Some of the most important movies of the 20th century owe their creation to one committed filmmaker – Stanley Kramer. The producer and director, who was born 100 years ago today, devoted much of his career to making "issue films" that inspired us, educated us, and made us think about the hot-button issues of the midcentury. Through his films, Kramer helped shape our nation's conversations. As we observe his birthday, we remember some of the controversial topics Kramer wasn't afraid to approach.
Nuclear war – On the Beach. In 1959, when the prospect of nuclear war loomed over Americans and had schoolchildren practicing their "duck and cover" response, Kramer directed a movie that took an unflinching look at the end of human civilization caused by fallout from a nuclear war. Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins starred in On the Beach as some of the last people on earth. Their plight resonated with viewers everywhere who worried about aggressions between the world's superpowers.
Creationism vs. evolution – Inherit the Wind. In Inherit the Wind, Kramer retold the story of the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial, pitting a teacher who wanted to include evolution in his science lessons against those who wanted evolution banned from the curriculum. Kramer noted that while the Spencer Tracy-Fredric March film was often seen as a courtroom drama, its themes went much deeper – "the real issues of that trial were man's right to think and man's right to teach."
The Holocaust – Judgment at Nuremberg. World War II and the Holocaust were still fresh in the world's mind in 1961. Working again with Spencer Tracy, as well as Marlene Dietrich, Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland, Kramer recreated the post-war trials of the surviving Nazi leaders. The film explored notions of justice and conscience, making viewers think about the uncomfortable idea of why so many people participated in the horrific actions of the Third Reich.
Racism – Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Among Kramer's last great issue films was the Spencer Tracy-Sidney Poitier-Katharine Hepburn classic Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. For most 1967 viewers, interracial marriages were still rare and not much talked about. Indeed, while the movie was in development, miscegenation was still illegal in 17 states, and the laws were struck down by the Supreme Court just months before the film's release. Kramer's positive portrayal of an interracial relationship helped open a dialogue that led to greater understanding and acceptance in the years to come.
For his part, Kramer insisted he didn't want to push his values on viewers – he was just trying to make movies about stories that moved him. "Maybe I'm out of step with the times, because a lot of movies are made today with no statement at all, just shock and sensation, or a motivationless kind of approach to a story, a senseless crime, a pointless love affair,” he once said. “Like lots of kids in the 1930s, I wanted to right all the wrongs of mankind. . . . I'm not interested in changing anyone's opinion, just in telling a story." And so he did – again and again.
Written by Linnea Crowther