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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Father Corridan’s Waterfront

By:   Derek Leaberry
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Father Corridan’s Waterfront

At first consideration, one might not think of "On the Waterfront" as a promising movie to portray Catholic values. The director, Elia Kazan, was of Greek heritage and born in Istanbul (old Constantinople) of Greek Orthodox parents in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.  Kazan turned his back on his faith as an adult. The producer, Sam Spiegel, was a Jew born in the later years of the Austria-Hungarian Empire in what is now southern Poland.  Screenwriter Budd Schulberg was Jewish-American, the son of a Hollywood producer.

The film’s musical score was written by Leonard Bernstein, a Jew who would become infamous for his notorious left-wing political views.  The film’s lead actor, Marlon Brando, was an irreligious method actor who would be conspicuous for his decadent life-style.  How did this non-Catholic group of individuals construct a film that was not only extraordinary in its power but Catholic in its values?


Central to "On the Waterfront" was the interest Schulberg had in Father John "Pete" Corridan, a Jesuit priest raised in Harlem. Corridan was a first-generation American born in 1911, the oldest of five boys. His father, Jack, was born in Castleisland, County Kerry, Ireland and was a New York City policeman.  His mother, Hannah, was born in Castleisland as well.

When John was nine, his father died and his mother was forced to raise the Corridan boys with the help of her brother, Paddy Shanahan.  The Corridans and Shanahans were poor working people of the New York City tenements.

After graduating the exclusive Jesuit Regis High School of Manhattan in 1928, Corridan worked on Wall Street and he did well.  But monetary success was not enough for Corridan. In 1931, as the Great Depression gained steam and destitution became widespread, Corridan turned his back on money and went to Jesuit seminary. Ordained in 1945, Father Corridan was assigned to the Xavier Institute of Industrial Relations whose office was at the St. Francis Xavier parish in Manhattan. From here, Father Corridan became to understand the workings of the New York dockyards.

The waterfront that Father Corridan absorbed was a rough, exploitive world dominated by seedy rackets run by thugs, many of them members of the International Longshoremen’s Union.  The ILU was corrupt and mob influenced, dominated by its imperious president Joseph Ryan, and was more interested in its cut of the dockyard work pay rather than the workers themselves. The longshoremen, almost all Catholics, were forced to kick back part of their wages to get a chance to work.

Weaker workers were encouraged to drink heavily, go in to debt to select mobsters to pay for their booze, which inevitably shortchanged their wives and children.  It was a vile, brutish world that was an affront to Jesus Christ.

At Xavier, Father Corridan explored the dingiest alleys, the most wretched tumbledown tenements, the most squalid bars, and the most desperate men.  A man of the tenements himself, Father Corridan drank beer and whiskey and smoked cigarettes with the longshoremen and gained an easy rapport with them.

Father Corridan listened and learned about the rough lives of the men and earned their trust. He became devoted to the justice the men and their families deserved.

In 1948, a young New York Sun journalist from Georgia named Malcolm "Mike" Johnson decided to expose the crooked reality of the waterfront. The southern journalist became quick friends with the hard-boiled Irish Jesuit and it was Father Corridan who led Johnson through the waterfront underworld. Because Father Corridan was trusted by the longshoremen, so became Johnson. Johnson’s articles in the New York Sun in 1948, twenty-four in total, earned him the 1949 Pulitzer Prize. The series also opened the eyes of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, millions of Americans, and national politicians, including the powerful Senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver. Johnson’s work also caught the eye of writer Budd Schulberg.

Schulberg, whose most notable writing success had been the 1941 novel "What Makes Sammy Run?", an
exposé of the squalid side of Hollywood, decided he wanted to write a screenplay based on Johnson’s own exposé of the waterfront. Schulberg contacted Johnson who strongly suggested that Schulberg "go down to Xavier and meet Father Pete. He really knows the score."  And so Schulberg became friends with Father Corridan.

Schulberg received the same tour of bars and tenements that Father Corridan gave Johnson. Told by Father Corridan that "if you don’t drink, they’ll be suspicious", Schulberg learned to drink boilermakers with the longshoremen while listening to their stories of woe and sorrow. Like Johnson, he learned the milieu of these dock workers, the life of kick-backs, uncertain work, unsafe conditions, and union intimidation.

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Schulberg also became acquainted with the concept of "D and D", the idea that longshoremen had to remain "deaf and dumb" to stay in the good graces of the International Longshoremen’s Association.

By 1952, Schulberg had his film script completed but had not found a producer. The big studios were not interested in the story of the New York waterfront. But independent producer Sam Spiegel, fresh off his first great film triumph "The African Queen", decided that he wanted to take a stab at Schulberg’s screenplay. Spiegel budgeted $900,000 for the film and Elia Kazan was hired as director.

Kazan’s rise as a director had been meteoric.  Starting in 1945, he directed four straight film hits- "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", "Gentleman’s Agreement", "Pinky", and "A Streetcar Named Desire."  He was part of the new movement called method acting, centered on Lee Strasburg’s Actors Studio.  Method actors were taught to immerse themselves in their roles and distance themselves from their own personality. This was in contradiction to the Hollywood normative where actors like Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Greta Garbo and John Wayne played variations of their own personalities. Notable method actors included Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Patricia Neal and Karl Malden.

Brando was Kazan’s pick for the bad-boy protagonist Terry Malloy. Brando had already worked twice with Kazan in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Viva Zapata."  Both men had been nominated for Academy Awards in 1951’s "A Streetcar Named Desire" but both had lost, Brando as Best Actor to Humphrey Bogart in "The African Queen" and Kazan to George Stevens as Best Director in "A Place in the Sun."  If Kazan was the hot new director, Brando was the hot new actor who had first hit it big in 1950 with his appearance as a crippled American World War Two veteran in "The Men". Kazan thought Brando as the perfect waterfront brute turned good and he proved right.

Kazan chose Karl Malden to play Father Barry in the critical Father Corridan role in the film.  There were three main reasons for the choice of Malden. First, Malden had worked with Kazan and Brando before in "A Streetcar Named Desire" two years before, Malden winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as "Mitch" Mitchell. Second, Malden was a method actor from the Actors Studio.  For the role of Father Barry, Malden would have to internalize the beliefs of Father Corridan. Malden would have to become Father Corridan, the Waterfront Priest. Third, Malden had worked in the Gary, Indiana steel mills for two years in the 1930s. Malden was a tough man who Kazan knew would not back down from the often difficult Brando just as Father Barry doesn’t back down from ex-boxer longshoreman Terry Malloy.

Kazan threw the dice when casting Terry Malloy’s romantic interest, Edie Doyle. Eva Marie Saint was a Catholic young lady who had worked her way up the hard way in radio and television after graduating Bowling Green University where she had studied acting.

"On the Waterfront" would be Eva Marie Saint’s first motion picture. But the choice was wise because Eva Marie Saint is believable as a young Catholic woman because that was who she was in real life.  Moreover, Eva Marie Saint is a believable Edie Doyle in that Eva Marie Saint is pretty without being the classical beauty of a Hollywood film queen.  Eva Marie Saint’s Edie Doyle is a waif of a girl who had been sent away to a school run by nuns but is still a girl whose family works the waterfront. Her father and brother work as longshoremen and it is her brother’s murder that begins the film.  She is steadfast in her quest for justice and is brave in the face of violent union enforcers. It is the waterfront thug Terry Malloy who falls for a woman who seems to be the antithesis of his worldview.

A synopsis of "On the Waterfront" is not appropriate. The reader will have to watch the film.  But it would be correct to point out that two strong Catholic elements stand out in the film.  First, Malloy is redeemed by two strong Catholics, Father Barry and Edie Doyle. At the film’s outset, Malloy is selfish, has little self-respect, and is a little childish despite the grim surroundings. Father Barry challenges Malloy to become an honorable man.  Edie gains Malloy’s respect by standing up to him early in the film and fighting for her father’s position in the work line-up.  Malloy’s respect for Edie turns into affection. Halfway into the film, Malloy calls Edie "the first decent thing that ever happened to me."  Terry Malloy obtains redemption through the stern love of Father Barry and the feminine love of Edi Doyle.

Second, because Malloy is unwittingly an accomplice to Joey Doyle’s death, Edie must forgive Malloy.  As the Lord forgives us sinners, so must Edie forgive Terry Malloy for his part in the murder of her brother. Forgiveness is not always easy but it is something required of all Christians. After all, in the Lord’s Prayer, we are told to "forgive those who trespass against us."

Edie Doyle passes the test and forgives Terry Malloy.

"On the Waterfront" swept most of the Academy Awards in 1954, winning eight. It won Best Motion Picture. Elia Kazan won Best Director. Marlon Brando won Best Actor. Eva Marie Saint won Best Supporting Actress. Budd Schulberg won Best Screenplay. Ironically, due to "On the Waterfront" having three nominees as Best Supporting Actor—Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger—it would be Malden’s turn to lose the Oscar.

With the deaths of Malden and Schulberg in 2009, Eva Marie Saint remains the last living link to "On the Waterfront."  She is ninety years old today and has been married for 63 years to husband Jeffrey Hayden. She is the mother of two and grandmother of three. Devoted to her family, Eva Marie Saint rarely acted in more than one film a year, taking off long periods so that she could best perform her role as wife and mother.

As for Father Corridan, his fight for reform of the waterfront ended in some disappointment. His attempt to decertify the International Longshoremen’s Association and replace it with a reform union failed soon after "On the Waterfront" became a hit movie. Yet Father Corridan’s fight was worthwhile as the ILA had to change many of its most vile practices to fight off the pressure coming from sources as diverse as Senator Kefauver’s  Committee investigating crime in interstate commerce, newspapers and film.  Father Corridan may not have won a complete victory in his fight against the ILA but the gritty priest fulfilled his duty to his fellow men and women of the waterfront.

Father Corridan left the waterfront in 1957 to teach at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY and later St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, NJ.  He died in 1984. ■


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Last modified on Thursday, February 12, 2015