American postwar film - Elia Kazan

The topics of Kazan’s films show that he is a strong personality who does not cope well in the tight frame of standard Hollywood productions. Kazan understands the function of film as art and therefore his topics are always about serious life problems

The most common and probably most important characteristic of post-war American film is the fact that it experienced a crisis. This statement runs through all studies of American film of that period. It would not be so vacuous were we to sum up those twelve years in a most literal way and say that it is not simply twelve years but rather a fifth of the entire film history and as much as one quarter of American film history. Upon reaching such a conclusion, this statement gains value and ceases to be a mere formality. Nevertheless, it is often used imprecisely because the crisis of American film did not begin in the form that we know it today i.e. immediately after WW II, but rather in 1947. Even before the war one could have noticed the symptoms that would soon characterize the crisis. There already existed the insurmountable gap between the original film artists and financial masters of the film world. Producers insisted on commercial films because wide audiences loved them and progressive authors could never come to terms with such requests. True artists had less and less work and the only way for them to survive was to start making commercial films. We could mention one or two authors who remained faithful to their true artistic calling and made great works. It is only logical that such a thing happened in the most technologically advanced center of world film, but it remains a shame.

A similar situation continued after the war until 1947. There were very few really artistically valuable films made at that time. 1947 was marked by a blow to the few honorable exceptions who had not yet abandoned their creative principles. This is when the Committee for un-American Activities was formed, which began a systematic program of ostracizing any and all authors who criticized the social realities of the day. Censorship was introduced, which destroyed even the smallest attempts at criticism of the American society and way of life. Film was under close inspection because it reached the biggest number of people, while literature was somewhat freer. It is not necessary to point out how much an artist is harmed by even the smallest limitation. The only condition for creating art is creative freedom. The greatest artists are those who manage to coexist to the maximum with the time they live in and who reflect it in their work. When their horizons get limited they get weaker as artists, lose themselves and become sterile.

From 1947, the great author William Wyler limited his work to a mild social critique (The Heiress and Detective Story). John Ford became completely commercial. His themes became quite bizarre and free of social framework (Rio Grande, The Quiet Man). It is apparent in both Wyler and Ford’s films that they are great artists: these films always thrill but they would never achieve the level of The Best Years of Our Lives and The Grapes of Wrath due to the limitations of their themes. Films like The Asphalt Jungle (Huston), Death of a Salesman (Benedek) and A Place in the Sun (Stevens) would be the only exceptions, were it not for Elia Kazan, whose films represent the most important exception of that period.

Kazan was born in Constantinople in 1909, but his family immigrated to America soon after. He started his career as a theatre director on Broadway. He taught at one of the most famous acting schools in the world. Even in his first films he expressed an interest in contemporary occurrences in American society and his courage and integrity became legendary. He made about ten feature films and won his first recognition, an Oscar, for Gentleman's Agreement about the conflicts caused by racial differences in America. Afterwards he made Boomerang which reveals the weaknesses of the American judicial system and problems of an honest lawyer. Afterwards he made Panic in the Streets (awarded in Cannes) and the less successful Sea of Grass. Then he made A Streetcar Named Desire, based on Williams, which deals with the economic decay and mental degradation of the American South, and Viva Zapata a powerful epic about the Mexican people’s fight for freedom. For his film On the Waterfront he won his second Oscar. His last films are East of Eden and Baby Doll, which tells the story about old plantations and the merciless economic struggle in capitalism.

The topics of Kazan’s films reveal that he was a strong personality who did not cope well in the constrictive framework of standard Hollywood productions. Kazan understands the function of film as art and therefore his topics are always about serious life problems whose solution requires a lot of effort. Often Kazan does not solve these problems but merely treats them. He strips them bare and explains without attempting to be a prophet. His heroes are courageous idealists who either win or get miserably defeated; they are strong workers from the suburbs who fight for survival spontaneously, or rich degenerates who become poor and neurotic, often ending up in mental institutions.

Kazan was the only director who continuously dealt with these problems because Ford, as mentioned before, had already become too commercial, and Wyler softened, while Huston, Stevens and Zinnemann very rarely chose contemporary topics. In that sense, Kazan is a guidepost, and it is not surprising that after each of his films was screened conservative circles and the Committee for un-American Activities became agitated and attacked him. In 1957, Kazan was at his peak and the audiences of the time expected many more great films and topics from him. It was apparent that he would not be alone in this, as the younger generation of American film artists had the same intentions. Directors such as Aldrich, Hann and Wise could give credit to the adamant Kazan for their affirmation -- but on the other hand they also helped him to avoid becoming lonely in his intentions, as happened to Chaplin and Wyler.

Kazan is not great just because of his choice of topics. He is acknowledged as a great director. Kazan’s film directing concepts have quite a big a dose of theatre technique in them. That is why the critics have had trouble accepting the otherwise great film A Streetcar Named Desire, because it was a copy of his theatre play. They have complained about his use of monologues (as rare as they were), a theatricality that is unavoidable in film while technically conditioned in theater. His most serious fault is insisting on certain details that hinder the development of the plot and weaken the basic idea. All the critics praised him for monumental and clearly executed scenes, the masterful characterization of his heroes and an unusual intuitiveness in solving the biggest problems. He always creates a strong and beautiful atmosphere. He chooses actors very precisely and introduces young actors while avoiding standard Hollywood heroes. He may not have given as much to film direction as, for example, Ford or some other artists but he certainly follows them and belongs to the elite group of greatest directors.

Kazan once said that in all of the topics he and his fellow American directors use, there still were not enough typical American problems and that this crisis still had not been solved. In American films there was not enough of the bustle and hurry, psychological instability and lack of tranquility typical of the American world. There was none of the deep introspection into social relationships noticeable in literary works by Faulkner, Miller, Steinbeck and Williams. Their works have rarely been adapted for screen in such critical sharpness and depth as they were written. Nevertheless, Elia Kazan best managed to approach the keen social treatment of these writers. Even if he had not been such a great director, which in reality he was, his merit in the history of American film would be great for that fact alone. (Ante Peterlić, Prisutnosti, magazine for culture and art, no. 1, Zagreb, 1957)