Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott
Screenwriter, novelist and journalist Budd Schulberg (1914-2009), it seems, was friends with everybody from Harpo Marx to Muhammad Ali. He was once led astray by F. Scott Fitzgerald for a lost long alcohol-fueled weekend when they were working on a screenplay together. Three decades later he became close to Bobby Kennedy, and was present when the senator was murdered in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. More than 35 years on again and he was both friend and mentor to two people who’ve been profiled in the Irish Echo: Waterfront Commission police detective Kevin McGowan and the author of “On the Irish Waterfront,” Prof. James T. Fisher.
Yet, nobody had quite the impact on his life as the crusading Jesuit priest, John “Pete” Corridan (1911-1984). It was a friendship forged between two men who grew up in rather different circumstances. Corridan’s father, a NYPD officer from County Kerry, died when he was 11, while Schulberg was the son of a Hollywood movie mogul. The highpoint of Schulberg’s career was “On the Waterfront,” for which he won an Oscar, one of eight for that classic 1954 movie. He penned the famous Marlon Brando lines: “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”
But he said his favorite scene was the “Christ on the waterfront” speech given by Karl Malden, as the priest. Schulberg told the New York Times in 2006: “I didn’t really write it. Father Corridan really wrote it.”
More generally, Corridan’s Christian ethics offered Schulberg the basis of a social democratic and humanist vision that could replace the hard-line communism that he’d left behind.
Prof. Fisher has challenged the long-held view that “On the Waterfront” was an apologia for “naming names.” Both Schulberg and director Elia Kazan had been friendly witnesses before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and so their critics suggested that the not so subtle message of the film was: snitching is good. It didn’t help that director Elia Kazan was only too happy to defiantly embrace that reading of it himself.
But he didn’t write the movie. Schulberg did. And Fisher made an extraordinary discovery, the smoking gun of his story, in a university’s archives. The first draft of the screenplay, and it predated Schulberg being called before the committee.
In any case, Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy risking life and limb to break the stranglehold that mobsters and crooked businessmen had on workers was hardly the same as naming names before the HUAC. There was very little that was noble about pointing the finger at friends who had done nothing illegal. Indeed in 1949, Schulberg had put his name to a letter calling for the committee to be abolished. But in the following year, a Hollywood director, Richard Collins, named Schulberg at a HUAC hearing as a former Communist. Even though the screenwriter had broken acrimoniously with the party a full 10 years before, he presented himself before the committee in early 1951. He knew that if he didn’t become a friendly witness, his career in movies would likely be over.
Lee J. Cobb, one of the stars of “On the Waterfront,” had refused for two years to implicate others, but finally caved to pressure in 1953 for that same reason. Cobb told an interviewer 20 years later that his wife had suffered a breakdown and was institutionalized as a result. “When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying,” he said.Corridan, as it happens, was prepared to work with Republicans and Communists, as well as Democrats. He thought the whole security threat was overdone and believed that the iron grip that criminals had on New York’s docks was a bigger threat than the Communist-influenced unions on the West Coast, where workers got a fair deal. He once argued this to a group of lay Catholics at a meeting in New Jersey, adding that the government knew it, too.
Fisher shows in his book that “On the Waterfront” was about what it said it about and that it was told from the perspective of this remarkable priest.
The Friends of the Irish Waterfront, which is sponsored by UFT’s Irish Heritage Committee and the American Irish Teachers Association, will honor Corridan’s legacy and celebrate Fisher’s book on a dinner cruise around Manhattan island on Friday night, Oct. 19. Tickets are $50 per person. Boarding at East 23rd Street/FDR Drive from 7 p.m.; returns at 10:30. Send checks to AITA, Inc., 6 East 87 St., New York, N.Y. 10128. For more details, call Maureen Young 917-453-4514 or email Irish1022@verizon.net.