Rethinking Stanley Kramer

How a message-movie humanist became an auteurist punching bag
by Saul Austerlitz  posted August 25, 2010
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Every generation of filmmakers breeds its own oppositional figures—its unofficial representatives of cinematic mediocrity, whose artistic failings offer a perverse kind of inspiration. For François Truffaut and the filmmakers of the New Wave, the "tradition of quality," epitomized by figures like Claude Autant-Lara, was symbolic of all that was dull and conventional in French movies. Truffaut lambasted the purveyors of sham quality in his essay "A Certain Tendency of French Cinema," and if his American counterparts had had to draft a similar screed, the target of their vitriol would likely have been Stanley Kramer.

Kramer, a producer (The Wild One) turned director, was responsible for some of the most socially responsible dramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s: The Defiant Ones (1958), On the Beach (1959), Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), among them. Kramer's films won Oscars, but the new class of film aesthetes that emerged in the mid-1960s took umbrage with the self-serious, fatally compromised brand of consciousness-raising represented by the director. To his detractors, Kramer was the ultimate beneficiary of the Hollywood double standard, which stipulated that serious subject matter—racism and war and nuclear destruction—merited more critical leniency than more frivolous works.

Kramer was the symbol of all that had been left behind. "If Stanley Kramer had not existed," pontificated Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema, "he would have had to have been invented as the most extreme example of thesis or message cinema. Unfortunately, he has been such an easy and willing target for so long that his very ineptness has become encrusted with tradition." And Pauline Kael praised a comic moment from 1967 Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night by way of derogatory reference to the director: "We laugh in delighted relief that the movie is not going to be another self-righteous, self-congratulatory exercise in the gloomy old Stanley Kramer tradition."

The knee-jerk antipathy to Kramer's work is not borne out by a fresh look at his films, which retain a complexity and verve ignored by his detractors. They are expressions of the American anguished-liberal conscience, searching, brooding, but undeniably optimistic. The 50th anniversaries of Inherit the Wind (this year) and Judgment at Nuremberg (next year) provide an ideal opportunity for a critical reassessment.

There are moments in his films when Kramer comes close to a rough visual poetry: the sequence in The Defiant Ones in which conjoined convicts Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are dragged downstream by the force of the river they are fording possesses some of the geometric precision of Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality. For the most part, though, it might be best if we think of Kramer's films as having more in common with theater than with the other directors of his era. Movies like On the Beach and Judgment at Nuremberg are defined by their subject matter, and their performances. Technique was decidedly secondary.

Kramer is derided as a tidy moralizer, but his films seldom offer pat resolutions to the issues they raise. Little is resolved or settled here. The conflicts in Kramer's films are illustrated by hand-to-hand combat between actors. Facing off, debating the films' salient points, Kramer favorites like Poitier and Spencer Tracy demonstrate the native decency and fairness that are the director's preferred American values, while others provide the necessary foils for his pointed morality tales.

The progress of The Defiant Ones is circular, a rigged game in which African Americans and poor whites can find no safe exit. The Defiant Ones begins with two convicts—one black and one white—chained together, and ends with them joined in fetters once more. Fate and history have pitted Poitier and Curtis against each other in a desperate struggle for survival, but those chains—real and invisible—bind them together. In the film's most iconic image, Poitier lifts the injured Curtis to safety like a father cradling his baby. The Defiant Ones' resolution of the South's horrors may reek ever so slightly of soap and ammonia, but the film is hardly a whitewash; like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, to which it bears a faint resemblance, The Defiant Ones is grandly, disturbingly pessimistic about American civility. The Defiant Ones celebrates the tenuous alliance between poor blacks and poor whites, but its American South—its America, really—is plagued by a nagging suspicion that some things will never change.

On the Beach is drenched in Ernest Gold's gloopy music and runs approximately 20 minutes too long. But its depiction of life after nuclear war, with the city of Melbourne facing impending doom from steadily approaching fallout, is surprisingly pitiless, bearing a closer resemblance to Peter Watkins's atomic-nightmare documentary The War Game than might be expected from a mainstream American film of 1959. Australian naval officer Anthony Perkins petitions a doctor for suicide pills for his wife and child. American captain Gregory Peck insistently refers to his dead wife and children in the present tense and accidentally calls new flame Ava Gardner by his wife's name at a party. The film is resolute about never allowing us to expect salvation, or even a temporary stay of execution. Death is coming for everyone, and nothing—not family, not love, not patriotism, not God—will prevent it.

Inherit the Wind, from the following year, is the most tightly written of Kramer's films (with a script by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith), and also features the most savage of his head-to-head battles. In this retelling of the Scopes monkey trial, debating the teaching of evolution in schools, Fredric March's Matthew Harrison Brady is tic-ridden and slightly spastic, a pompous blowhard always playing to an imaginary audience, and Tracy's Henry Drummond is his typical shambling folksy self, his amiability buttressed by an unexpectedly steely spine and diamond-hard intellect. Gene Kelly, playing a jaded newspaperman, is the comedic counterpart to the brooding heroes, leavening the drama with an array of deliciously catty bons mots. Inherit the Wind is a competition of ideas and of temperaments, favoring genial rationalism over brittle faux-bonhomie.

In one indelible scene, March stands at the head of a sea of torches, burning an effigy of the rebellious, evolution-endorsing schoolteacher and chanting obscenely perky ditties about lynching. It is fascism with a Christian face, and Kelly instantly recognizes it: "He's already started on his backward march to the soft and stupid sea from which he came." This momentary glimpse of homegrown intolerance is the natural transition to Judgment at Nuremberg, which offers a decidedly American perspective on the horrors of Nazism. Coming out as a real-life Nazi—Adolf Eichmann—was on trial for his life in Israel, Judgment is, like On the Beach, a series of interlinked monologues, offering actors like Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland walk-on roles as ordinary Germans consumed by the Nazi beast. Maximilian Schell won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as a German lawyer, but it is Tracy who carries the film as an idealistic American judge intent on understanding both Nazi crimes and German suffering. Like Inherit the Wind, it is a courtroom thriller in which the outcome is less essential than the arguments made. Kramer is more interested in the questions than the answers.

These four films form the essence of the Kramer canon. The star-studded comic caper It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) was like Fred Astaire's car-race sequence from On the Beach hyperextended to absurdist length, a frail joke distended until it was unrecognizable. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) would primarily be regarded as a social-problem film, a direct descendant of earlier Oscar-bait pictures like Gentleman's Agreement. The debate between Tracy and his wife Katharine Hepburn (and assorted friends, hangers-on, and a beloved African-American housekeeper) on the relative merits of interracial marriage is tortured, but the film's pleasures are to be found mainly in the uncomplicated marital back-and-forth.

For the critical champions of the American New Wave, the meaning of a movie was mostly to be found in its style. Bonnie and Clyde, or Midnight Cowboy, were to be celebrated for how they looked as much as for what they had to say. Kramer was to be rejected because his films so scrupulously denied the uncontested primacy of aesthetics. Undistinguished and visually uninspired, his films were old-fashioned entertainments, privileging content over form while grappling with serious issues. But watch enough of them, and they, too, have a distinctive style, documenting and demonstrating a social problem from numerous angles, suggesting an approach, if not a solution. Ever the humanist, Kramer resolutely kept his eye on human struggles, failings, and foibles. His stories are, at heart, human stories, about people and the flawed ways they relate to one another. Style was only—could only ever be—a means to an end. 


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MGM/UA Home Entertainment
Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, directed by Stanley Kramer


Saul Austerlitz is at work on a book on the history of American film comedy.

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