Friday, May 4, 2012

Audience Tomorrow: Preview in New Guinea

Elia Kazan (1909–2003)
From The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner

In the spring of 1945, weeks after thirty-five-year-old Elia Kazan wrapped up the filming of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (his first major motion picture), he traveled to the Pacific as an adviser to the military, looking for ways to improve entertainment for soldiers on the front. Lewis Gillenson reported on part of Kazan’s trip for a 1951 Harper’s Bazaar article:
He gave command cars and brass hats a wide berth, hitched a ride to the bloody Ville Verdi trail in the Philippines and there spent twenty-four hours without a hitch in a battalion aid station as a GI orderly, assisting the surgeons, serving the wounded and preparing dressings. None of the GIs of the 32nd Division knew who he was, nor did they know that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the picture shown that night down the hill, was directed by the little man carrying bedpans in the surgical tent.
The screening of the movie “down the hill” was outdoors, in the rain, surrounded by palm trees scarred by bombing. Although Kazan was at first tickled to discover that his movie was being shown, and happy that many of the soldiers seemed to enjoy it, he was somewhat flustered by out of place it seemed. “I was impatient with the film,” he wrote years later, in his autobiography. “All I could think of was the contrast between the terrible intensity and cost of what was happening around me and the sentimental fairy tale I’d made.”

Kazan described why he was hired. “Our mission was to set up self-entertainment units for the soldiers, to keep the men from going nuts before they were shipped to other theatres of action or home. The soldiers didn’t think much of the USO shows.” The big-name stars were usually a hit, but most of the USO acts were “third-rate cabaret entertainers.” One of the highlights of Kazan’s Pacific tour seems to have been a stage show put on by the soldiers themselves, which he described in an article published a few months later in Theatre Arts. While other war journalists might have simply depicted the rowdy atmosphere of amateur theatricals, Kazan looked around him and saw a future audience—soldiers who would one day return home and expect new and better stage productions.

Note: Wacs were members of the Women’s Army Corps. Leyte and Luzon, both mentioned on page 476, refer to the Battle of Leyte (December 1944) and the Battle of Luzon (March 1945), both in the Philippines.

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Eddie Moran wasn’t going with us. He had a bad headache, and his bones ached. Some one suggested Eddie might have a touch of dengue fever, a fantastic disease that gives you the sensation that all your bones are breaking. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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