September 29, 1913, marks the birthday of the prolific producer/director Stanely Kramer, who blazed new ground in dealing with the human condition’s most pressing issues. He also helped bring to the screen some of the postwar era’s greatest actors, such as Grace Kelly, Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas and Sidney Poitier. Less remembered is the fact that he also played a highly siginificant role in the career of Lee Marvin. Early on, Kramer proved to be the one major Hollywood figure to recognize Marvin’s talent and utlized that talent to great effect for more than a decade. One of the first and most important roles in the actor’s career was an appearance on Jack Webb’s TV series, Dragnet. It was one of Marvin’s first lead roles, playing a homicidal natural foods fanatic (!) who gives Joe Friday and his partner a run for their money…..
The actor was excellent in the role and impressed producer Webb with a hilarious anecdote recounted in Lee Marvin: Point Blank. Marvin’s agent, Meyer Mishkin, made sure to get a copy of the episode to show to all the major players in Hollywood at the time and the first to take notice was Kramer. He cast him in his first lead role as Sgt. Joe Mooney in the film Eight Iron Men based on the Broadway play A Sound Of Hunting, which had earned a film contract for Burt Lancaster in the same part. Marvin again proved to be perfect in the role, as seen below….
Over the next several years, as Kramer continued to produce such films as The Wild One and The Caine Mutiny, he sought out Marvin to etch impressive characeterizations in roles both large and small. When Kramer decided to make his directing debut in the medical drama Not As A Stranger, as a good luck charm he cast Marvin in the small but interesting role of Brundage, a braggard med student who knew all the angles.
Over the years, Kramer took chances producing or directing such groundbreaking social issue films as Inherit the Wind (Evolution vs. Creationism), On The Beach (nuclear war), A Child is Waiting (mental retardation), and more. The two issues that he dealt with the most were the two that he believed to be at the heart of the nation’s greatest discord: racism (The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, etc.) and anti-semitism (The Juggler, Judgement at Nuremburg, etc). Producer Kramer even managed to combine both in one underrated project involving a black psychiatrist (Poitier) treating an American Nazi (Bobby Darin)!
The culmination of his belief in dealing with anti-semitism came with Ship of Fools, an epic project of pre-war Europe’s underestimation of Adolph Hitler. The film recieved mixed reviews over all, but when it came to Lee Marvin’s performance of Bil Tenney, a bigoted, misogynistic, burned out ex-ball player, the reviews were uniformly excellent in their praise….
Towards the end of the film, Marvin has an amazing confrontation with screen legend Vivien Leigh which very few actors would be willing to undergo. When his character mistakes her for a prostitute he had planned a liasion with, Leigh proceeds to beat him mercilessly with the business endl of her high-heel shoe. Marvin took the beating like a pro and kept the shoe as a treasured memento!
I was extremely fortunate to interview the great Kramer toward the end of his life and his insight into Marvin’s persona was most impressive. He understood and knew the actor as well or maybe better than just about anybody Marvin ever worked with. All of his thoughts & opinions made it into the text of my bio and proved to be the highlight of my research. I have always been a fan of Kramer’s and his passing ( on Lee’s birthday!) is a constant reminder in today’s day and age of fluff film making that we sure could use him now….more than ever!