ON THE WATERFRONT (released in 1954…the year of this tired blogger’s birth) was truly one of the greatest films of all times. Superbly directed by Elia Kazan, vividly photographed by cinematographer Boris Kaufman, scathingly written by Budd Schulberg and hauntingly scored by Leonard Bernstein, it received eight Oscars. The film established the great Marlon Brando‘s legendary status for all time and, for her outstanding performance, made a star of Eva Marie Saint. However, Karl Malden‘s relatively overlooked role as Father Barry deserved more attention…his portrayal was that of an actual priest and ON THE WATERFRONT was, for the most part, his own story.
His real name was Fr. John Corridan and he was both the inspiration and the source for ON THE WATERFRONT. He was a Jesuit who graduated from Regis High School in 1928, soon becoming a labor school priest housed at St. Francis Xavier Parish on 16th Street in Chelsea (Manhattan). He was assigned to work with longshoremen from the surrounding Chelsea piers and quickly became a labor reform advocate in the heavily Catholic International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA).
Corridan acquired rare and startling insight into the machinations of the waterfront, compiling a few scattered notes that soon became voluminous records. Malcolm Johnson, investigative reporter for the old New York Sun, while writing an expose on suspected waterfront corruption asked Corridan to help him in 1948. In series of articles, “Crimes on the Waterfront,” a “racket-ridden jungle in which gangsters operated with the cooperation of union officials” was uncovered. Johnson was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Another set of articles was published by the Sun, specifically targeting Joseph Ryan, ILA’s “life president” (the Lee J. Cobb character), which cracked open the waterfront’s “code of silence” and set the stage for reform. Fr. Corridan confided to a San Francisco Jesuit: “the material for this second series was submitted to the reporter [by Corridan] and was published under his name with very little change. This, of course, is top secret.”
Corridan had become known throughout the Port of New York as the “Waterfront Priest.” His articles for such publications as America condemned the “shape-up” hiring practices of the waterfront. These, along with Corridan’s televised debates with Ryan and testimony before congressional committees, brought him to the attention of Budd Schulberg (screenwriter for ON THE WATERFRONT). Through Malcolm Johnson, Schulberg finally met with Fr. Corridan; the priest gave Schulberg a virtual tour of waterfront corruption and intrigue which set the basis for movie picture history.
For more on this please go to “The Waterfront Priest” by James Fisher