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On the Waterfront - Labor Relations Paper


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Introduction On the Waterfront is a 1954 film starring Marlon Brando as longshoreman Terry Malloy. The film focuses on union violence and mob involvement among dockworkers in New York. It is based on "Crime on the Waterfront", a series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson. The series won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. The stories detailed widespread corruption, extortion and racketeering on the waterfronts of Manhattan and Brooklyn (Mills). The film was a huge critical and commercial success and received 12 Academy Award nominations, winning eight awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Marlon Brando, Best Supporting Actress for the debut of Eva Marie Saint, and Best Director for Elia Kazan (Oscar history).
Director’s Purpose Director Elia Kazan’s main purpose in making this film was to portray the faces behind the corruption and violence facing those in some waterfront unions. His intent was not to create a documentary but instead show the emotions of the people involved. The first page of the Waterfront shooting script contained the director’s note “[d]on’t be objective! This is not a Documentary” (Almereyda). By placing the focus on a few main characters rather than the larger union group, the director was better able to play out Terry’s inner conflict with himself as well as his personal relationship with Edie Doyle and his professional relationship with Johnny Friendly. In a sentiment echoed by the numerous awards this film has received, I felt that the director made all the right decisions in casting and direction. Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy is the perfect portrait of the street smart dockworker who is fighting between what he believes to be right and what his union boss is telling him is right. Eva Marie Saint uses her Edie Doyle character to be the calming force in Terry’s chaotic life and the director uses her to sensitivity and romance to an otherwise harsh reality. The director also uses pigeons as symbols throughout the movie. The represent the longshoremen who are forced to not testify against the mob. The connection is that those who testify are called stool pigeons. In the opening scene of the movie, Terry lures Joey Doyle to the roof by telling him he has one of his pigeons to return. It is then that Joey is thrown off the roof because he had decided to speak to the police about mob activity. Several of the film’s key scenes involve the symbolism of the pigeons. Terry meets with the Golden Warriors and the crime commission investigator while spending time caged with the pigeons, symbolizing his being controlled by the mob. In a scene with Edie, Terry talks about pigeons and hawks. “You know this city if full of hawks? They perch on top of the big hotels and swoop down on the pigeons in the park” (Spiegel). Terry is speaking in the literal sense of the animals but the director uses this as a comparison to the longshoremen and the mob thugs.
Special Contributions to Labor Relations The 1954 film put visuals to the 1948 articles by Malcom Johnson. Johnson was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the newspaper stories chronicled the problems with labor unions at the time. Until the mid-twentieth century, organized crime ruled New York's waterfront labor unions. With the inhumane treatment of longshoremen implicitly condoned by the unions, and the suspicious disappearance of anyone who spoke out against the system, it seemed things would continue being led and run by the mob instead of the unions themselves. Johnson's series "Crime on the Water Front" appeared in The New York Sun, revealing a violent underworld that influenced all levels of New York politics, society, and industry. Johnson's extensive investigation finally forced the public and the government to take action, leading to changes in labor laws that influenced the entire nation (Rosenberg). As a result of these articles, U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver began a series of investigations into organized crime and their connections to union activity. They became the first congressional hearings to draw a large national audience, and at the time was the largest event ever televised (Doyle). These hearings were similar to the ones seen near the end of the film in which Terry testifies against Johnny in the courtroom. The film which drew largely from the articles first put forth the idea that organized crime did exist and it did have influence over the unions at the time. The Kefauver Committee suggested that civil law be expanded to combat this type of crime. In 1970 Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in response to this recommendation (Grell).
Personal Opinions
New Ideas While I had always heard stories about the involvement of the mob in some labor organizations, it wasn’t until viewing this film that I realized how upfront and in the open some of the retaliations and criminal activity was. I had assumed that most of the dealings took place in private locations or in secret. However judging by the first scene of Joey Doyle being coaxed to his death while others looked on showed me that secrecy is not always needed.
Areas of Interest After watching this film and doing other research on the topic, it did direct me to the Kefauver hearings which was something I had not been aware of. Many current movies and TV shows mention the RICO Act but until I was able to research I did not know how long ago the legislation was recommended. Due to the information presented in the film as well as the outside research, I plan on doing additional research into the Kefauver hearings and their impact on organized crime involvement.
Shortcomings of the Film I’m sure that these topics weren’t given full attention just for time constraints but there were are few areas I thought needed additional attention. The aforementioned court hearings were only given a few minutes during the film for Terry’s testimony. I would have like to see additional witnesses or information presented both during the hearings as well as what more occurred after the decisions were rendered. Also the character of Father Barry could have had additional input into the film. It seemed that there was much focus at the start while trying to get the union motivated against the mob, but in later scenes he was merely giving eulogies over the fallen members of the union. The role of Father Barry was based on real life priest Father John Corridan who led crusades against corruption on the docks. In a foreword to the 1955 book ''Waterfront Priest'' by Allen Raymond, screenplay writer Budd Schulberg recalled how he had gone to Father Corridan for advice on the script. ''I found,'' he wrote, ''a tall, gangling, balding, energetic, ruddy-faced Irishman whose speech was a fascinating blend of Hell's Kitchen jargon, baseball slang, the facts and figures of a master in economics and the undeniable humanity of Christ” (Saxon). Because of this description I would have like to see more of a presence of this character in the film.
Summary and Conclusion Having seen this movie mentioned on many “Top Movies” lists and enjoying Marlon Brando’s work in other films, I wished I had watched this movie earlier. I felt it gave a true life account on what union and work life was like back in the early 40s and 50s. I feel that I will be watching this movie again simply because I think there may have been some material that I didn’t appreciate the first time. The comparison between the pigeons and hawks and the union member who speak to the police (pigeon) and mob enforcers (hawks) is a part of the movie that I think would require more attention to fully interpret. I feel the true sense of a union is portrayed in the final scene of the movie. After Terry fights with Johnny and is taken down by the rest of his thugs, we see the rest of his union team rally behind him and decide to work if Terry can walk into the warehouse. It is this idea of strength through brotherhood that I feel best describes why people choose to join a union.

Almereyda, M. (2013, February 19). On the waterfront: Everybody part of everybody else. Criterion. Retrieved from everybody-part-of-everybody-else
Doyle, J. (2008, April 17). The Kefauver hearings, 1950-1951. Retrieved from
Grell, J. (n.d.). The RICO act. LLC. Retrieved from ?page_id=122
Mills, M. (2007). On the waterfront: The best American film ever produced? Modern Times. Retrieved from
Oscar history. (1955). The Oscars. Retrieved from
Rosenberg, S. (2010, July 26). Remembering the reporter who inspired ‘On the waterfront’. The New York Sun. Retrieved from inspired-on/
Saxon, W. (1984, July 3). John M. Corridan, 73, the ‘waterfront priest’. The New York Times. Retrieved from waterfront-priest.html
Spiegel, S., Kazan, E. (1954). On the Waterfront [Film]. Hollywood: Columbia Pictures.

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