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  • The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan: The Politics of the Post-HUAC Films by Ron Briley
  • Bernard F. Dick
Ron Briley. The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan: The Politics of the Post-HUAC Films. Lanham, MD. Roman & Littlefield. 2017. 239 pages.

“Ambivalent” is a recurring adjective in this absorbing and provocative study of the director’s last twelve films, each given its own chapter except for the last two which are grouped together: Viva Zapata! (1952), Man on a Tightrope (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), Baby Doll (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Wild River (1960), Splendor in the Grass (1961), America America (1963), The Arrangement (1969), The Visitors (1971), and The Last Tycoon (1976). It would be a mistake to bypass the Introduction, paginated in Roman numerals. It is really a chapter unto itself summarizing Kazan’s work and politics. If Kazan emerged as a conflicted man in his autobiography, A Life (1988), he now appears as an ambivalent one, personally and professionally, as Briley has clearly demonstrated by interweaving his life with his films.

He was ambivalent about loving his wife, Molly Day Thatcher, and conducting affairs with other women, including Marilyn Monroe. In The Arrangement, a successful advertising executive (Kirk Douglas), a stand in for Kazan, has achieved it all: wife, mistress, and a fabulous career, yet is hemmed in by the conventions that society has imposed upon him. Kazan himself felt similar constraints: the Communist Party in the 1930s, studio interference in his films, the Catholic Church and the Legion of Decency that denounced Baby Doll and contributed to its failure at the box office, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) before which he purged himself and encouraged others to do the same. He respected his immigrant father, who failed to experience the happiness and satisfaction promised by the American Dream, but at the same time feared him, as does the son in The Arrangement (Kirk Douglas), whose father (Richard Boone) was a rug merchant like Kazan’s. Strained relations between father and son are at the heart of East of Eden, in which a son (James Dean) attempts to buy the love of his father (Raymond Massey); in Splendor in the Grass, a father (Pat Hingle) plans the kind of life for his son (Warren Beatty) that he would have wanted for himself (a Yale degree, social respectability, a brilliant marriage), even though his son has no interest in living out his father’s dream.

Kazan considered himself a progressive yet feared progressivism could devolve into populism and lead to fascism. In A Face in the Crowd, the rise of a folksy media celebrity (Andy Griffith) is a reflection of the cult of personality that empowers totalitarian regimes. He believed in progress yet questioned the disruptions it can cause, as seen in Wild River, in which an elderly woman (Jo Van Fleet) refuses to leave her home so that a dam can be constructed to prevent flooding, but is finally forced to accept the inevitable.

There was one thing, however, about which he was never ambivalent: his decision to cooperate with HUAC in its investigation of Communism in the movie industry. On April 11, 1952, the New York Times published a paid ad by Kazan in which he admitted that he had joined the Communist Party in 1934 and left two years later when he realized that the Party “violated the daily practices of democracy to which I was accustomed,” “attempted to control thought,” and “violated the truth.” The previous day he had appeared before HUAC as an informant. On the Waterfront was Kazan’s apologia for informing, although there is an enormous difference between Terry Malloy’s testimony before a legitimate committee investigating waterfront crime and a committee of questionable legitimacy inquiring into one’s political affiliations. Briley brings out the ambivalence in the film, pointing out that Malloy, initially cocky and inarticulate, ends up as a Christ figure wobbling along the dock as if it were a via dolorosa. The sinner has turned saint. But even more disturbing is the ending, which, as Briley observes, Malloy and the workers enter the warehouse as...


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