10/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Centennial of Elia Kazan

Today marks the centennial of director Elia Kazan’s birth, and doubtless Hollywood will soon be giving us souped-up special editions of his finest film work, if they haven’t already. Though DVD extras can be uneven, this is still an exciting prospect.  Kazan’s best work truly deserves re-discovery, since for the most part it defies dated-ness. His then groundbreaking use of “the Method”, adapted from famed Russian dramatist Constantin Stanislavski, had much to do with his movies packing an unusually powerful punch.

 Co-founder of the Actor’s Studio, Kazan was perhaps the foremost “Method” disciple, who almost mystically encountered its most powerful purveyor in an actor he discovered and shot to fame: Marlon Brando.

 This diminutive Greek-American was nothing if not prolific in show business, and in the 40’s and 50's, most everything he did was good, and quite often great.

 He started out acting in the thirties under his nickname Elia “Gadget” Kazan (friends called him “Gadge”), then switched to directing both plays and films. He helmed some of Tennessee Williams’s most recognized titles on Broadway, including Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire, the vehicle that gave us Marlon.

 His very first feature as a director, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945), based on the book by Betty Smith about a struggling Irish-American family in Brooklyn, remains a beautiful, heartrending film, annoyingly not available on DVD. (I recommend you grab it when and if it does appear.) Two other films from later in his career also elude my official seal of approval, but again not for reasons of quality: Viva Zapata! (1952), an offbeat but fascinating Western with Brando, can only be found on a sub-standard quality DVD, while America, America (1963), arguably the director’s last great work about the American immigrant experience, is only available on VHS.

 After Tree, Kazan’s 40's work endures as solid material -- two then-groundbreaking features come to mind: 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement (which tackled the then-taboo theme of anti-semitism, and 1949’s Pinky (which dealt with racism). Still, both these films don’t quite hold up to the best of Kazan’s output from then on.

 Without a doubt his first two pictures with Brando (and the late, great Karl Malden)- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On The Waterfront (1954) -- remain his most famous and enduring films. Yet there are five other, less celebrated Kazan movies on DVD that also deserve your undivided attention.

Panic In The Streets -- This stunning suspenser centers around an increasingly desperate search for two criminals on the lam in New Orleans (played by Jack Palance and Zero Mostel), who, unbeknownst to them, have been infested with Bubonic plague. If health inspector Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) don't nab their quarry fast, this killer plague will spread and put the whole country at risk. A breathlessly exciting film, Panic stands as one of the best manhunt pictures ever made, with the plague twist adding an extra jolt of tension. Kazan's peerless on-location shooting never obscures the terrific acting from the four central characters, comprising both hunters and hunted. Palance is positively magnetic. Look fast for the director himself in a walk-on as a morgue assistant. (1950)

East of Eden (1955) -- Eden is the age-old, redemptive story of Cain and Abel, updated to 1917 Monterrey, originating via the pen of writer John Steinbeck (best-known for The Grapes Of Wrath). In his first starring film role, the iconic James Dean plays "bad" son Cal, who aches for the love and approval of his upright, uptight father, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey). Julie Harris plays Abra, the love interest of "favored" brother, Aron (Richard Davalos). Ultimately, she becomes romantically torn between the two brothers. Another 50's Kazan landmark, Eden boasts vibrant color and atmosphere, top-flight performances and a dazzling screenplay adapted from the Steinbeck novel by Paul Osborn. Oscar-nominated Dean, Harris, Burl Ives and Oscar-winner Jo Van Fleet (as Cal's reclusive, disreputable mother) stand out in stellar ensemble. Don’t pass this one by.

Baby Doll (1956) -- In the Deep South, glum-faced cotton-gin proprietor Archie (Karl Malden) is married to coy, dim-witted teenage nymph Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), who sleeps in a crib, sucks her thumb, and refuses to yield her virginity to her husband until her 20th birthday. When wily Sicilian rival Silva Vaccaro (Eli Wallach, a Broadway veteran in his film debut)) arrives with plans to take over Archie's business -- and his lovely young wife -- Archie's insecurities turn quickly into raging, desperate acts of jealousy. Notorious in its time as the filthiest picture ever made, this steamy, depraved black comedy from the poison pen of Tennessee Williams is expertly handled by Kazan, who had the picture shot in crisp, stark black-and-white. Malden's disturbing portrayal of cuckold-to-be Archie is a far cry from his later TV stint on Streets of San Francisco, believe me. But also see it for a wonderfully sleazy Wallach, and the Oscar-nominated Baker, who scores as manipulative coquette Baby Doll, especially in a porch-swing scene with the lusty Silva. One of Kazan's trashiest efforts -- in the best sense.

A Face In The Crowd (1957) -- Local radio interviewer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) decides to interview transients at the local jail for a human interest story. There, she spots a drunken Arkansas hayseed named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), who she discovers has rare gift for gab and song. Before long, due to Marcia’s initial boosting, “Lonesome” becomes a wildly popular network TV star. Little does she know she's creating a monster.  This engrossing and sobering tale about the precarious and poisonous nature of fame in our mass-media age seems even more timely today. Budd Schulberg's script (who also wrote On The Waterfront) literally sizzles, and Neal is superb. As to Andy, this role made him, but he sure is a long way from Mayberry! An impossibly cute, young Lee Remick (as Betty Lou, Lonesome’s baton twirling, clueless child bride, and Tony Franciosa as a slimeball talent agent do fine work;  the legendary Walter Matthau is also on hand in a subtle, sad-sack turn as a wise but weary network executive. This is one ;&ldquoFace” you’ll never forget.

Splendor In The Grass (1961) -- Rich kid Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) and high-school beauty Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) are going steady in 1920s Kansas, but though the torch of love burns hot and bright, Deanie resists giving up her virginity to Bud, whose sexual frustration drives him into the arms of other, “looser” girls. The fragile Deanie, meanwhile, is driven over the edge by her shrewish mother (Audrey Christie) and her own raging hormones. Handsome and emitting the masculine musk that would soon turn him into a rakish sex symbol, Beatty makes an assured screen debut in Kazan’s Grass, starring opposite an exquisitely lovely and tortured Wood, playing one of Hollywood’s most memorable sexual hysterics. (Reportedly, the two young stars had some sexual hysterics off the sound-stage as well.) Think Douglas Sirk or Tennessee Williams and you have some idea where Kazan’s wonderfully executed tale of young love, scripted by William Inge, eventually tumbles. Keep an eye out too for Phyllis Diller and a young Sandy Dennis, also making her big-screen debut.

 Kazan’s fate was not to make any more truly great pictures after America, America two years later. More painful and controversial was his decision in 1952 to testify before the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). By naming names, the director helped demolish careers while saving his own. Though he never apologized and said he truly feared Communist infiltration at the time, his decision created an enormous outcry from within his own profession, and must have haunted him, especially when a number of his colleagues sat on their hands when he was finally awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1999. He died four years later, at 94.

 Judge the man as you see fit, but Kazan’s prodigious body of work speaks for itself.

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