Two unrepentant careerists in extreme old age died within a few weeks of each other this year. A nervy friend of mine once told Elia Kazan that his friends were very unhappy that he had cooperated with the House Committee on Un-American Activities by naming the names of less fortunate colleagues. Without batting an eye, Kazan responded, "You tell your friends that they can go BLANK themselves." Kazan used another word, of course, but you get the idea.
Leni Riefenstahl's lack of remorse is a matter of public record: She was not a National Socialist, she was an artist and a filmmaker, with no regrets & no excuses for her work &/or her very long life. Once Riefenstahl and Kazan were dead, compassionate reviewers all over the world seemed to say, "Look at their work and remember them that way." I can't do that, As a kid and as an adult, "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" was & is one of my very favorite films: a deeply respectful film about the harshness of lives endured in poverty, about intense love eroded by the squandered promises of the alcoholic & by the fragile hope that is kindled by heartfelt understanding. I think of the Elia Kazan who directed this classic film as a different Elia Kazan than the man who went on to make "On The Waterfront." The man who made "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" had once been a member of the Group Theatre in the 1930's. He played a cab driver screaming "STRIKE!" in "Waiting For Lefty." He collaborated on "Dimitroff, A Play Of Mass Pressure" with fellow Group Theatre member Art Smith.
Kazan and Smith made their bad guy a lying informer named Van Der Lubbe who testified that the title character, a Communist from Bulgaria, had ignited the Reichstag fire. To be sure, Goring and Hitler had asked him to lie about Dimitroff, but Van Der Lubbe was still the bad guy of this 1934 drama. We can look at Elia Kazan's subsequent work and remember him that way, if we choose, but can we do that with Art Smith, whose career Kazan helped to destroy with his testimony? Yeh, yeh, I know, it was SO long ago, Art Smith's been dead for thirty years and who remembers him, anyway? "You tell your friends that they can go BLANK themselves," Kazan said, and BLANKED is exactly what happened to Art Smith and many, many other talented people who were blacklisted.
Except for a few deeply driven artists who refused to lay down for the eternal count, most are forgotten, their once-bright careers diminished by revisionists. But watch Art Smith opposite John Garfield (also blacklisted) in "Body And Soul" or as the psychiatrist in "Caught" or as an FBI agent in "Rides The Pink Horse" or reduced to bits in "Framed" or "T-Men" or "A Double Life" or "Manhandled" or "Frightened City" or as Hal Clendenning in "Try Ad Get Me" or as Bogey's agonizingly loyal best friend Mel Lippman in Nicholas Ray's "In A Lonely Place." Film revisionism be damned, the name Art Smith will become unforgettable to you, too. He'll stop being a wannabe who would never have made the grade, anyhow, blacklist or no blacklist. If you're going to remember Elia Kazan's life work, remember his testimony, which is a part of it, whether he thinks you should BLANK yourself or not: Remember the great character actor and fellow Group Theatre member J. Edward Bromberg, named by Kazan, who died of a heart attack under enormous pressure on December 6, 1951, less than three weeks before his 48th birthday, leaving behind a wife and three children.
OF COURSE, Kazan was tempted to testify in the Garden of Good and Evil. Everyone slightly left of the last Tsar was tempted. "Waiting For Lefty" playwright Clifford Odets, who used to make potato pancakes for his Group Theatre buddies and who cried for both Bromberg and for John Garfield, was tempted and he named Bromberg and others, continuing to work until his death in 1963. Two-time Oscar-nominee John Garfield was tempted and, according to John Berry, the director of "He Ran All The Way," Garfield's 1951 swan song, "Faced with the option of naming names, Julius Garfinkle of the Bronx said to John Garfield of Hollywood, 'You can't do this to me.' And John Garfield packed his bags and died." The date was May 21, 1952 and Garfield, 39, left behind a wife and two children, but no Oscars and no major film cult members who studied every frame of his work.
At the end of her life, Leni Riefenstahl received surreptitious honors for her work as a documentarian from film societies who whisked her in and out of town before the press caught on. Elia Kazan received his lifetime achievement award with all the trimmings of an Oscar ceremony from a very forgiving, if not unanimous, Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences. During his lifetime, Elia Kazan had been fond of quoting the Jean Renoir line: "Everyone has his reasons." Like the "On The Waterfront" line "I coulda been a contender", it's a sentiment that means nothing out of context. It is, however, a one-size-fits-all remark that the assassin of Daniel Pearl, among others, has paraphrased and repeated over and over again to justify the unjustifiable.
© 2003 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 10/1/03
Elia Kazan Rant