When Labor Ruled the Docks

Budd Schulberg’s effort to get ‘Waterfront’ to the silver screen

Fifty years later, and eight months after his 90th birthday, Budd Schulberg looked back on a walk through Hoboken that he took with Marlon Brando on the Sunday before the shooting started on “On the Waterfront.”

Brando said to Schulberg: “Let’s walk through the whole town.” He put on the clothes he would wear as Terry Malloy, and they set out.

“We went into a bar and had a beer,” said the man who wrote the screenplay of that movie, “and nobody knew who this was. Halfway through the walk, a Catholic school let out, teenagers, and I thought:  Now they’ll know. Nothing. They went right past him.”

And that is how the first and greatest piece of acting in American cinema was foreordained; had to be.

This Friday, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s 1954 “On the Waterfront” opens for an anniversary week at Film Forum, in the way it should be seen, on the big screen, with everything in Boris Kaufman’s photography painstakingly restored from the original negative along with Leonard Bernstein’s score.

Schulberg will be at the Houston Street theater to say a few things, answer a few questions, opening night.

Meanwhile, asked about how “On the Waterfront” was born, one of its eight Oscar-winners responded for these pages: “Someone told me about some articles that were coming out by Malcolm Johnson in the old New York Sun [a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the strong-arm treatment of New York/New Jersey longshoremen by their own thug-controlled union]. I read every article, saved them all, every day.

“I was on my farm at New Hope, Pennsylvania. One day a young man named Joe Curtis came to see me. He was a nephew of Harry Cohn [the tiger at the head of Columbia Pictures], and he had with him Robert Siodmak, the director who had made ‘The Killers,’ a very good picture, from the Hemingway story. They asked if I would write a film on the subject covered in those Malcolm Johnson articles.

“I had just finished ‘The Disenchanted’ [Schulberg’s novel about Scott Fitzgerald], and my father, B.P. [Hollywood producer B.P. Schulberg], who had fallen on hard times and was living in my guest house, would be one of the producers, so that appealed to me, even though there was almost no money in it.

“I went to see Malcolm Johnson, who was very nice, and he pointed me to Father John Corridan of the St. Francis Xavier Labor School on West 16th Street in Chelsea. I went down and had lunch with Corridan at Billy the Oysterman’s, and he told me how men were getting killed, right there on the waterfront, and how nobody would talk about it. ‘You’re a writer, maybe you could do something to let people know,’ he said.”

When you see Karl Malden in the film as Father Barry, giving a fiery sermon in a ship’s cargo hold on how the murder of Kayo Dugan is “a crucifixion,” that’s Father John Corridan.

“I swear,” Budd Schulberg said, “Karl Malden looks like him, walks like him, talks like him, smokes like him. Corridan was a tall man, very tall and strong. Vigorous. Looked like a longshoreman. Talked like a longshoreman. Swore like a longshoreman. Worse than that.

“He called Big Bill McCormack, the Mr. Big of the whole waterfront, ‘a son of a bitch.’ McCormack was a power behind the mayor of New York, [Vincent] Impelliteri. Whenever McCormack called City Hall, Impelliteri would stop whatever he was doing and take the call.”

Schulberg went to meetings in the basement of Father John Corridan’s church. Meetings exactly like the one in the movie, where the men plead “D and D”––deaf and dumb––in fear of their lives and their families’ lives.

“I was there so much, Walter Winchell in one column said I was taking instruction [on becoming a Catholic]. The Jewish organizations got on my case.”

Schulberg wrote a script, direct from what he’d  seen and heard. Columbia’s Cohn turned it down. Three times. Called it “communistic.” Cohn was legendary in more than one way. He was also a partial prototype of Sammy Glick, the protagonist of “What Makes Sammy Run” who’d risen from copy boy to Hollywood czar over the professional corpses of his friends, mentors and women. Budd’s first novel, completed at the age of 26, had made the deepest of imprints on a whole generation, and certainly on me.

After Cohn turned the film down, Curtis and Siodmak also bailed. Then one fine day, somebody else went to see Schulberg at New Hope. A fellow he’d never met. Fellow named Elia Kazan.

Kazan said he’d love to work with Schulberg; that he wanted to make a movie taking place in the eastern United States and on a socially conscious theme. Maybe something on the Trenton 6, Kazan suggested––a lynching case not dissimilar from that of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s.

“I went to Trenton and checked it out, but then I told him about my waterfront idea,” Schulberg recalled.

Kazan got excited. Schulberg went back to work on the script. And everybody in Hollywood turned it down. Every studio. Every studio chief. Every single one. Even Darryl F. Zanuck, for whom Kazan had made the controversial award-winning  “Gentleman’s Agreement,” about anti-Semitism, and “Pinky,” about racism. Zanuck told Kazan and Schulberg that their proposed waterfront film was “exactly what what America doesn’t want to see. All you’ve got is a lot of sweaty longshoremen.”

Kazan and Schulberg, who had paid their own way out to California and were running out of money, were also running out of hope. They were depressed, desperate. And at that moment the long arm of coincidence opened a door––the door to a room across the hall from theirs at the Beverly Hills Hotel. A room occupied by freebooting independent movie producer Sam Spiegel (who in his later, loftier moments, billed himself as S. P. Eagle). Spiegel just then had turned out a movie called “Melba” that was going nowhere and never did.

“Come in, boys,” Spiegel said. “Why are you so depressed?” They told him why. “Well, I’m giving a big party tonight for all the stars,” Spiegel said. “Come to the party, and tomorrow morning you can tell me what your picture’s all about.” Schulberg responded: “But I’m going back to New York in the morning.” Spiegel said: “Come early, before you go.”

Schulberg even then already had a vivid memory of Sam Spiegel.

“My mother at one point, soon after I got out of college,  was in London, putting on airs, having a very successful career as an agent,” he recalled in our recent conversation. “She’d rented a big house, and was putting on some huge fancy affair when, in the midst of it, the butler came in and said: ‘Madam, Brixton Prison is on the telephone.’  It was Sam Spiegel, broke, in debt, caught in some funny business, calling to beg for money.”

Back to the Beverly Hills Hotel. At 7:30 the following morning, Schulberg pushed open the unlocked door to Spiegel’s hotel room and tiptoed in. The place was a wreck. Cigarette butts, glasses, napkins, the detritus of the night before.

“Sam was asleep in bed, the sheet up to his eyes,” Schulberg recounted. “I said: ‘Sam, I hate to wake anyone up,’ and he didn’t stir. I walked around the bed for 20 minutes, telling the story. Sam looked dead. Suddenly he pulled the sheet down to his chin and said: ‘I’ll see if I can do it.’ Later he said: ‘If you guys think you can do it for $800,000, and do it fast, 35 shooting days, I’ll try to raise the money from United Artists.’

“He didn’t get the money from United Artists, but he sold the idea to”––guess who––”Harry Cohn, and we went to work.”

Most of the actors who were to gain immortality through “On the Water” were drawn by Kazan from the Actors Studio and the classes of Stella Adler. One was Karl Malden. Another was Marlon Brando.

Schulberg had not seen “Truckline Cafe,” the play in which a young Brando had made such a vivid first impression, but he had seen “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the play that certified Brando’s brilliance. It was directed on Broadway by Kazan and produced by Irene Selznick.

“Gadge and Irene Selznick had had a major fight over the casting of Stanley Kowalski,” recalled Schulberg, perhaps the only person still alive who calls Kazan Gadge. “Irene wanted John Garfield, a marquee name. Gadge said: ‘I love Julie Garfield, I was on stage with him, and he’s right for it, but this kid in the studio has got something extra that you can’t define.’ “

The part went to Brando.

“Same thing happened with ‘Waterfront.’” Schulberg said. “Garfield would have been good in it, and was pissed off when we went to Brando.

“I sent a script to Marlon. It came back after a week and a half. The pages hadn’t been turned. I said to Gadge: ‘He hasn’t read the damn thing.’ So then I suggested Frank Sinatra”––not only a natural for the part, but a Hoboken natural.

“Even as Sinatra was reading the script, Spiegel, who could be a great seducer when he wanted to, went and got Marlon to do it,” Schulberg continued. “It wasn’t Gadge who got Marlon, it was Spiegel.”

And what about the role of Edie, the girl whose brother Joey has been pushed off the roof to his death––and who falls in love with Brando’s Terry Malloy in spite of herself? The more one looks at this superb movie over and over again through the years, the more one is knocked out by the luminescence of Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle.

“Yes,” said Schulberg, “the purity.”

The purity and yet the desire, an interviewer hazarded.

“That too,” Schulberg replied. And then: “We had more trouble casting that part. Went through the whole Screen Actors’ Guild book––kept turning the pages, getting nowhere. Eva Marie Saint was working in a play on Broadway with Lillian Gish [Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful”], and had one small scene.

“Gadge said: ‘You go.’ I went, and was very impressed with her.

“She had never been in a movie before. In her first scene, she later told me, she was scared to death. All of a sudden, there she is with Marlon Brando.

“You know, I spoke to Eva Marie, who’s out in California, just a few days ago. She said she’d got along very well with Marlon. At the time she was newly married and nervous, but Brando––‘He was very nice’––never made a pass at her.”

All the major research for the film, said Schulberg, was done on the West Side, in the Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea areas.

“But when it came to the actual filming, Gadge said that shooting it down there will be too tough, because of the traffic and the danger of the mob. He and I went to Hoboken, and we talked to the chief of police, Arthur Moretta. Told him our problem, about the mob, and he appointed his brother to protect the set.

“One day at lunch, some goons grabbed Gadge and roughed him up. Just like the Marines, this Lieutenant Moretta came to the rescue.”

Yes, said Schulberg, what Rod Steiger had once told this writer––and had, it seems, also told a lot of other people––was true. In the famous taxi scene between lawyer Charley and kid brother Terry, Marlon Brando was not always there for some of the shooting. His contract allowed him to keep his sessions with his shrink in Manhattan.

“Marlon would say: ‘It’s 4 o’clock, I’m sorry, I have to see my psychiatrist,’ and off he’d go. So Kazan would read Marlon’s lines to Steiger. Watching the movie, you’d never know Marlon was absent. Rod felt humiliated, second fiddle, all of that, and would never stop talking about it.”

On the whole, Schulberg said, Brando “stayed with the script” and was on time. “Here and there he would add a word that was very effective.”

Finally, there’s this: Around and about for all these years has been what Stendahl called an “idee recu”––conventional wisdom to the effect that Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg made “On the Waterfront,” in which Terry Malloy is finally persuaded to testify against union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his hoods, as a rationale for Kazan and Schulberg’s naming of names during the plague years of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the blacklist.

“I’ve always resented that,” Budd Schulberg insisted these 50 years later. “In my first script, I didn’t have that testimony at all.”

It was Father Corridan who, in telling Schulberg “people are getting killed down there on the waterfront every day, many people,” had urged him to incorporate the waterfront commission hearings in Manhattan into his script. “I went and sat and listened at least 40 times. So to me, that whole theory doesn’t make sense. But the truth never seems to catch up.”

The truth in fact is that all of that is irrelevant. What’s relevant is the movie itself. Name me a better one.

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