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Stanley Kramer; Acclaimed Movies Focused on Social Issues

* Hollywood: He was responsible for such classics as 'High Noon,' 'The Defiant Ones' and 'Judgment at Nuremberg.'

February 20, 2001|By ELAINE DUTKA | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Kramer's earnestness--and the lavish praise heaped on his early work--made him a broad target for critics. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael derided the director's "self-righteous, self-congratulatory tone." Others charged that his films were manipulative and sentimental, peopled by characters with a greater than usual burden of representing social types and beliefs.

But Kramer defended the substance of his work.

"I'm not interested in message films--of which I have been accused--because I don't have messages," he said, addressing the charge in a 1970 interview with American Cinematographer magazine. "I do have provocations, thoughts, doubts, challenges, and questions to offer."

Others separated Kramer the director from Kramer the producer.

"Kramer was regarded as a significant independent producer whose little black-and-white movies contrasted with the Cinemascope spectaculars of that time," said film critic/historian Richard Schickel. "As a director, however, his stories were old-fashioned, simple-minded, lacking in subtlety and subtext."

He was also criticized by colleagues on the Left--particularly blacklisted artists who found him insufficiently critical of American institutions. In 1970's "R.P.M," the director's most autobiographical film, Anthony Quinn played a liberal college president who isn't progressive enough for his angry students. "I had been assaulting the establishment for 40 years," Kramer wrote in 1997, "and now was being smeared by the same brush."

The director's values dated back to FDR's New Deal--and to a tough childhood in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen. He lived in cramped quarters with his immigrant grandparents and mother, Mildred, after his father deserted the family.

Though his mother worked as a secretary in Paramount Pictures' New York office, she wanted her son to go into law. Stanley had other ideas. Entering New York University he wrote a story that led to an internship at 20th Century Fox.

After graduation, Kramer moved to Hollywood, where he became a carpenter and scenery mover at MGM.

"I schlepped a lot of stuff, but it never destroyed my illusions," he said.

For eight years, he learned the ropes of the trade--as an assistant editor, writing scripts for Columbia and Republic Studios as well as radio shows for CBS. During World War II, Kramer shot training and orientation films for the Signal Corps and became a first lieutenant.

Because no jobs were to be had upon his return, he became an "independent." Converting two Ring Lardnerstories into "So This is New York," his first film, and the critically acclaimed "Champion" put him on the map.

In 1950, he married stage and screen actress Ann Pearce, with whom he had a daughter and son.

A loner--even in his glory days--Kramer became more so later in life. After "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," he turned out several flops in a row and his star was fading fast. The director took full responsibility for the failure of movies such as the World War II saga "The Secret of Santa Vittoria" in 1969 and the environmentally conscious "Bless the Beasts and Children" in 1971.

The director, his second wife, actress Karen Sharpe, and their two young daughters moved to a suburb of Seattle in 1977. There, he wrote a column for the Seattle Times, hosted a radio show, and taught at a community college.

He also directed what was to be his last movie, "The Runner Stumbles," in 1979, featuring Dick Van Dyke as a Catholic priest who falls in love with a nun. Though that project was a critical and commercial bust, Kramer retained his passion for the medium.

In the mid-1980s, he headed back to Hollywood. As an "interpreter of society" who regarded movies as "weapons," he longed to be back in the action. Studios, however, were unwilling to sponsor a man once regarded as a kingpin of the business. In commemoration of times past, the Producers Guild of America awarded Kramer its David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. Seven years later, the NAACP also honored the director.

Kramer was realistic when assessing his contribution.

"I've enjoyed a good career in the movie industry, yet not as good as my ambitions had led me to hope," he wrote in his autobiography. "My pictures were never, ever good enough to approach the dream."

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