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Fisher gets what critics missed in Schulberg’s classic

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Kazan, an Oscar-winning director, and Schulberg, a brilliant novelist and screenwriter, collaborated on one of the great Irish-American movies of the 20th Century, “On the Waterfront.” The gritty tale of crime, corruption and redemption on the piers of New York was based on the lives of Irish-American dockworkers in the early 1950s, when the Port of New York and New Jersey was run by, and for, Irish-America.
Budd Schulberg, who wrote the script after years of observing life on Manhattan’s West Side, died the recently at the age of 95. Although Schulberg wrote several other classics, including “What Makes Sammy Run,” his role as the creative genius behind “On the Waterfront” dominated the obituaries and tributes. With good reason, for “On the Waterfront” still ranks as one of Hollywood’s greatest achievements, more than a half century after its release.
What Schulberg’s obituary writers missed, but what one historian brilliantly described in an upcoming book, is the unmistakable Irishness of “On the Waterfront.” Movie critics and cultural commentators have interpreted the film as an effort by both Kazan and Schulberg to justify their decision to name names during the anti-communist congressional hearings of the McCarthy era. But historian James T. Fisher, a professor of theology and American studies at Fordham University, has shown that the film was born not out of Schulberg’s sense of guilt, but of his admiration for Irish-American Jesuit priests who worked courageously to clean up the piers and win a measure of justice for dockworkers.
Fisher’s book is called “On the Irish Waterfront,” and it tells the story of the astonishing and bitter conflict among Irish-Americans on the West Side piers more than a half-century ago. On one side were two Jesuit priests associated with the Xavier Labor School in Manhattan, Father John (“Pete”) Corridan and Father Phil Carey. On the other side were labor organizer Joe Ryan and the waterfront’s most-powerful and most-feared businessman, William McCormack. Other Irish-American figures, from Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague to New York Cardinal Francis Spellman to Port Authority executive Austin Tobin, figure prominently in Fisher’s story of the real-life waterfront and the make-believe (though realistic) version that made its way into film history.
A few years ago, Fisher and Schulberg appeared at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus to talk about the deeply embedded Catholicism and Irishness of the film. Schulberg modeled the character of Father Pete Barry in the film – played by Karl Malden — after Father Corridan. In one of the film’s most-dramatic, and longest, scenes, Malden delivers a powerful sermon after the murder of a dock worker, a scene that has come to be known as the “Christ in the shape-up speech.” Schulberg said that Malden’s sermon, which runs for five minutes, was taken almost word-for-word from a sermon he heard Father Corridan preach in real life. Malden, who was chosen for the role because somebody thought he was Irish (he wasn’t; he was of Serb descent), died at the age of 97 on July 1 – on the 25th anniversary of the death of Father Corridan.
I happened to be reading an advance copy of Fisher’s book when Schulberg died the other day, and I couldn’t help but notice the difference between Fisher’s complex interpretation of “On the Waterfront” and the critics’ simplistic and, frankly, ignorant treatment of Schulberg’s script. Few if any critics noted that Schulberg spent years researching the film, thanks to his working partnership with Father Corridan. The two men spent many an hour in the longshoreman’s bars along Manhattan’s West Side as they gathered material not simply for a film, but for a cause. The Irish-Catholic priest and the Jewish writer saw in the corruption and crime on the waterfront an offense against human dignity and God. Both were determined to change the deplorable status-quo.
To write an authentic piece of drama, Schulberg mixed it up with the West Side Irish, as tough a group as any in New York in the early 1950s. If you need a reminder of the way things were in Hells Kitchen in the pre-high rise days, read T.J. English’s classic study, “The Westies.” Schulberg managed to fit in because he was tough – he once nearly came to blows with Ernest Hemingway, who questioned Schulberg’s knowledge of boxing — and because he had Father Corridan as a tour guide.
So it should hardly come as a surprise that the film’s lead character bore the explicitly Irish name of Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando). Most of the other characters in the film were explicitly Irish, including Brando’s love interest, played by Eva Marie Saint. But the cultural critics appear to have missed that salient point, or they didn’t consider it worth mentioning in Schulberg’s obituaries.
Jim Fisher’s forthcoming book will shame many a critic when it appears in bookstores in a few weeks. But it will also educate more than a few Irish-Americans who may have forgotten that the waterfront once was a place of business – and a very tough business – long before it was a nice place to live.

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