On the Irish Waterfront
By Kathleen Sprows Cummings
I am holding in my hands my long-awaited copy of James T. Fisher’s On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York, just published by Cornell University Press as part of the Cushwa Center’s Studies of Catholicism in Twentieth-Century America series. Fisher claims On the Waterfront is the best movie ever made in the U.S. A. His book not only makes a convincing case for that argument, but also provides a deft and compelling history of religion, politics, labor, and ethnicity in mid-twentieth century America,and I plan to assign it in my classes for years to come.
The timing of the book’s publication was made all the more poignant by the death of Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter for On the Waterfront, the very same week. Fisher’s eulogy of Schulberg, whom he describes as “the best Catholic never baptized,” will be of interest to readers of this blog, and I post them here below.
Budd Schulberg, March 27, 1914-August 5, 2009
James Terence Fisher
For years I opened public presentations on Budd Schulberg’s life and times by noting that he was a close personal friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’d pause, then remind audiences that F. Scott Fitz died in…1940. That fact often drew gasps or knowing smiles. But then, just a few moments ago, mourning Budd’s death in conversation with my L.A. cousin (more like brother) the screenwriter Bob Fisher, I was given a much more powerful image with which to convey the magnitude of Budd’s gift and prowess. “Budd,” as Bobby reminded me, “was close personal friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Spike Lee.” Budd and Spike worked intermittently for years on a Joe Louis film bio. Budd knew Joe Louis.
Ben Stiller was another friend of Budd; they also collaborated, on a project to bring to the screen Budd’s 1941 Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run. Budd was already an old industry hand by that year, having written several screenplays (including 1939’s with Scott Fitzgerald) and doctoring many more (Budd told me he penned the famous final line of 1937’s A Star is Born: “Hello, this is Mrs. Norman Maine”).
Budd Wilson Schulberg, that is, knew seemingly everybody enshrined across that vast tableau we know as twentieth century culture. He was standing next to his friend Bobby Kennedy in a passageway at LA’s Ambassador Hotel when RFK was murdered in June 1968. He was seated ringside when his friend Muhammad Ali reclaimed his heavyweight title from George Foreman in Zaire in October 1974. That was nearly three decades after Budd not only arrested Leni Riefenstahl (”Hitler’s favorite filmmaker) while working for his friend the legendary director John Ford in the wartime OSS; he wrested from her an implicit admission she knew about the Nazi death camps, a truth she subsequently denied for decades.
Budd was an amazingly gifted listener; perhaps the result of a lifelong if highly manageable speech impediment, but more likely because listening was simply his supreme gift. When he met the ”waterfront priest” John M. “Pete” Corridan in late autumn 1950, the gruff, guarded Jesuit told Schulberg there was “no percentage” to be gained via collaboration between the men on a film project. During that very first meeting, however, Schulberg–who had been commissioned to write a screenplay based on a New York Sun waterfront expose for which Corridan served as prime source–began to win the priest’s enduing trust. They talked boxing; they talked mob talk; they talked briefly about the Catholic church’s radical social teachings, which came as great a revelation to Schulberg as they did to many Catholics. Within days Budd experienced his first waterfront pub crawl along Manhattan’s forbidding “Irish waterfront,” in the company of Arthur “Brownie” Brown, Corridan’s most devoted “rebel disciple” in the struggle to overthrow the mob-ridden, Tammany-backed and Church-blessed union that had misrepresented dockworkers in the Port of New York and New Jersey since the turn of the century.
Budd Schulberg would devote the next three years of his life to bringing journalist Malcolm Johnson’s “Crime on the Waterfront” to fruition as a film. A film? May we suggest On the Waterfront is quite possibly the greatest movie ever made in the U.S.A. (Hoboken, New Jersey, to be exact). Budd virtually moved in with Brownie and his wife Ann in their tiny apartment (Brownie is immortalized as “Kayo Dugan” in the movie; the rebel dockworker crushed by the mob under a slingload bearing cases of his beloved Irish whiskey). By day he wrote on a desk in a corner of a room at the Xavier Labor School on W. 16th Street in Manhattan, the place where Corridan and his “insoigents,” as Budd liked to call Corridan’s disciples, were provided cover and refuge by Phil Carey, S.J. the heroic and steadfast director of the labor school, who turned Pete Corridan loose in the face of overwhelming resistance from powerful figures in the New York Archdiocese; they had a major economic and spiritual investment to protect in the waterfront status quo.
Budd was the best Catholic never baptized; or perhaps that’s precisely why he was such a brilliant and courageous “mouthpiece” for Pete Corridan and the waterfront rebels. Corridan was a powerful speaker, but Karl Malden’s cinematic rendition of “Christ in the Shapeup”–a fiery address originally delivered by Corridan on the Jersey City waterfront in 1948–represents simply the finest moment in the representation of Catholic social justice teachings witnessed anywhere, at any time, in any medium. Budd had the gift and he shared it: the magnificent film is Budd’s, and that of his comrade Pete Corridan; this alone enshrines him as a towering figure of the century he nearly covered in his life and art. Budd wrote it best himself on the occasion of Pete Corridan’s death in early July 1984, a quarter century to the day preceding the recent death of their mutual friend Karl Malden: Ave Atque Vale Budd. Forget Charley Malloy for the moment; it was you Budd: you created this magnificent work, inspired by Pete. To borrow from what your friend Eddie Futch said to Joe Frazier on that night in Manilla when he stopped the fight with Ali before the bell sounded the fifteenth round: you will never be forgotten for what you created–with your amigo Elia Kazan–amid the wintry streets and wind-swept piers of Hoboken in that most memorable late autumn 1953.