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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The other Stanley K. (1913-2001)

Back when I was young and much less clued into movies than I like to think I am now, I always used to mix up Stanley Kramer and Stanley Kubrick. Of course, it was because of the similarity of their names, but that wasn’t the only reason. Both of these men made movies that were not only entertaining but were “about” something. There was always a serious social comment as well as a vigorous point of view evident in their work.

Over time, I did come to realize that they were very different men. Kramer was extremely conventional when compared to the uber-imaginative director of A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I became most acutely aware of him in the late 1970s when, as a newly landed resident of Seattle, I became aware of a buzz about him making a movie in the Pacific Northwest. It turned out to be his last one. The film was called The Runner Stumbles and starred Dick Van Dyke, whose own career hadn’t exactly been flourishing at the time. The story was about a romance between a priest and nun in a small hamlet, and it was filmed in the Cascade town of Roslyn, which would later stand in for “the Alaskan Riviera” for exterior shooting of a TV series called Northern Exposure. The movie’s title was sadly self-descriptive, as it was a critical disaster, and because of the harsh treatment it received, Kramer abandoned Hollywood entirely for a friendlier Seattle.

It was an unfitting end to an extraordinary career. When you look back on the many films that Kramer produced and/or directed, it is hard to believe that one man could have been behind all of them. So many of them are pure classics, and more than a few of the titles have virtually entered the English language. Who has not at some time referred to a personal showdown as High Noon? Or teased someone with the question Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Moreover, under his auspices, we had some of our most indelible images of screen icons. Think of Marlon Brando’s leather-clad rebel in The Wild Ones or Gary Cooper’s lone but determined lawman in High Noon. Or Humphrey Bogart’s Capt. Queeq nervously playing with his marbles in The Caine Mutiny or other classic courtroom scenes in Inherit the Wind or Judgment at Nuremburg.

Kramer gave us the last screen performance by legend Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, fittingly as the husband of Katherine Hepburn, whom lots of people thought he was married to anyway (and would have been under other circumstances). And he gave us what seemed a chillingly realistic look at what the end of the world actually might be like (24 years before the films The Day After and Testament) in On the Beach. The song Waltzing Matilda has never sounded the same to me since.

Despite the artistic weight of all these and his other films, strangely, the one that I loved best was the one that had no socially redeeming value and was pure, mad entertainment. When I was but a lad, my pal Eric and I went to see something called It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and we never laughed so hard in our lives. Every comedian we had ever heard of (and a few we hadn’t) was in that film, and that was something we had never seen before. Even by today’s standard of “all star” casts, there has never since been a gathering like it. To list everyone in the cast would take pages and would read like a veritable Who’s Who of classic American comedy. And the zany antics of various greedy people racing each other to find some ill-gotten loot got more outrageous in every reel. But, as in a number of other Kramer, films, we had good old Spencer Tracy in a key role to add just the right amount of weight to things and keep it all in perspective.

Some directors and producers leave us with the gift of seeing the world in a different way, of questioning our assumptions. Some provide us with great performances. And some just give us pure joy. Stanley Kramer did all three.

-S.L., 22 February 2001

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