Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Elia Kazan | On the Waterfront / George Abbot and Stanley Donen | The Pajama Game / Martin Ritt | Norma Rae

by Douglas Messerli

Budd Schulberg (writer) (based, in part, by articles by Malcolm Johnson), Eliza Kazan (director) On the Waterfront / 1954
George Abbott and Richard Bissell (based on Bissell's novel 7 1/2¢) (writers), Richard Alder and Jerry Ross (music and lyrics), George Abbott and Stanley Donen (directors) The Pajama Game / 1957
Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch (writers), Martin Ritt (director) Norma Rae / 1979

Since it has come time again to celebrate the American worker on Labor Day, I thought it might be interesting to explore a few films that focus on workers and, in particular, the employee relationship with employers, which also involves the issue of labor unions. The three works on which I've decided to focus center on the unions, linking the labor organizations with better pay, better working conditions, and, in the second example, representing them as a corrupt force demanding the employees' blind faith. I might have chosen numerous other films about the workplace, The Apartment (a film on which I've already written in My Year 2003), How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and Nine to Five immediately come to mind. But I chose these particular three films because their focus is on the relationship of workers and union more than on extracurricular situations involving affairs of the heart.

The Pajama Game, based on Iowa writer Richard Bissell's 1952 novel 7 1/2 ¢, however, is a none too serious example of a workplace drama, and were there not a real battle between labor and management presented in this work, it might have floated off into a love comedy. The head of the Union Grievance Committee, Babe Williams (Doris Day)—despite her denials ("I'm Not At All in Love")—is clearly attracted to the new superintendent of the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, Sid Sorokin (John Raitt). But, as she later explains to him, she is a "Union girl," and resists his attentions precisely because she is afraid of what will come between them. Although it is a comic resistance—one that we immediately know will ultimately be overcome—there remains throughout the play a serious breach between management and labor that ends, temporarily, in their separation.

A more comic series of characters buoy up these more serious issues facing the feuding lovers by mocking all love quarrels: Vernon Hines (Eddie Foy, Jr.), the factory timekeeper, is perpetually jealous of the woman he loves, Gladys Hotchkiss, (the great comic dancer Carol Haney) secretary to the head of the factory "Old Man" Hasler. That jealousy, combined with Hines' drinking and "skill" at throwing knives, a skit he is determined to perform at the annual employee picnic, creates its own fireworks, underlying the more serious battles between the superintendent and union representative. One of the best comic moments in the work, indeed, is played out by Sid's secretary, Mabel (the delectable Rita Shaw), and Hines, as she tries to cure him of his jealous behavior ("I'll Never Be Jealous Again"); that "cure," however, is short-lived, and ultimately, hinting at an even darker fears in the war between factory employees, culminates in the possibility of murder and death!

As Sid and Babe fall deeper and deeper in love (helped along by songs such as "Small Talk" and "There Once Was a Man"), the war between the union and management threatens. Workers demand a raise most other such employees have received throughout the state of 7 1/2 cents, and as Hasler continues to resist, a slow-down is ordered. Outraged by their actions, Sid orders an "honest day's work," and as the slackers again speed up production, Babe jams the machinery. Sid has no choice but to fire his lover. His lonely fate is beautifully spelled out twice in the musical as he sings to himself into a Dictaphone ("Hey There").

Meeting at Babe's house, several rebellious workers plan strategies to embarrass the company, mismatching sizes of pajamas, flimsily sewing on fly-buttons, etc. In order to correct the threatened mayhem, Sorokin becomes determined to see the financial records which the company head keeps carefully locked away from sight. Pretending to court Hasler's secretary Gladys (who has dismissed her dangerous lover Hines) he meets her at the popular city night club, Hernando's Hideaway, with the attention of wheedling the key to the company records she keeps on a chain around her neck.

In fact, that key reveals another kind of "chain" around all the worker's necks. Sid discovers that Hasler has already raised the cost of his products to account for the 7 1/2 ¢ months before, refusing to grant the raise simply out of greed.

The union rally is in progress where union leaders explain just what that raise of 7 1/2¢ will mean to the underpaid workers over a lifetime. But before the strike is declared, Sorokin arrives with Hasler in hand, having threatened to reveal Hasler's actions to the workers. The old man has no choice but to give in to Union demands. Sid is restored to a hero in Babe's mind. And everyone is suddenly off to celebrate at Hernando's where "All you see are silhouettes. / And all you hear are castanets. / And no one cares how late it gets," clearly a kind of laborers heaven.

The same year that The Pajama Game opened on Broadway, Eliza Kazan's On the Waterfront premiered in movie houses; the two could not be more different in how they deal with the subject workers and unions. Whereas in The Pajama Game the local union, completely controlled by the local workers, successfully serves their concerns, writer Budd Schulberg's International Longshoreman's Association, run by the mob (in New York the infamous Genovese family) robs union funds while demanding complete fealty and further financial extortion from the workers.

The film, based on newspapers stories written by Malcolm Johnson in the New York Sun, begins with a somewhat dim-witted but gentle tough, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), playing lackey to the gangster union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who orders him to lure a young dockworker, Joey Doyle, to his apartment rooftop. Doyle has evidently informed on union workers to a new Crime Commission committee, and Johnny wants him killed. The unsuspecting Molloy (who presumes Friendly's henchmen will only rough him up) does what he's told, inviting Doyle, himself a bird lover, to inspect his rooftop pigeons. In shock Terry witnesses Doyle's murder as he is hurled to the street below.

From that moment on, Elia Kazan's film takes its subject by the teeth and refuses to let go. No matter what one thinks about Kazan—most of my older Hollywood friends have refused to speak to or even of him since 1952 when he served as a friendly witness before the House on un-American Activities—there is no question that On the Waterfront is a powerful and mesmerizing film, with brilliant performances by Brando, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint and an original score by Leonard Bernstein. The film won eight Academy Awards, including the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, and is listed on the American Film Institute's list of most memorable movies.

It is useful to realize, however, that no matter how factual Schulberg and Kazan's film was (and there is every reason to believe that they correctly portrayed the brutality of the New York shipping docks) Kazan's intention was to create a kind of allegory for his own position before McCarthy and others. The original screenplay, "The Hook," was by Arthur Miller (who refused to name names before the HUAC committee), but he was replaced by Schulberg (who, like Kazan, testified as a friendly witness before the committee). Pressure from the HUAC committee wanted the mob villains to also be Communists, but fortunately Schulberg did not defer to their wishes. Nonetheless, Kazan's film, with its emphasis on those who refuse to speak up against the mob, his obvious disdain for those who remain "Deaf and Dumb (D & D)," was clearly a statement against the criticism he had received for speaking out at HUAC. (It's interesting that Miller went on to write two works that told a different story of behavior regarding public testimony: A View from the Bridge, about the family loyalty of Italian immigrants, and The Crucible, about the Salem witchcraft trials and the related testimony of young girls and others against the so-called witches.)

Most of On the Waterfront, accordingly is devoted to the long struggle by Father Barry (Karl Malden) and Joey Doyle's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), with whom Terry gradually falls in love, to convince Terry to come clean and report what he has seen to the Crime Commission. When the mob begins to suspect that Terry might squeal, they order him killed, unless Terry's older brother Charley (part of the Union mob) can convince him to remain silent. Through conversations with Edie and Father Barry, Terry gradually begins to understand the difference between survival and hope, as he develops a new set of moral values which reach back into his own past.

In what is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film, Charley literally takes his brother "on a ride," trying to force Terry to understand the danger of his potential acts. As they discuss Terry's past career as a boxer, Terry admits that is has very little offer in his current life. But whereas Charley blames his brother's manager ("That skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast"), Terry suddenly blurts out the truth:

It wasn't him, Charley! It was you. You remember that night in the Garden,
you came down to my dressing room and said: 'Kid, this ain't your
night. We're going for the price on Wilson.' You remember that? 'This
ain't your night!' My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens?
He gets the title shot outdoors in the ball park—and whadda I get? A
one-way ticket to Palookaville.

Their final interchange represents Terry's transformation from dim-witted lackey to a man of growing wisdom and moral integrity:

Terry: You was my brother, Charley. You shoulda looked out of me
a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me—just a little—so I wouldn't
have to take them dives for the short-end money.
Charley: I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.
Terry (yelling and heartbroken): You don't understand! I coulda had
class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead
of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it [pause]....It was you, Charley.

With such an intense scene between brothers, Kazan needs to say little about the union Charley represents. The relationship between the workers and the union is played out in On the Waterfront in terms of sibling rivalry, saving the director from having to focus on the deeper issues concerning the relationship between the two forces.

Obviously, Terry must die! And in Schulberg's original script that was to have been his fate. But Kazan would then have been without a hero to give evidence to his righteous act of testifying. In the final film Terry battles Friendly directly through a kind of end-all fighting bout; he is nearly killed by the union henchmen, but, once Terry, his supporters in pietà-like formation, is helped to stand, he refuses to give in, weaving and lunging forward, a working man's Christ, into the maw of the ship, Friendly shouting after like some angry schoolyard bully who has temporarily lost his powers. The myth Kazan has created is perhaps more powerful than Schulberg's original political commentary.

Martin Ritt's 1979 film Norma Rae is clearly, of the three union films I discuss, the most realistically conceived as well as the most focused of these films on the actual issue of unions. Located in a small Southern US town, a region (as I mention in my discussion of There Goes My Everything in My Year 2006) where union leaders and even members were often thought to be Communists, and joining unions, accordingly, was perceived as an Un-American act, the film presents the often brave and always strong-willed activities of Norma Rae Webster (Sally Fields, who won an Oscar for her role) and a Union organizer from New York, Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Liebman). Based on a real-life figure, Crystal Lee Sutton, who, while earning $2.65 an hour folding towels at the Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, J. P Stevens plant, tried to organize her co-workers, the film proceeds in a fairly true-to-life, unspectacular manner to depict the gradual awakening of the workers to their needs and, most importantly, their rights.

Norma Rae's own difficulties with men, her latent attraction to Rueben, and their discomforts with opposing cultures and religions is all gently laid to rest early in the film so that Ritt can focus on the growing union activities and the inevitable repercussions upon her life. The mill itself, more than its unsympathetic owners and managers, is represented as a monstrous Dickensian machine, the air filled with wool dust and the pounding sound of the looms that voids almost any possibility of verbal communication and assures the eventual loss of hearing for employees. The moment in the film where Norma Rae discovers that her mother has become hard of hearing is one of the most memorable in a series of scenes played out in the infernal factory, where employees are carefully watched for even the smallest of infractions.

Refused permission to put up a union sign or even post company policies, arrested, and fired, Norma Rae gradually grows through Rueben's mentoring from a fairly ignorant country girl into a wiser woman who is transformed from just another worker to someone, as Crystal Lee Sutton is purported to have asked to be remembered, "who deeply care(s) for the working poor...." Upon being arrested and humiliated, Norma Rae breaking into tears, is given little sympathy by Rueben, who reports "It comes with the job."

Her growing sense of determination and righteousness is at the center of Ritt's film, and its trajectory is what makes his film a fulfilling work. By the time that Norma Rae, like Sutton before her, closes down her machine and, standing on her work table while holding a cardboard sign upon which has scrawled UNION, brings the entire factory to a silent halt, we know that no matter what the outcome, the workers have won and their relationship to the monstrous mechanic in which they toil, has been changed forever.

In reality it took a year before the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union won the right to represent the seven plants located in Roanoke Rapids. The court ordered that Sutton be paid back wages and returned to work. She returned for two days, quitting to work as a union organizer. On September 11 of this year, Sutton died of brain cancer at the age of 68.

Los Angeles, September 6, 2009
Copyright (c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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