Remarks by Jeremy Butler on Elia Kazan and Wild River

Wild River Presentation
November 10, 2010 at the Bama Theater
Dr. Jeremy Butler, Professor, Telecommunication and Film

I think you’ll agree with me once you have a chance to see Wild River tonight that it is a hidden classic. A possible masterpiece of understated beauty. It was not a success when it was released in the summer of 1960. Its box office revenues were modest and the reviews were mixed. But over the years, its reputation has grown—despite the fact that it’s only this month becoming available on DVD in the US and a restored print of it is just now circulating among film festivals. In 2002 the Library of Congress added it to its prestigious National Film Registry, joining a select few other films that have been deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” and thus worthy of preserving.

Culturally, historically and aesthetically significant…

Most of Wild River’s historical significance comes from William Bradford Huie’s novel, Mud on the Stars. There is another novel credited as source material, too, but the film’s director, Elia Kazan, has said they only bought the rights to Borden Deal’s similarly themed Dunbar’s Cove so that another movie company wouldn’t make a film out of it. [Incidentally, both Huie and Borden Deal graduated from the University of Alabama—although separated by about 20 years.] It’s Huie’s evocative portrait of the Garth family in Mud on the Stars that allows us to understand the impact of large historical change on everyday individuals. In this case, the setting is 1935, the depths of the Great Depression in a rigidly segregated South, and a Tennessee Valley Authority dam is threatening to flood the land of a Southern family in decline. The hydroelectric dam offers relief from devastating floods and electricity to power a New South that wouldn’t truly arrive until after World War II. Mud on the Stars and Wild River show the high and complicated cost of progress.

By the time of Wild River, Huie had several projects going that involved director Elia Kazan: including one about Emmett Till, a young African-American man who was murdered in Mississippi after flirting with a white woman, and the other about Ruby McCollum, an African-American woman in Florida who was prosecuted for killing a white man, a doctor, with whom she had been having a relationship with, and who had fathered one of her children. She was pregnant at the time of the murder with a second child, believed to be his. In fact, it was while Huie was in jail for contempt of court during the McCollum trial that he first met Kazan. The lukewarm reception of Wild River’s portrayal of the South may have helped doom these projects and Huie and Kazan would not work together again.

Kazan was the ideal director for Wild River. He had visited Chattanooga in the mid-1930s when he was an avowed communist and an ardent supporter of Roosevelt, New Deal-style socialism and the TVA’s massive projects. Even then, when he was still in his 20s, he wanted to make a film there. He’s proclaimed that Wild River “should just be telling [his] own love affair with the New Deal; [his] love affair with the people in the back parts of this country—how much he loves and admires them.” (Ciment, 132) But for Kazan in 1959, at the time of Wild River’s filming, a lot had changed since those heady communist days. Most notably, seven years earlier, he had appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. As a “friendly witness,” he recanted his communist ways and “named names” of his former associates in the leftist organization, the Group Theater.

Kazan escaped the blacklist by renouncing his past, but he forever tarnished his image among liberal circles and within the Hollywood community. When he received an honorary Academy Award in 1999, almost 50 years later, many in the audience refused to applaud him. But, as you’ll see, Wild River is not a didactic film. It neither wholly endorses the government project nor present the individuals standing up to the government as purely admirable heroes. Rather, Wild River’s characters are complex, conflicted, impure. A lot of the credit for that must go to the performances that Kazan elicits from his cast.

Kazan was an actors’ director, which is not surprising considering that he fundamentally changed the art of film performance in the mid-20th Century. First, the Group Theater, that communist hotbed, was principally created by him to import Method acting from Russia. Stanislavski’s system was just beginning to influence American theatrical acting when the Group Theater was formed. And its impact on performance in the cinema was negligible until after World War II when Kazan resurrected the Group Theater as the Actors Studio and began training film actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean. Kazan’s direction of Brando in the play and then the film of A Streetcar Name Desire introduced the Method to American film audiences. Three years later, post-HUAC, Kazan directed Brando again in the equally influential On the Waterfront. By now, the Method was established as the premiere acting technique of the century, the yardstick by which, for better or worse, all acting is judged. Wild River features two actors who trained at the Actors Studio: Montgomery Clift, who plays Chuck Glover, the TVA representative who comes to Tennessee to evict the Garth family; and Lee Remick, who plays Carol Garth Baldwin, a married woman with whom he becomes involved.

Remick’s and Clift’s performances are perfectly suited for their characters. She had just been discovered by Kazan three years earlier for her film debut in his A Face in the Crowd, in which she established her onscreen sexual potency. And she was two years away from her powerful, Oscar-nominated role in Days of Wine and Roses. In Wild River, she and Kazan tap into her sexual assertiveness—constructing her as the dominant figure, often visually positioning her above him. Carol, in the end, is as strong and defiant of convention as the women in the New Wave films that were just beginning to be shown in America in 1960. In fact, Carol made the Production Code Administration—the industry’s censorship board—very nervous. In the PCA’s review of Wild River’s script, it was alarmed that it could “find no proper voice for morality or sense of sin on the part of anybody who is aware of what is going on between Chuck and Carol.” And they suggested that one of Carol’s lines should be changed. When she says, “…he burst back in here—he wanted me so badly it nearly broke my heart.” The PCA had it changed to “he wanted to marry me so badly it nearly broke my heart.”

Also, the PCA was very concerned about Chuck and Carol’s love scenes and specified: “In this sequence between Chuck and Carol in which the two are very powerfully aroused by each other, it will be acceptable only if it is shot with reasonable taste and restraint. Specifically, the Code forbids any open-mouth kissing.”

At the quirky, achingly vulnerable center of Wild River is Montgomery Clift—one of the cinema’s great tragic figures. He was only 39 when Wild River was shot, but he looks much older. A major car accident three years earlier had raggedly distorted his matinee-idol good looks. Alcoholism, an addition to pain pills, and the strain of being gay in homophobic ‘50s America were slowly destroying him. He died six years after Wild River was released, aged 45.

One other remarkable performance in Wild River is that of Jo Van Fleet, who inhabits the role of the 80-year-old matriarch of the Garth clan. At the time, the actress was only 43. She did have some experience playing older mother characters, however. She had made her film debut at age 39 playing James Dean’s mother in Kazan’s East of Eden.

It is easy, therefore, to see Wild River’s historical significance in its portrayal of the Depression-Era South, to see its cultural significance in Carol’s anticipation of the 1960s women’s movement and the film’s critique of segregation, to see its aesthetic significance in its showcase of Method acting and in Ellsworth Fredricks’s captivating widescreen imagery. The Library of Congress made no mistake when it added Wild River to the National Film Registry. But I think you’ll also find it a film of rare emotional impact. We hope you’ll enjoy watching it tonight and thank you for coming.