Tuesday, November 25

The Directors: Stanley Kramer

I fondly remember Stanley Kramer as the man who made message movies.  He is one of those who made me pay attention to directors instead of just actors.  I found his films to be entertaining with something to say, a point of view which was of a liberal bent.  As a young person, I learned things about life from a few of his films.  And every film he made prior to the 70s, I quite liked... with one exception. 

He was born to Jewish parents in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen in 1913.  They were quite poor and his environment and home life propelled him on a life-long mission to tell stories about regular folks, particularly their troubles.  He would take up writing when he entered New York University and at the same time wrote for a newspaper.  He had planned to enroll in law school after graduation but 20th Century Fox offered him a paid internship in its writing department.

He didn't stay long at Fox.  He would pull writing gigs at Columbia and then RKO and would even find work as a film cutter at MGM.  His talents for moviemaking were building when he went into the service where he would make training films.  When he got out, he returned to Tinseltown but found no satisfying work.  The studios, he would say, were a mess, and as a result, he formed his own production company. 

He would go on to produce 40 films.  Some of the ones he produced only (didn't direct) would be Death of a Salesman,  A Member of the Wedding, High Noon, The Wild One and The Caine Mutiny.  He would also go on to direct 20 films, one of which is in included in my 50 Favorite Films, and several of which are part of those we will discuss in this 60s tribute and an upcoming one on the 50s. 

He is certainly a director who would gather large, celebrated casts.  In 1955, for Kramer's maiden directorial effort, Robert Mitchum, Olivia de Havilland, Frank Sinatra, Gloria Grahame, Broderick Crawford, Charles Bickford and Lee Marvin would join him for Not As a Stranger.  It was a melodramatic look at ambition gone unchecked... a flawed medical student and his unscrupulous climb to the top.  A  popular novel that had all the elements for a good film, it didn't garner critics' kind words but enjoyed a healthy box office.

Sinatra joined Kramer again in 1957 for The Pride and the Passion.  Based on a C. S. Forrester novel, it was a lumbering saga about guerrillas hauling a gigantic cannon across Spain.  The singer and Cary Grant looked perfectly silly and even Sophia Loren, at the very start of her career, couldn't pump any excitement into it.  Lucky for us, Kramer persevered.

The next year he made one of his most famous and finest films, one that was highly regarded and still greatly respected, The Defiant Ones.  It was the first of a pair of films dealing with racial issues and African-Americans, both of which would star Sidney Poitier.  Here the actor would be shackled together with Tony Curtis playing escaped convicts on the run.  The language and circumstances could be raw and Kramer couldn't have been happier at the attention this film brought to black folks.

On the Beach (1959) brought together Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins for an eerie look at nuclear war.  It takes place after the end of WWIII, in Australia, the last place on the planet not yet affected by radioactive dust.  It, too, holds up today as well as it did at initial release.

A word about Spencer Tracy before we discuss Inherit the Wind.  He would work four times for Kramer and they had not only the greatest respect for one another, but Kramer, at least, said he loved Tracy.  He also said there was no finer actor, in or out of Hollywood.  From this point on, they would be involved in one another's lives, on and off the screen, until Tracy's death.  The 1960 film would take on those troubled siblings: evolution and creationism.  Based on the successful play of the same name, it was a fictionalized telling of the 1925 Scopes trial.  Tracy was beyond magnificent as Clarence Darrow and Fredric March only a notch or two below as William Jennings Bryan.  Six of us, as teens, saw this film and got into a terrible argument at a coffee shop afterwards.

Wow, that fictionalized trial movie worked pretty well, let's do another one.  He would bring Tracy on board again, this time as a judge, in the magnificent Judgment at Nuremberg.  Not without controversy (hell, Kramer courted it), the story of an American court in occupied Germany trying four judges for war crimes, got glowing reviews.  It certainly did not hurt that Tracy's costars were Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland and in his Oscar-winning role as the defense attorney, Maxmilian Schell.

In 1963 he not only made a film I did not like, I reviled it.  Kramer must have been mad to make It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World... his truly oddball opus to greed.  He really had to go to work on Tracy to join a bunch of whacked-out comedians (and Ethel Merman...!) and it's too damned bad Kramer won.  I recall it being the first film I walked out on.  It was either that or jump from my balcony seat.  I decided to give it another go 20 years later and history repeated itself.  Stanley, what were you thinking?  Perhaps he needed a rest from weighty subjects.

I quite liked Ship of Fools (1965) although it was not a raging success. It concerned the dramas of passengers on an ocean-liner returning to Germany at a time Germans preferred leaving.  Critics saw it as being about the weakness of a world that permitted the rise of Hitler.  It starred another glittering cast... Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Oskar Werner, Lee Marvin, Jose Ferrer, Elizabeth Ashley and George Segal.  But this cast was not all glitter.  He had serious issues with Leigh (her last film) and her schizophrenia, and with Marvin, not at a good time in his private life and a boozy rebel on the set.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967) is arguably his most acclaimed film.  It certainly holds true for me.  It reunited him with Poitier and Tracy (his final film) and Kramer's first with Katharine Hepburn, whom he regarded in much of the same way he did Tracy.  Four actors received Oscar nominations (Hepburn won) and it received a slew of other nominations.  Kramer loved what it had to say and so did the public.  If you feel compelled to read more about it, go here.

I just mentioned The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) in my piece on Hardy Kruger (German Actors I Hardly Knew).  It would hardly be considered one of Kramer's great films but it was a good one that completely enchanted me.  Kruger was joined by Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi and Sergio Franchi is a comedy-drama about an Italian village rather indifferent or uninformed about the war but passionate about the Germans not stealing all their beloved wine, nearly one million bottles.  Most critics dismissed it but I found it a hoot considering my weakness for Kruger and Magnani.  It would, for most, signal the beginning of Kramer's lesser works.

In the 1970s, he made five films (R.P.M., Bless the Beasts and Children, Oklahoma Crude, The Domino Principle and The Runner Stumbles).  I saw all but the last and while I felt they were fine, nothing stuck out like his earlier work.  He may have agreed since he retired at the end of the decade.

He would be nominated for six Academy Awards, either as producer or director, but never won.  He was honored with the Academy's prestigious Irving G. Thalberg award, representing bodies of work reflecting high-quality motion picture production.  Here, here.

His third and longest marriage was to a minor actress, Karen Sharpe, best known for her roles in The High and the Mighty (1954) and Man with a Gun (1955).  She was always proud of what her husband accomplished in the industry.

Kramer passed away in 2001 at age 87 of pneumonia in Woodland Hills, CA.

His critics, generally of the other political persuasion, would say he was pretentious, heavy-handed, out-of-touch or overly sentimental.  But I felt he displayed a deft touch at handling some important issues of the day and was fully engaged.  He was a deeply concerned filmmaker who was one of the first directors to have control over his own films, free from the restrictions and formula of studios.  He did it his way.  I'm always pursuing the next dream, hunting for the next truth, he would say.  He wanted to say a great deal and ultimately he did.  In that regard, I suppose Kramer knew his name spelled backwards is remark.

Count 10 and Pray

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