ON THE WATERFRONT | A CONTENDER FOR ONE OF HOLLYWOOD’S BEST FILMS

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“You don’t understand– I could-a had class.  I could-a been a contender.

I could-a been somebody… instead of a bum, which is what I am– let’s face it.”

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–Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront”

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The masterful Marlon Brando, as longshoreman Terry Malloy, in 1954’s epic film “On the Waterfront.” –Image © Bettmann/Corbis.  Based on New York Sun reporter Malcolm Johnson’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning exposé on crime and corruption (Crime on the Waterfront), Kazan and cast’s gripping portrayal of blood, sweat, toil and tears on the docks is a gutsy Hollywood classic without peer. It was shot entirely on location in Hoboken, NJ– using the gritty Jersey streets and rooftops as its living, breathing sets– and the hard-as-nails local longshoremen for extras with real life experience and attitude.

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Still one of the most powerful films Hollywood has ever put out– On the Waterfront caught a lot of Tinseltown’s elite off-guard when it ran off with 8 Academy Awards in 1955, including– Best Motion Picture (Sam Spiegel for Columbia Pictures), Best Director (Elia Zazan), Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Screenplay (Budd Schulberg), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Art Direction (Richard Day), and Best Cinematography, B&W (Boris Kaufman).

It was a low-budget film, dealing with low-brow business– when Producer Darryl Zanuck was pitched the film he blasted it, saying “Who’s going to care about a bunch of sweaty longshoremen?” Even Marlon Brando wasn’t interested, but for personal reasons– Director Elia Kazan’s perceived act of betrayal against fellow artists by providing names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 (screenplay writer Shulberg was also an informer), left a bad taste in Marlon’s mouth. It was a stigma that Kazan would never fully shake. In fact, many would later believed upon its release that On the Waterfront represented a self-serving, cathartic expression for Kazan– a vain attempt to regain his lost dignity, and rebuff his attackers, Hollywood style. Were we watching Kazan, the shunned name-dropping director, making a case for himself vicariously through the heroic Brando as Terry Malloy, the underdog whistle-blower, onscreen?

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Marlon Brando and Karl Malden in 1954’s “On the Waterfront.” Karl Malden’s “Father Barry” was based on Father John M. Corridan, a tough-talking Jesuit priest, who ran a Roman Catholic labor school on the Manhattan’s West Side and a very active “waterfront priest.” Budd Schulberg interviewed Father Corridan at length for his version of the “On the Waterfront” screenplay– the original had been written by Arthur Miller (called “The Hook”), and rejected by studio heads– causing a deep rift between Miller and Director Kazan.

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The role of the gutsy fighter-turned-longshoreman, Terry Malloy, was offered to the Rat Pack’s Frank Sinatra and the ultra-sensitive Montgomery Clift– but it was Brando’s beefcake that they wanted for the film.  He finally signed-on for On The Waterfront when they cleverly planned to get his goat by wooing another up-and-coming heartthrob fresh from the Actors Studio to play Terry Malloy– Paul Newman. (It’s hard to imagine now, but Newman was a bit of a Brando wannabe in his early days– just watch “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”) It did the trick– the ultra-competitive Marlon Brando took the bait– hook, line, and sinker.

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In 1955, Anthony “Tony Mike” de Vincenzo sued Columbia Pictures because he strongly felt that Marlon Brando’s character, Terry Malloy, was based on him. Anthony de Vincenzo had  previously testified  against the corrupt International Longshoremen’s Association union– “whistle-blowing” on the dirty details and underhanded practices that were commonplace on the docks. He won a small out-of-court settlement from the studio.

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Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle and Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in 1954’s epic “On the Waterfront.” Grace Kelly was originally offered the role of Edie Doyle opposite Brando, and turned it down– deciding to star in the Hitchcock classic, “Rear Window” with Jimmy Stewart instead.  Divine intervention– Eva Marie Saint was brilliant, winning an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, in her big screen debut.

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Marlon Brando tenderly kisses Eva Marie Saint during the production of Kazan’s 1954 motion picture “On the Waterfront.”  –Image © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

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Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy and Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle in 1954’s epic “On the Waterfront.”  –Image © John Springer Collection/Corbis

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Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle, and Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in 1954’s epic “On the Waterfront.”  –Image by © John Springer Collection/Corbis

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“On the Waterfront” Screenwriter Budd Schulberg later recalled that during the film shoots on the rooftops of Hoboken, method actor Marlon Brando muttered, “It’s so fucking cold up here– there’s no way we could overact.”

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Eva Marie Saint, Marlon Brando, and crew, on the set of 1954’s “On The Waterfront.” Director, Elia Kazan, later recalled that the biggest problem he had during filming was the weather. The actors were hard to keep on set because it was so bitterly cold.-

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Rod Steiger as mobster Charley Malloy, and Marlon Brando as his kid brother Terry Malloy, in 1954’s epic “On the Waterfront.” –Image by © John Springer Collection/Corbis. “According to Marlon Brando’s friend, Carlo Fiore, and his reminiscences in his book “Bud: The Brando I Knew”, it was Fiore who helped make some key decisions about the famous taxi cab scene. It wasn’t working to Brando’s satisfaction, and the actor was becoming increasingly frustrated at being unable to find the truth about the scene. Fiore told him that having a gun pulled on him by his brother would hit a bullshit note with Terry, and that shocked disbelief that his brother would do such a thing would be the most appropriate response. Brando then went into a stormy conference with Elia Kazan and Sam Spiegel before nailing the scene. Afterwards Kazan drew Fiore aside and said “Next time you get an idea about a scene, bring it to me, not Marlon, okay?” There is some doubt about the veracity of this story however as one look at the original script reveals that shocked surprise was Terry’s reaction all along.” via Elia Kazan would tell you that Brando started ad-libbing the scene, which caught Rod Steiger off-guard, to which Kazan responded by shouting, “Hey Bud, cut the shit!” Brando (who’s nickname was Bud) then went back to the script, as it was written, and you have your famous taxi cab scene– cut, print.
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The 1954 Academy Award winning drama “On the Waterfront,” starred Marlon Brando as ex-prize fighter Terry Malloy.  Lee J. Cobb (left) and Rod Steiger (right) co-starred as Johnny Friendly and Charlie Malloy, respectively.  Brando won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in the film, while both Cobb and Steiger received Academy Award nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category for their powerful portrayals.  viaThe real-life model for the film’s Johnny Friendly character was International Longshoremen’s Association boss Michael Clemente (Johnny Friendly also has aspects of former Murder Inc. head Albert Anastasia, who was a top enforcer for the crime family that ran the Hoboken docks, the Luciano – later Genovese – family). In 1979, Clemente and other members of the Genovese family were indicted for corruption and racketeering on the New York waterfront. via

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Marlon Brando in 1954’s epic “On the Waterfront.” –Image by © John Springer Collection/Corbis

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In 1989, “On the Waterfront” was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.


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Marlon Brando, as Terry Malloy, in 1954’s epic film “On the Waterfront.” –Image © Bettmann/Corbis.

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11 thoughts on “ON THE WATERFRONT | A CONTENDER FOR ONE OF HOLLYWOOD’S BEST FILMS

  1. Wow, 8 Academy Awards. The accomplishments of this film can barely be expressed in words. This goes down as one of my top movies as I’ve watched it a dozen or more times. It’s magnificent, raw, blue-collar, down in the dirt, and just real. A story about those of us without a silver spoon who must live, survive. Arguably, Marlon Brando’s greatest role, Eva Marie Saint is flawless, and Karl Malden is intense. TCM has their “Essentials ” list, surprisingly this isn’t one of them, but “A Streetcar Named Desire” is. Well, this is one of my “Essentials”.

    Thanks, as always, for the amazing post. On a side note, TCM is playing “On The Waterfront” February 25, just thought some readers would like to know.

  2. One of the most beautiful, moving, and tragic movies you will ever watch. Brando managed to convey a melancholy due to missed opportunities that few actors have ever matched. “I coulda been somebody”….

  3. I grew up in Hoboken. Went to St. Peter & Paul’s church every sunday, stood in the back so I could see who was there. Got drunk in the Elysian Fields park every weekend standing in the red glow of the Maxwell House sign staring across the river at the Village, wishing I was over there instead of Hoboken. Wasn’t all gentrified then. Graduated Demarest H.S. in ’61. Got drunk one friday night and woke up in the army and got outta town. “On the Waterfront” captured the essence of the longshoreman’s Hoboken back in those days. The story of “everyman”, mumbles and all.

    • Dear Rio DeGennaro:

      It is nice to hear from someone who lived in Hoboken at that time. I am a big fan of On the Waterfront and was wondering if you could help me with some information? I have been to Hoboken twice with my family and have taken picturs of some of the locations where the movie was filmed. I know that some of the locations have been torn down now but I would like to take more pictures of those locations now. I am hoping to come to New York from Toronto, Ontario this Summer and want to take more pictures. Do you know what street Johnny Friendly’s office was (where he and Marlon Brando fought)? Also what was the street where the docks where located where at the end of the movie Marlon and the guys walked into the warehouse to work? As well, I know that when the scene where Marlon and Eva Marie Saint were running down was the Court Street alley, people in Hoboken said that it was near the Fabian Theatre. When I saw that alley (now it is the PVS Pharmacy, I cannot believe that it was filmed in the part of the alley as when I saw the picture, there were garages there. Can you provide me with the proper location if possible and what street was Rod Steiger hanging from?

      Thank you for all your help.

      I hope to hear from you soon.

      Thanks

      Carol

  4. the GLOVE, when she dropped the GLOVE ” i almost screwed up the scene BUT went 4 it I followed MARLON” more or less whatthat angel interviewed admitted, I saw that scene w/ new EYES. MARLON (bud) was in a different universe. when it looks THAT easy it is GENIUS..

  5. Both Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg “named names” in front of the House Unamerican Activites Comittee to save their own hides. Schulberg went on to write the screenplay and Kazan to direct On the Waterfront, which portrays “naming names” in an honorable light. Great film, but it always struck me as an attempt to save their reputations.

  6. I haven’t seen this film but think I will now. Indirectly, it speaks to conditions that led to the need for containerization which revolutionized the shipping industry and consequently, manufacturing and the entire world economy. All of this is described in the book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Iow, were it not for the unreasonable demands of longshoremen (ibid), the US economy may not have unraveled with production outsourcing to the extent it has nor with the speed with which it has.

    In a related sense (that the innovation of containerization was inevitable), it is interesting -and a lesson we can all learn from- to parse the reactions of longshoremen who were apparently oblivious that they had been marginalized and had nothing to bargain with. It was a concept whose time had come and there was no fighting it. Makes me wonder what other innovations are currently manifest of which we’ve failed to discern their long term impact and our roles within the given context…

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