60 Years Later: On the Waterfront and Working-Class Studies

For most Americans On the Waterfront is not a politically controversial film—it’s simply one of the best films of all time. Many know that the film’s director Elia Kazan did something shady and some might even know that he testified against his former Communist allies at the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). An even smaller group might know that after testifying Kazan took out a full page New York Times ad to justify his decision.

But for the American left, Kazan is one of the worst traitors in American cultural history. When progressive scholars write about On the Waterfront, they draw parallels between Kazan, who betrayed his friends in order to clear his name (and to keep working in film), and Terry Malloy [Marlon Brando], who betrayed the members of his mob crew in order to clear his conscience of the wrong he had done in their name.

Kazan has done much to fuel this interpretation of the film. In his 1988 autobiography, A Life, Kazan explained the parallel between his naming names and Terry Malloy’s testimony before the Waterfront Commission: “When Brando, at the end [of On the Waterfront], yells as Lee Cobb, the mob boss, ’I’m glad what I done—you hear me?—glad what I done!’ that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.”

But if we reduce On the Waterfront to Kazan’s personal story we lose sight of the real working-class social formation out of which this film was born and overlook the genuine progressive political commitments that led both Kazan and Schulberg to make On the Waterfront despite great obstacles.

The social formation of the postwar docks was rooted in the hiring process known as the “shape up.” It was estimated that there were half as many jobs as there were men who lined up for them every morning. Arthur Miller, who wrote several plays about the waterfront himself, described the “shape up” as he witnessed it in the late 1940s:

I stood around with longshoremen huddling in doorways in rain and snow on Columbia Street facing the piers, waiting for the hiring boss, on whose arrival they surged forward and formed up in a semicircle to attract his pointing finger and the numbered brass checks that guaranteed a job for the day. After distributing the checks to his favorites, who had quietly paid him off, the boss often found a couple left over and in his generosity tossed them into the air over the little crowd. In a frantic scramble, the men would tear at each other’s hands, sometimes getting into bad fights. Their cattle like acceptance of this humiliating process struck me as an outrage, even more sinister than the procedure itself. It was though they had lost the mere awareness of hope.

On the Waterfront began as a response to these working conditions—not as a vehicle for Kazan’s revenge. The film began in 1951, before the HUAC hearings, with Budd Schulberg, a self-described Hollywood “prince”—a writer who was the son of movie mogul B. P. Schulberg. Schulberg had never met Kazan when he was asked by a small film company, Monticello, to write a screenplay based on Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalistic series, Crime on the Waterfront, which had been published in the New York Sun.

Schulberg became obsessed with the waterfront after Johnson introduced him to one of Johnson’s main sources: Father “Pete” Corridan, whom Schulberg described as “a rangy, fast-talking, chain-smoking West Side [priest] who talked the darndest language I ever heard, combining the gritty vocabulary of the longshoremen with mob talk, the statistical findings of a trained economist and the teachings of Christ.” Schulberg continued to obsess about the docks even after Monticello folded and the project was declared dead. After the publicity surrounding Kazan’s HUAC testimony, Schulberg wrote Kazan a letter expressing sympathy for the “vilification he was undergoing,” and, later, after they met for lunch, Kazan proposed they work together on a film about the Trenton Six—six African American youth who had been convicted of killing a white shop owner. Schulberg had other ideas: why shouldn’t the two of them work together on his waterfront film? Kazan agreed.

Though Howard Lawson, a blacklisted screenwriter, described On the Waterfront as the ultimate Hollywood film, the film was quashed by Hollywood more than once. In 1952, when Schulberg and Kazan tried to get Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, to produce the film, Zanuck told them, “what you’ve written is exactly what the American public doesn’t want to see.” Finally, in late 1952, when they were depressed and about the to junk the film, a washed-up producer, Sam Spiegel, agreed to bankroll it. Filming was completed in 1953, and On the Waterfront was set to debut in the spring of 1954—just in time, everyone hoped, to help the honest dockworkers win an election against the real life “Johnny Friendly” types who controlled the docks.

Throughout the filmmaking, Kazan was inspired by Schulberg’s commitment to the dockworkers’ cause, and he saw Schulberg’s engagement with the subject matter as “passionate and true.” Kazan acknowledged that “Budd had made himself….a champion of humanity on that strip of shore.”

What about Kazan’s engagement? In a much less quoted passage from his autobiography, Kazan explained that his attachment to On the Waterfront came from a desire to show his old lefty enemies that he was the true progressive when it came to representing the working class: “I was…determined to show my old ‘comrades,’ those who’d attacked me so viciously, that there was an anti-Communist left, and that we were the true progressives and they were not. I’d come back to fight.”

This quote points to another parallel between Kazan and Terry Malloy: they were both fighters. In the final scene of On the Waterfront, Malloy is beaten nearly to a pulp by Johnny Friendly’s goons. He can barely walk. When his girlfriend Edie (Eva Saint Marie) tries to help him, Father Barry (Karl Malden) waves her off. In 1955, the radical British filmmaker, Lindsay Anderson, argued that this scene is “fascist.” Malloy, through violence, has simply become the new de facto “Johnny Friendly,” just another tough guy who is ready to rise up and exploit his brethren.

Anderson’s argument shows how judging Kazan for his political betrayal can lead to a misreading of the film. The closing scene isn’t fascist. It’s a scene that uses the language of fighting— specifically boxing. Malloy, a former boxer, is down for the count. If Edie or the priest helps him get up, then he can’t continue to fight. In this metaphorical boxing round he’ll be disqualified. And so he gets up, on his own, which means that the round is over but the match is not. He will live to fight again. Finally, in this scene, Malloy has become the contender he always knew he could be.

If you get a chance to see On the Waterfront this month, in honor of its 60th anniversary, think about this. As much as Terry Malloy might represent Kazan, ratting on his former friends, it is also true that Kazan and Schulberg were trying to rat on capitalism, to call out American business practices as corrupt, and to argue that something drastic needed to done to reform the docks. What Kazan did was wrong, but what happened to American dockworkers in this period, arguably, was even worse. Though the bitterness against Kazan has lingered lo these many years, we in working-class studies should reclaim On the Waterfront as one of the important texts for understanding what happened to American labor in the postwar period. We do so not to redeem Kazan, but to honor the workers that he and Schulberg were trying to represent.

Kathy M. Newman

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9 Responses to 60 Years Later: On the Waterfront and Working-Class Studies

  1. Dennis Brasky says:

    My problem with On the Waterfront is the same problem I have with High Noon. The workers in the former and the townspeople in the latter are frightened sheep, unwilling to take a stand and oppose the “bad guys.” They are incapable of self-organizing and require rescue by a hero – Brando/Cooper. Celebrating their refusal to “take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them” is what is fascist.


  2. Ronnie Kelly says:

    I think I will watch the film again – for the fourth or fifth time – to see if I can get any hint of what Kathy sees in the film. Seems to me she is way out on the end of the gangplank of opinion; or, to say differently, given enough time, I could come up with additional “this reminds me of” kind of argument.


  3. Clay Steinman, Media and Cultural Studies, Macalester College says:

    While I agree with Kathy Newman’s argument that biography is not destiny when it comes to doing political-historical analysis of film, I think attention must be paid to reception complexities and textual details and historical context. We can’t know how audiences responded to On the Waterfront, but we can know that at the time of its release, centrist and conservative elites and the news media routinely associated unions and gangsters. On the Waterfront ends with the workers responding to a “Let’s go to work” appeal from what Schulberg’s script describes as a “boss stevedore” and the workers filing in as individuals, without a union, to resume work. Indeed, there is nothing in the film that suggests a union election to restore honest representation. It’s gangster union vs. no union.

    I wonder about two other aspects of the piece. There’s no mention that Schulberg, too, was an informer (including naming Tillie Lerner/Olsen–according to Victor Navasky’s Naming Names the only person to do so). This contributes to the film’s reputation on the left. And the slam on one of the Hollywood Ten, John Howard Lawson (not Howard Lawson), seems gratuitous here. The piece says Lawson called Waterfront “the ultimate Hollywood film,” but I can’t find this in the material to which the piece links as citation. Indeed the link does argue that Lawson was an opponent of method acting, which is certainly present in the extraordinary performances in Waterfront; we might disagree with Lawson’s rigid position on this, but anyone who has read his books and articles on filmmaking knows his critiques were related to more complicated arguments in left aesthetics (as well as to a degree of uncritical support for the Communist Party that is worth criticizing). Kazan and Schulberg were anti-Communist liberals who did work worth considering, and were part of a post-neo-realist New York school in the 1950s that tried to make non-glamorous films about ordinary people. But that doesn’t mean On the Waterfront needs more praise than it deserves from a working-class perspective.


    • Roy Wilson says:

      While I agree that it is the socio-political aspect of the film that it perhaps most worthy of systematic analysis, I wonder about Clay’s comment “We can’t know how audiences responded to On the Waterfront”. I suspect there has been some investigation of this. In any case, on a personal note, as a working-class kid watching the film around 1964, I can tell you that the I have often used the phrase “I coulda been a contender” to comment on the successes and failures of my own life, some of them class-related. I’d guess that many persons who are not, like me, academics, have done the same. But, I suppose, this is speculative, of course.

      Kudos to Kathy for a balanced view of (“the rat”) Kazan.


      • Roy Wilson is correct in his speculation that there is likely some study done in learning audience response to “On The Waterfront”. Colleges teach whole course in what is called “audience reception theory”, or “reception studies”. This discipline was derived from “reader response theory” that focused on everyday reader responses to popular novels, particulary romance novels. The studies went on to television and then to movies. The English scholars pioneered this discipline in studies of television (Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall are the most famous of them) and it came to the U.S. along side continental theory (particularly structuralist and post-structuralist literary analysis). Cinema studies have not been the same since.


  4. bigbadred says:

    David is quite right. The film may be everything Kathy says it is, but the ending is a rehash of High Noon. Actually it’s worse, as the Gary Cooper character’s wife does indeed help him. On the Waterfront may be a fine working class film, at least one sympathetic to the problems of working people, and not just an apologia for Kazan, but the tale’s only social actors are Malloy and the mobbed-up union guys, with Malloy playing paladin. The workers are inert. That’s an old Hollywood trope, even if well-told.


  5. Per Fagereng says:

    I don’t know how things are now on the East Coast, but in those days the honest union was the ILWU on the West Coast. It’s leader Harry Bridges was hounded as a communist. The East Coast ILA was run by the Mob and maybe it still is.


  6. David Shumway’s critique is spot on. I would add only that Terry’s choice would have political significance if the plot included a backstory where the workers could be seen a progressive collectivity organizing against the mob AND against a corporate culture that would offer them up to mob manipulation as a means to deliver to business a quite and docile workforce, in order to better protect profits from any kind of worker action. Mobsters may “tax” capital by taking what ever “falls” off the boats in exchange for worker quiescence, but the real robbery is committed by both the mob and “legitimate” business together against the workers’ only weapon: the strike. This tag-team robbery takes the form of the permanent sheathing of the workers’ ability to withhold their labor power. That Terry never turns to his fellow dockworkers to demand that they not accept this arrangement is very revealing as to the real nature of the film’s politics.


  7. Thanks for an interesting, well-argued post. I agree with you that Kazan’s behavior with regard to HUAC is a distraction. I have always liked ON THE WATERFRONT, but I don’t think it’s one of best films of all time because it is flawed. I agree with Anderson that the ending of film is a major problem, and that it certainly detracts from any progressive interpretation one might want to give it. I would guess that Kazan and Schulberg didn’t know how to end the film, since the ending doesn’t even really make sense in terms of the plot. It’s a sort of playground version of how one might win acceptance. Moreover, the ending points to the larger problem of film’s failure to make it clear why the union matters in the first place. It is true that the film focuses on a working class environment, but it treats that environment as a scene of crime and corruption. And, like most Hollywood films, this one focuses on an individual to the virtual exclusion of the community. Terry makes the right moral choice, which also turns out to be a personally satisfying one since he is turning on the people who sold him out as a boxer. But it’s not portrayed as a political choice.


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