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Writer Budd Schulberg died on August 5, 2009 at the age of 95. Schulberg was one of the last of a generation of writers who achieved fame as screenwriters in the 1940’s and 1950’s at a tumultuous time in Hollywood. His two most notable works were On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd – the former film lavished with praise and the latter languishing, apart from a cult following.
If one reads the Washington Post obituary of Schulberg, one would never know of the storm of controversy surrounding his Communist Party membership and his friendly testimony – naming the names of CP members – before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He, like his collaborator on On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan, offered open testimony vilifying the Communist Party and identifying Communists in Hollywood. As a result of their testimony and that of others, “un-friendly” witnesses were to be publicly ostracized and blacklisted from working in Hollywood by the Congressional inquisition. Those - like Schulberg and Kazan - who cooperated were allowed to continue their film industry employment. Those - like Ring Lardner Jr., Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, and many, many others who refused to cooperate - were denied employment for a decade or so. Some never returned to the industry.
For those victimized by the HUAC hearings, the friendly witnesses were viewed as “snitches” or “finks” – the labor movement term for those who informed on fellow workers to the boss. They bought continued employment by groveling before an “un-American”, rabidly anti-Communist Congressional committee determined to destroy the left and the progressive labor movement in the US. Friendly witness collaboration not only shattered the left in Hollywood, but, in the broadest sense, crippled the left and the labor movement to this day. After the inquisition, political, social, and economic opposition was reduced to pro-imperialist, corporate-friendly liberalism and timid “bread and butter” unionism. And in Hollywood, film production was similarly reduced, with only a few exceptions, to conventionality, commercialism, and unchallenging entertainment until the rise of independent filmmaking in the 1960’s.
It is in this context that we should view and assess the work of Budd Schulberg.
Many will, however, argue that the politics of the time have nothing to do with the quality of Schulberg’s work. They represent the extreme aestheticism of film criticism that attends only to the formal aspects of film making: visual beauty, creativity and a good story. In its crudest form the aestheticism position would find no fault with Citizen Kane if Charles Foster Kane were a stereotypical Jewish banker hostile to flag-waving patriotism and a promoter of liberal policies. For them, the innovative directing and clever writing trumps any consideration of politics or ethics.
A variant of this view, more common today than in the Cold War era, argues that politics or topicality have no place in film making, reducing a pure art form to “preachiness” or propaganda. For adherents of this view, telling a story is everything, making a point is a distraction.
Still others would argue that the content of film – the kind of story told, its message - is everything in judging film. The old left bromide that “art is a weapon” falls into this category. Though never a dominant Communist standard, some have urged this, especially in revolutionary situations, and of other revolutionary artists.
None of these views is coherent. The dialectics of form and content are complicated, but suffice it to say that it is impossible to separate the two elements of film making without doing violence to the pleasures of film viewing. Too often the formalists forget that viewers always bring their understanding of the world to the experience of viewing film. To pander to the lowest understanding is crass commercialism; to enrich that experience is good film making. Think of two hours of The Lion King without human-like behavior and human dialogue to direct the narrative. Where would we find the illusive ingredient: meaning?
Similarly, to ignore the role of craft in film making is to lose the distinction between good technical film makers and bad ones. Bad craftsmen fail to enrich by reducing content to the clumsy narrative of bar room tales.
So, yes, it is legitimate and appropriate to consider Schulberg’s political status, motives, and the historical context of his writing in judging his legacy. To fail to frame his work in the historical moment of its production would give a distorted view bereft of any interpretive meaning.
On the Waterfront enjoyed great critical acclaim, dominating the film industry’s Academy Awards in 1955, just three years after Schulberg’s HUAC testimony. With his best screen play award, Schulberg reached the pinnacle of his career. His screen play told of a corrupted longshoremen’s union led by gangsters and the heroics of a tough dockside priest successfully coaxing a young, confused worker into breaking the code of silence to expose the gangsters. Marlon Brando’s performance as the dock worker – a frustrated boxer – was deservedly praised, though a bit overwrought and stylized. Compare “Terry Malloy” to a similar character, “Rocky Balboa”, of Rocky fame and one’s appreciation of Brando soars. Elia Kazan’s directing highlights his superior craftsmanship.
And yet the film is deeply flawed in its content, its writing. The film is basically a typical Hollywood gangster movie, but corrupted by what the writer adds to the usual formulae. Unlike nearly all other films of the era, On the Waterfront incorporates a working class theme. But the workers on the docks are essentially wooden, simple and, except when shamed by Malloy’s severe beating, cowardly. As a heroic figure, Malloy displays even more ignorance, simplicity, and naiveté then his fellow workers. Brando’s stylized mumbling exaggerates this characterization. Like African-Americans in The Birth of a Nation, workers are little more than ignorant sheep. Of course, Kazan and Schulberg knew of better images of working people from their Communist past, but they chose to serve up a depiction more in step with middle-class critics and anti-union viewers. For a more balanced, realistic view of working people and class solidarity one could do no better than the much later work of blacklisted, “unfriendly” witnesses Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein (The Molly Maguires, 1970).
Schulberg’s script has no bosses. While the gangsters are vile, there is no indication of who determines the wages and working conditions of the employees. The Schulberg image of dock work gives no understanding of why the workers leave their homes and families and unload cargo everyday. There is no indication of the historical truth that bosses and owners welcome, if not encourage, gangster-led unionism in order to restrict wages and benefits. This failure leaves the script and storyline one-dimensional. Imagine a boxing film without managers and promoters. Again Kazan and Schulberg knew better, but chose to pander to the backwardness of the time.
Lastly, the film legitimizes the role of an informer precisely at a time when the nation was consumed with anti-Communist hysteria and widespread suspicion of everyone from the President to the school janitor. Insofar as Terry Malloy glorified the role of informer, he performed the same role as hip hop thugs do in promoting “gangsta” culture or Jack Bauer does in the television series 24 in justifying torture. All pander to the most backward sentiments of the moment.
For Schulberg and Kazan, both notorious informers, to structure the film around commending informing was an unabashed act of crass self-justification unequaled in cinema history. It would be as if George W. Bush commissioned a film on preemptive invasions. Nor was it unnoticed that On the Waterfront appeared just two years after screenwriter, “unfriendly” witness, and later blacklistee Carl Foreman’s High Noon, a thinly-veiled condemnation of mass hysteria, group fear, and betrayal. Where Foreman used a metaphorical Western to swim against the tide of diminished freedom of speech and undemocratic bullying, Kazan and Schulberg added legitimacy to an element of that tide and earned Academy awards in the process.
Paradoxically, the elite film establishment – a staunch defender of the pure, non-political art form – heaped praise upon this decidedly political and contemptible film.
Three years later, Kazan and Schulberg collaborated again on one of the most remarkable films of the 1950’s, doubly remarkable because most likely only they could have made it. A Face in the Crowd appeared with little fanfare and little critical support. With On the Waterfront under their belt, they had earned the right to go beyond the constraints of Cold War mythology and strike deeply at the hypocrisy and corrupted power relations of the era. Ostensibly television was the target, an arch enemy and fast emerging competitor to the film industry. But A Face in the Crowd is subversive: the real target was media manipulation and the corruption of power.
Where On the Waterfront exploits a popular, but twisted image of working people, A Face in the Crowd launches from the depths of the lumpen-proletariat: a Southern jailhouse. Schulberg’s script brings the drunks and petty criminals in contact with an Eastern-educated, patronizing, and sensation-seeking radio reporter, Marcia Jeffries, played effectively by Patricia Neal. In her quest for sensation, she encounters a shrewd, suspicious, talented, but manipulative drifter, Lonesome Rhodes. Andy Griffin soars in this role – the best performance of his life – exposing a complexity of personality and challenging motivation that far exceeds the simple character of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Blinded by class prejudice, Jeffries and the media figures who nurse his career see Rhodes as a raw and naïve talent who can be manipulated into a media success. Instead, Rhodes demonstrates a far deeper understanding of the media game and adroitly steps on and over all of his handlers while taking Jeffries along for the ride. Along the way, Rhodes encounters – and outfoxes – all the forces determined to exploit his celebrity: media executives, advertisers, public relation managers, Madison Avenue corporate figures, and hypocritical, cynical right-wing politicians. In short, the rich and powerful, the bosses who are so glaringly missing from On the Waterfront.
In the end, Rhodes is brought down, a fall that permits conventional, mainstream critics to view the film as a trivial story about unbridled ambition and arrogance resulting in deserved failure. Speculation abounded over whether Lonesome Rhodes was a surrogate for Arthur Godfrey, Tennessee Ernie Ford, or Will Rogers. But this completely misses the force of Schulberg’s writing and turns the film into a shallow bi-optic. In truth, A Face in the Crowd is a scathing critique of the media machine and the money, greed and power that lubricates and fuels it; it pulls that curtain back to expose the manipulation and hypocrisy employed to exploit the consumer society; and it reveals the cynicism and brutal treachery of those engaged in this ruthless game.
No film of the 1950’s rivals A Face in the Crowd for its cultural criticism of the wasteland of conformity and shallowness left in the wake of post-war US reaction. Nonetheless, someone else will have to forgive Schulberg for his betrayal of his comrades and appeasement of the dark forces that dominated the US in those ugly times.
Footnote: Interestingly, two other exceptional films of the era were based upon screenplays by another ex-Communist and friendly witness, Clifford Odets. With Sweet Smell of Success and The Big Knife Odets also lanced the boil of decadent culture in that period.