Toronto Film Society presented Wild River (1960) on Sunday, March 15, 2015 in a double bill with Zero Hour! as part of the Season 67 Sunday Afternoon Film Buff Series, Programme 6.
Production: 20th Century Fox. Producer/Director: Elia Kazan. Script: Paul Osborn, based on novels by Borden Deal and William Bradford Huie. Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredricks. Music: Kenyon Hopkins. Editor: William Reynolds.
Cast: Montgomery Clift (Chuck Glover), Lee Remick (Carol Garth Baldwin), Jo Van Fleet (Ella Garth),Albert Salmi (R.J. Bailey), Jay C. Flippen (Hamilton Garth), James Westerfield (Cal Garth), Barbara Loden (Betty Jackson), Bruce Dern (Jack Roper–uncredited).
Filmed on location in the Tennessee Valley, the film is set in the early1930s. Montgomery Clift plays Chuck Glover, an idealistic TVA agent, assigned to convince the locals to move from their property so that a beneficial dam can be built. The main holdout is octogenarian Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), who is convinced that she will die if she is forced to move from land her family has lived on for generations.. Other opposition comes from white workers on the project who object to the use of black labourers on equal terms with themselves. Further complications come as Ella’s widowed granddaughter (Lee Remick) and Chuck begin to fall in love.
Largely ignored at the time of its release and for many year afterwards, Wild River is now considered one of Elia Kazan’s finest and most visually beautiful films. Extracts below from some contemporary comments consistently use words such as “masterpiece” to describe it. For example:
“WILD RIVER is one of Elia Kazan’s best films, with brilliant affecting performances, beautiful cinematography, atmospheric settings, and a multilayered plot with important thematic points to make about the rights of the individual vs. the needs of the larger society as a whole. Jo Van Fleet gives one of the all time great performances of the screen in this film as far as I’m concerned. The music is also beautiful and evokes the time and place of the setting, 1930s Tennessee. Wonderful, one of my favorite movies.”
“I found this little gem to be an exquisite piece of ensemble work by some of the best screen actors to ever to be in front of a lens. Elia Kazan’s impeccable direction and a performance by Jo Van Fleet that could be a learning tool for some of these putrid so-called actress that now are being lauded as the neo-contemporary actresses of the day. When you see a film of this artistic magnitude you can easily understand the dumbing down process of the American cinematic media. Not one of the so-called stars of today could measure up to Lee Remick’s complex and sensitive portrayal of Carol in Wild River. Montgomery Clift–an actor’s actor, there will never be another. A master of controlled raw emotion and body language. Gone are the days indeed when this kind of movie production will return. Not special effects or remake after loathsome remake or some equally obnoxious star or starlet will match this cinematic jewel. “
“The brilliant acting is what makes this movie as great and as generally underrated as it is. When you think of the over-the-top “movies” today which are basically two hours of explosions, gunfire, and other hijinks, when watching a quiet masterpiece like Wild River with such rich and evocative character performances, you are reminded of how movies were made and how they should be made.”
“Maybe it’s the location shooting, maybe it’s the performances, but Kazan’s lyrical, liberal account of a Tennessee Valley Authority agent (Clift) struggling to persuade an obstinate old woman (Fleet) to abandon her home before it is flooded by a new project, is one of his least theatrical and most affecting films. Partly that’s because the battle lines – between city and country, old and new, expediency and commitment – are effectively blurred, making the conflict more dramatically complex than one might expect; but Kazan’s evident nostalgia for the ’30s (New Deal) setting also lends the film greater depth and scope than is usually to be found in his work.”
Elia Kazan (1909-2003)
Born in Istanbul to Cappadocian Greek parents, who emigrated to the United States when he was four years old. He described his early life in the US in his autobiographical novel America, America, which he also made into a film (alternative title The Anatolian Smile). After studying theatre at the Yale University School of Drama, he joined the Group Theatre in the 1930s and directed plays by Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams before co-founding the Actors Studio in 1947, where he helped to develop the “Method” style of acting and was instrumental in establishing the careers of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Julie Harris, Karl Malden, James Dean, Patricia Neal and many others. He also began to direct films, usually with strong social comment themes, such as Pinky and Gentleman’s Agreement in the 1940s, having been briefly a member of the American Communist Party in the mid-1930s. In 1951 he had a huge Broadway success with Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Names Desire, starring the then unknown Marlon Brando, and used Brando again in the 1951 film of the play. This was followed by a string of now classic films in the 1950s, usually featuring actors he had “discovered”– James Dean in East of Eden (1955), Brando in Viva Zapata! (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954), and Karl Malden and Carroll Baker in Baby Doll (1956). In 1952 he appeared before the House Un-American Committee as a “friendly witness” and was questioned about his early Communist sympathies and asked to name other associates, which he did, with the result that many of them were blacklisted, leading to considerable lasting hostility towards Kazan for the remainder of his career (though he always insisted that the names were well enough known already). When he was awarded a Lifetime Honorary Oscar in 1999, many of those attending, though recognising and acknowledging his talent, refused to join in the general applause. His final film was The Last Tycoon (1976) starring Robert De Niro, who, like Martin Scorsese, was prepared to overlook the flaws of Kazan’s personal life in acknowledging him one of America’s finest ever theatre and film directors. He was married there times, once to Barbara Loden, stage and film actor and director of the film Wanda (1970), which she wrote, directed and acted in.
Montgomery Clift (1920-1966)
Born in Omaha, Nevada, he was home-schooled in his early years by a mother fixated on her dubious aristocratic ancestry, with the result that he attended regular school only in his teens, He made his first appearance on Broadway at the age of 15, after which he worked in theatre for ten years and after some success there, moved to Hollywood. His first film role was in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) as John Wayne’s conflicted adopted son, followed by The Search, directed by Fred Zinnemann, receiving acclaim for his performance in both films. This was followed by The Heiress in 1949, which established him as one of the leading men in Hollywood, idolised in particular by female audiences (though he was, in fact, bi-sexual and had close friendships with Elizabeth Taylor and other leading actresses). A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953) confirmed his reputation, but a serious car accident in 1956 caused severe facial injuries that left him partially disfigured and dependent for the rest of his life on painkillers and alcohol to relieve his sufferings. He continued to work with success nevertheless in films such as The Misfits, The Young Lions, Suddenly Last Summer and Freud: The Secret Passion, but his self-destructive lifestyle brought him an early death in 1966 at a relatively young age.
Lee Remick (1935-1991)
Born in Massachusetts, she attended dance school and the Actors Studio before making her film debut in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd in 1957, followed by The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Anatomy of a Murder and Wild River (both 1960), Experiment in Terror and Days of Wine and Roses (both 1962) receiving an Academy Award nomination for the last of these. Her later career was divided between film and television roles in which she often portrayed historical figures.
Jo Van Fleet (1914-1996)
She began her career on Broadway, winning a Tony Award in 1954, before being brought to Hollywood by Elia Kazan (who had previously worked with her on the stage), casting her first in East of Eden (1955) as James Dean’s mother, a brothel owner whose existence he discovers only when he is a young man, having been told that she had died. She often specialised in roles playing women considerably older than her real age, as in Wild River, where, herself in her forties, she convincingly plays the role of a woman of 89. Her later career was divided between film, television and the stage, with mixed success and apparently some resentment that her overall career had not progressed as successfully as she had hoped.
Elsworth Fredericks (1904-1993)
Cinematographer whose work includes Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Friendly Persuasion 1956) and Seven Days in May (1964).
Notes by Graham Petrie