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Tales From Development Hell: The Hook

By Ryan Fleming.


A publicity poster for On The Waterfront. It could equally have been used for The Hook.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Sometimes, a film can be made at the wrong time. It can come either too early or too late to resonate properly with audiences than it might have done had it been made at a more appropriate time. This might be frustrating to the writers of those scripts. Imagine how frustrating it must be, however, to have an idea seemingly not appropriate for the time being appropriated just three short years later by someone involved in the original project? That idea was The Hook, Arthur Miller’s tale of a longshoreman standing up to corrupt union leadership. If the idea sounds familiar, perhaps it would help to point out that it was meant to be directed by Elia Kazan, who would later direct On the Waterfront (1954).

 

Following the successes of All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), Arthur Miller was already established as a rising star amongst American playwrights. The latter production had even netted the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Both plays had been directed by Elia Kazan, who had won Tony Awards for Best Direction in both cases. Miller’s work stood out from much of American theatre in the immediate post-WW2 years, which was more concerned with domestic dilemmas as seen in the works of William Inge and Tennessee Williams.

 

Miller wanted to write works that combined the psychological and the social; works that would argue a case in telling their story. With The Hook, he and Kazan travelled to Hollywood in 1951 intending to have the script made for the screen rather than the stage. It was thought that the wider reaching medium of film would have a greater political impact than if it had just been performed on the stage in New York City. The story of a dockworker standing up to Mafia-connected union leadership was one couched in very real events Miller had seen play out a decade earlier. Including the murder of the man who inspired the script’s protagonist.

 

Arthur Miller had been amongst the crowd that heard Pete Panto protest about corruption in the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in 1939. Panto wanted to expose that corruption via his Rank-And-File Committee, which held open-air assemblies that would attract crowds of over a thousand of their fellow longshoremen. Including Miller, who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard after the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal agency of which he was a member, was closed down by the United States Congress for fear of Communist infiltration earlier in 1939. Much of the corruption in the ILA, and the abominable working conditions that came with them, could be traced to the Mafia. Panto was a threat to them, and to the corrupt union leadership. He was lured from his home in July 1939 and disappeared. His body was found almost two years later in a lime pit in New Jersey. A trial was almost brought for the murder in 1941. Murder, Inc. enforcer Abe Reles had turned government witness and was set to implicate Gambino family underboss Albert Anastasia in Panto’s murder. The trial was set for 12th November 1941. On the morning of the trial, Reles fell from a fifth floor window. Allegedly, he was trying to escape from a room where he was under guard by five officers of the New York City Police Department, from a trial at which he was the star witness and had expressed no desire to escape prior to his death. The trial never happened, and Panto’s murder is officially unsolved to this day.

 

Pete Panto became Marty Ferarra in The Hook, named for the Red Hook district of Brooklyn where the action was to take place. Like Panto, Ferarra seeks to overthrow the gangsterism that pervades the New York waterfront. Unlike Panto, Ferarra’s story would end on a hopeful note of continuing the fight despite losing one battle, in the process turning down the offer of the easy route to join the corrupt Union leadership.

 

This was the story that Miller, Kazan, and Marilyn Monroe, posing as Kazan’s secretary as a practical joke, presented to the micromanaging and tyrannical head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn. The trip was also the first time Miller and Monroe had met, having been introduced by Kazan. It would eventually lead to an affair between the playwright and the actress, which culminated in their marriage in 1956. The early negotiations for Columbia to produce the script, with Kazan directing, were productive enough that further meetings were scheduled with other parties. However, they ground to a halt when Cohn had Miller and Kazan meet with Roy Brewer, international representative for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees in Hollywood. Brewer was perhaps the most powerful union leader in Hollywood at the time, and he was also one of Hollywood’s leading anti-communists.


He: A well-known playwright. She: An aspiring actress. She posed as a secretary when pitching to Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, who seemingly didn't recognise her. Miller and Monroe later married. The marriage didn't last.

Picture courtesy Esquire.


It was from Brewer that the insistence that the union corruption within the script be driven by Communists. This was the era of the second Red Scare in the United States, exemplified by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Brewer had testified before HUAC in 1947, naming 13 actors, directors, and writers as suspected Communists. He was a close ally of another Hollywood union leader: Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild. Together, they had formed the Labor League of Hollywood Voters, supporting anti-Communist political candidates; and the Motion Picture Industry Council, vetting those accused of being Communists who had since renounced it.

 

Reagan would later, as President of the United States, appoint Brewer as a panel head within the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Cohn agreed with Brewer, but Miller refused to change the screenplay to accommodate an anti-Communist message and thus withdrew the script. When he returned to New York from California, he found a telegram from Cohn awaiting.

 

ITS INTERESTING HOW THE MINUTE WE TRY TO MAKE THE SCRIPT PRO-AMERICAN YOU PULL OUT.

 

Cohn was apparently incensed that, rather than Communists, Miller instead preferred to vilify those paragons of American entrepreneurial spirit and good work practices: the Mafia. It should be noted that Cohn was rumoured to have Mob connections of his own.

 

In case anyone was wondering: yes, that telegram message is under 140 characters.

 

Kazan later stated he was shocked that Miller did not fight for the script. He also found himself before HUAC in 1952, where he named eight former colleagues as Communists. That testimony cost him many friends, including Miller, though Kazan claimed in his defence that all those he named were already known to HUAC.

 

His testimony meant that he remained a controversial figure from then to his death. Orson Welles branded him a traitor in 1982. Critics associations were reluctant to present honorary awards to Kazan well into the 1990s, with one Los Angeles Film Critics Association opinion being that his career after the testimony was “built on the ruin of other people’s careers.” When he won an Honorary Academy Award in 1999, many refused to applaud. There were, however, plenty who gave a standing ovation that night.

 

One of Kazan’s first efforts following his testimony was On the Waterfront (1954), focusing on corruption, racketeering, and violence amongst longshoremen... which sounds so familiar. The setting was transferred from Red Hook to Hoboken, New Jersey, and took inspiration from Crime on the Waterfront, a series of articles by Malcolm Johnson that appeared in the New York Sun and won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. A critical and commercial success, regarded as one of the finest films ever made, and netted eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Kazan.

 

Miller would respond to Kazan’s testimony with The Crucible (1953), which equated the HUAC efforts to the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. Only a modest success in its original release, it has gone on to become Miller’s most frequently produced work worldwide. After the release of On the Waterfront, whose hero is such because he testifies against a corrupt union, Miller wrote A View from the Bridge (1955). It was unsuccessful in its original, one-act Broadway version, but after a revision by Miller, the two-act version enjoyed far better reception in London’s West End in 1956. In the play, a longshoreman informs on colleagues and friends, motivated purely by personal gain. Miller sent a copy to Kazan, who asked in jest if he could direct.

 

Miller himself was called before HUAC in 1956, where he refused to name names and was found guilty of contempt of Congress. He was fined, imprisoned, blacklisted, and disallowed the passport whose renewal was the pretext by which he was subpoenaed. That conviction was overturned two years later, but it continued to affect him throughout his life.

 

He would reunited with Kazan in the 1960s for After the Fall (1964), which was a controversial critique on Miller’s relationship with the recently deceased Monroe. As for The Hook, it would gain a new life in the 2010s when Ron Hutchison adapted it for the stage, premiering in Northampton to good reviews and a renewed relevance with the rise in zero-hours contracts in the UK. It would also be adapted for radio that same year as part of a BBC Radio 4 series of adaptations of unproduced screenplays by major authors.

 

What if The Hook had made it to production? It’s actually a difficult proposition, considering the personalities and politics involved. That Kazan was able to get On the Waterfront made at Columbia without making Communist infiltration  the root of the corruption does perhaps suggest that had he and Miller protested, they might have been able to get the suggestion withdrawn. On the other hand, Brewer was a vociferous anti-Communist and Cohn one of Hollywood’s most autocratic studio heads, so any debate might just lead to a drawn-out conflict that ends the same way Miller’s refusal did historically.


Roy Brewer, union leader and arch anti-Communist, heavily involved with HUAC. Is this the face that killed The Hook?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


To help in our speculation, let us assume that Cohn does not insist that Kazan and Miller meet with Brewer. Some perceived slight putting the union leader on the outs with the studio chief, perhaps? This still might not be enough, Brewer (or someone else for that matter) could still try to turn the picture into Cold War propaganda throughout the early stages of production. Let’s assume that luck is on the side of Kazan and Miller, and the film makes it through production without anyone of any clout suggesting that what the film needs is a red menace to be behind the conflict. What would The Hook look like and how would it be received?

 

Kazan’s direction in On the Waterfront perhaps gives a good approximation of how The Hook would have looked. Marlon Brando might even still play the lead, since Kazan had already directed him on both stage and screen in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (play – 1947; film – 1951). As to the rest of the cast, given Marilyn Monroe’s accompanying of Kazan and Miller to pitch the film, and a desire to showcase more of an acting range, might she appear opposite Brando? Possible, but the studio might want a more bankable star than the still breaking through Monroe. The rest of the cast would likely be filled out by Broadway actors familiar to the writer and director; if filmed on location in New York City, perhaps even many of the same actors that appeared in On the Waterfront.

 

As to how it might be received, all of the ingredients that made On the Waterfront a success would still be there. With all due respect to Budd Schulberg’s script for the historical film, The Hook might be even more successful given the connections to fairly recent sensationalistic criminal activity. Would it be controversial? Perhaps not. After all, the controversy that the script saw historically was the refusal to insert something rather than any objections to the subject matter itself; though Cohn may find himself invited to fewer Mob parties.

 

On the other hand, this was the era where John Wayne and Howard Hawks disliked High Noon (1952) as “the most un-American thing” that they later made Rio Bravo (1959) as their own version. This version ended on Wayne’s character leading a workers and peasants’ uprising against a corrupt land baron.


Gary Cooper in the "un-American" High Noon. Me, I found it a classic. But then I'm un-American.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Regardless of whether On the Waterfront winds up being made with Hawks directing and Wayne starring, with the Duke’s honest longshoreman fighting Communist infiltration with his fists, history would have The Hook. Would it have had the legacy On the Waterfront had? Brando’s portrayal of Terry Malloy is regarded as one of the finest ever and helped to popularise the method acting technique. Would he achieve the same playing Marty Ferarra? Actors like Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, and Jack Nicholson have all cited it as a major inspiration; and director Martin Scorsese cites it as a watershed moment in screen acting. In Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), Robert De Niro as washed-up boxer Jake LaMotta famously delivers Brando’s monologue from On the Waterfront containing the famous line: “I could have been a contender.” Miller’s script for The Hook does not make Ferarra an ex-boxer the way Schulberg’s does for Malloy.


"I could have had class. I coulda been a contender." One of the great lines of cinema, said by Marlon Brando.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


On scripts by Miller, without his experiences trying to get The Hook made, would he still write The Crucible? He definitely would not have the impetus to write A View from the Bridge in response to Kazan’s On the Waterfront. The political environment would still be the same for The Crucible, but Miller might not write it without his experience with Brewer and Cohn. He only visited Salem with the intent to write a play about the trials after withdrawing The Hook. American theatre would be without one of its most famous works, one of the most famous political allegories in theatre in any country. One that has universal significance wherever repression rears its head.

 

The Hook is just one of many many examples of political climate dictating whether a piece of fiction is created or not. The sad fact particular to The Hook, however, is that it was a desire to make it more a part of the ongoing political climate that doomed it. This was a script where the villains were criminals and gangsters, who it was insisted be changed to an even greater other – political outsiders with likely foreign influence. If this had been the cost to get the script made, then the right decision was to withdraw it rather than pander to the paranoia of extremists.

 

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Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid.

 

 

 

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