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It’s Been a Life of Pride, Passion--and Defiance

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was a time when Stanley Kramer was called, with some accuracy, “the most picketed producer in America.” From “Home of the Brave” (1949), a dramatic exploration of anti-black racism, through 1958’s “The Defiant Ones” and even “Inherit the Wind” in 1960, Kramer was as good at raising hackles as at raising grosses. In an era when Hollywood’s principal aim was still to divert rather than stir things up, Kramer was the industry’s one-man social consciousness, and conscience.

Tuesday night at the Directors Guild, Kramer is being honored upon the publication of his autobiography, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (written with Thomas M. Coffey). But the night will also recognize Kramer’s 64 years in Hollywood (he arrived on a short-lived apprentice program in 1933), the 16 Oscars and the 80 nominations his films won, and the films themselves that so often looked at the real world and found it troubled and wanting--and that broke ground for filmmakers who have come along since.

Kramer was born in Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s tough West Side, living in cramped quarters with his immigrant grandparents and his mother (his father having decamped before Kramer knew him). His mother, Mildred, was smart and ambitious and worked as a secretary in Paramount’s New York offices. “She thought she knew the answer to everything. As I always did,” he said.

It was a neighborhood of tough--but not then thieving or murderous--gangs. Kramer avoided arrest, he says, and entered NYU at 15. His mother wanted him to be a lawyer; the movies were his own idea.

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A story he wrote won him an internship at Fox, although the program was abruptly abandoned. He found a job moving sets and furniture. “I schlepped a lot of stuff, but it never destroyed my illusions,” Kramer said. He spent eight years learning the Hollywood ropes, working last as an assistant editor before he went into the service.

When he returned after the war, there were no jobs to be had, so he fatefully decided to be an independent producer. He bought two Ring Lardner short stories and got financial backing from a young man eager to get into the business but unacquainted with more luminous producers.

One of those stories, “Champion” (1949), made a smashingly successful film and set Kramer’s career in motion. It had as its protagonist a thoroughgoing amoral heel (Midge Kelly, as brilliantly played by the young Kirk Douglas). The movies had had their villains and their vivid gangsters, but Midge was an unprecedented coloration, a despicable, recognizable, natural-born heel.

One night, he and Douglas screened the film for World War II paraplegics at the Birmingham VA hospital in Los Angeles and Kramer was fascinated, talking to the vets. He went to Carl Foreman, who wrote a story and screenplay. Kramer signed Marlon Brando, fresh from his Broadway triumph in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for his screen debut, and “The Men” was directed by Fred Zinnemann.

Kramer is 84 this month, and his step has been slowed and his voice softened by a double assault of diabetes and a skin cancer. But he is still outspoken and, as he is in his autobiography, still his own toughest critic.

“You’re a total person, one way or another,” Kramer said at his new home in Studio City the other afternoon. “I don’t know what kind of fame I’m entitled to, let’s put it that way. I failed on some of the things I shouldn’t have failed on. I took a shot at ‘Member of the Wedding,’ and it didn’t come off. Even when people predicted I’d make the grosses, I didn’t make them. Why, why, why? When I look at it today, I say it was because the film wasn’t good enough.”

Many of his most memorable efforts have been adaptations of plays, commencing early on with “Home of the Brave,” from a play by Arthur Laurents, whose theme was anti-Semitism. Kramer made the victim African American, not Jewish, but also suffering from the bigotries of his fellow soldiers. The subject matter was so touchy that Kramer shot the film in total secrecy to avoid protests by anti-black organizations. Director Mark Robson, the cast and crew entered and left the studio inconspicuously by a rear gate and ate on the set instead of in the commissary.

When he was not yet directing, Kramer was a remarkably prolific producer, doing six titles in 1952 alone, including the classic “High Noon,” again with Foreman as writer and Zinnemann as director.

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Kramer was making “High Noon” for another distributor but doing post-production on it at Columbia, his home studio. One morning as he arrived for work, his editor told him that Harry Cohn, the dreaded boss of Columbia (whom Kramer calls “the perfect model of the crude movie mogul”) had taken Kramer’s rough cut of the film without authorization and screened it. When Kramer complained to Cohn, Cohn sneered and said, “It’s just a piece of crap anyway.” Kramer said: “And that was before I knew it wasn’t.”

One of Kramer’s most memorable films, “On the Beach,” an apocalyptic view of the last days of the world after a nuclear holocaust, was Fred Astaire’s debut in a dramatic role, which he did wonderfully well. “Why did I cast him?” Kramer asks. “It was because of Astaire. He fell in love with the part and the story, and he knew he could do it, and he did it. But it just proved that he was a guy who could run the gantlet; he could do anything.”

High among the actors Kramer admired was Oskar Werner, who starred in “Ship of Fools.” “I never had time to more than scratch the surface of what he could do,” he recalled. “I asked once if he’d always thought about being an actor, and he said, ‘God, no; who could stand all that posing?’ ”

But his highest praise always was for Spencer Tracy. In the later years of his life, Tracy said, “Everybody tells me how good I am, but only Stanley gives me work.”

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Indeed, Kramer made four films with Tracy: “Inherit the Wind” (1960), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in 1967, Tracy’s last film.

Tracy’s health was so fragile that he was uninsurable and both Hepburn and Kramer pledged their salaries against the possibility of his being unable to finish “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” One day Kramer shot the long tracking shot that is the film’s climactic scene.

Tracy lectures Sidney Poitier, as the man his and Hepburn’s daughter wants to marry. Poitier’s parents (who have opposed the marriage as Tracy did originally), Hepburn and the daughter, played by Hepburn’s niece, Katharine Houghton, look on. If you love my daughter as much as I have loved her mother, Tracy says, you’ll be all right.

It was extraordinarily moving, because the lines had a meaning for Tracy and Hepburn unrelated to the script. When Kramer finally said, “Cut,” Tracy put an arm around him and said, “Stanley, you’ve got it.”

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“That night,” Kramer said, “Spence called everyone he knew in town and said, ‘By God, I finished it.’ He died five days later.”

The surprise of Kramer’s later career was “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” a delicious comedy of greed in which Tracy played a sheriff who was as larcenous as everybody else.

“I made ‘Mad World,’ ” Kramer said, “because everybody said I could only do drama. So naturally I had to do a comedy, so naturally I wanted to do the biggest one ever made, and with an all-star cast of comics.” It was that, from Milton Berle and Sid Caesar to Buster Keaton and Jonathan Winters by way of Ethel Merman and Phil Silvers.

Thinking about the gathering Tuesday night, Kramer said, “I feel so self-conscious. Success is such a funny thing, how it happens, how it doesn’t happen. Sometimes you have to settle for part of a success, part of a script, part of a performance, part of something, because the whole doesn’t make it. They say, you know in your heart if it’s good. But that’s hard; I’ve had to do it a lot.”

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