1954 July 28

Film “On the Waterfront” Premieres; Cold War Debate Energized


The award-winning film, On the Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan, premiered in New York City on this day. Kazan had been criticized for “naming names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), on April 10, 1952. The film was regarded as his statement on the importance of giving testimony to investigating committees, and a reply to his former theater colleague and friend Arthur Miller. Miller’s play, The Crucible (January 22, 1953), drew a parallel between the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War and the Salem Witch Trials (June 10, 1692).

Kazan had directed Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, which is generally regarded as one of the greatest American plays. The two were friends and professional colleagues until their bitter split over the issue of naming names to HUAC. Miller was called before HUAC on June 21, 1956, but refused to name names. He was cited for contempt of Congress, but eventually had his conviction overturned on August 7, 1958.

INTERPRETIVE COMMENT: Kazan’s attempt to equate testifying before a committee investigating criminal activity, as in the movie, with naming names to HUAC failed. Assisting an investigation of alleged criminal activity is not the same as cooperating with an investigation of peoples’ political beliefs and associations when there is no allegation of criminal conduct. Kazan was given an Honorary Oscar on March 21, 1999, and the event reopened old wounds from the Cold War, with many victims of Hollywood blacklisting and their supporters protesting the award.

Read about the anti-Communist witch hunt: Victor Navasky, Naming Names (1980)

See the movie: On the Waterfront (1954)

Read Kazan’s story: Elia Kaza, Elia Kazan: A Life (1988)

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