Screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run?) has passed away at 95, ending a life that was far more than the simple triumph of sheer staying power. Schulberg represents the departure of another major player from On the Waterfront, the 1954 film he wrote.
Rod Steiger died in 2002 and Marlon Brando in 2004. Elia Kazan, the director, passed away in 2003 at 94, Karl Malden (Mladen George Sekulovich) departed last month at 97. Eva Marie Saint, who won an Oscar for her performance in the film, lives on, but Schulberg and Kazan outlived the screen Stalinists with whom they crossed swords early in their storied careers.
Both were members of the Communist Party USA, whose cultural commissars, particularly V.J. Jerome, made life difficult for writers and directors. So did John Howard Lawson, the Party’s straw boss in the dream factories. Party doctrine cast writers and directors as “artists in uniform,” whose work had to serve a political purpose – the purpose the Party wanted – or else it was only so much bourgeois sentimentality.
That plan was fine with the Stalinist faithful such as Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter of Papillon and many other films, and author of The Remarkable Andrew, a novel written during the Nazi-Soviet, in which the ghost of General Andrew Jackson argues against U.S. aid to the British. This is the same writer who once ghosted a speech for U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.
The “artist in uniform” plan did not sit well with Kazan and Schulberg, who opted to leave the CPUSA, though they both inclined to the left. Both went on to stellar careers, with Schulberg surviving criticism for What Makes Sammy Run? Samuel Goldwyn, for whom Schulberg was then working, fired him for the book, an indictment of the movie business, at least in the eyes of its bosses.
Schulberg and Kazan opted to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which began in the 1930s investigating Nazis, fascists and such. Some payback to Party bosses was certainly involved in their testimony, and more. Schulberg once told the Hollywood Reporter that while it was “unpleasant” to identify people he had known in the CPUSA he thought it was “wrong and undermining democracy” for a secret organization to try and control the Writers Guild. He and Kazan worked some of this out in On the Waterfront, which is not, as some imagine, a zero-sum game. The movie is about both mob corruption of waterfront unions and an allegory about the CPUSA.
The mob headed by Johnny Friendly, played by Lee J. Cobb, tyrannizes the workers and bumps off those it dislikes, very much in the Stalinist style of the period. A crime commission is investigating, and the mob doesn’t want anybody testifying. Those who don’t play “deaf and dumb” don’t work. Father Barry, played by Karl Malden, tells the men that those who maintain silence share in the guilt. This disturbs Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, who knows something about the murder of Joey Doyle, brother of his girlfriend.
If the men really want to hurt Johnny Friendly, Father Barry says, they should testify to the crime commission. Terry finally does so. He loses work over it, but in then end he comes to terms with his actions. The key lines come in the standoff with Johnny Friendly, who says “You ratted on us Terry.”
“I’m glad what I done to you,” Terry responds. “And I’m gonna keep on doing it.”
It was only some years later that Marlon Brando realized the anti-communist sub-text. Schulberg and Kazan overcame much studio resistance to make the film, which bagged eight Academy Awards. Schulberg got one for his screenplay, in which Eva Marie Saint says to Marlon Brando, “I didn't say I don't love you, I said I want you to get out.” The writer and director proved, Schulberg told reporters, that they could hold an audience and say something they believed in. That would be democracy, and the need to stand up to tyranny.
Despite Hollywood legend, writers such as John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo did not believe in democracy, and they spent much energy defending Stalinist tyranny, which took down many of their fellow writers and artists. Like Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg was glad what he done to the screen Stalinists, part of the reason he will rest in peace.