The Member of the Wedding, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, The Wild One, Ship of Fools, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Stanley Kramer has not been lionized in four feature-length documentaries. Johnny Depp has not played him in a Tim Burton biopic. But in the 50s, Kramer's earnestly liberal dramas were considered a greater force than the grade-Z horror and science-fiction catastrophes of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Indeed, Kramer was the spirit of socially conscious Hollywood, while Ed Wood was a joke to the few who knew he existed. On B-movie budgets, Kramer produced socially conscious films on racial prejudice (Home of the Brave), sexual predators (The Sniper) and the treatment of paraplegic war veterans (The Men). His early pictures won Oscars for José Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac) and Gary Cooper (High Noon). If they were later dismissed as message movies, and now ignored in an age of trash over class, his films were often vigorous, challenging and entertaining.
In the most unfashionable six-disc box set of the year, Sony brings together three of Kramer's 50 films as a producer and two of his more bloated (but still widely honored) 60s films as a director. Those last two are Ship of Fools, a Grand Hotel assembly of seafaring stars (Vivien Leigh, Lee Marvin, Oskar Werner, Ferrer) on a German ship in 1933, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a pre-Meet the Parents comedy with Katharine Hepburn (another Kramer Oscar winner) and Spencer Tracy as a couple whose liberalism is tested when their daughter brings Sidney Poitier home as her fiancé. In these films audiences learned that Nazis are bad, Negroes are nice, and Kramer is a stolid manager of actors and ideas.
Kramer had a brisker touch in the previous decade, when his films ran under 90 mins. and other people directed them. The Member of the Wedding, from the Carson McCullers novel and play, is a lovely mood piece, with Julie Harris and Brandon De Wilde as Southern kids under the supervision of the black cook Ethel Waters. Marlon Brando, who'd made his film debut in The Men, rejoined Kramer to play a proto-punk in the motorcycle-gang exposÚ The Wild One, an ur-Hell's Angels melodrama with a trailblazing sneer of surliness and dialogue that still resonates. Woman: "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" Brando: "Whaddaya got?" And, when the townspeople beat him up: "My old man used to hit harder than that."
For true 50s weirdness, you must see 5,000 Fingers, a musical from the fertile imagination of Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. It's another youthful-rebellion fable, but the intransigent one here is a kid (Billy Chapin), the evil authority figure his piano teacher (Hans Conried). The movie is on the frigid side, and it has a romantic subplot that infuriated Geisel. But there are the saving Seussian rhymes, none more enthralling than "Do-Mi-Do Duds," in which the starchy Conried waxes ecstatic as he considers the outfit he'll wear to a big concert: "I want my undulating undies with the marabou frills. / I want my beautiful bolero with the porcupine quills. / I want my purple nylon girdle with the orange-blossom buds, / 'Cause I'm going, do-mi-do-ing, in my do-mi-do duds!" In this song the film's nightmarish noirness gives way to a sublimely Seussical musical.
Next Mala Noche, 1985