Elia Kazan Collection, The (DVD Review)20 Dec, 2010 By: Mike Clark
$199.98 18-DVD set
Stars Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick.
Its 16 titles spanning 1945-63 include five DVD premieres plus a new documentary from a filmmaker of equal stature — and still, there’s an elephant in the room beyond any that might have been left over from one of the few awful movies Kazan ever made: 1953’s circus-themed Man on a Tightrope. So, tempting as it is, it’s impossible to talk about one of America’s most controversial filmmakers without addressing the pariah aspect that turned 1999’s Oscarcast into such a circus over the lifetime achievement statuette he was awarded. It all stemmed from the fact that in the early 1950s, Kazan cooperated with (and even named names to) the grandstanding pukes on the House Committee on Un-American Activities — and that he never showed much remorse.
I think he was wrong to do it and wish he hadn’t taken such a dive into a lose-lose situation, though it would have likely meant we wouldn’t have On the Waterfront or maybe even East of Eden. I also think that the fact that Kazan had the talent-and-then-some to match his sizable ego made him far more inclined in a way that others weren’t to resent the Communist Party hacks who tried to control the Group Theatre he co-founded in the ’30s — and to harbor a very understandable personal grudge on his part for a long time.
I have always loved Billy Wilder’s crack that a couple of the “Unfriendly Ten” writers and directors crucified by HUAC had talent — and that the rest were just unfriendly. In this same vein, I think the majority of Kazan’s most feverish detractors had, on their best days, maybe a 20th of his talent. What’s more, I think that with the possible exception of Moss Hart’s Act One (which is substantially fanciful), Kazan’s is the greatest show biz autobiography ever published and certainly the most brutally honest. However, with the arguable exception of a couple Republican presidents from the past 40 years who’d have done us all a favor by cooperating with ravenous boa constrictors, the Red Scare and the Blacklist it spawned represent America’s lowest political point of my entire lifetime. So of all the arguments one can make against Kazan, I most strongly concur with the one that says of all people, he could have most easily survived and done a lot of good by thumbing his Greek nose at HUAC — whose backwoods clout could never have touched his other lucrative employer (the Broadway stage).
Far less complicated is my opinion of his movies — or at least of every single one he made from 1954’s Waterfront through 1969’s over-the-top but prodigiously personal The Arrangement (the last not included on this set but to me among American cinema’s most underrated as I look forward to seeing it for the eighth time). Just on the level of this set’s Peggy Ann Garner, Kim Hunter, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, Lois Smith, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, Andy Griffith, Lee Remick, Barbara Loden — plus The Arrangement’s Faye Dunaway — he was the greatest director of actors ever. And this leaves Vivien Leigh, the pinnacle of Julie Harris (though Fred Zinnemann’s The Member of the Wedding is close), the pinnacle of Natalie Wood (though Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause is close), Warren Beatty’s screen debut and Kazan’s work with the “Big Three”: Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift (he was the only director to work with all of them). And for a long time — before the actor threw away his career on Focker-dom and much worse beginning about 15 years ago — I would have included Robert De Niro, to make it the “Big Four.” Because whatever you want to say about the movie overall, I think De Niro’s performance as Monroe Stahr in Kazan’s 1976 swan song The Last Tycoon (not on this set) is as great as his landmark in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver from the same year.
Scorsese’s recent A Letter to Elia (co-filmed with Kent Jones and previously run as an "American Masters" entry on PBS) is obviously one of this boxed-treasure-with-booklet’s selling points — a 60-minute documentary that more than one observer thought was Scorsese’s most personal work in years. Though I’m moved to see it give A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Wild River the major love that is only their due, Letter’s hour-long limitations force it to ignore other titles like Viva Zapata! and Baby Doll. Mostly it’s about Scorsese’s formative obsession with Waterfront and especially Eden, with just a little less attention given to America, America (an immigrant saga that would have obviously piqued Scorsese’s interest — and almost as obviously, Francis Ford Coppola’s, given the opening scenes of The Godfather, Part II).
Ten of the titles here have been released before: Boomerang! (the best of 20th Century-Fox’s postwar spate of pseudo-documentary film noirs); the badly dated Gentleman’s Agreement and Pinky (the latter an on-a-dime takeover after cranky initial director John Ford couldn’t get along with cranky Ethel Waters); the crisp on-location New Orleans melodrama Panic in the Streets; the revolutionary screen acting showcase A Streetcar Named Desire; the even more revolutionary Waterfront and Eden; the ticklishly lascivious Baby Doll; the ever amazing A Face in the Crowd (which has to rank with Network as the most prescient American movie ever made); and Splendor in the Grass (easily the most durable and moving of all high-school sex sagas, which is really saying something when you consider how many million there’ve been from the past quarter century alone).
Of the premieres, one is a cluttered mess, one is quite good and three are splendid. The sole pre-1969 omission from this set is 1946’s Sea of Grass, a Western filmed at MGM under some duress and a candidate for the worst of nine Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn teamings. When the Museum of Modern Art gave Kazan a retrospective in 1971, he said in his opening remarks (I was there) that Grass and Man on a Tightrope were the only two titles he asked them not to run. Tightrope is here, and the problems it has (Robert E. Sherwood’s cluttered script is no help) make it of academic interest — at best. After a promising opening scene of a circus caravan’s difficulty in navigating a highway, it gets off the track in trying to control its own trajectory through a political story (Fredric March’s Czech circus owner trying to penetrate the Iron Curtain into friendlier Germany) against a personal one (Terry Moore looking all distractingly hot-cha!-ish in a bathing suit and rippling stream).
Much better is 1952’s Viva Zapata! — which, though it won Anthony Quinn a supporting Oscar for a surprisingly small role, benefits from an extraordinarily low-key and subtle performance by Marlon Brando as the Mexican Revolution leader Emiliano Zapata. The movie as a whole isn’t up to Brando, at least to my taste, because John Steinbeck’s script is too didactic. But Alex North’s score is one of his best, and some searing visuals prove once again that Joe MacDonald has to be one of the most underrated cinematographers of all – even if his contribution to My Darling Clementine (small-screen black-and-white) and The Sand Pebbles (color/Panavision) should have settled this score long ago.
Three of the premieres I love. It is true that you can look at Kazan’s 1945 debut A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and not necessarily know that he did it (and with even Zapata!, I think you would). But you would know somebody great did it due to James Dunn’s Oscar-winning turn as a broken-down Irish father trying to support an impoverished family — and especially Peggy Ann Garner’s performance as his daughter. Winner of a special Oscar itself, it’s right up there with Brigitte Fossey in Forbidden Games as the pinnacle of child-performer screen achievements. To me, John Ford’s They Were Expendable is clearly the best Hollywood movie of ’45, but after that, the arguments begin. I’d say Brooklyn is right up there — just as America, America is right up there for 1963, even though Kazan himself and others have noted that lead Stathis Giallelis never quite nails the make-or-break role as the Greek immigrant (modeled on Kazan’s uncle) who will do anything to reach Ellis Island. This said, Giallelis has the looks and certainly conveys the drive of a scrapper who has just one goal on his mind. When The Arrangement opened, I believe critic Andrew Sarris said that it and America, America were the two most personal films ever made by a major American filmmaker. Or something pretty close.
This leaves 1960’s Wild River, which I saw upon its original release, just a few days after I turned 13. Then, as now, I thought it one of the greatest American movies — for many reasons. One is its theme of individual liberty vs. society’s needs (or, should an 80-year-old woman be forced to sell her land to the government, which wants to build a necessary TVA dam during the Depression?). Another is Montgomery Clift’s performance — his most affecting after the auto mishap that wrecked his face and one that critic/historian Danny Peary (in Alternate Oscars) opined should have had the year’s top award. Another is Lee Remick — her greatest performance (and her personal favorite) and as indelible a portrait of Southern womanhood as Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara or Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham. Also Jo Van Fleet’s off-the-charts support (a 45-year-old actress successfully playing a woman who is 80). Also Kenyon Hopkins’ score with those lamenting trumpets. Also Ellsworth Fredericks’ cinematography (think total mastery of CinemaScope) and those early-morning Tennessee mists.
And then there’s the unforgettable scene with Robert Earl Jones (James’s real-life Blacklisted father) where the field hand he plays refuses to sell his dog to Van Fleet (who’s trying to make a point). Kazan made Brando, Dean and other front-runners as great as they could be, but this is only part of the story. He often did the same with relatively obscure players who caught their best career breaks from being in a Kazan movie.