When On the Waterfront was first released to American movie theaters on July 28, 1954, the film’s director, Elia Kazan, was worried about how well it would do on opening day.
Actors Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb gave the film plenty of star power. And, the script was written by legendary screenwriter, producer and novelist Budd Schulberg.
But there hadn’t been as much advance publicity about the movie as Kazan had hoped for.
Richard Schickel’s biography of Kazan notes that the director was so worried on the morning of July 28th that he went to the Astor Theatre in New York’s Times Square to see how many people were coming to the film’s first showing, the early matinee scheduled for 11:00 a.m.
Schickel says Kazan “was surprised to see something like one hundred customers in line at the box office” and “immediately guessed that his film was going to be a popular success.”
Indeed, On the Waterfront was both a commercial and critical success.
The following March, it received eight Academy Awards, including a Best Director Oscar for Kazan.
Today, it is considered one of the best movies ever made. The American Film Institute lists it as one of the 100 Greatest American Films.
It also includes one of the most famous movie quotes of all time: “I coulda been a contender!”
The line is spoken by Brando, playing the washed-up boxer turned longshoreman, Terry Malloy, to his brother Charley (Steiger). Charley is an ethically-challenged lawyer who works for Johnny Friendly (Cobb), the brutal mobster who runs the local longshoreman’s union.
After Terry witnesses a fellow longshoreman murdered by Friendly’s thugs, Friendly tells Charley to make sure Terry sticks to the union’s “D and D” code (short for “deaf and dumb”).
When Charley presses Terry about this and even threatens him with a gun, Terry is shocked. It reminds him of how Charley had forced him to throw a big match and end his boxing career years before, at the orders of the same gangster.
In one of the most memorable scenes in film history, Terry expresses the pain he feels over Charley’s betrayals:
“You was my brother, Charley,” he says. “You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me, just a little bit, so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money...I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
Terry goes on to become a hero when he testifies against Friendly before a Congressional waterfront crime commission.
Many observers have noted that, in part, On the Waterfront seems to be Kazan’s cinematic justification for his own testimony before the McCarthy-era House un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on April 10, 1952.
In the 1930s, Kazan was a member of the Group Theater, a New York City theater collective that included a number of politically progressive, left-leaning actors, playwrights and directors.
During his 1952 HUAC testimony, Kazan named eight former Group Theater members who he said had once been Communists, including Clifford Odets and Paula Miller, who later married the famed acting mentor Lee Strasberg.
Kazan also criticized the screenwriters and producers called the “Hollywood Ten” for refusing to cooperate with HUAC’s hunt for alleged Communists in the movie industry. (Often now described as a modern day “witch hunt.”)
Kazan’s testimony (online here) made him a controversial figure throughout his life. And, the controversy has continued since Kazan’s death in 2003.
His supporters feel his artistic achievements as a director outweigh the fact that he was one of many people in the film and theater world who “named names” and went along with the anti-Communist hysteria that led to the “blacklisting” of many actors, writers and directors in Hollywood.
His critics view him as a despicable snitch, who was willing to hurt former friends to protect his lucrative career.
Reading things Kazan said about the controversy himself over the years, I get the sense that he viewed his HUAC testimony as an act of conscience that was similar to Terry Malloy’s testimony to the waterfront crime commission in On the Waterfront.
For example, two days after appearing before the House un-American Activities Committee, Kazan paid for an ad in the New York Times in which he tried to justify what he had done. He said in one paragraph:
“Whatever hysteria exists — and there is some, particularly in Hollywood — is inflamed by mystery, suspicion and secrecy...Secrecy serves the Communists. At the other pole, it serves those who are interested in silencing liberal voices. The employment of a lot of good liberals is threatened because they have allowed themselves to become associated with or silenced by the Communists. Liberals must speak out.”
Decades later, in his 1997 autobiography, Kazan wrote:
“If you expect an apology now because I would later name names to the house Committee, you've misjudged my character. The ‘horrible, immoral thing’ I would do, I did out of my true self...The people who owe you an explanation (no apology expected) are those who, year after year, held the Soviets blameless for all their crimes.”
I love On the Waterfront and many other movies Kazan directed (my other special favorites are A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata! East of Eden and Baby Doll).
But I do question whether “exposing” former friends who seem to have been at worst “guilty” of having some misguided political views in their younger days is similar to exposing graft, extortion and murder committed by a gangster.
I hope that, if I had been put on the HUAC hot seat, I would have had the guts to respond like author Lillian Hellman.
In a letter she sent to HUAC Chairman John S. Wood on May 19, 1952, Hellman explained that she was willing to appear before the committee, as requested. However, she made it crystal clear that she would not name names.
Her letter includes a famous quote about acts of conscience and defiance of political witch hunters:
“To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable,” Hellman wrote. “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
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