Magazine article The Spectator

Kramer Remembered

Magazine article The Spectator

Kramer Remembered

Article excerpt

Stanley Kramer died this week, a long way from the days when he was `the most picketed producer in America', a badge he wore with pride - indeed, more pride than he took in more humdrum virtues such as storytelling and character. But in the Fifties and Sixties he was Hollywood's one-man social conscience, cranking out films about racism (The Defiant Ones), fundamentalism (Inherit the Wind), nuclear war (On the Beach) - bold, courageous, controversial, etc., but usually stuffed to the gills with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins, Gene Kelly. Kramer was a great champion of the little man in everything except casting.

In a weird way, it was his most creative contribution: not many of us making a film set in Australia after a nuclear holocaust would think, `Ah, yes! The perfect role for Fred Astaire!' It seemed to symbolise not merely the natural caution of a commercial film-maker but a more profound fear of anything too rough-edged, no matter how radical, audacious, etc., the subject matter. The Kramer formula eventually culminated in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, his exploration of inter-racial marriage in which Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn agonise because their daughter has brought home - gasp! - Sidney Poitier. In 1967, it became Kramer's biggest hit, and his last, and it's all but unwatchable today. The quintessential artefact of Hollywood's commitment to 'meaningful', `ground-breaking' and 'passionate' work, it's a monument to simple-mindedness and evasion, from the glossy sheen of Poitier to the beautifully filmed but dramatically empty tracking shot of the film's climax. (Spencer Tracy died five days later.) We must surely be due a remake with Martin Sheen and Barbra Streisand as the parents, and Puff Daddy as the fiance.

Kramer produced three dozen films and directed about half that, and the general thinking is that the producing stands up better than the directing. In contrast to his later work, the young producer had an eye for fresh talent: Kirk Douglas (Champion), Marion Brando (The Men) and Grace Kelly (High Noon) all made their first big impressions in Kramer pictures. He knew how to spot writing talent (including Dr Seuss) and ensure it didn't get out of hand: Home of the Brave, High Noon and The Wild One all come in under 90 minutes. We undervalue the skills of a producer these days, but it seems clear that in 'his' best film, High Noon, Kramer was the muscle. He and his writer, Carl Foreman, were lifelong lefties, New Dealers who saw the story of a sheriff abandoned by his gutless townsfolk as an allegory of McCarthyism. The reason it plays so much better than that - and better than it would have if directed by him - is that Kramer hired Fred Zinnemann, an unpretentious non-assertive non-auteur director who knew how to make his collaborators look good. The most enduring image in the film - the dark, majestic presence of Gary Cooper against the white sky of the western town - would never have occurred to the politically preoccupied Kramer. But Kramer knew enough to hire Dimitri Tiomkin, whose stark monothematic score represents one of the most successful uses of music in film history. From the moment Tex Ritter begins singing, accompanied only by guitar, accordion and drums, the ballad and its pared-down unglamorous orchestration reinforce the film's dominant motif. the ticking clock, the deadly drumbeat of the approaching hour.

Poor old Kramer scuppered his own message. …

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