Legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn once said “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.”
Obviously, the saying had little impact for Stanley Kramer, king of the message movies, who would have turned 100 on September 29th of this year.
Kramer was a maverick producer and director whose drive to control his own destiny and get his message movies made dictated a desire to be independent, free of studio control.
And so the left-leaning filmmaker tackled such subjects as racism, nuclear war, religious issues, the Holocaust, and the effects of war on those who served with a degree of autonomy that was rare in Hollywood during his times.
Born in the tough Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan to Jewish parents—his mother worked for Paramount Pictures—Kramer planned on a law career upon graduating from New York University, but decided to move to Hollywood when he got a job offer in the writing department of 20th Century Fox. A series of odd studio and moviemaking jobs followed until he was drafted into the Army where he served in the Signal Corps, capturing WWII on film with Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak and Russ Meyer.
Post-war, Kramer found it difficult to get studio work. Out of necessity, he, along with some cohorts including writer Carl Foreman, started Screen Plays, Inc., an independent production company.
The company’s first project—a comedy called So This is New York, with humorist Henry Morgan and Rudy Vallee—didn’t register at the box-office, although the subsequent Champion, helmed by Mark Robson with Kirk Douglas as a tough and unscrupulous fighter, scored with audiences and critics. The company also produced 1949’s Home of the Brave, also directed by Robson. This adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ play switched its subject matter about anti-Semitism in the Army to a tale about racism against a black soldier. It garnered controversy and fine notices.
Marlon Brando made his film debut in Kramer’s 1950 production of The Men, essaying the role of a young lieutenant left paraplegic after being shot in Europe during WWII. The treatment of the character’s long road to recovery and acceptance of his condition made for a powerful picture. Wrote the New York Times Bosley Crowther: “Stern in its intimations of the terrible consequences of war, this film is a haunting and affecting, as well as a rewarding, drama to have at this time.”
Also in 1950, Kramer oversaw production on Cyrano de Bergerac, based on Edmond Rostand’s saga, starring an Oscar-winning Jose Ferrer as the poet/swordsman/romantic with the big shnoz.
Fred Zinnemann, the veteran Austrian filmmaker who made The Men, was recruited for 1952’s Kramer’s production of High Noon, the intense, real-time western scripted by Foreman. Gary Cooper was cast as the western marshal forced to face off solo against a gang of killers who terrorize the town he lives in with new bride Grace Kelly.
The film captured four Academy Awards, including a Best Actor Oscar for its star. Meanwhile, Kramer and Foreman, outspoken liberals, were both called in front of the House Un-American Activities to be grilled about their political beliefs. Kramer came out clean, but when Foreman, a former member of the Communist party, elected not to name names, he and Kramer parted ways.
Foreman soon relocated to England, where he would script such films as The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone. Kramer landed at Columbia Pictures, where he set up his producing unit under the dictatorship of Harry Cohn.
Meanwhile, High Noon won favor with audiences and most critics, but divided conservatives: Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower liked it very much. John Wayne later called it “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” although he accepted fellow conservative Gary Cooper’s Academy Award for him at the annual ceremony when “Coop” was unable to make it.
At Columbia, Kramer signed to produce 20 films over a five year period. In quick succession, he delivered Death of a Salesman (1952), adapted from Arthur Miller’s revered play, with Fredric March as Willy Loman; The Member of the Wedding (1952), Zinnemann’s rendering of the Carson McCullers novel showcasing Julie Harris; The Juggler (1953), a stark drama with Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor; The Wild One (1953), showcasing Marlon Brando as a rebellious, leather-clad motorcycle gang leader; The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), an elaborate children’s fantasy based on a Dr. Seuss story; and The Caine Mutiny (1954), an adaptation of Herman Wouk’s saga of a naval court-martial, with Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson and Jose Ferrer.
But what he really wanted to do was direct. Kramer launched his own helming career in 1954 with Not as a Stranger, a 1954 medical drama starring Robert Mitchum, Olivia de Havilland and Frank Sinatra. “Old Blue Eyes” was also recruited to join Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, and a large cannon in Kramer’s Napoleonic era adventure The Pride and the Passion (1957).
Neither film caught on, but Kramer’s third directorial outing was a home run: The Defiant Ones (1959), in which shackled chain gang escapees Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are forced to co-exist as they dodge authorities, bad weather and brutal terrain in the segregated South.
The film netted nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and two for Best Actor; it
took home two awards for screenplay and black-and-white cinematography. Kramer’s direction was hailed as “skilled and sensitive” by Variety, while the New York Times called the picture “a forceful social drama.
Also in 1959, Kramer adapted Nevil’ Shute’s novel On the Beach, turning it into a haunting, all-star examination of the horrors of a futuristic nuclear war set aboard the USSS Sawfish, a submarine filled with survivors played by Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins. This stark drama was a box-office disappointment despite some nice notices, including another fine review from the Times explaining that “The great merit of this picture, aside from its entertaining qualities, is the fact that it carries a passionate conviction that man is worth saving, after all.”
Kramer’s did better with audiences with an adaptation of the play Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized account of the 1925 Tennessee-based Scopes “Monkey Trial” that pitted pro-Creationism attorney William Jennings Bryant (Fredric March, as “Matthew Harrison Brady”) against pro-Evolution counsel Clarence Darrow (Spencer Tracy, as “Henry Drummond”). Gene Kelly was the reporter, based on H.L Mencken, who covered the trial that involved a school teacher (Dick York) arrested for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to students.
Writing about the film in 2006, Roger Ebert observed: “Early scenes in the film are broadly drawn…But once the film centers on the courtroom battle between the two old men, it finds a ferocity that is awesome; Brady and Drummond essentially engage in a debate between fundamentalism and the possibility that if God did create the world, he did so in more than six 24-hour days. What is astonishing in this 1960 film is the gutsy way it engages in ideas, pulls no punches in its language, and allows the characters long and impassioned speeches. There are a lot of words here, well-written and spoken, and not condescending to the audience. Both Tracy and March vent an anger and passion through their characters that ventures beyond acting into holy zeal.”
1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg, adapted by Abby Mann from his own 1959 Playhouse 90 TV drama, centers on the 1948 hearings of four judges who served during the Nazi regime in Germany. This epic, all-star saga—nominated for 11 Academy Awards—stars Tracy as the leading American judge in the tribunal, suggested to afford leniency to the accused in order to help relations during the Cold War. Among the other principals are Burt Lancaster as one of the accused jurists; Maximilian Schell, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor, as the lead defense counsel; Richard Widmark as the lead prosecutor; Judy Garland as a German woman fearful of testifying; Montgomery Clift as a troubled concentration camp survivor; and Marlene Dietrich as the widow of a German officer.
Running over three hours and filmed in black-and-white, the film received mostly superb reviews and was hailed for its gripping depiction of the (fictionalized) complex events of the not-so distant past.
While Kramer continued to produce serious pictures (like Pressure Point), he decided to next go a lighter –although no less ambitious–route. 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a film of staggering proportions, running 192 minutes in its original roadshow cut, and featuring a who’s who of comedy stars in lead roles and cameos. The madcap caper that mocks American greed was presented in (but not filmed in) the wide-screen Cinerama format. Kramer stated he wanted to make a “comedy to end all comedies” and few would argue he didn’t succeed at that.
Spencer Tracy plays a retiring police captain who follows the hijinks of a group of greedy wackos who witnessed injured gangster Jimmy Durante’s dying confession, and are attempting to find an enigmatic “giant W” where $350,000 in loot is buried.
Over the years, the film has won a devoted cult of followers, calling for its restoration to its original form (it’s been whittled down to 160 minutes or so) and hailing IAMMMMW as one of the funniest films ever made. On the flip side, there are those who consider its elephantine running time and unending parade of farceurs a chore to sit through and a bloated mess.
Even Bosley Crowther, in his original enthusiastic New York Times Review, wrote: “The only trouble with the whole thing is that it runs too long. There is simply too much wild confusion, too much repetition of similar things. There comes a time when the senses and the risibilities cry stop. One feels in complete accord with the actors when they and the film end up swathed in bandages, in traction in a hospital, and Miss (Ethel) Merman comes in for one last bombast and slips on a banana peel.”
Kramer returned to serious issues with 1965’s Ship of Fools, based on the Katherine Anne Porter novel about a boatload of colorful passengers (Oscar nominees Oskar Werner, Simone Signoret and Michael Dunn, as well as Vivien Leigh, Lee Marvin, George Segal, and Jose Ferrer) headed from Vera Cruz, Mexico to Germany in 1933. The film received nine Academy Award nominations and two wins, along with positive reviews from the likes of Variety, who reported “director-producer Stanley Kramer and scenarist Abby Mann have distilled the essence of Katherine Anne Porter’s bulky novel in a film that appeals to the intellect and the emotions.”
During the sixties, Kramer was often derided for his world view and for what the younger generation of film fans considered stodgy films with little style.
In his highly influential book The American Cinema, critic Andrew Sarris did not mince words when writing about Kramer: “If Stanley Kramer had not existed,” he penned, “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.”
Despite the naysayers, more recognition would come for Kramer with 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, in which he tackled interracial marriage and prejudice. In this acclaimed dramedy, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (in his last film) headline as an aging liberal couple who meet daughter (and real-life Hepburn niece) Katherine Houghton’s husband-to-be, black doctor Sidney Poitier. When Poitier’s parents show up on the scene, everyone’s patience and beliefs are tested.
A box-office hit that garnered Hepburn and screenwriter William Rose Oscars (along with eight other nominations), the film received great box-office and healthy reviews (Variety’s A.D. Murphy called it a “landmark” film), although today the film is often looked upon as dated, the situations contrived.
“Yes, there are serious faults in Stanley Kramer’s ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ but they are overcome by the virtues of this delightfully old-fashioned film,” wrote Roger Ebert in his 1968 review. “It would be easy to tear the plot to shreds and catch Kramer in the act of copping out. But why? On its own terms, this film is a joy to see, an evening of superb entertainment.”
And then there’s film critic Dave Kehr’s opinion that “Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made their last appearance together in this dismal Stanley Kramer morality play about a middle-class couple facing the prospect of their daughter’s marriage to a black man (Sidney Poitier). A disaster on all counts—its time, if it ever had one, has definitely passed.”
After Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kramer continued to direct and produce films at a steady clip, but none of them—though ambitious, varied in theme, and generally well-acted and directed—ever achieved the success of his earlier work.
There were The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) with Anthony Quinn as an alcoholic in a small Italian town who manages to become mayor and hide priceless bottles of wine from the Nazis; the poorly received RPM (1971), again with Quinn, as a liberal college professor enlisted by radical students to act as their spokesperson during a campus revolt; Bless the Beasts and Children (1971), centering on a group of young boys in an experimental camp who decide to band together and release buffalos from their stables; Oklahoma Crude (1973), boasting George C. Scott, John Mills and Faye Dunaway in a saga set against the backdrop of the Oklahoma oil boom; The Domino Principle (1977), an all-star espionage thriller starring Gene Hackman that tanked with critics and at the box-office; and the barely released The Runner Stumbles (1979), in which Dick Van Dyke plays a priest reassigned to a small, impoverished town who gets romantically involved with nun Kathleen Quinlan.
Kramer, winner of many awards including the prestigious Irving R. Thalberg Award in 1961, wrote his autobiography It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1997. He spent most of his retirement in Washington State, where he taught, wrote a newspaper column, and hosted a movie-oriented talk show.
Kramer played down his desire to make movies with excessive moralizing earlier in his career.
“I’ve never made a film to get across a message, I find that word patronizing, and I’m pessimistic about the results,” he said. “If you can get one person to walk out of a theater and say, ‘Why, I’ve never thought of it that way before,’ that’s about all you can get. And that’s very heady wine.”
Kramer later said that he “knew how to use a film as a real weapon against discrimination, hatred, prejudice and excessive power.”
In 2001, the 87-year-old Kramer passed away in a retirement home in Woodland Hills, California.
The movies and the messages came through loud and usually clear.