Karen Sharpe-Kramer and Kat Kramer Unveil a Biography Long Overdue: “Producer of Controversy: Stanley Kramer — Hollywood Liberalism, and The Cold War”

(L-R) Kat Kramer and Karen Sharpe-Kramer; Photo by Jennifer K. Hugus for The Los Angeles Beat

On sunny, celebratory Saturday in February, denizens of Los Angeles and Palm Springs in kind forfeited that of the beach, volleyball and desert fancy in preference of inland entropy as a caravan of natives from Los Angeles and Palm Springs alike gathered for a book signing to beat all book signings! Yes, all manner of knowledge and progressive righteousness was actualized as actors, showbiz folk, and fans galore descended upon Just Fabulous Bookstore to witness a book signing and Hollywood history lesson all in one. The hardback in question? Jennifer Frost’s latest retrospective: Producer of Controversy: Stanley Kramer – Hollywood Liberalism, and the Cold War, honoring none other than the man behind such films as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Defiant Ones, Judgment at Nuremberg, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. On hand to give us a preview and guide us through the tome’s many revelations and inherent revolutions: Kramer’s widow and daughter Karen Sharpe-Kramer, and Kat Kramer.

And with old Hollywood and family stories like Karen Sharpe-Kramer’s and Kat Kramer’s well, the article writer would be lying if she didn’t feel a little guilty at this point as, from here on out, the article kind of writes itself!!!

With no fanfare and just as little ado, Sharpe-Kramer gets right into the magnificence of the book and some of its key highlights in both harrowing and enterprising appeal!

“…This is the book. And I think [Frost has] done an incredible job! She’s had great reviews from some very respected writers,” said Sharpe-Kramer.

Describing it as a biography of sorts, yet likening much of it to a textbook, Sharpe-Kramer both enhances and emphasizes this statement by delving into certain covered and uncovered elements which made Stanley Kramer the man, student, teacher, and filmmaker he became:

“Stanley was born in 1913 … He was born in Hell’s Kitchen New York. Well, Hell’s Kitchen New York in 1913 was the armpit of America … [and at the time] the most dangerous place to live in the whole United States. It was gang infested. His father left his mother the first year of his birth, so he was raised by a single parent, which, in those days was actually a stigma … She had two jobs … and Stanley was left with his grandparents a lot. He had to join a gang to survive. Everyone in that era joined gangs to be able to get to school without being hurt, and you had three choices in 1913: You could become a prizefighter, get yourself out of the situation—the environment, become a priest, or—more often than not, you went to jail. That seems so fantasy-like today, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly the way it was in 1913.”

Gang or not, by his early teens, Kramer had already developed a social consciousness that would carry his visions into adulthood:

“[At the age of 13, Stanley] read in The Times that Eleanor Roosevelt had resigned from an organization called Daughters of the American Revolution … Marion Anderson was an opera star, very well known, but she happened to be African American and the Daughters of the American Revolution, was not going to let some black person sing at their Award Dinner. Eleanor Roosevelt took exception to that. So, she resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution and she invited Marion Anderson to sing at the White House; first time and that made an impression on a young Stanley Kramer at 13. He wrote her an ‘I commend you on what you’ve done’ kind of thing and she wrote him back. And that began a long mentorship [between] Eleanor Roosevelt and Stanley Kramer. He wrote her speeches, many of her radio shows—as a young boy—yes. And at 15, he graduated from high school … He kept skipping grades and he was entered in New York University at 15 and graduated with a full business degree when he was 19; Won a writing contest. Three out of the country was chosen, and he came to Los Angeles for six weeks all expenses paid. He didn’t have enough money to get back, so that’s when he started his career.”

Photo by Jennifer K. Hugus for The Los Angeles Beat

“And he [became a] filmmaker,” continued Sharp-Kramer, “[and] started in the independent field … Independent filmmaking was originally [forged by] Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford who started United Artists way, way back in the 1920s and 30s. It had dried up in the 40s, and Stanley knew that the kind of stories he wanted to tell were socially conscious and socially relevant … [and] no studio was going to take an unknown like him and talk about civil rights … [back] in 1945 1946, 1947 when he started his career. So he was the first one to actually come along and star an African American in a leading role … in 1947 in a film … In those days the African Americans were unemployable … They played janitors or shoeshine boys, and if they were really lucky they got a chance to dance with Shirley Temple. But that was really the extent of their work. So Stanley bought the …rights to Home of the Brave which was a play on Broadway about anti-Semitism during the war … and Stanley had experienced that being Jewish. His commanding officer said, ‘Kramer are you Jewish?’ and he said, ‘Yes Sir, I am.’ He said, ‘I don’t like the Jews. Transfer.’ And so he bought the rights to the play to make the motion picture, but, [said] ‘I’m gonna make the stakes higher, I’m gonna put an African American in the role and see how they like that,’ and [explore] his problems in an all-white platoon. He made the film in secret. So he was going to and from the studio every day. He rented the space, got his own money to make his own films, and the actor’s name that he hired for the role was James Edwards an African American. He hid James Edwards on the floorboard of his car so he wouldn’t be seen, [when they went] to the studio [every day] … He swore the cast to secrecy, not to say an African American had the leading role!”

“He called that film High Noon. There was no High Noon [at the time]. It was a made-up title by Stanley to hide that he was making Home of the Brave … That film, Home of the Brave was the most picketed film in the history of motion pictures! That never deterred Stanley. He went on to make three more: The Defiant Ones in 1960. Let me tell you something, just a white hand and a black hand being handcuffed together…on [a] Billboard, oh my God: Controversy like you can’t believe! … And then, of course, he went on to make Pressure Point with Sidney Poitier. It was a little film about a psychiatrist in prison. Sidney was the psychiatrist and, his patient who was a prisoner was a neo-Nazi. It was Bobby Darin’s debut as an actor and he was really good too!”

High Noon was Stanley’s fifth movie as an independent … His first, second and third, and fourth films were all nominated for Academy Awards. That had never been done before. No independent [production company] was that successful all in a row, particularly when that whole genre … was dead at that time … and a lot of films that he made … were adaptations from plays, novels and things like that. High Noon was also an adaptation from a little magazine story called The Ten Star. And just about the time they were going to try and make this independently, Harry Cohn who was head of Columbia Pictures, came to Stanley and his five associates … and said, ‘Look you’re very successful. You have to go out and raise your money … Why don’t you … contract to me? I’ll pay the salaries of everybody. You can choose anything you want, any subject you want to make… Stanley said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that. I want to stay independent.’ But his five partners said, ‘No we all have children. We’re married … we would rather go to Columbia Pictures and be assured [of our] money … every week.’ It had been [assured] every week [already], but they just wanted the comfort of going to a major studio. So, Stanley got outvoted. [So] they went to Columbia Pictures. The next film they were going to do was High Noon…and Stanley loved that title when he was promoting Home of the Brave and he kept saying, ‘God I wish I could find a story to go with that title … Anyway, his set designer … found this little Magazine story called The Ten Star and he said, ‘Could this be your High Noon?’ So Stanley bought the rights and from that little magazine story evolved the film we see today High Noon!”

“Now Carl Foreman was a writer and he was under Contract with Stanley at Columbia… and Carl had taken The Ten Star and written the story of High Noon from that along with Stanley. Just before they started shooting, Carl came to Stanley and said, ‘Look I’ve been subpoenaed by the American Activities to appear before them … I have never been a communist. I have never had any meetings … but I’m not gonna name names!’ … And when he appeared before HUAC, [according to them] he had been a card-carrying communist. He was very involved with it, maybe not at that present time, but years past and so, they had the goods on him … I think it’s terrible that they have the goods on anybody … As an American, I think that Stanley hated that idea, and Carl was forced to resign because he wasn’t going to get a paycheck from Columbia Pictures … [But] Stanley got him $250,000.00 to cushion it. Now $250,000.00 in 1952 was a lot of money. So he wasn’t going to be in serious financial trouble. He joined … with Gary Cooper [the star of High Noon] who felt sorry for him … As you may know … when it got too difficult for his reputation, Gary Cooper dropped him!”

Photo by Jennifer K. Hugus for The Los Angeles Beat

“Now Carl went off to London to work and try and find work … There was a documentary saying he was starving [in London]. It wasn’t true. He did well in London, and when the HUAC situation died down, he came back to the industry … and he hadn’t named names originally, but before he went back to work, he was supposed to … So, the head of HUAC … held up all the names. They said, ‘Carl, do you have any names to add to this list?’ He said, ‘No, I have no names to add,’ which meant, ‘That’s the list.’ He confirmed it, then he went back to work. Now there are a lot of untruths about this, and there was a documentary made seventeen years ago … [entitled] The Darkness of High Noon. I couldn’t figure it out when I saw it. PBS was distributing it … it was against Stanley throwing Carl under the bus—which he didn’t do. There were then three people alive in that original group … of his partners … So I interviewed all of them and they said, ‘That’s not the way it happened in that documentary.’ … I got it from the attorneys that were there … So there’s so much untruth out there. This book [addresses it.]”

Even prior to her marriage to Mr. Kramer and his partnership with Mr. Foreman, Sharpe-Kramer would feel the ever-encroaching shadow of the red scare crawl across movie lots up to and including her very first film set:

“I adored John Wayne. He was a real right-winger, believe me … but when I made The High and the Mighty for him in 1954, and I got the Golden Globe for that … He [told] me … ‘Karen … anybody on the set, you think they’re subversive, you’ve got to report them to Ronald Reagan! Ronald Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild at that time, and I knew it was wrong. I wouldn’t do it … And I thought ‘That’s so weird.’ I was not very political at the time. I was 18. But I realized that documentary was to whitewash John Wayne’s reputation ‘cause he was the one who called High Noon a communist film and he tried to destroy [it]. And yet he was the one who had to accept for Gary Cooper when Gary Cooper won the academy award for it … I think that it’s so funny … Gary Cooper was a real right-winger too and they had to whitewash the fact that he dropped Carl! So these were right-wing filmmakers and right-wing people they were trying to whitewash and blame it all on Stanley Kramer!”

At this point, a certain book buyer/actor could only pose a sensible question: “Just a little history and some common sense. Mr. Tracy, Ms. Hepburn, Mr. Poitier would have never ever worked with Mr. Kramer if what you’re saying had been true. They didn’t need the coin … Mr. Tracy did Mr. Kramer’s last four films because he trusted Mr. Kramer so well. Mr. Tracy was a liberal Democrat who was totally against the blacklist.”

“It was a terrible witch hunt like it is with men today and sex,” Sharpe-Kramer agreed. “I mean I always thought you were innocent until proven guilty … I’m sorry that’s another subject.”

Another bookstore patron could only agree, “But Stanley would make a movie about it today!”

“There’s no trial you know? I think it’s devastating,” concurred Sharpe-Kramer. “Anybody can say anything and, by God, tomorrow you’re out of here! It’s a witch hunt! So, so this book covers some of that … Now the interesting part about The Defiant Ones is that during the witch hunt … people lost their careers over being blacklisted, this was in 1957 … So Stanley hired two blacklisted writers. They wrote The Defiant Ones. He not only hired them, he paid them more than [has] ever been paid to any writer in 20 years. He brought them on to the studio lot which was unheard of! I mean you don’t bring blacklisted writers on to the lot … They came in their own car. He made sure they were on the lot every day, and then he put them in the movie. They had the truck drivers in the opening credits. They’re driving Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis to prison and Sidney keeps singing [an old spiritual] and they say, ‘Will you shut up? Shut up back there.’ And then … when it says ‘Written by’ it goes right to close-ups [of the drivers/writers] and so Stanley Kramer broke the blacklist!”

Photo by Jennifer K. Hugus for The Los Angeles Beat

“About the films that you’re talking about … in his memoir, Sammy Davis Jr. said that originally the casting was going to be Sammy Davis Jr. and Elvis Presley,” a knowledgeable reader/listener could only add.

“It was supposed to be Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando. But Marlon Brando got caught up on Mutiny on the Bounty and couldn’t get released in time, so Tony Curtis … we didn’t know how good an actor he was, but he was such a good-looking guy, he was almost beautiful; Stanley saw something in him … and Stanley said ‘I’m gonna change your nose and buzz your hair so people will look at you as an actor and not somebody who’s beautiful,’ and he was great!”

“Also my father discovered Marlon Brando,” added Kat Kramer. “He put him in his first film called The Men … He came to see him rehearse for another play even before Streetcar Named Desire, and his film debut was The Men and then later he did The Wild One.”

To this Sharpe-Kramer could only go on another relevant and fascinating tangent regarding the commencing career of Marlon Brando along with yet another groundbreaking origination in American Cinema:

“What happened with The Men was that it was a great script written by Carl Foreman. When he was promoting Champion, [Stanley] would go visit the army hospitals … He did [it] to promote Kirk [Douglas] in the movie Champion … and Stanley got stuck in the paraplegic ward at the Birmingham Hospital and he went back to the office and said, ‘We’ve got to write a story about the paraplegics!’ He loved their caustic sense of humor. He thought it was fascinating! So, he had seen Marlon in rehearsal on an Off-Broadway play and thought ‘He’s such a star’ [but] I’m going to use the real paraplegics, not actors.’ There were a couple of actors, but they were mostly all the real paraplegics [along with] Marlon … They weren’t ready to accept Marlon Brando… [but] Marlon said, ‘I’m going to go live with you!’ So, he left the office … and went to live with them at the hospital [as a paraplegic] and … they fell in love with him … Anyway, when the film was released, they thought it was going to be such a hit …’cause there were [ some really wonderful performances in it]. [But] the Korean War broke out the next day, so nobody wanted to see a war movie about somebody coming back from the war as a paraplegic. So, that movie kind of tanked. And then Marlon went on to the Broadway play Streetcar Named Desire. And then he came back to Stanley to do The Wild One. And, of course, if you think of Marlon Brando that’s how you think of him as that Motorcycle guy … which was based on a true story so that’s not necessarily in [the book].”

While the truisms in The Wild One are not addressed in Producer of Controversy, one of Kramer’s most singular films certainly is and Sharpe-Kramer is not remiss in addressing it:

“The other movie [Frost] talks about is Judgement at Nuremberg which I think is one of Stanley’s better moments in film. Nobody wanted to make it. It was 14 years after World War II, and people were pretty sick of war movies, even though this was a trial about the atrocities that were committed by the Germans. And when Stanley was in the army he had privy to see … those films that the public had never seen about the bodies being bulldozed into ditches, and what had happened at Dachau and those camps. People had not been able to accept this because it’s so farfetched that 6 million people had been exterminated that way. So he vowed to make a film about it, and he did, and he had to use major named stars for the studio to give him enough money to make the film.”

Sharpe-Kramer could only recall its German unveiling as something not to be forgotten or with which to be reckoned:

“When he premiered the film of Judgment at Nuremberg, he went to Germany and Willy Brandt was chancellor at the time … He wanted the German people to see what they said they didn’t have any knowledge of, and this was a stunning moment she refers to in the book because Willie Brandt didn’t [prepare the audience for anything]. He was all on Stanley’s side about the film … and when [it] was over there was no applause. There was nothing. People just quietly left the theatre. So that film had like 13 Oscar nominations.”

One attendee could not help but ask the following: “What was it like to have Judy Garland playing such a dramatic role? What was it like to work with her?”

“Stanley loved to put people you would never think of in parts … He was very good at bringing people to another element in their careers, and he had made, A Child is Waiting with [Judy] … Her career was pretty washed up [even then]. [Stanley] made that about mentally challenged children and they used real mentally challenged children as well by the way … And Montgomery Clift was not all there either. He couldn’t remember his lines half the time.”

“Well you know actors … you’re always competitive. But Judy was first to do the courtroom scene in the shoot. So, Monty wanted to see what she was going to do. So he snuck in…and crouched down to watch her do the scene where she does this fantastic one take…on the witness stand and he’s crying and is just overcome with emotion… Then, when the crew said ‘Cut!’ and everybody applauded—oh my God—he went over to Stanley and he said, ‘Stanley you know … she played it all wrong!!!,” Sharpe-Kramer admitted to uproarious, all-too-well-knowing laughter.

But the piece de resistance and one which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, to speak nothing of being an all-time classic in Civil Justice, was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner:

Photo by Jennifer K. Hugus for The Los Angeles Beat

“When we made it, [interracial marriage] was against the law in 16 states,” said Sharpe-Kramer. “So when we made the movie the Lovings had sued the state of Virginia but we didn’t know what the outcome was going to be…just that it was illegal in 16 states. So Stanley went back to Columbia Pictures and they were going to distribute the money to us to make the film; I was married to Stanley at the time, so I was working with him on the movie, and we knew if we gave them the screenplay they’d cancel the film because…well if you’re in business, would you put money behind something you couldn’t play in 16 states? I don’t think so. So [Stanley] kept saying, ‘It’s a love story!’ and then he’d say, ‘It stars Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy,’ and he was tap dancing so we wouldn’t have to tell them what the story [really] was.”

“So we are in production. We’re in San Francisco shooting the opening sequences of the film, and so we felt somewhat safe. They demanded to see the screenplay, so we said, ‘Well, we’re in production, what can they do now? Cancel?’ [So we] sent the screenplay. The minute they read the screenplay: canceled. They canceled the film! We had to come home. And they said, ‘Spencer Tracy’s too ill to be insured,’ Well that was true he was ill. But he was ill in Inherit the Wind. He was ill in Judgement at Nuremberg, he was ill in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Word … which was the hardest shoot here in the desert in August … [Harder than being on set, except I guess when he goes to get his ice cream] but we were devastated … this had never happened to Stanley before—or anybody! So, he paced up and down, paced up and down, and said finally, ‘I’ve got a thought. I’ve got an idea! We’ve gotta go see Kate—Kate Hepburn!’ So, I said, ‘Okay!’ So, we went to see Kate and he said, ‘Look at Kate, we know why they’re canceling this movie. But I’m going to put up my salary as insurance, to ensure Spence.’ She said, ‘You’re gonna do that? Karen you’re gonna let him do that?’ I said ‘Sure! What am I gonna say, “no”? Of course!!!’ She said, ‘Well if you’re gonna do it, then I’ll do it too!’ So then we went to see Sidney Poitier. And he said, ‘Well if you guys are gonna do it, I’m gonna do it too!’ So, we all did that. So then we went to Columbia and said, ‘Okay, your picture is insured, so legally, you have to make it!’ So we made the film, and the law turned over the day we finished shooting the film!”

“The next month Loving vs. the State of Virginia Supreme court ruled it was no longer a crime to be interracially married. But that didn’t mean the country accepted it. The country did not accept it!  And the African Americans unaccepted it too. They did not like the idea. In fact, Beah Richards, who played Sidney’s mother, was very much against interracial marriage!  Anyway, when the film was going to be released that following December of that year, they put it into a theatre in Westwood in Los Angeles, a College Community which is not going to be so anxious to see Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, maybe Sidney, but not them in particular. They put it in a theater that had been in renovation for three years. The theater had been closed for three years, so nobody knew it was open … But the minute the doors opened, there were lines around the block 15 blocks long! I swear we’d go by and there’d be people down the street trying to see this movie! That went on for weeks! It became one of the highest grossing movies of all time … And that film helped people feel differently … about interracial marriage. But our lives were threatened many times because we made it. People would come up to us … in restaurants and say, ‘Are you the Kramers who [made that film?] You’d better watch your back Kramer!’ … and the hate mail, the phone calls in the middle of the night. People did not so easily want to accept interracial marriage. Today 50 years later … we don’t pay much attention to interracial marriage anymore. We’ve got other issues. But that’s also covered in this book and it also talks about Stanley’s detractors.”

One astute attendee could only observe: “To the detractors, correct me if I’m wrong, but Stanley’s films … were issue pictures, but they didn’t provide any answers. They just presented the situation, exposed a lot of different angles and then let the audience discuss amongst themselves.”

To this Sharpe-Kramer and her daughter Kat could only agree. Even still, Sharpe-Kramer admits society has a long, long way to go:

“I could have sworn after World War II there would never be another genocide. I lived through those years. I thought, ‘Well that’ll never happen again.’ Well, look at us now! When Stanley made On the Beach in 1959 about the atomic bomb, only Russia and the United States had the bomb and [just a few weeks ago] somebody thought they saw something on the radar and pushed a button and the whole world went crazy … That’s in this book. We have more people with the bomb today, we have more danger facing us that we ever did in 1959. So Stanley’s very current. But [those movies are more relevant today than] they were at the time he was breaking his ground! So I’m very proud of what she did [and] I am hoping you’ll all find this as good a read as I did.”

In closing both Sharpe-Kramer and Kat Kramer could only extend said hardback legacy respectively, thusly:

“So, this is the book, and I think it’s a worthwhile read. I think young people who are filmmakers should read it particularly and people who are in the industry should read it.”

“In fact I’ve given it as gifts to a lot of A-List stars and directors before even reading it myself so they have a copyright before it even hit stores!,” they continued.

For more information, or to obtain a copy tout de suite, please visit either the link below, or your local and wonderful brick and mortar:

 

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Jennifer K. Hugus

About Jennifer K. Hugus

Jennifer K. Hugus was born at a very young age. At an even earlier age, she just knew she would one day write for the LA Beat! Having grown up in Massachusetts, France, and Denmark, she is a noted fan of Asian Cuisine. She studied ballet at the Royal Danish Ballet Theatre and acting at U.S.C. in their prestigious BFA drama program. She also makes her own jewelry out of paints and canvas when she isn’t working on writing absurdist plays and comparatively mainstream screenplays. Jennifer would like to be a KID when she grows up!
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