It has the feel of a family legend distilled and burnished during many telling and retellings, filtered through Kazan's autobiographical novel of the same name. Kazan, who produced, directed and co-wrote the screenplay for America, America, came to it at the top of his powers, a colossus bestriding Broadway and Hollywood. No director was more influential in mid-century America. A founding member of the pioneering, socially conscious Group Theater and The Actors Studio, he staged premieres of plays by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, William Inge and Archibald MacLeish, winning Tony Awards for his direction of Miller's All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949) and MacLeish's J.B. (1958). He directed several Williams plays, including the stage and screen versions of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). He won two directing Oscars®, for Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and On the Waterfront (1954). Of the 21 Oscar®-nominated actors he directed, nine took home the award -- James Dunn, Celeste Holm, Karl Malden, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, Anthony Quinn, Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint and Jo Van Fleet.
With America, America, Kazan didn't so much turn his back on Hollywood as redirect his gaze to his own origins. Using authentic locales in Greece, as he did, was the right artistic decision. So was his casting of an actor unknown in America, and thus free of the associative baggage that would have accompanied Hollywood casting. Although he had all the right Hollywood names in his Rolodex, Kazan chose Stathis Giallelis to play the young uncle who led the family's way to America. Apart from ethnic authenticity, Giallelis is able to convey a keen survivor's intelligence at work behind his pale eyes as he moves from innocence to experience, or perhaps one should say through experience as he survives being lied to, stolen from, tricked, disappointed, assaulted and left for dead, all the while wising up, learning how to turn from exploited to exploiter, and keeping his eye on the prize - not Constantinople, as his family had conceived, but America, where they could get out from under Turkish rule.
What Kazan took back to Greece with him was a wise decision to stay with the black and white imagery that sustained him throughout virtually his entire filmmaking career. At many points, the imagery takes on the bite of an engraved line. In its grays, it suggests a Goya lithograph when Turkish military reprisals lead to burning, pillaging and mass murder of unarmed civilians. Kazan and his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler (thanked by Kazan in a spoken epilogue), knew the impact of a stark close-up against a distant backdrop, as when Stavros, seeking money for his journey, is rebuffed by his stern grandmother (Estelle Hemsley); this is staged against the rugged bleakness of an Anatolian mountain -- a stand-in for the many mountains, actual and metaphorical, Stavros will have to cross on his journey as he acts out his own Greek epic journey of Odysseus in reverse. He's a traveler seeking not to return home, as Odysseus did, but rather to journey far away from home -- forever.
While Kazan's gamble on Giallelis was the big one, he also chose other young American unknowns, bolstering them with a sturdy company of stage veterans. The latter included Salem Ludwig, an old Actor's Studio colleague of Kazan's, in the role of Stavros's small-time rug merchant uncle in Constantinople. Grizzled vet John Marley adds red-bloodedness as a stevedore who leads Stavros into back-breaking employment, macho ritual and near death as a fiery labor organizer. One of the new faces was that of co-screenwriter Frank Wolff, who plays Stavros's Armenian pal, an iceman who comes to a bad end in their village, but not before going out dancing in a world where women sit home and men dance only with one another - when they aren't running strings of worry beads through their hands, having, as they do, a lot to worry about. Bookending Stavros's journey are two other actors who went on to busy stage careers - Lou Antonio, as an Ali Baba-like Judas figure, stripping Stavros of anything he could pawn or sell while ostensibly guiding him to Constantinople, and Gregory Rozakis, as an ethereal Christ figure, whose noble gesture makes it possible for Stavros to clear his last hurdle and make it past U.S. Immigration.
I have saved for last the pair of performances that come close to stealing the film, although their characters both end up disappointed by Stavros. After the young man survives a nearly fatal stab at independence in Constantinople, he lets his uncle introduce him to Constantinople's richest Greek rug merchant, who has four marriageable daughters. This corpulent king of the weave and the weft, Aleko Sinnikoglou, is played with regal expansiveness by Paul Mann (a Canadian who enjoyed a stage career in New York and founded his own Actor's Workshop there). His eldest daughter, Thomna (Linda Marsh, who went on to a long career, mostly in TV), is as timid and sensitive as her father is steamrollingly extroverted. America, America's funniest scene comes when Stavros is invited to Sunday lunch with Aleko and his four equally fat brothers. The women serve, the men eat. And eat. And eat.
At the end of the meal, they retire to a sitting room as overstuffed with furniture as they are with food. Gasping for breath like beached whales, unbuttoning the top buttons of their trousers, they try not to go comatose under their fezzes. We can sense Stavros's blood run cold at this version of Making It. We can feel him suffocating in this cloying, overpoweringly plenteous atmosphere. He's rescued by Marsh as the daughter who wants only to be as obedient to her husband-to-be as she is to her father. She senses that bountiful as the arranged marriage may be on the surface, it is making Stavros uncomfortable, and that life as a satellite in the orbit of her kingly father, would grow intolerable to the restless Stavros. And so with a restrained anguish that makes you love her, she relinquishes him during one of the rare conversations they're allowed to have alone.
Kazan often said he was drawn to stories about oppressed people and social problems. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) confronted alcoholism. Gentleman's Agreement took on anti-Semitism. In Pinky (1949), the target was racism. On the Waterfront is more complicated. While no one disputes its stature, it's also seen as Kazan's not so thinly-veiled justification for his 1952 decision to name names from his Communist Party involvement in the 1930s under pressure from the blacklist-fostering House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Accused of betraying colleagues and helping stall or destroy their careers, Kazan was in some quarters regarded with a bitterness that lasted all his life. Kazan claimed that if there was any betrayal, it was Communism's betrayal of the idealists who flocked to it, and that Kazan surrogate Marlon Brando's lonely whistle-blower was a stand-in for Kazan's attack on institutionalized corruption, whether by the Communist Party or, in the film, the dockworkers' union.
The oppressed minority in America, America is obvious enough. Had the film come 10 years later, its depiction of women's inferior status would have been seen as a blow struck against sexism. It's embodied throughout, climaxing in the sad trophy wife (a not-to-be-forgotten Katharine Balfour) of a gloatingly rich Greek-American (Robert H. Harris plays him with such smugness you want to hit him). Drained by a lifetime of subjugation in her gilded cage, she proves to be the last rung in the ladder Stavros must climb before reaching the Promised Land. What fuels the film above all is its sense of seeming a labor not just of love, but of necessity, simultaneously mythic in its reach and vividly intimate in its detailing, paying a debt Kazan felt he owed his family. And in doing so, reminding us that most of us who call ourselves Americans are here because we had an ancestor who made a heroic effort.
Producer/Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Elia Kazan
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Art Direction: Vassilis Photopoulos
Production Design: Gene Callahan
Music: Manos Hatzidakis
Film Editing: Dede Allen
Cast: Stathis Giallelis (Stavros Topouzoglou), Frank Wolff (Vartan Damadian), Elena Karam (Vasso Topouzoglou), Lou Antonio (Abdul), John Marley (Garabet), Estelle Hemsley (Grandmother Topouzoglou), Katharine Balfour (Sophia Kebabian).
by Jay Carr