eight former communists in the film industry. It was a controversial move that hurt his working relationship with many people.
The film’s plot swims in murky waters, a naive former boxer and dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando, in perhaps his finest and most nuanced performance) is asked to testify against a mob connected union boss, John Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger) works for. His brother is also the same man who helped fix the fight that could have changed Terry’s life. He falls for Edie (Eva Marie Saint, in her screen debut), a woman who implores him to testify about the murder of her brother. Most everyone in the waterfront town is aware of the illegal activities but they decide to stay “D and D” deaf and dumb so they can work.
On the Waterfront is, on the surface, a film about a corrupted city barely holding itself together and featuring characters that aren’t much different. Kazan sets up these characters and situations brilliantly. They are far from perfect people and he doesn’t try and make them anything but what they are. Terry is tortured by the arrival of his long lost conscience and it takes the murder of a man for him to realize that he’s lost his way. The ending, a truly brutal and beautiful scene, conveys this perfectly. It takes Terry nearly being beaten to death for the other men to finally stand up and refuse to be pawns anymore.
On the Waterfront is one of those rare almost perfectly constructed films that leaves the viewer breathless at the conclusion. Kazan’s true brilliance with this film is to take a step back and let the characters be who they are. Watching the movie is like reading a brilliant article, which isn’t so much of a leap since the film is based on a series of articles in the New York Sun. It’s brilliant, richly detailed, absolutely stunning and a true testament to fearless filmmaking.
– Tressa Eckermann