A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1954 – On the Waterfront

I think I mentioned 1954 in the intro for these articles. I said how 1954 poses so many problems, given the incredible amount of choices out there.

To run down the serious choices: Seven Samurai, Rear Window, Godzilla. I can probably include a few more less serious ones (since they won’t top those three). And yet, Waterfront still seems like the choice over all of those. Because it is one of the most acclaimed films of all time, the most acclaimed film of the year, and is a huge film for the actual year of 1954, because it is ultimately about blacklisting and the House of Un-American Activities. It’s the perfect article.

Oh, and there’s that whole, “Coulda had class, coulda been a conteder” speech.

But who remembers that, right?

Around 1947, The House of Un-American Activities, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (watch Good Night, and Good Luck if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Or read a book), decided all the liberals in Hollywood were all communists and wanted to have them testify to see if they were trying to be subversive, given their ability to influence people. And Hollywood, as they always do when the government is bearing down on them, self-censors. They blacklisted the Hollywood Ten, as they became known. Ten writers and directors who refused to testify about alleged communist activities. Two of them are very well-known. One is Dalton Trumbo, the writer of Roman Holiday, and the other is Edward Dmytryk. Though he eventually said he was a communist but was now ready to name names as to who else was.

Essentially, the way it worked was — kind of like the Salem Witch trials. “You’re a communist.” “No I’m not. But these people are.” And if you didn’t name names, you were fucked. (The Crucible was written during this time by Arthur Miller specifically referencing this exact similarity.) Meanwhile, Hollywood branched into two sides: one side saying, “Fuck you, we’re not communist, but this is disgusting,” and the other saying, “We’re not communist, and fuck everyone who is.” John Huston and Bogart were on one side. Walt Disney was on the other. One was for the first amendment, the other was basically conducting witch hunts for communists.

The major thing, though, was that, if you didn’t testify and name names, people assumed you were a communist and stopped working with you. Because they didn’t want to be seen as communists. Certain liberal actors were either straight out blacklisted or greylisted during this time. Some of the stories are actually really awful. Like John Garfield. Huge star at the time. Just starting to come into his own. Gentleman’s Agreement and Body and Soul. And he was part of Huston’s group, trying to protect the First Amendment, and refused to name communists when called to testify. And this damaged his reputation, and he couldn’t find work. The studios refused to hire him. And this caused him great stress, to the point where he had a heart attack and died at the age of 39. It was a pretty dark time in American history.

Anyway, On the Waterfront is based on Elia Kazan’s experiences during all of this. He was called to testify and named names. And he was criticized for this. And this was his response to it. Of course, it’s not completely about that, but Kazan did say that Brando’s line at the end, saying he was glad what he did, was his exact feelings about testifying.

But, nevertheless, this is one of the great American films of all time, and it has very specific ties to what was going on in American (and film) history during this time, which makes it an even better choice.

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