Man on a Tightrope
Cast & Crew
In Czechoslovakia in 1952, downtrodden circus man Karel Cernik struggles to keep together his beloved Cirkus Cernik, which belonged to him before being taken over by the Communist government. The government has allowed Karel to manage the circus, although he is constantly hounded by the secret police, known as the S.N.B., and the ministry of propaganda, which wants him to incorporate anti-Western themes into the show. Karel, who performs as a clown, must contend with losing his best workers to forced factory work, as well as the tension between his willful daughter Tereza and his unfaithful second wife Zama. Karel tries to end the budding romance between Tereza and roustabout Joe Vosdek by telling Tereza that they know nothing about Joe, who has been with the circus for only a year. Tereza insists that she loves Joe, however, and their argument is forgotten when Karel is taken to S.N.B. headquarters in Pilzen. There, the chief interrogates Karel, asking him why he is not performing a government-dictated act, in which he is to portray an American "Negro" who is abused by a Wall Street tycoon. Karel explains that the changes were not funny, and that the audience preferred his usual act. The chief orders him to resume the required act, and is about to dismiss him when propaganda minister Fesker casually asks him about the radio in his caravan. Karel nervously states that the radio cannot receive shortwave transmissions, and after he is dismissed, the S.N.B. officials are angered that Karel's dossier did not contain information about the radio. Although the police chief believes that Karel poses no threat, Fesker disagrees, and piqued, the chief orders his subordinates to investigate Fesker as well as Karel. Unknown to the officials, Karel does listen to shortwave transmissions and, inspired by a recent spate of escapes from the Iron Curtain, has decided to move the circus over the border to Bavaria. Karel's co-conspiraters include his brother-in-law Jaromir and friend Konradin, and he tells them that there is a spy in the circus who reported the information about the radio and clown act. Karel suspects that Joe is the spy, but unknown to him, Tereza has learned that Joe is planning an escape attempt of his own. Joe was born in Czechoslovakia but was sent to the United States by his father when he was fourteen, and after joining the American Army, was sent overseas and eventually slipped across the border to search for his father. After discovering that his father was killed in a German concentration camp, Joe joined the circus in order to travel undetected. The next morning, Karel's rival, the grandiose Vladislav Barovik, visits and reveals that he knows every detail of Karel's escape plan. Barovik's information comes from Kalka, a dwarf who had eavesdropped on Karel after being fired by him. Barovik assures Karel that although they are rivals, they are both circus men, and that he will not betray him. Karel agrees to leave behind some equipment for Barovik, and the pair stage a fake fight to keep the police from guessing the truth about their conference. Realizing that he must act swiftly, Karel tells Jaromir and Konradin that they must head for the border immediately and, wanting to get rid of Joe, sends him ahead to a different location with the tent wagons. Karel, Konradin and Jaromir then drive to the small military checkpoint near a bridge, which they intend to walk across to the American-patrolled side. Having finalized their plans based on the layout of the outpost, they then return to the circus. At the camp, however, Krofta, who has worked for Karel for twenty years, vigorously protests Karel's unusual orders, and Karel realizes that he is the spy. Karel knocks Krofta unconscious and ties him up, then is confronted by Fesker, who interrogates him about his fight with Barovik. Realizing that he needs to obtain a travel permit, Karel goes with Fesker to police headquarters, where Fesker issues the permit because he suspects that Karel is planning an escape and should be followed. Karel then returns to the camp, where he informs an admiring Zama about his plan. Realizing how deep her quiet husband's courage runs, Zama is determined to renew their marriage, but first admits that Tereza accompanied Joe. Horrified, Karel leaves to find the couple, and when he learns the truth about Joe, Karel brings him back with Tereza. As they approach the checkpoint, Joe distracts a sentry and knocks him unconscious, then dons his uniform and pretends to be escorting the circus. Karel insists on being last in the parade of performers and caravans, while in Pilzen, Fesker is about to pursue the circus when he is arrested by a S.N.B. sergeant for exceeding his authority in issuing Karel's travel permit. As they come closer to the bridge, the circus performers delight the Communist soldiers, who believe that they are being given a free show. Krofta loosens his bonds and escapes, and as he threatens Karel with a gun, Kalka, who has been forgiven by Karel, attacks him, and during the ensuing struggle, Karel is fatally wounded. Kalka shoots and kills Krofta, and the performers use sound effects to cover up the gunshots. Just before they reach the barbed wire fence, the performers turn loose the circus' wolves, and Joe throws a homemade bomb at the soldiers. Joe then uses his pistol to hold off the soldiers while the others run, escort the animals and drive the caravans across the bridge, to the bemusement of the American soldiers. Both Konradin and lion tamer Rudolph are killed as they aid the others, and once the rest are safely across, they realize that Karel also has died. Obeying his dying wish, Zama orders the troupe to begin performing for the gathering crowd, and, finally united, Tereza echos her stepmother's orders.
The Brumbach Circus
Robert L. Jacks
Hans H. Kuhnert
V. W. Price
Robert E. Sherwood
Man on a Tightrope
Set in Czechoslovakia in 1952, Man on a Tightrope stars two-time Academy Award winner Fredric March as Karel Cernik, who runs the Cirkus Cernik. The circus was once owned by Cernik's family until it was taken over by the Communist-run government in Czechoslovakia. Because of limited resources, Cernik is unable to maintain the circus at the level needed to continue traveling and for its performances. Complicating matters is the government's insistence that Cernik and his circus perform various acts approved and mandated by the government, including Marxist propaganda. Cernik must deal with the constant harassment from government officials who continually interfere with his circus, as well as complicated personal issues with Zama (Gloria Grahame), his young second wife, and his grown daughter, Tereza (Terry Moore), who is romantically linked with the circus newcomer, Joe Vosdek (Cameron Mitchell), whom Cernik doesn't trust. With deteriorating conditions and a dangerous political climate, Cernik contemplates escape for him and his circus from behind the Iron Curtain.
In his autobiography, Elia Kazan noted that after seeing the Cirkus Brumbach perform, he knew he had to make Man on a Tightrope to prove that he wasn't afraid to criticize the Community Party, for which he was briefly a member. The production hired the entire Cirkus Brumbach to perform in the film, shooting on-location in Germany with production offices established in Munich. Kazan's crew was almost entirely comprised of Germans and was the first major American film production to employ an all-German crew.
Kazan wasn't the only member of the production who had been affected by the fallout of the blacklist prompted by the House on Un-American Activities Committee. In 1948, the red-baiting newsletter Counterattack ran a smear campaign against Fredric March and his wife, actress Florence Eldridge, accusing them of having Communist ties. March and Eldridge sued the publication for defamation, eventually settling out of court in what was a major blow to Counterattack. A year later, March, who actively supported left-leaning causes alongside Eldridge, was once again listed as being sympathetic, including raising funds for Russia, which was still dealing with the devastating fallout from World War II. For a few months, March was semi-blacklisted, until Hollywood had decided it had enough of HUAC's bullying tactics. While he was no longer blacklisted, his career had been damaged and he was incredibly grateful to get the call from Kazan to work on Man on a Tightrope.
Kazan and March previously worked together in the original Broadway production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942, which also starred Tallulah Bankhead, Florence Eldridge and Montgomery Clift. Kazan greatly admired March saying, "Freddie March was as warmhearted and genuine a man as ever lived." Kazan also said that March was fully-aware of his tendency to sometimes overact. When production started on the film, March said to Kazan the same thing he said during rehearsals for The Skin of Our Teeth: "Watch out for me. I overdo everything."
While Man on a Tightrope received favorable reviews, the film did poorly at the box office, resulting in a loss for Twentieth Century-Fox. In his autobiography, Kazan stated that Fox studio boss had the film substantially cut from the director's intended artistic vision, turning the film into more of a conventional soapy melodrama. Kazan was furious and embarrassed by the film's reception and claimed that it further damaged his reputation amongst those who considered him a traitor for testifying in front of HUAC. However, Kazan once again proved his worth as a top-flight director the following year with the masterpiece On the Waterfront (1954) and again with East of Eden in 1955.
Director: Elia Kazan
Producer: Robert L. Jacks
Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood
Cinematography: Georg Krause
Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Art Direction: Hans Kuhnert and Theo Zwierski
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Fredric March (Karel Cernik), Terry Moore (Tereza Cernik), Gloria Grahame (Zama Cernik), Cameron Mitchell (Joe Vosdek), Adolphe Menjou (Fesker), Robert Beatty (Barovic), and Richard Boone (Krofta).
Elia Kazan: A Life by Elia Kazan
By Jill Blake
Man on a Tightrope
ELIA KAZAN, 1909-2003
Kazan was born Elias Kazanjoglou in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) on September 7, 1909. In 1913, he immigrated with his parents to New York City, where his father sold rugs for a living. At age 17, Kazan enrolled in Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. After graduation, he went to Yale University's School of Drama, where he studied musical theater and began acting and directing plays.
In 1932, Kazan joined New York's socialist minded Group Theatre as an actor and assistant manager. At the time, the Group Theatre was the epicenter for radical thought and activity in the arts. Kazan befriended such notable theater personalities as Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Stella Adler and Clifford Odets. Kazan even joined the Communist party for two years (1934-36), before resigning because of his disillusionment with its leadership.
After his stint in New York, Kazan went to Hollywood, where he found work as an actor in two Warner Brothers films: City for Conquest (1940) and Blues in the Night (1941). He made his Broadway debut in 1942, directing Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth with Tallulah Bankhead; Fredric March and Montgomery Clift. It was a huge hit. After that success, it was back to Hollywood, this time as a director for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Kazan's directorial film debut was the poignant A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), based on Betty Smith's bestseller about tenement life. From the beginning, Kazan proved his talent for enticing natural performances from his actors; James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner both won deserved Oscars for their work in this film.
1947 would prove to be a breakthrough year for Kazan. He notched two huge hits on Broadway: Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller's All My Sons; co-founded the Actors Studio with Lee Strasburg, a leading proponent of "Method" acting that is still widely practiced today; and two potent treatise on anti-Semitism Boomerang and Gentleman's Agreement, the latter earning Kazan his first Oscar. Kazan's next few films were not among his best, but they were well crafted and interesting: Pinky (1949), the story of a light-skinned black woman who passes for white (hampered by Jeanne Crain in the lead); and Panic in the Streets (1950), a taut thriller about efforts to contain a burgeoning epidemic which was shot entirely on the streets of New Orleans.
It wasn't until he brought Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire to the big screen that Kazan had a major impact on American cinema. Featuring an explosive Marlon Brando in the role of Stanley Kowalski, the films' raw sensuality brought a stark and galvanizing realism to cinema that simply hadn't happened before. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) not only earned Kazan another Oscar nod for Best Director, but it made a star out of Brando and earned best acting honors for the rest of the cast: Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter.
It was around this time that Kazan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). On April 10, 1952, he informed on former associates from the Group Theater, including Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman, John Garfield, and Lee and Paula Strasberg. Despite formal protests from many acquaintances from his past, including Odets and Arthur Miller, Kazan remained unapologetic to the end for his actions, and he would remain questioned by social critics for the remainder of his life.
Kazan continued his association with Brando in Viva Zapata! (1952), and then in the powerful On the Waterfront (1954), which took eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and a second Best Director Oscar for Kazan. Budd Schulberg's incisive drama about the corruption of longshoremen's unions was the perfect subject matter for Kazan's ever trenchant approach to social consciousness and cinematic naturalism.
Kazan's next effort, based on John Steinbeck's East of Eden (1955) featured James Dean in his first major role. Kazan's continued ability to draw such raw, vulnerable performances out of his actors (as exemplified by Dean) drew critical praise from all quarters, and the film still stands today as one of the most searing looks of a family in conflict.
After East of Eden, Kazan would never quite scale the artistic heights of his previous movies, yet he still came up with some first-rate cinema: the steamy, boldly suggestive Baby Doll (1956), with a thumb sucking Carol Baker as a provocative child bride; an early, superior look at populist demagoguery A Face in the Crowd (1957) with Andy Griffith giving the performance of his career as a corrupt media darling; the moving coming-of-age drama Splendor in the Grass (1961) starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty; the evocative America, America (1963), based on the experiences of Kazan's own uncle's immigration experience; and his final film The Last Tycoon (1976) an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished final novel, which starred Robert De Niro.
Kazan was in retirement for several years, but he made a notorious return to the limelight when in 1999, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' decided to give Kazan an honorary Oscar® for lifetime achievement. It was a decision met with vocal protests from aging blacklisted artists as well as younger activists. At the time of the presentation, several audience members would not stand up as a form of protest. Still, Kazan attended the ceremonies, thanked friends and family, avoided political discussion, and went home, a most dignified handling of a very controversial moment. Besides his widow, Frances Rudge, Kazan is survived by his sons, Leo, Marco, and Nicholas, a screenwriter who was nominated for an Oscar for Reversal of Fortune (1990); daughters Judy and Katharine; and several grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
ELIA KAZAN, 1909-2003
The working titles of this film were International Incident and Man on the Tightrope. Neil Paterson's book first appeared as a novelette in the British magazine Lilliput under the title International Incident. As noted by contemporary sources, the film is loosely based on real incidents involving the Brumbach Circus, which escaped from Communist-controlled East Germany to West Germany in 1950. Unlike the escape in the film, however, circus owner Gustav Brumbach slowly moved a few camouflaged pieces of equipment and performers at a time, over a period of several months. Contemporary sources note that many members of the Brumbach Circus, including Madame Brumbach and dwarf Hansi, appeared in or worked on the film, which was shot on location near Fall, Bavaria, the Isar River in Bavaria and Munich, Germany. The interior sequences were shot in the Bavaria-Filmkunst Studio in the Munich suburb of Geiselgasteig.
In March 1952, Variety reported that Anatole Litvak was to direct the picture and Hildegarde Neff was to star in it. A May 1952 Los Angeles Times news item added that James Mason was tentatively set for a lead role. According to contemporary sources, the staff of Radio Free Europe acted as technical advisors on the picture, and an August 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that the Circus Krone helped to train Fredric March and Terry Moore. Studio publicity adds that to supplement the personnel and equipment supplied by the Brumbach circus, the studio rented elephants from the Cirque Bouglione of Paris and hired a family of Chinese jugglers from the Althoff-Bouglione Circus. Although studio publicity announced that Gloria Grahame would sing two songs, both written by Bert Reisfeld, no songs are performed in the picture.
According to Hollywood Reporter news items, the film's New York premiere was a benefit for the International Rescue Committee. In modern sources, director Elia Kazan asserted that, against his wishes, studio production chief Darryl F. Zanuck cut twenty minutes from the film before its release. In his autobiography, Kazan stated that the crew and cast were subjected to harassment from the East German government, which threatened to harm family members still living there. According to Kazan, the first director of photography hired by the company quit due to these threats. Kazan also praised the crew and circus performers' dedication to the project despite the harsh conditions under which they lived, and revealed that he developed a close friendship with Hansi and several of the other performers. On December 7, 1953, Edward G. Robinson and Terry Moore co-starred in a Lux Radio Theatre version of Man on a Tightrope.
Released in United States 1996
Released in United States May 1953
Released in United States May 1953
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Kazan" November 22 - December 26, 1996.)