Like too many people, I suspect, I never watched “On the Waterfront” straight through until well into adulthood. And probably just as well, because I could appreciate it–and the labor priest and activist Fr. Pete Barry, played by Karl Malden, who passed away July 1 at the age of 97.
Part of what made the film resonate with me is that I was living in Weehawken at the time, and attending Mass in Hoboken, at Sts. Peter & Paul Church, where interirors of the film were shot. (Exteriors were mainly at Our Lady of Grace a few blocks away.)
But I was also “raised by Jesuits,” in a sense, and Malden’s portryal was based on the real-life Jesuit, Fr. John Corridan. Remarkably, Malden died 25 years to the day after Corridan, whose New York Times obit is here.
Fordham’s Jim Fisher has written extensively about Corridan and “On the Waterfront,” and I think has noted that one of the most “Catholic” films of all time had no Catholics involved in its creation: Elia Kazan directed, and Bud Schulberg wrote the script, e.g. But it is based on Corridan’s ministry, and captures the reality of that time of American Catholic life.
Between 1951 and 1953 Schulberg produced numerous versions of a Waterfront screenplay while deals for the film project were made, then broken. The renowned director Elia Kazan came on board in 1952. After meeting the street-smart, earthy Corridan at Xavier, Kazan grilled Schulberg: “Are you sure he’s a priest? Maybe he’s working there for the waterfront rebels in disguise.”
Schulberg viewed Corridan as “the antidote to the stereotyped Barry Fitzgerald-Bing Crosby” portrayal of the priesthood “so dear to Hollywood hearts.” Corridan agreed and exhorted Kazan and Schulberg to “make a Going My Way with substance.”
The project was turned down by every major studio in Hollywood before finally being rescued by independent producer Sam Spiegel. Corridan served as adviser on the film and helped secure clearances from the Port Authority for the use of piers in Hoboken, where the film was shot in late autumn 1953.
He also provided the filmmakers with his speeches and writings on waterfront conditions, including the famous “Christ is on the waterfront” speech he had first presented at a Jersey City chapter of the Knights of Columbus in 1948. In On the Waterfront, Fr. Pete Barry (Karl Malden) provides a stirring rendition of the speech over the body of a slain longshoreman. Kazan and Schulberg refused repeated demands by the producers to shorten the scene, which is the moral core of the film since it persuades longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) to follow his conscience and testify against waterfront criminals.
As Paul Moses noted at dotCommonweal, that speech is as good a social encyclical as any the pope will issue on Tuesday.
So where are we with the “rule of threes” in celebrity deaths? David Carradine, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Ed McMahon, now Karl Malden–or is that a myth?!