Karl Malden, RIP
I was blown away by On the Waterfront when I finally saw it, just a few years ago. I’d always heard it was great, but… it sounded so dull (Dock workers? Pigeons?). And out of context, the clips of Brando slurring “I coulda been a contender!” always seemed like he was parodying himself. But I finally saw it, on a big screen no less, right here in New York, as part of a film festival downtown. And it turned me into one of those people who go around telling everyone what a great movie On the Waterfront is.
I didn’t know going in that it was, at least in part, a story about a heroic priest. (And I didn’t know it had a connection to Commonweal — screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s story “Waterfront Priest,” about Fr. John M. Corridan, ran in The Commonweal in April 1953, and Associate Editor John Cort had been writing about the Waterfront labor situation for years before that.) In fact, On the Waterfront belongs on parish film-fest rosters alongside chestnuts like Boys Town and The Bells of St. Mary’s (and way ahead of silly epics like The Robe). I would certainly advocate screening it in this “year of the priest.” And as Philip T. Hartung wrote in Commonweal in 1954, “Karl Malden’s portrayal of the courageous priest is as outstanding as the author’s characterization of the part.”
Karl Malden died today at 97. I learned from the obituary in the New York Times that his birth name was Mladen Sekulovich, and that his parents were immigrants (from Serbia and Bohemia). I also didn’t know that he had advocated for director Elia Kazan’s controversial lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999. I did know how good he was at being an ordinary guy onscreen — for example, I think he was the quintessential “Herbie,” even if everything else about the movie version of Gypsy was less than ideal. But it’s as “Father Barry” that I will always remember him. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t delay. Do it for Karl.