In Hollywood, the name Stanley Kramer still means something. During a summer when the box office (such as it is) has been dominated by sequels, prequels, and adolescent silliness, it’s hard to believe that Kramer’s serious, socially-aware dramas once won audiences, as well as awards. It’s also hard to believe that this September is the 100th anniversary of Kramer’s birth: he was born on September 29, 1913, in the then-seedy part of Manhattan known as Hell’s Kitchen. Eventually he left the slums of New York and found his way to Hollywood. There he made his mark first as an independent producer and then as a director of such major social-issues films as Judgment at Nuremberg and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with a detour for the inspired lunacy of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
In tribute to Kramer’s long association with the UCLA campus, the UCLA Film and Television Archive is now sponsoring a seven-week-long retrospective of fifteen of Kramer’s most important films. Borrowing the title from Kramer’s first big hit, they’ve named the series “Champion: The Stanley Kramer Centennial.” The Defiant Ones was featured during the retrospective’s opening weekend, but audiences at upcoming screenings (all held at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood, California) can see Kramer boldly tackle race relations in Home of the Brave, anti-Semitism in Ship of Fools, and the threat of nuclear annihilation in On the Beach. The series also includes such rarities as Kramer’s first film, So This is New York, and a number of special guests have been invited to spice up the proceedings.
I was lucky to attend the opening night festivities, at which Stanley Kramer’s widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, read a stirring tribute from the great Sidney Poitier. Poitier, who had starred in The Defiant Ones, Pressure Point, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, wrote of his director and friend, “The life’s work of Stanley Kramer is a testament to courage, to integrity, honesty, and determination.” Then the audience was treated to 1952’s Death of a Salesman, starring Frederic March. Kramer produced this faithful adaptation of Arthur Miller’s award-winning stage play early in his career. It was directed by Laslo Benedek, whom Kramer would later tap to helm the Marlon Brando biker classic, The Wild One.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation deserve big thanks for funding the restoration of this rarely-seen film. What struck me was how unexpectedly Death of a Salesman blends old with new. Most of us know the basic story, of a traveling salesman who nears the end of his road, suddenly realizing that the lessons he’s taught his sons – that family is everything, that the key to success is being well-liked – are not enough to ensure a happy future. As I watched the film I recognized that some things have changed. We no longer consider a sixty-three-year-old man too elderly to carry a full workload. And today it’s by no means unusual for a thirty-four-year-old, like Willie Loman’s dreamy son Biff, to still be out looking for his place in the world. It’s true, as well, that (fine as the performances are) the staging of the film clearly comes from another era.
Still, much continues to resonate. As when Willie, whose small Brooklyn house of many years is now hemmed in by high-rises, mutters, “There should be a law against apartment buildings.” And we still face similar day-to-day worries about mortgages, insurance payments, and holding onto a job when there are younger workers waiting in the wings. In the era of the Great Recession, we still understand Willie’s pain.
To purchase $10 tickets to any of the remaining screenings for the Stanley Kramer centennial celebration at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater, click here.