Stanley E. Kramer Biography (1913-2001)

Born September 29, 1913, in New York, NY; married Ann Pearce, 1950 (divorced); married Karen Sharpe, 1966; children: (first marriage) Casey, Larry; (second marriage) Katharine, Jennifer. Addresses: OFFICE--Stanley Kramer Productions, P.O. Box 158, Bellevue, WA 98009.

A press release for director-producer Stanley E. Kramer's film The Runner Stumbles asserts that "More than any other producer of major motion pictures. .. Kramer has demonstrated courage and integrity in selecting challenging, controversial and thought-provoking themes in his films." Specifically, Kramer'sfilms explore "such elements as race relations (Home of the Brave, The Defiant Ones, Pressure Point, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner); facisism and theabuse of political power (Judgement at Nuremberg and Ship of Fools); the right to teach Darwinian evolution (Inherit the Wind); human greed (It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World); the military chain of command (The Caine Mutiny); and nuclear extinction (On the Beach)."

The first film Kramer produced, however, was the 1948 comedy So This Is New York, which he made just after finishing his service in World War II. His first hit came the next year with the boxing drama Champion. With Home of the Brave in 1949, his third film, he began to address social issues; this picture was one of the first Hollywood movies to deal with racial relations. Over thenext few years, Kramer produced such commercially and critically successful movies as High Noon and The Caine Mutiny, as well as several prestigious adaptations of stage plays, including Cyrano de Bergerac, Death of a Salesman, andThe Member of the Wedding.

Until 1955, Kramer hired other directors to film his pictures, but in that year he made his own directorial debut with Not as a Stranger, an adaptation ofa best-selling novel about corruption in the medical industry. It was financially successful, but he later admitted that "I don't think it was very good." His second directorial effort, the expensive Spanish epic The Pride and thePassion, failed at the box office and in reviews when it was released in 1957, but The Defiant Ones (1958), the story of two convicts--one black, one white--who make their escape while chained together, was well-received by both critics and the public. As Bosley Crowther of the New York Times (September 25, 1958) saw it, the film "rips right into the subject with ferocity and flails it about with merciless fury until all the viciousness in conflict is spent. . . Mr. Kramer has a strong, stark symbolization of an abstract theme."

Kramer's 1959 film On the Beach depicted the world facing destruction in a nuclear holocaust. The producer-director, who intended the movie as a warning for mankind, arranged for it to open simultaneously in eighteen different cities, including Moscow. In his New York Times review, Crowther said, "The greatmerit of this picture . . . is the fact that it carries a passionate conviction that man is worth saving, after all." The noted scientist and anti-nuclear advocate Linus Pauling speculated, "It may be that some years from now we can look back and say that On the Beach is the movie that saved the world."

Both of Kramer's next two movies were fictionalized versions of famous trialsfrom the past--the 1925 Tennessee "monkey trial" on the teaching of evolution (Inherit the Wind, 1960) and the prosecution of German war criminals following World War II (Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961).

Characterizing the latter film as an intellectual drama, but one with an obvious emotional involvement on the part of Kramer and his cast, Paul Beckley wrote in the New York Herald Tribune (December 20, 1961), "Throughout one feelsno desire to vilify but rather to understand, to know, and this gives the film an intellectual integrity rare in cinematic examination of events so closeto the emotions of living men." He further surmised, "One feels Kramer saw his theme, not as a mere historical re-enaction, but as an identification of the forces, psychological and social, that made up our past and could shape our future." New Yorker's Brendan Gill found that the director and his screenwriter Abby Mann "have posed some formidable questions, and they plainly intendthat everyone who sees the picture should make a conscientious effort to answer them." Assuring his readers that the film was not at all "schoolmarmish,"the critic assessed, "The questions are among the biggest that can be askedand are no less fresh and healthy for being thousands of years old."

At the Los Angeles premiere of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1963, the first comedy Kramer directed, he explained that "I wanted to made a comedy toend all comedies." The resulting film cost over nine-and-a-half million dollars and had a running time of three hours and twelve minutes, prompting JudithCrist in the Herald Tribune to call it "a bit much in the madness department." Crist went on, however,to dismiss her own criticism as "perfection- seeking" and to conclude, "The cheers are not only for Mr. Kramer's Mad World but basically for its having appreciated and reminded us of the fundamentals of pure American comedy and the glories of exploiting true comedians . . . it's ajoyous reminder of our heritage."

Kramer returned to serious themes as he worked again with screenwriter Abby Mann to bring Katherine Anne Porter's bestselling novel The Ship of Fools to the screen. The story presents a number of characters aboard a German luxury liner sailing from Mexico to Germany in 1931. In an essay on Kramer that was included in her book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1968), Pauline Kael felt the director and writer had exaggerated Porter's anti- Nazi message and complained "If this ship is supposed to be a cross-section of the German people--and obviously this is what Mann intends--then he has failed . . .to make the characters representative of the major elements in that society;and even more significantly, he has failed. . . to demonstrate how the flawsin character and outlook even in a representative group might have led to the specific consequence of Nazism."

On the other hand, Arthur Knight of the Saturday Review (July 3, 1965) wrotethat "given at least a dozen characters of depth and substance, [Kramer] manages to sustain not only a high level of interest in all of them throughout, but also to suggest that, like icebergs, there is considerably more to them than shows on the surface." Knight went on: "This is a new Stanley Kramer, nothitting each scene head-on or underscoring every significant statement. He has become more oblique, more willing to imply, and more deft in cutting quickly to another sequence, another character, before the scene has fully played itself out."

In the Herald Tribune (July 29, 1965), Judith Crist took a position between those two extremes, calling the film, "one of the classiest soap operas-cum-social significance to come our way since the original Grand Hotel." She felt that the characters were "stripped to stereotype," but added, "Mr. Kramer has,in a number of instances, cast them so shrewdly and evoked such overwhelmingperformances that one is disarmed for the duration of scene after scene."

The acting was also generally regarded as the best aspect of Kramer's 1967 comedy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which deals with the reactions of a liberal couple when they learn that their daughter wishes to marry a black man. Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier play the engaged pair. Like most critics,Joseph Morgenstern of Newsweek (December 25, 1967) felt that the Poitier character had been made so virtuous as to rob the movie's plot of any sociopolitical meaning it might have possessed: "What these two propose is no interracial marriage but an unprecedented crossbreeding of nobility and virtue."

The on-screen reunion of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as the bride's parents, however, won critics' acclaim. The veteran performers had starred together in a number of popular films of the 1940s and 1950s. Tracy died just after principal photography for this film was completed. Morgenstern, again typical of most of his fellow reviewers, savored Tracy and Hepburn "doing theirlovely stuff for the last time together," and concluded, "When Tracy gives his blessings to the lovers in a novel speech that was written as a melodrama'sclimax and may now serve as an artists's epitaph . . . then everything wrongwith the film is right and we can see . . . an authentically heroic man." Despite the critical reservations, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was a major financial success, earning $25,500,000 in film rentals in the United States andCanada.

Kramer's later films did not repeat the success of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and its predecessors, and since 1979 he has made no pictures, largely because of an inability to secure financial backing. In 1978, he moved from California to the area of Seattle, Washington, explaining: "I guess everything isa search for oneself. I was hopeful that being out of Hollywood I could . . .think. Time, after all, is limited. One may live to be one hundred, but younever know. How does one occupy oneself in the time one has left so that those ensuing years become important? I found it necessary to shake my very foundations."

Kramer died on February 19, 2001, of pneumonia in Woodland Hills, California.He was 87.

Birth Details
September 29, 1913
New York, New York, United States
Death Details
February 19, 2001
Woodland Hills, California

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