Post a Job Join The Guild
Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   Register
Blog Home All Blogs
Search all posts for:   


View all (307) posts »

The Defiant One: Celebrating a Century of Stanley Kramer

Posted By Administration, Thursday, October 31, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Courageous, Independent, Creative, Integrity, Humanitarian, these are some of the words that come to mind when considering Stanley Kramer, a producer’s producer and the man in whose honor the Producers Guild of America presents the Stanley Kramer Award at its annual awards ceremony each year. This award "recognizes an achievement or a contribution that illuminates provocative social issues in an accessible and elevating fashion.” In other words, it’s given to a socially conscious filmmaker or film that best exemplifies Kramer’s legacy of bringing social issues and subjects to the screen. The award was first presented in 2002, with some of the past recipients including Precious, An Inconvenient Truth, Milk and The Great Debaters.

Kramer passed away in 2001 and this year, we celebrate the centennial of Stanley Kramer’s birth. It’s an ongoing celebration with film retrospectives screening across the country, including one at UCLA (where Kramer donated his papers way before it was fashionable to do so). A newly restored print of the rarely seen Death of a Salesman, starring Fredric March, Mildred Dunnock and Kevin McCarthy, kicked off the festival this summer.

Maverick storyteller Stanley KramerKramer grew up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen where young men had three options: 1) become a priest in order to survive there; 2) be a prizefighter to get out of there; or 3) succumb and become part of a gang, and most likely end up in jail. Being an outsider even then, he chose another option in spite of those rough and tumble beginnings — he chose education.

The son of a single working mother, a considerable stigma in those days, Kramer entered NYU at the young age of 15, determined to rise above his meager beginnings. An admirer of the New Deal, he wrote Eleanor Roosevelt a letter and counted her as a key influence on both his life and the values that drove his filmmaking.

Arriving in Hollywood for a paid writing internship at 20th Century Fox in the early 1930s, he began his career doing odd jobs during the Great Depression (including writing and film-editing for MGM, Columbia and Republic Pictures) until World War II broke out. His employers at the time, Lewin and Loew, gave him the title of "associate producer” so he could enlist in the hopes of working in the Army film unit making training films before he was drafted. It was there he met Carl Foreman, with whom he ended up partnering in an independent production company after the war, along with publicist George Glass and comedy writer Herbie Baker.

While still in the service, he bought two Ring Lardner stories, which would serve as the basis for the first productions for his own independent film company following his discharge. While the first, So This Is New York (1948), was not a box-office success, the second proved otherwise. Starring a young unknown named Kirk Douglas, Champion not only catapulted Douglas to film stardom but put Kramer on the map as one of the first significant post-war independent producers.

Because he wanted to make movies that excited him, he remained fiercely independent and refused to bow to the bot- tom line of the studios. Of course, he wanted his movies to do well. What good is the message if no one gets to hear or see it? But he made movies that challenged the belief systems and the conventional wisdom at the time, and that’s neither an easy task, nor is it encouraged by bankers and studio execs. It certainly doesn’t promise widespread popularity or tremendous wealth.

But Kramer was a producer in the true sense of the word, at a time when producers ruled the roost. In Kramer’s era, a film was the producer’s vision, from inception to completion, and they put the team together. While this remains true today, and serves as the basis for the PGA’s definition of a producer, the director’s on-set role has in substantial part eclipsed the producer’s. As the institutional balance of power shifted, so did Kramer, directing many of his productions with great success. Any Stanley Kramer Production had his stamp of approval on it. He was not only creative with the material, but he had to be creative in selling it to financiers and promoting it after it was in the can. Sometimes production required creativity simply in getting the actors to the set.

Anthony Quinn and Stanley Kramer on the set of The Secret of Santa Vittoria.  (Courtesy of United Artists and the Stanley Kramer Private Collection)While making Home of the Brave, based upon the play about anti-Semitism by Arthur Laurents, he changed the lead character to an African American. In order to proceed, he kept the script under wraps and swore the cast and crew to secrecy. Even the studio didn’t know what he was up to. Carl Foreman and Kramer came up with a phony title, High Noon, a title he would eventually use again. Every day, James Edwards, the lead actor, would lie down on the floorboards of his car as it drove him to and from the studio lot. When the movie opened, it was one of the most picketed films in film history. Kramer exhibited this kind of courage, tenacity and creativity throughout his career. He was fearless.

A fiercely independent filmmaker who preferred to work outside the studio system, except for a tempestuous three year stint with the legendary Harry Cohn, Kramer’s legacy of films include Death of a Salesman, The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Caine Mutiny, Inherit the Wind, High Noon, The Wild One, On the Beach, Ship of Fools, Judgment at Nuremberg, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Bless the Beasts & Children... the list goes on. His films garnered more than 85 Academy Award nominations. Though Kramer never won one himself, he did receive the Irving G. Thalberg Award from the Academy in 1961, perhaps the highest accolade a producer can receive in Hollywood. He never backed away from pushing the envelope with such subjects as racism, anti-Semitism, interracial marriage, rampant greed, the teaching of evolution, freedom of speech and nuclear war. While he disliked the critics’ appellation for his films as message movies, there was a grain of truth to the label. In nearly all of his films, he tackled subjects that were not generally discussed, if not outright avoided. He used to say, "I still believe in getting people to think, but I don’t believe films change anyone’s minds.”

His widow, PGA member Karen Sharpe Kramer, disagrees with her husband’s statement. "Stanley was extremely modest about himself and his work,” she said. "But I think it’s a mistake in dealing with social issues and assuming you can’t change people’s minds.” And if you look at his films, you might be inclined to agree with her, not him.

On the Beach explored nuclear holocaust at a time when everyone believed that bomb shelters in their backyards would protect them from radiation. Kramer’s film showed otherwise. Premiering worldwide on December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, kings, queens and heads of state came out to see the film on its opening night. Not long after, talks of disarmament began at the United Nations.

Stanley Kramer with his Irving G. Thalberg Award and Maximilian Schell with his Oscar for Judgment at Nuremberg. (Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Stanley Kramer Private Collection)With Bless the Beasts & Children, Kramer explored the senseless killing of animals, notably buffalo in the state of Arizona. When it was discovered they were shooting there, the production was thrown out of the state and had to finish up the movie on Catalina Island. Stanley promoted the film among young people and at universities to great success, touching the chord of revolution and making it a cult classic. That film opened the door to outlawing the killing of buffalo in Arizona.

Let’s not forget about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner —a film that explored interracial marriage with an all-star cast toplined by Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier. Once again, Kramer kept the script under wraps, afraid that if Columbia knew the complete story, they’d shut him down. Instead, he told them it was a love story (which of course it was, just not the kind of love story the studio imagined). Production had already begun up in San Francisco when the studio pulled the plug, on the premise that Spencer Tracy was too ill and uninsurable. Never one to take anything lying down, Kramer came up with a brilliant and creative solution that the studio could not refuse. He knew Tracy well, having made four movies with him, and knew how to work with him in spite of his illness. Kramer went to Katharine Hepburn and told her he was willing to guarantee his salary to insure Tracy for the film, and if Kate did the same thing, the studio would be legally compelled to let them continue. The studio had no choice but to go forward. When the movie was released, it premiered at a single theater in Westwood, where the studio had hoped to bury it, but they didn’t bargain for the college students who lined up around the block to see the film. When Kramer asked some of the students how they felt about the film, they opined that Kramer was very old-fashioned; they were way ahead of him and really didn’t consider interracial relationships to be a significant issue. But Kramer replied, "I know you don’t. But I didn’t make this film for you. I made it for us. For us, who can’t deal with it.” At the time of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 16 states had outlawed interracial marriage and there were opponents on both sides disapproving of the film. But the movie confirmed that the writing was on the wall for such institutional bigotry, and one by one, those laws were knocked down.

"So what can I say?” Karen Kramer explained. "I disagree with my husband, I believe film does change what people thing about things, maybe not just a little bit, but a whole lot.”

Ava Gardner and Stanley Kramer on the set of On the Beach. (Courtesy of United Artists and the Stanley Kramer Private Collection)

Famously, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was Spencer Tracy’s last film and a testament to the boldness of Stanley Kramer. Steven Spielberg, who calls Stanley Kramer one of his all-time favorite filmmakers, observed that when you read Stanley Kramer’s credits, you’d think they were from six or seven different filmmakers that made this "amazing contribution to American cinema and social reality, but in fact, it all came from one heart and one soul and one incredibly talented visionary.”

Kramer was engaged in directing his own movies from the very beginning, directing the fight sequences for Champion, but it wasn’t until 1955’s Not As a Stranger that he took the director’s credit for a full picture. "As a producer, I had always felt frustrated after working sometimes as long as two years to get this far on a project, then having to hand it over to a director and simply hope he could bring the picture to life in the way I had envisioned,” he said. "I was always afraid he’d make the picture he wanted, but not necessarily the one I wanted.”

Kramer was a man of strong convictions. Well before Spartacus and Dalton Trumbo put the final nail in the coffin of the Hollywood blacklist, Stanley Kramer made sure blacklisted writer Carl Foreman received writing credit on High Noon (1952), while four years later, he hired the blacklisted team of Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith for The Defiant Ones — a script that later won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Sidney Poitier recalled, "It was a fabulous experience that galvanized, for me, a career I had never dreamed possible. The Defiant Ones, Pressure Point, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, were films that pushed the limits of the status quo and changed the game of the film industry, not to mention, the world, considerably.”

Kramer, indeed, had a keen eye for talent. Kirk Douglas (Champion), Marlon Brando (The Men, The Wild One) and Grace Kelly (High Noon) as well as Poitier among some of the many talents whom he helped propel to stardom. He also took chances with established stars allowed them to play against types, such as Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones, Fred Astaire in On the Beach, Gene Kelly in Inherit the Wind, and Judy Garland in A Child Is Waiting and Judgment at Nuremberg. The industry and the public thought he was crazy casting these actors, but the choices were typically vindicated by award nominations.

Kramer and Sidney Potier on the set of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures and the Stanley Kramer Private Collection)As a humanitarian, he truly believed in justice, truth and the value of a single human being, and his movies reflect that. But he was also a family man, in fact, family came first. He was home every night for dinner at 6, no matter what. Karen Kramer still marvels at his integrity, how he never criticized anyone or said an unkind word about anybody, yet made films that were painfully aware of our human (and national) shortcomings. The honesty in his films and the way he lived his life continues to inspire countless storytellers. It’s been 100 years since Stanley Kramer came into the world. And 100 years from now, his legacy of conscience, commitment and craftsmanship will be just as vital as it is today.

- Written by Rona Edwards
- Originally from Produced By Magazine

 Attached Thumbnails:

This post has not been tagged.

Share |
Permalink | Comments (0)