Review of Jennifer Frost’s “Producer of Controversy: Stanley Kramer, Hollywood Liberalism, and the Cold War”

tags: book review, Jennifer Frost, Producer of Controversy

Mr. Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School and HNN’s senior book editor.

During the 1950s and 1960s producer and director Stanley Kramer established a reputation in Hollywood for his social problem films that addressed such fundamental issues as race relations, nuclear war, freedom of thought, and the holocaust. Kramer’s cinematic legacy is evaluated in a significant new study by Jennifer Frost, an associate professor of history at the University of Aukland in New Zealand who also examined the Hollywood blacklist in her biography of influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. While Frost does an excellent job of addressing political divisions within Hollywood during the blacklist era, one of the major contributions of this volume is how she employs Kramer’s career to shed light upon the travails of post-World War II liberalism in the United States. Frost’s work is a scholarly volume that eschews Hollywood gossip and much of Kramer’s personal life to concentrate upon the historical context in which the filmmaker lived and worked. The result is an insightful investigation of a serious producer and director who challenged aspects of Cold War orthodoxy while attempting to fashion a business career in capitalistic Hollywood, but whose politics and art were increasingly viewed as outdated compromises during the more radical late 1960s and early 1970s.

Growing up in a New York City Jewish tenement, Kramer found himself drawn to the liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. After being educated at New York University, Kramer pursued a Hollywood internship followed by service in World War II during which he expanded his film experience. After the war, Kramer returned to Hollywood and attempted to develop an independent production company just as the Hollywood studio system was losing its monopolistic control over film production. As a producer, Kramer was responsible for such significant social problem films as Champion (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), The Men (1950), and Death of a Salesman (1951). Critics of Kramer’s films maintained they were too dismissive of American society and capitalism, providing aid and comfort to America’s communist adversaries. On the other hand, the social problem films, as many film scholars have noted, are actually conservative in nature as they usually focus upon individual adjustment rather than major societal change.

While he was a liberal whose film focused on issues of prejudice and inequality, Frost acknowledges that as businessman, Kramer did make compromises such as when he parted company with High Noon (1952) screenwriter Carl Foreman after the former communist refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Leftist critics of Kramer argue that his dismissal of Foreman demonstrates that the independent producer was more interested in profits than principle, but Frost fails to condemn Kramer, taking the position advanced by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo that HUAC and Hollywood were to blame for placing artists in the untenable position of having to choose between their careers and testifying about the political affiliation of colleagues within the industry.

Frost’s focus, however, is not upon the controversial High Noon. Instead, she concentrates her attention upon four films of the late 1950s and early 1960s that Kramer both produced and directed: The Defiant Ones (1958), On the Beach (1959), Inherit the Wind (1960), and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). With The Defiant Ones, Kramer tackled race relations and challenged the Hollywood blacklist by employing screenwriter Nedrick Young, who under a pseudonym was awarded an Oscar for his work on the picture. In its condemnation of nuclear war, On the Beach drew the ire of the American government for allegedly undermining its efforts at fostering a vigorous civil defense program. With Inherit the Wind, Kramer used the 1925 Scopes trial as a lens through which to examine civil liberties and freedom of thought, and he again enlisted Nedrick Young as a screenwriter under his well-known pseudonym of Nathan Douglas. But perhaps the most controversial of these four films was Judgment at Nuremberg. Kramer was condemned for exploiting the holocaust to return a profit at the box office, but Frost praises Kramer and his screenwriter Abby Mann for maintaining a balance between universal and particular themes in addressing the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Frost also credits Kramer and Mann with introducing the idea that due to the emergence of the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, the United States was becoming more concerned with strengthening ties to Germany rather than persecuting Nazi officials, concluding that Judgment at Nuremberg was “a historical film that offered an ultimately truer way to understand the causes and consequences of Nazi crimes that enriched the public dialogue and debate” (169).

The international acclaim for Kramer’s films helped secure the filmmaker an invitation to visit the Soviet Union and serve on the jury for the 1963 Moscow Film Festival. Although Kramer was recognized at the 1962 Academy Awards ceremony with the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Award, the American government was still suspicious of the filmmaker’s politics and only reluctantly agreed to his participation in the Moscow film festivities. Frost documents, however, that American officials were delighted with Kramer as the filmmaker drew upon his reputation for serious and honest cinema to champion how respect for freedom of thought in the United States allowed him to examine controversial subjects in his films. Frost argues, “Even as he criticized the United States, and, in fact, because he did so—and used his freedom of expression to do so—Kramer helped legitimize US political values and leadership in a world dominated by the Cold War” (203).

Yet as the Vietnam War raged in the late 1960s, Kramer’s liberalism was increasingly criticized by young people who found his filmmaking to be old fashioned and dated. Kramer’s 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, focusing upon an interracial relationship, was his greatest box office hit, but detractors found that the noble black character portrayed by Sidney Poitier failed to resonate with black realities. Frost concludes that by the late 1960s Kramer’s politics reflected the mainstream liberalism that was more frequently attacked from the political left rather than the right.

Basing her argument upon a close reading of critical reaction to Kramer’s films and in-depth research in cinema archives, Frost essentially perceives Kramer as an important cinematic artist who embraced liberal values and challenged the blacklist during the early years of the Cold War. She acknowledges many of the disparaging comments regarding Kramer made by film critics such as the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. In terms of style, Kramer was hardly an innovative filmmaker, and his work, despite the controversial nature of his films, often involved compromises in which principle was trumped by commercial considerations. Nevertheless, Frost insists that Kramer should be “more celebrated for his commitment to socially conscious filmmaking and for confronting the commercial challenges entailed in working as a Hollywood independent than condemned for the compromises he made or the contradictions that emerged in the process” (239). And as our movie theaters seem inundated by the escapist entertainment of super heroes and Jedi knights, it would be comforting to see more filmmakers in the mode of Kramer who provoke and challenge us to examine our society and create a better world for future generations. 

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