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richard schickel Lost River I n the summer of 2005 I received an urgent phone call from a woman producing the supplemental material for a proposed dvd release of Elia Kazan’s Wild River (1960).Could I provide the audio commentary for it? And could I do so within the next two or three days? The studio, Twentieth Century-Fox,was planning to put the film out in February 2006. I was in New York at the moment, without access to my research material, but I had recently completed my biography of Kazan, so the film, and his (and my) thoughts about it were fresh in my mind. Besides, it is one of my favorites among his pictures, and I was eager to talk about it. So, two or three days later, I found myself on a recording stage at 1600 Broadway, offering my thoughts about Wild River. A couple of months later someone else from Fox was on the phone, asking my production company to make a short film about the Kazan picture, also for inclusion on the dvd. We, of course, owned an extensive interview I had done with the director—it had served as the basis of a television film I had written and directed about him. So we made that little film, too. After which, total and mysterious silence. February 2006 came and went —no dvd. The silence persisted until fall 2010, when at last divine intervention (in the form of the always passionate Martin Scorsese) occurred. Kazan was Scorsese’s beloved master, a huge shaping force on the latter’s sensibility and career. Scorsese made a highly personal film about Kazan and pressed Fox to release a boxed set of dvds containing his documentary as well as the many films he made at the studio. So, 101 years after Kazan’s birth and 7 years after his death, all of Kazan’s features have at last been re-introduced to the public via home video. This is obviously a good thing. But somehow it does not entirely erase the long years of silence and frustration that have surrounded Wild River. From its conception, through its troubled development—which required almost two decades—through its limited, desultory release in 1960 and its entombed half-century aftermath, the picture was among the most enigmatic and deeply buried failures by a distinguished director in movie 182 richard schickel history. This is particularly so since it is, quite obviously, a very good film that, in some respects, flirts persuasively with greatness. Its roots lie deep in Elia Kazan’s past. In 1937, he was an actor, stage manager , and aspiring director in the Group Theatre; but it was summertime, the Group was on hiatus, and a new entity specializing in documentaries, Frontier Films,was preparing to make its first short film,eventually entitled People of the Cumberland (1937). Kazan’s lifelong friend, the photographer Ralph Steiner,was one of Frontier’s founders, and Kazan signed on to work as an assistant on the picture, which showed the hard lives of backcountry people in Tennessee—and the hopeful effect building a new school had on them. It’s hard to say, exactly, what Kazan contributed to the movie, but he was later voluble on the effect these sly, hard, deeply traditional people had on him. Put simply, he adored them. They had about them a hard-shelled authenticity that he had been looking for most of his life. They were as far as it was possible to be from the twitterings of the New York artistic and intellectual communities, in which he had been caught up since graduating from college. Moreover, he saw that it was possible for the cameras to Elia Kazan (center) and Ralph Steiner (left, behind camera) in a production still from the 1937 documentary People of the Cumberland. Kazan’s experiences in Tennessee while making the film informed his development of the story for Wild River. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott. Photo courtesy of the Wesleyan Cinema Archives. Lost River 183 penetrate their lives and give an honest accounting of them. Much of his latter-day preference for casting nonactors wherever possible stems from this experience. In 1937 the major issue in the region was the intrusion of the Tennessee Valley Authority (tva).Its purpose was to construct a series of dams,causing a rerouting of the Tennessee River, in order to bring electricity to the area. The larger social good of that...


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