Blood, sweat and fear
On the Waterfront, a savage attack on violence and corruption on the New York docks, is seen as one of the greatest movies ever. For its 50th anniversary, writer Budd Schulberg relived his Herculean struggle to get the movie made
I have always thought of my writing On the Waterfront not as a conventional movie assignment, but as a mission. Pro-labour all my life I was drawn to the cause of the New York-New Jersey longshoremen from the moment I read Malcolm Johnson’s shocking revelation of the evil axis of crime-ridden dockworkers’ union racketeers and the supposedly respectable shipping and stevedore companies. That was in the late 1940s, when I was just winding up several years of working on my novel, The Disenchanted, and looking for new projects to undertake.
- On The Waterfront
- Production year: 1954
- Country: USA
- Cert (UK): PG
- Stock: Black & White
- Runtime: 108 mins
- Directors: Elia Kazan
- Cast: Eva Marie Saint, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J Cobb, Lee J. Cobb, Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger
At that vulnerable moment I was visited at my farm in Pennsylvania by a young man who had never produced a feature film before – Joe Curtis (a nephew of the foul-mouthed Columbia Studio boss, Harry Cohn), and the veteran German director Robert Siodmak, best known for his gripping Ernest Hemingway film, The Killers. They had optioned Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer prizewinning series in the New York Sun and wanted me to join them as filmwriter and co-producer.
Taking my cue from Malcolm Johnson, I went down to see Father John Corridan at the Xavier Labour School, in Hell’s Kitchen on the lower west side of Manhattan. Johnson had cited this crusading labour priest as a prime source of his explosive expose of cold-blooded murders and brutal exploitation of the 25,000 dock workers serving America’s greatest port.
I found this feisty Jesuit priest filling the vacuum left by the labour union thugs who were union leaders in name only, hardened criminals who controlled the docks as their private preserve, where they could steal, extort and murder to their black hearts’ content, while corrupt city and law enforcement officials looked the other way. Gathered around Father Corridan was a gutsy group of Irish rebel longshoremen he was guiding in a protest movement that would build to a harbour-wide reform labour union and would eventually challenge the bruisers who called themselves the International Longshoremen’s Association.
Fascinated by these men, I began to make Xavier my second home. While I was taking copious notes for the screenplay, Father Corridan encouraged me to use my prestige as a nationally known novelist to bring the longshoremen’s plight to the attention of the metropolitan public who didn’t have a clue as to what was happening to these men on whose labours they depended for everything they ate, wore and used. Despite Johnson’s original breakthrough series, the city’s newspapers, from the august New York Times to the lurid tabloids, ignored the rampant waterfront crimes as if they were happening on another planet.
By this time I had drafted my screenplay, Crime on the Waterfront and submitted it to Harry Cohn, who rejected it as “communistic”. Discouraged, Curtis and his director, Siodmak, dropped out and I acquired the rights to Johnson’s provocative material. At this point, there was a changing of the guards. Into the picture came the famous director, Elia Kazan, whom I had never met but who showed up at my farm to suggest that we do a film together in the east, independent of Hollywood, and with a social theme. That appealed to me and I dug out my rejected screenplay, which Kazan liked.
So I plunged in again, revising the screenplay according to heady conferences with Kazan. Mine was a two-pronged attack on the waterfront problem, because my first article for the New York Times – Joe Docks: Forgotten Man on the Waterfront – which laid out all the indignities inflicted on the dockworkers by their pistol union and its white-collar ally, the New York Shipping Association, received such favourable attention that I was encouraged to write another. How One Pier (#45) Got Rid of the Mob, led to half-a-dozen pieces in various papers and magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post and the liberal Catholic Commonweal.
At the same time I was finessing my screenplay for Kazan, who owed 20th Century Fox honcho Darryl Zanuck a picture (he had already won him an Oscar there for Gentlemen’s Agreement). He was sure “DZ will love it”. Having been raised in Hollywood, and knowing its reluctance to embrace blue-collar, hard-hitting material, I had my doubts. Those doubts became powerful realities when Zanuck dismissed my screenplay with words that stabbed my heart: “What you’ve written is exactly what America doesn’t want to see. All you’ve got is a lot of sweaty longshoremen.” Instead, Zanuck tried to persuade Kazan to direct a cinemascope version of the popular newspaper cartoon, Prince Valiant.
When every other major studio turned us down, I was ready to retreat to my farm and write it as a novel, which I eventually did. Meanwhile, to my eternal gratitude, Kazan said he was determined to do it ” … if I have to get a hand-held camera, use actors from Actors Studio working for scale and shoot it myself on the docks”. He was saved from that dire extreme when the independent freebooter, Sam Spiegel (who then fancied himself as SP Eagle), came to our rescue, offering to raise the money if Kazan would restrict himself to a B-budget of $800,000 on a 35-day schedule.
In sub-zero weather in Hoboken, New Jersey, Kazan shot the film, heroically, in documentary style with a powerhouse Actors Studio cast of Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J Cobb, Rod Steiger and, in her film debut, Eva Marie Saint. Even the one-line bit players were gifted actors from the Studio.
When it was finished, Harry Cohn, who had reluctantly financed the picture, walked out at the end of his projection room screening without even saying goodnight to Kazan. “He hates it,” my loyal collaborator reported to me. And Marlon (who gave the greatest of all his great performances in this one) walked out on it too, with a terse conclusion: “In and out. In and out.”
All the way through, Kazan and I had kept saying, like whistling in the dark: “We don’t care. We like it.”
That it would go on to win all those Oscars, score at the box office, be hailed as one of the top 10 of all time, was beyond our rosiest dreams. And even better than the Oscars, for me, was Father Corridan’s assertion that once the public saw the brutal reality of a “shape-up”, an assault on human dignity that had been banned on the London docks more than half a century before, the inhuman New York shape-up hiring method would be abolished, too. As, indeed, it was, followed by the establishment of the Corridan-recommended and film-reinforced Bi-State Waterfront Commission to impose some sense of law on what had become a lawless frontier.
While we were rewarded with Oscars and all those accolades, Father Corridan was rewarded by being banished to Syracuse, as far away from the waterfront as the church hierarchy could get him. But that’s another story. When he died in 1984, virtually forgotten, I was asked to give the eulogy for his funeral Mass at Fordham University.
When I visited Kazan at his home last fall, on the eve of his 94th birthday, the first thing my feisty old compadre said to me was: “God damn it Budd. Zanuck wouldn’t give us shit!” Fifty years later and he’s still pissed. I laughed and embraced him and he said: “Budd, why don’t we sit down and run it again. We did some good work together.”
Photo’s from the night:
A visual essay on ‘aspect ratio’ and On the Waterfront