From the Archives: Stanley Kramer; Acclaimed Movies Focused on Social Issues
Stanley Kramer, the producer-director who earned the nickname “Hollywood’s conscience” through his willingness to tackle controversial topics like racism, nuclear annihilation, greed and fascism, died Monday of pneumonia at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills. He was 87.
Friends said Kramer, who suffered from diabetes, had been at the hospital for several months.
“Kramer was a guy who fought some hard battles,” said former Times arts editor Charles Champlin. “He took on social issues when it was not popular to do so in Hollywood. He won some and he lost some.”
Among the first of the successful postwar independent producers, the serious, quietly articulate Kramer made his name with edgy, black and white films, featuring top-flight actors before they were “names.”
Those films include “Champion,” an anti-boxing tale about a “thoroughgoing heel,” that made stars of Kirk Douglas and Ruth Roman and “The Men,” a story of paraplegic war vets that marked Marlon Brando’s motion picture debut. Brando also starred in Kramer’s 1954 motorcycle gang film, “The Wild One.”
Kramer’s 35 films, 18 of which he directed, were nominated for 85 Oscars and won 15 statuettes. In 1961, he received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, the highest production accolade the film industry bestows.
Strong performances were another Kramer trademark. “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “High Noon” won Best Actor Oscars for Jose Ferrer and Gary Cooper. Kramer went on to work with Vivien Leigh, Sidney Poitier, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum, Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck and Katharine Hepburn.
Spencer Tracy was a particular favorite, starring in four Kramer films.
“Everybody tells me how good I am,” the actor said, “but only Stanley gives me work.”
Though Kramer was no radical, his films were a far cry from the diversionary material embraced by a studio system determined to play it safe.
“Home of the Brave” in 1949 was one the first major motion picture to deal with black prejudice in the military during World War II. Cast and crew entered and exited at the studio’s rear gate, ate on the set and took a vow of silence.
“Inherit the Wind,” the story of the Scopes “monkey” trial, was labeled “anti-God.”
“I tried to make movies that lasted about issues that would not go away,” Kramer said.
During its first four years, Kramer’s tiny company financed and produced five movies, four of which drew some critical acclaim. Most were made for less than $600,000--half the price of comparable studio features.
The producer’s seat-of-the-pants approach came to a halt in 1951, however, when he signed a five-year, 20-film deal at Columbia Pictures. The arrangement was “one of the most dangerous and foolhardy moves of my entire career,” he later observed.
“I did this even though I knew I would be working under the cold, sharp eye of the studio’s vulgar, domineering, semiliterate, ruthless, boorish, and some might say malevolent chief Harry Cohn,” he said in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” his 1997 autobiography, written with Thomas M. Coffey.
What drove him to “dive into Harry’s caldron of tension, confusion, and trouble?” A deep-seated desire to direct, he explained. With more secure financing, he’d have the clout to hire himself. Though Cohn wanted to groom him for the post of studio head, he said, that was never his intent.
Kramer embarked on a glossier, more lavish production path--with decidedly mixed results. Film versions of Broadway’s “Death of a Salesman” (1951) and “The Member of the Wedding” (1952) were the first of 10 consecutive films that flopped. In 1954, “The Caine Mutiny” covered those losses and earned six Oscar nominations--including Best Picture. Still, the studio bought out Kramer’s contract before the film came out.
That year, Kramer made good on his vow to direct, plunging into “Not As a Stranger,” another of the best-selling novels and hit plays he brought to the screen. Though reviewers dismissed the movie as well-acted fluff, the public ate it up.
“The Defiant Ones” in 1958 was Kramer’s breakthrough--his best-directed film, some believe. About two bigoted convicts--one black (Sidney Poitier), one white (Tony Curtis)--chained together during a prison escape, it won best picture and best director awards from the New York Critic Circle and was nominated for Academy Awards in those categories.
The project began a 10-year run of ambitious, well-intentioned, socially conscious films such as “On the Beach,” in 1959, “Inherit the Wind” in 1960, “Judgment at Nuremberg” in 1961 and “Ship of Fools” in 1965. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,"a $3-million film in 1967, skyrocketed commercially, cementing Kramer’s reputation as a premiere Hollywood director.
To prove he could handle comedy, Kramer hired half a century of comedic talent ranging from Buster Keaton to Jonathan Winters to star in 1963’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
Kramer’s earnestness--and the lavish praise heaped on his early work--made him a broad target for critics. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael derided the director’s “self-righteous, self-congratulatory tone.” Others charged that his films were manipulative and sentimental, peopled by characters with a greater than usual burden of representing social types and beliefs.
But Kramer defended the substance of his work.
“I’m not interested in message films--of which I have been accused--because I don’t have messages,” he said, addressing the charge in a 1970 interview with American Cinematographer magazine. “I do have provocations, thoughts, doubts, challenges, and questions to offer.”
Others separated Kramer the director from Kramer the producer.
“Kramer was regarded as a significant independent producer whose little black-and-white movies contrasted with the Cinemascope spectaculars of that time,” said film critic/historian Richard Schickel. “As a director, however, his stories were old-fashioned, simple-minded, lacking in subtlety and subtext.”
He was also criticized by colleagues on the Left--particularly blacklisted artists who found him insufficiently critical of American institutions. In 1970’s “R.P.M,” the director’s most autobiographical film, Anthony Quinn played a liberal college president who isn’t progressive enough for his angry students. “I had been assaulting the establishment for 40 years,” Kramer wrote in 1997, “and now was being smeared by the same brush.”
The director’s values dated back to FDR’s New Deal--and to a tough childhood in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. He lived in cramped quarters with his immigrant grandparents and mother, Mildred, after his father deserted the family.
Though his mother worked as a secretary in Paramount Pictures’ New York office, she wanted her son to go into law. Stanley had other ideas. Entering New York University he wrote a story that led to an internship at 20th Century Fox.
After graduation, Kramer moved to Hollywood, where he became a carpenter and scenery mover at MGM.
“I schlepped a lot of stuff, but it never destroyed my illusions,” he said.
For eight years, he learned the ropes of the trade--as an assistant editor, writing scripts for Columbia and Republic Studios as well as radio shows for CBS. During World War II, Kramer shot training and orientation films for the Signal Corps and became a first lieutenant.
Because no jobs were to be had upon his return, he became an “independent.” Converting two Ring Lardnerstories into “So This is New York,” his first film, and the critically acclaimed “Champion” put him on the map.
In 1950, he married stage and screen actress Ann Pearce, with whom he had a daughter and son.
A loner--even in his glory days--Kramer became more so later in life. After “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” he turned out several flops in a row and his star was fading fast. The director took full responsibility for the failure of movies such as the World War II saga “The Secret of Santa Vittoria” in 1969 and the environmentally conscious “Bless the Beasts and Children” in 1971.
The director, his second wife, actress Karen Sharpe, and their two young daughters moved to a suburb of Seattle in 1977. There, he wrote a column for the Seattle Times, hosted a radio show, and taught at a community college.
He also directed what was to be his last movie, “The Runner Stumbles,” in 1979, featuring Dick Van Dyke as a Catholic priest who falls in love with a nun. Though that project was a critical and commercial bust, Kramer retained his passion for the medium.
In the mid-1980s, he headed back to Hollywood. As an “interpreter of society” who regarded movies as “weapons,” he longed to be back in the action. Studios, however, were unwilling to sponsor a man once regarded as a kingpin of the business. In commemoration of times past, the Producers Guild of America awarded Kramer its David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. Seven years later, the NAACP also honored the director.
Kramer was realistic when assessing his contribution.
“I’ve enjoyed a good career in the movie industry, yet not as good as my ambitions had led me to hope,” he wrote in his autobiography. “My pictures were never, ever good enough to approach the dream.”