For Budd Schulberg, On the Waterfront was not a conventional movie assignment. It was a mission to make the voices of protesting longshoremen heard by bringing their struggles against organized crime on New York and New Jersey’s docks to the silver screen.
After reading a series of Pulitzer Prize winning articles by investigative journalist Malcolm Johnson, Schulberg found himself drawn to the longshoremen’s fight against corruption on the docks. Schulberg met with Johnson who cited Father John Corridan, a crusading labor priest from the St. Francis Xavier Labor School, as a prime source for his exposé of the brutal exploitation and cold-blooded murders of workers.
When Schulberg met Father Corridan, the priest was in the midst of guiding a group of rebel longshoremen in a protest movement to build a harbor-wide reform labor union and challenge the mob-infiltrated International Longshoremen’s Association. While Schulberg was conducting research about life on the waterfront, Father Corridan encouraged him to use his prestige as a nationally renowned novelist to bring the plight of the longshoremen to the attention of the wider American public. Despite Johnson’s original breakthrough series, the city’s main media outlets, from the New York Times to the lurid tabloids, completely ignored the rampant crimes on the docks.
It thus became Schulberg’s mission to make the voices of the protesting longshoremen heard by bringing their struggles to the silver screen. Working closely with producer Elia Kazan, Schulberg finished writing the screenplay for On the Waterfront in 1954. The film scored at the box office, won eight Academy Awards, and has been hailed as one of the top ten films of all time. More important for Schulberg than all the accolades and awards, however, was that the film achieved Father Corridan’s simple hope: to make the American people aware of the dire need for advancing labor reforms on the waterfront.
Schulberg’s interest in labor issues did not begin while writing the screenplay for On the Waterfront. As editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth in 1935, Schulberg reported on a series of marble quarry workers’ strikes. Schulberg’s accounts of these strikes foreshadow the investigative reporting he would carry out about waterfront crime over a decade later in New York.
To learn more about On the Waterfront and Schulberg’s involvement in labor reform, come and see the exhibit currently on display at Rauner. The exhibit, “Budd Schulberg and the Scripting of Social Change,” will be on display from November 6th through January 30th. A symposium celebrating Schulberg’s centennial will also be held at Dartmouth November 6th and 7th which is free and open to the public. The symposium schedule can be found at: http://sites.dartmouth.edu/film-media-studies/2014/10/22/budd-schulberg-36-a-centennial-celebration/