The man who brought the Method to Hollywood, Elia Kazan gave James Dean his first role (East of Eden) and got career performances from Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront), Carroll Baker (Baby Doll), Andy Griffith (A Face in the Crowd), Lee Remick (Wild River), and Natalie Wood (Splendor in the Grass), as well as Robert De Niro’s most nuanced turn in a movie directed by anyone other than Martin Scorsese (The Last Tycoon).
Kazan, the subject of a current Film Forum retro, was himself an actor who gave his career performance in a highly dramatic appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Informing on old colleagues not only saved his Hollywood career, it liberated him as an artist. Kazan’s strongest movies—all featuring some form of betrayal—were made in the decade following his friendly testimony. The most complex and confessional of these is also the least known: the lyrical, quietly turbulent Wild River, a 1960 non-starter getting a week-long run in a new scope print.
Initially, Kazan wanted to script Wild River himself, struggling with various writers through nine versions. The movie was shot on location in rural Tennessee—not far from where Kazan made his first movie, the labor documentary People of the Cumberland (1938). The protagonist (Montgomery Clift) is a young New Dealer in the mid ’30s, dispatched from D.C. to evict a stubborn octogenarian (Jo Van Fleet) before her land is flooded by a TVA dam. While in Tennessee, the liberal idealist, roughly Kazan’s age at the time, attempts to integrate the local labor force and, almost inadvertently, takes up with Van Fleet’s widowed granddaughter (Lee Remick).
With its fastidiously placed period icons—NRA placards, tattered movie posters, Model T Fords—Wild River was the first color ’30s movie, predating Bonnie and Clyde by seven years. (Like the stars of Bonnie and Clyde, Clift seems an emissary from the future, or at least from the set of Mad Men.) Sympathetic to both sides, the movie pits tradition against progress, rugged individualism against the greater good. (Van Fleet’s anti-gummint rhetoric has a contemporary ring.) Indeed, so Popular Front was the premise that critics were disturbed by the degree to which romance eclipsed social drama—and perhaps the strangeness of the romance. If Wild River initially seems a fairy tale in which a New Deal prince rescues a backwoods Rapunzel from a reactionary old witch, the movie’s casting effectively reverses the roles. Clift is the sleeping beauty whose diffidence is (perhaps) thawed by Remick’s sexual warmth.
Kazan was not only revising his past, but also falling in love with Barbara Loden, the young actress who would be his second wife. Although this feisty “hillbilly,” as he calls her in his memoirs, has but a small role in Wild River, she likely inspired Kazan’s conception of the Remick character: The passionate mixture of confidence and vulnerability this country girl brings to her affair with a big-city intellectual crescendos in her unexpected plea that he marry her for his own good: “I’m smarter than you in some ways . . .”
Wild River is playing from October 23 through 29 at Film Forum as part of its Elia Kazan Festival, which also runs through October 29