This Day in Jewish History, 1913

Birth of Liberal Filmmaker Not Afraid to Show America in Bad Light

Director-producer Stanley Kramer tackled socially provocative topics, including racism, nuclear apocalypse and Nazi war crimes.

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September 29, 1913, is the birthdate of Stanley Kramer, one of Hollywood’s most successful and prolific filmmakers, who was often belittled because he had the presumption to take on socially provocative topics. For critics on the right, he pounded away unnecessarily at topics that were said to show the United States in a bad light, while those on the left regarded him as politically wishy-washy.

Yet Kramer left behind a body of movies that pushed the envelope of what films could talk about, and did so with intelligence and artistry. They included “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” about middle-class white racism; “On the Beach,” about the lone survivors of a nuclear war; and “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which looked unflinchingly – even before the Eichmann trial made this acceptable – at the crimes committed by the Nazis.

Stanley Earl Kramer was born in Manhattan, and grew up in the working-class West Side neighborhood then known as Hell’s Kitchen. His father (whose name does not appear in any Kramer biographies) left his mother, Mildred Kramer, soon after Stanley’s birth. Mildred worked as a secretary in the New York offices of Paramount Pictures, and she and Stanley lived with her parents, Polish-Jewish immigrants, in their tiny flat.

Decade-long apprenticeship

Stanley graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Bronx, at age 15, and went on to attend New York University, where he studied business administration. He also wrote satirical pieces for the university’s humor magazine, Medley. On the strength of that, following his graduation he was offered a paid internship at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood, in 1933.

Thus began a nearly decade-long apprenticeship in the film industry, in which Kramer learned almost every back-lot job imaginable, including writing and editing, at several different studios. The pay was minimal, but the experience invaluable.

After being drafted in 1943, Kramer served in the film division of the U.S. Army’s signal corps, at the Astoria Studios in Queens, New York.

Studio jobs were scarce after the war, so Kramer and several army comrades created an independent production company, Screen Plays. With Carl Foreman as screenwriter, Kramer produced such acclaimed movies as “Champion” (1949), starring Kirk Douglas as an ambitious prize-fighter, which received five Oscar nominations; “Home of the Brave” (1949), about racism in the army; and “The Men” (1950) with Marlon Brando playing a paraplegic war veteran.

Unhappy alliance

Screen Plays’ last movie was “High Noon” (1952), which Foreman – a former Communist Party member – wrote while being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Foreman refused to cooperate with the panel and found himself blacklisted in Hollywood, and pushed by Kramer to sell his shares in the company. He went into exile in England, while “High Noon,” directed by Fred Zinnemann, went on to become one of the most lauded films in cinema history.

After several years producing for Columbia Pictures – an unhappy alliance that did nonetheless result in the creation of such offerings as “Death of a Salesman,” “The Wild One” and “The Caine Mutiny” – Kramer went back to working independently, only now as a director.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, he directed such diverse films as “The Defiant Ones” (1958), with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as escaped prisoners from a Southern chain gang, and “On the Beach” (1959), which he was supposedly inspired to make after his 9-year-old son came home from school with a note asking, “In the event of nuclear war, do you want your son to remain at school or will you call for him?”

This period also included four films with Spencer Tracy – “Inherit the Wind” (1960), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), the comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963, his most successful film financially) and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967). The latter was Tracy’s last role – he died June 1967, less than three weeks after shooting finished.

After a number of flops, in the 1970s Kramer retired from Hollywood and moved to Bellevue, Washington, where he taught filmmaking at the college level and wrote a film column for the Seattle Times.

He died on February 19, 2001, at age 87, as a result of complications from pneumonia.