Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

A director and a hoofer

I keep meaning to write something about the California recall election, and I can’t believe that I have gone two months without doing it. I would have done it this week, but the Grim Reaper got in the way again. Guess I’ll have to do a post-mortem on the election. (Seems appropriate.)

A gentleman’s agreement on the waterfront (1909-2003)

There are three major reasons to remember director Elia Kazan who, as far as I can determine, was no relation to professional Jewish mother Lainie Kazan. (Elia’s birth surname was Kazanjoglou. Lainie’s was Levine.) They are (listed in order from most positive to least positive):

1) He introduced movie audiences to some of the major hunks of the mid-twentieth century. He gave early starring roles to the tight-tee-shirt-wearing Marlon Brando (when we actually wanted to see him in a tight tee-shirt) in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, to James Dean in East of Eden, and to Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass. Legions of women, currently in the autumn of their lives, will be forever grateful.

2) As a co-founder (with Lee Strasberg) of the Actors Studio, he became associated with what has become known as “method acting.” This involves actors getting into the mindset of the character they are playing by engaging themselves in all sorts of mind games and spending time in real life doing things that their characters do. This has resulted in interminable boring interviews of actors on TV talk shows, discussing how they “prepared” for a big movie role.

3) He became a lightning rod for Hollywood’s left when, after initial resistance, he “named names” before the U.S. Congress’s House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in the 1950s. The passions aroused by this act were so strong that, four decades later, people were in the street protesting when Kazan received an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1999.

Here’s the strange thing for me about the whole Kazan/HUAC thing. Clearly, the Congress was reprehensible for staging the hearings in the first place. Clearly, the movie studios were reprehensible for blacklisting the artists who were named as current and/or former members of America’s Communist Party (CPA). But what was so reprehensible about, once being subpoenaed to testify before a government committee, telling the truth? That’s really all that Kazan did. I suppose he bears some moral responsibility for giving up those eight names when he knew full well it would be the virtual end of those people’s careers. But he didn’t do this out of cowardice. He was disillusioned with the CPA and, as he later wrote, “I’d had every good reason to believe that the party should be driven out of its many hiding places and into the light of scrutiny, but I’d never said anything because it would be called ‘red-baiting.'” Or, in the words he put into Brando’s mouth in On the Waterfront, “I’m glad what I done—you hear me?—glad what I done!” Brando’s character had similarly testified against corrupt union officials.

In the end, all Kazan really did was to answer simple questions truthfully. Didn’t the real sin belong to those who asked the questions and to those who acted disreputably on that information? If those who were named really believed in Communism, shouldn’t they have been proud to proclaim that fact instead of trying to hide it? And, if their experience with Communism was some sort of “youthful indiscretion” that they regretted, shouldn’t they have been happy to explain that as well? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to blame the victims here. And I’m not trying to be naive about the climate of fear of that time (both on the left and on the right). I just don’t understand why, after so many years, there has been so much venom aimed directly at Elia Kazan. He wasn’t so much a rat or a snitch as a man who had come to believe that the American left had become insidious. Wasn’t more harm really done by all the people hiding their political affiliation, thereby denying the blacklist victims the relative protection of stength in numbers? Just a question.

Let us hope that with the passage of time the whole Kazan/HUAC thing will diminish in our memories to its proper proportion and that we can focus on Kazan’s artistic achievements, which include bringing many great plays and screenplays to the stage and to the silver screen, including such classics (in addition to those already named) as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gentleman’s Agreement and A Face in the Crowd.

Singin’ in the rain with a talking mule (1925-2003)

Of all the stars of movie musicals down through the years, Donald O’Connor wouldn’t necessarily be at the very top of the list, but he was a stalwart comedian and song-and-dance man, and the very mention of his name would bring a smile to the face of anyone who had seen many of his films.

After a dozen years of movies (mostly musicals), beginning as a child star and eventually as a headlining hoofer, his fortunes became tied to, of all things, a talking mule. Lots of kids (I was one of them) got many laughs watching reruns of his half-dozen Francis the Talking Mule movies on TV. Essentially, it was the prototype for the 1960s sitcom Mr. Ed, in which Alan Young (following in O’Connor’s footsteps) played straight man in a one-joke series about an animal that can speak but only to one person, who subsequently is regarded by everyone else as an idiot.

For some reason I always confused Donald O’Connor with Danny Kaye. Both of them portrayed youthful and impish song-and-dance comedic personas. If there is a major difference between these two, I suppose it is the fact that O’Connor had one shining moment that has become legend in film history. He did some rather remarkable hoofing in one of the best classic musicals of all time, Singin’ in the Rain. As The New York Times observed, his antic solo number of “Make ‘Em Laugh” was one of Hollywood’s finest dance moments. A person could barely keep his breath watching it. Everyone should have such a moment in their career and in their life.

-S.L., 2 October 2003

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