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Kazan Inspired Brando, Aided Witch Hunt; Novak’s Glamour: DVDs

Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan poses on the set of his 1947 crime drama "Boomerang!." With his extensive background in theater and the Method, Kazan revolutionized the way actors performed in the movies. Source: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment via Bloomberg

I can’t think of a better holiday gift for cinephiles than “The Elia Kazan Collection,” a boxed set of 15 Kazan films from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, four of which have never before appeared on DVD.

Also included are a 100-page book of production notes, rare photos and the documentary “A Letter to Elia,” which Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones wrote and directed for the PBS “American Masters” series. It’s a pig-out of cinematic riches.

The Kazan films range from his first Hollywood feature, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), to the epic “America, America” (1963).

In between are not only famous films such as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “On the Waterfront” and “East of Eden” but several underrated entries, especially “Wild River.” The 1960 Cinemascope production stars Montgomery Clift as a Depression-era federal official who faces local opposition to a dam project in Tennessee. (Kazan made a short 1937 documentary on Tennessee miners, not included in this Fox collection, that may help explain his simpatico for this region.)

Kazan started out as an actor and stage manager in the Group Theatre before moving to Hollywood. His reliance on dramatic staging and performance is evident throughout his movie career, but it wasn’t until “Viva Zapata!” (1952) -- his second collaboration with Marlon Brando -- that he felt unencumbered by his theatrical background.

Brando, Dean

As a co-founder of the Actors Studio in 1947, Kazan helped inspire many of America’s finest screen stars. Brando, James Dean and dozens of others cited his uncanny ability to bring out their best. Performers who were mostly indifferent in other directors’ movies shine in his.

Think of the tarty, teasing Carroll Baker in the Tennessee Williams scripted “Baby Doll” (1956), Andy Griffith’s radio demagogue in the frighteningly prescient “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) or Natalie Wood in “Splendor in the Grass” (1961). Nine actors won Oscars in his movies and 12 others were nominated.

Kazan himself won two directing Oscars -- for “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), an indictment of anti-Semitism starring Gregory Peck that today looks formulaic, and “On the Waterfront” (1954), with Brando’s legendary performance as a longshoreman who rats on his mob boss.

Kazan later said “On the Waterfront” was partly a defense of his (and screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s) decision to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. From the rancor that greeted his 1999 honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, a large swath of Hollywood never forgave him for participating in the Communist witch hunt.

Yet it’s difficult, watching many of the films in this collection, to feel anything but gratitude to Kazan the artist.

Kim Novak

The Kim Novak Collection, from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, features five movies starring the last full-fledged glamour girl of the studio system.

Born Marilyn Pauline Novak, she grew up in a working-class Czech neighborhood in Chicago. Columbia Pictures wanted a less ethnic name and suggested Kit Marlowe. They compromised on Kim Novak, though much later she played a character named Kit Marlowe on the TV soap opera “Falcon Crest.”

Groomed as a competitor to Marilyn Monroe, Novak was a slightly gaga combo of sullen and sultry. She always seemed like she was about to enter into, or wake up from, a languorous slumber.

This three-disc collection features Novak at the height of her late 1950s star power. It includes “Picnic,” by far the best film in the package; the new-to-DVD biopic “Jeanne Eagels”; a bowdlerized adaptation of Rodgers and Hart’s “Pal Joey” with Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth; the charming “Bell, Book and Candle,” where she played a homebody sorceress opposite Jimmy Stewart; and Paddy Chayefsky’s “Middle of the Night.”

Novak was once quoted as saying: “I had a lot of resentment for a while toward Kim Novak. But I don’t mind her anymore. She’s OK. We’ve become friends.”

See why in this collection.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).

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