Tonight at dusk, D.C.’s National Mall will host a special Screen on the Green showing of the 1954 classic On the Waterfront. Barring awful weather, you might want to come early. It’s likely to be crowded.
People will flock to see the film for a number of reasons — most of them good. It has an all-star cast, including a young Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint in her debut role. It won eight Oscars and made the Vatican’s list of 45 greatest films of all time. And it deserved the accolades. It’s a great story.
Within Hollywood, politics made On the Waterfront an extremely controversial film. Director Elia Kazan had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 about Communist attempts to infiltrate the studio system. This story, which painted “naming names” as an heroic act, was Kazan’s response to his critics.
They were none-too-happy about his unapology. When Kazan was finally presented with a honorary Lifetime Achievement Award during the 1999 Oscars, there was an organized campaign to discourage applause. Several Hollywood notables sat on their hands. The once-blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky said publicly that if someone were to shoot Kazan, “It would no doubt be a thrill in an otherwise dull evening.”
It’s both easy and hard to see why people got so worked up. On the Waterfront was based on an actual Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles documenting corruption on the docks of Brooklyn and Manhattan. The reluctant hero, Terry Malloy (Brando), is a former prizefighter turned New York dockworker who starts out in the pocket of union boss and mafioso Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), but eventually breaks the Longshoremen’s code of “d and d” (“deaf and dumb”) to restore justice and dignity to his fellow workers.
His conscience is helped along in this by the love of a good woman Edie (Saint) and the tough-but-caring voice of Father Barry (Malden). Many of the lines have lost some of their impact because of endless repetition (“I coulda been a condendah”), but Father Barry’s sermon over the fallen body of a dockworker is still bracing.
Braving jeers and projectiles, the priest booms, “Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up. Taking Joey Doyle’s life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. Dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that’s a crucifixion. Every time the mob puts the crusher on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows has happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of Our Lord to see if He was dead.”
Then comes the instructive exchange:
Thug: “Go back to your church, Father.”
Barry: “Boys, this is my church. If you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you’ve got another guess coming!”
Some have called On the Waterfront an anti-union flick, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Its moral outlook is in favor of the hard working union worker and dead set against union bosses who misuse union dues, demand kickbacks, and intimidate people who won’t shut up and go along.
And it’s still relevant today. In the film, Malloy is able to set things to right by cooperating with the anti-corruption Waterfront Crime Commission. Our modern version of the Commission is the Department of Labor’s Office of Labor Management Standards, which in the past eight years secured hundreds of convictions of corrupt union officials and tens of millions of dollars in forced restitution over misspent union dues.
For its success, OLMS’s budget was cut by the new Democratic Congress in 2007 and likely to be further pared back under the Obama administration. The previous OLMS also worked hard to force the unions to come clean about their records. The current one has gone in rather the other direction. In the film, a union official in a hearing claims that all the records were stolen the night before. In real life, sympathetic bureaucrats simply loosen disclosure requirements.
Finally, there’s the scarf. Near the end of the film, union boss Friendly is at his most defiant when he appears in a suit and scarf. I wouldn’t mention it here except that it’s eerily similar to the one Service Employees International Union boss Andy Stern, probably the most powerful union boss in America, wore to a labor photo-op at the White House in February.
“Nice scarf,” said President Obama.