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Wife, Daughter of Filmmaker Stanley Kramer Recall His Legacy - 2004-08-04

Filmmaker Stanley Kramer made movies with a message, and many of his early films have been highlighted in recent retrospectives.

He was not part of the Hollywood establishment, and he tackled difficult subjects. Stanley Kramer's films include Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Judgment at Nuremberg, which probed racial attitudes and explored the meaning of justice. Mr. Kramer died three years ago at age 87, and a number of his films have been highlighted in recent retrospectives in New York and Los Angeles.

He was known as a maker of message movies, but Stanley Kramer was uncomfortable with the description, says his wife, Karen Sharpe Kramer. She says he thought of himself as a storyteller with a point of view.

"He was a very political film maker, first of all," said Mrs. Kramer. "He wasn't just making a motion picture for the sake of making a motion picture. It was not an ego thing with Stanley. It was that he had a lot of things he wanted to say."

She says he was not afraid to explore difficult or unsavory subjects, as he did in a 1949 film about the boxing business. It was the first of many controversial films from Stanley Kramer.

"I think that what really upset people, first of all, was Champion, which brought Kirk Douglas to the screen in a major way, because it explored the brutality and the dishonesty in the fight [boxing] game. And he [Douglas] was the first anti-hero," recalled Mrs. Kramer.

Mr. Kramer also brought another classic anti-hero to the screen. Marlon Brando had his first starring role in the 1950 Kramer film The Men. It looked at the problems faced by disabled war veterans.

In 1954, Brando played the trouble-prone leader of a motorcycle gang in another Stanley Kramer film, The Wild One.

"How the whole mess happened, I don't know," said Mr. Brando in the film. "But I know it couldn't happen again in a million years. Maybe I could have stopped it early, but once the trouble was on its way, I was just going with it."

Mrs. Kramer says the film was based on an incident in a small California town, which the filmmaker read about in the newspaper.

"Right after the war, we were a very affluent country. We were a very happy, no-problem kind of culture. But why in Hollister, California, this little northern town, were these motorcyclists going up there and dismantling the town? You know, that famous line that Marlon says that Stanley wrote, when one of his partners who rode motorcycles with him said, 'Johnny, what are you rebelling against?' he said, What have you got? And that was kind of the attitude at that time," she said.

The decade of the 1950s was a troubled time in Hollywood. A number of writers and directors were unable to find work, their names appearing on an unofficial "blacklist" of suspected communists. Stanley Kramer hired blacklisted writers for his 1958 film The Defiant Ones. Actors Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier played escaped convicts in the film, one white and one black, who must learn to get along because they are chained together.

The filmmaker's daughter Katharine, known as Kat, says in that film, and the earlier Home of the Brave, her father opened up starring roles for African-Americans.

"I have to interject here that Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, when it came out, which was later in his career, was a very controversial movie," she said.

That film, which also featured the African-American actor Sidney Poitier, broke new ground. The 1967 film concerned a white girl who shocks her wealthy parents when she says she will marry a black man. Along with Sidney Poitier, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner starred Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Inherit the Wind, another controversial Stanley Kramer film, was a fictionalized account of the so-called "monkey trial" of 1925, when a Tennessee schoolteacher was taken to court for teaching the theory of evolution.

Other films that Mr. Kramer produced or directed include The Caine Mutiny, the story of legal proceedings that followed a shipboard uprising, High Noon, the classic Western starring Gary Cooper, and On the Beach, about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.

Together, Stanley Kramer's films received some 80 Oscar nominations and won 16 of the prestigious awards. In 1961, he received a special Oscar, the Irving G. Thalberg award, for the consistent "high quality" of his film making.

Known for serious films, his major venture into humor led to the classic It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, a 1963 film that featured nearly every Hollywood comic, from Milton Berle to Buddy Hackett. Karen Sharpe Kramer says the film resulted from a challenge.

"He was having lunch one day with Bosley Crowther, who was the top critic for The New York Times. And he said, 'You know, Stanley, he said, you are probably the most influential film maker of the 20th century with subject matter.' He said no one does this kind of thing. But he said, 'You know, we critics have talked among ourselves and we know, you could probably never produce and direct a comedy.' So there was this long pause, a sort of a staring contest between Mr. Crowther and my husband, and Stanley finally looked him dead straight in the eye and he said, 'Oh yeah?' And then he set out to make the biggest, the funniest, the longest, the best comedy of all time," Mrs. Kramer said.

Daughter Kat Kramer says her father was the man behind a succession of film classics.

"Each one of his movies, if he didn't even make another movie, would stand on its own," she said. "But when you look at all of them together, it's an amazing body of work."

Stanley Kramer's friend, the actor Sidney Poitier, said he was not afraid to "swim against the tide" by exploring subjects that others in Hollywood shied away from. While some critics have called Stanley Kramer's work "self-conscious," his daughter, Kat, says his films all had something important to say, and were also entertaining.