Friday, March 2, 2018

Jennifer Frost's "Producer of Controversy"

Jennifer Frost is an Associate Professor in history at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her books include Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism.

Frost applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Producer of Controversy: Stanley Kramer, Hollywood Liberalism, and the Cold War, and reported the following:
My book examines the career, politics, and films of independent Hollywood filmmaker Stanley Kramer in the context of the Cold War. As a producer-director, Kramer became best known for making social problem films—films that took as their subject a problem or conflict in society—and for his liberal politics. He made films about contemporary topics such as American race relations, as with The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). His films’ liberal themes of racial and ethnic tolerance, freedom of thought and expression meant they were categorized as “message movies.” Throughout his career, the political messages of his films provoked much controversy but also made them relevant to the most significant issues and debates of his day.

This fact is nowhere more true than with the Kramer movie discussed on page 99: On the Beach (1959). This film addressed the catastrophic global consequences of nuclear war. An adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel, the movie stars Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck. It tells the story of a group of Australians, an American nuclear submarine commander, and his crew awaiting certain death from radioactive fallout following the outbreak of nuclear war in the northern hemisphere. “This is by far the most important story that I have ever found,” Kramer declared, after purchasing the rights to Shute’s novel. “It is an enormous challenge,” he added, because “it was a story that must reach everybody, so that its message could penetrate every corner of the earth.”

Page 99 picks up the story of how Kramer and his team took On the Beach from page to screen and began to work with United Artists to promote the film. Their promotional campaign confronted a paradoxical challenge: how to transform a grim and depressing story into popular entertainment that would attract a global audience? They set about
…designing a promotion campaign with an “emphasis on the world-shaking theme over all other box office factors,” where “the bigness and eminence of the story” took precedence over “a stellar cast.” United Artists ballyhooed their campaign as unprecedented in Hollywood history given its worldwide reach. They also could not resist a bomb-related metaphor. “United Artists officially opens the missile age in motion picture publicity…dispersing a message of unmistakably inter-continental significance.” Every element of the campaign, every “paratext,” was international in orientation: the newspaper display ads, posters, trailers, special screenings, and, especially, the premiere.

Held on December 17, 1959, the global premiere of On the Beach “addressed all mankind.” “Never Before in the History of the Industry Has the World Been Linked Together by One Motion Picture” blared the publicity. Host cities included Berlin, Caracas, Chicago, Johannesburg, Lima, London, Melbourne, Moscow, New York, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Tokyo, Toronto, Washington, D.C., Zurich, and even the U.S. naval station in Antarctica premiered the film to ensure coverage of all seven continents. Prominent political figures and dignitaries attended premieres, including mayors in Berlin and Johannesburg and members of royal families in Stockholm and Tokyo.
On the Beach’s international premiere prompted a discussion by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Cabinet, where officials raised concerns about the film’s “strong emotional appeal for banning nuclear weapons.” The message Stanley Kramer sent still remains relevant.
Learn more about Producer of Controversy at the publisher's website.

My Book, The Movie: Producer of Controversy.

--Marshal Zeringue