It’s a Contender
University Professor Leo Braudy’s new book, On the Waterfront, explores the impact of the classic film and the story behind its making.
By Pamela J. Johnson
Leo Braudy was a teenager when an unlikely golden child of cinema emerged in the form of a gritty black-and-white film.
A young Braudy connected with the movie’s swaggering yet vulnerable protagonist who raised pigeons and mourned his lost chance to be somebody. So did thousands of others.
“On the Waterfront” captured collective hearts in 1954, the year the first nuclear-powered submarine was launched and Elvis Presley made his radio debut.
“When I saw it as a teenager, it made a tremendous impact on me,” said Braudy, University Professor and the Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature at USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences.
So much so that Braudy wrote a book about the classic film that earned eight Oscars and skyrocketed Marlon Brando into stardom. Braudy’s On the Waterfront (British Film Institute, 2005) is due out in February.
“It resonated with me,” Braudy said of the film inside his USC office. “I saw it many times over the years. There’s something about it. It conveyed a feeling of both toughness and tenderness.”
In the book, Braudy talks about his growing obsession with the film shot on location around the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, with the Hudson River as a backdrop.
“This sense of real neighborhood so enveloped me when I first saw ‘On the Waterfront’ that I resolved to visit Hoboken for myself,” he wrote.
The Philadelphia native moved to New York in 1968 when he took a teaching post at Columbia University. Eventually, he did visit Hoboken, retracing the scenes in the movie.
“But for years before when I had visited friends there or driven through, I would always try to use the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson, because every once in a while, craning my neck while driving along that wide street that leads up to the tunnel on the Jersey side, I thought I could see the spires of a Hoboken church I knew must be from ‘On the Waterfront,’ ” Braudy wrote.
“Past the fast-food neon of the strip I also could see the faint outline of trees, perhaps a park, perhaps even the park fronting on the Hudson where Edie Doyle walked on that misty morning when Father Barry prodded Terry Malloy [Brando] into telling Edie that he had set her brother Joey up for the kill. ‘Honest Edie, I thought they were just going to lean on him a little.’ ”
In fact, that famous park scene — when Edie [Eva Marie Saint] drops a glove and Malloy picks it up and slips it on — was actually shot at three locations, six to eight blocks apart, Braudy said in the book.
And Malloy picking up Edie’s white woolen glove and playing self-consciously with it, then trying it on was really a rehearsal accident retained for the shooting.
“Marlon [Brando] picked up the glove in rehearsal,” Braudy quotes Saint in his book. “Another actor would have just given it back. But Marlon would never do any scene quite the same.”
The film had many incarnations, according to Braudy’s book. “Waterfront” director Elia Kazan’s own interest began with a script written by Arthur Miller called, “The Hook,” dealing with crime and corruption on the waterfront. When Kazan and Miller tried to sell it, they hit a brick wall.
It was the early 1950s, during the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Hollywood in which people were summoned to name former communist associates. Kazan was among those who obliged and helped create the notorious Hollywood blacklist.
Paranoia was so rampant that studios told Miller and Kazan to change the script to make the union revolt against communist leaders, rather than mobsters. Miller withdrew from the project.
Enter Budd Schulberg, who had also been writing about crime on the New York waterfront, a headliner story at the time. Schulberg’s script was based on a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Sun articles.
In Schulberg’s early script version titled, “Bottom of the River,” Terry Malloy was a newspaper reporter and the main character was the priest, Father Barry. Schulberg’s later version, “The Golden Warriors,” dropped the reporter and featured Terry Malloy as the prominent character.
Schulberg, who had also publicly denounced communism and gave names to HUAC, contacted Kazan about working together. The pair received a cold response when they took the script now called, “On the Waterfront,” to 20th Century Fox’s Darryl Zanuck.
“Who’s going to care about a lot of sweaty longshoremen?” Zanuck told them, according the Braudy’s book. “I think what you’ve written is exactly what the American people don’t want to see.”
Finally, independent producer Sam Spiegel showed interest but wanted Marlon Brando to play the lead. Upset over Kazan’s testimony to HUAC, Brando refused, twice returning the script unopened.
Kazan turned to Frank Sinatra, who was born in Hoboken. Sinatra was already into wardrobe fittings when Brando finally agreed to do the movie. Sinatra later sued Spiegel for reneging and the case was settled out of court.
Other great nuggets of information grace Braudy’s book. For example, the scene in which Terry Malloy and Johnny Friendly wrestle at the bar was meant to resemble a love scene. Braudy said Kazan wrote in his notes that the undertones were to be “close to homosexual between the two.”
Braudy also addresses at length the popular notion that Kazan and Schulberg made the film to absolve themselves for being informants. A major turning point in the film comes when Malloy testifies against the mobsters. Braudy says the film was not merely an apologia. He notes that testifying came up only in the last of many script versions.
Kazan himself was a bit cagey on the topic. In some interviews, Kazan denies any parallels.
But in Kazan’s autobiography, Braudy points out, Kazan referred to Malloy’s defiant “I’m glad what I done to you” speech.
“That was me saying with identical heat,” Kazan wrote in his biography, “that I was glad I testified as I did.”
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