Professor James Fisher, author of On the Irish Waterfront
BH: When Fr. Corridan befriends non-Catholics like journalist Malcolm Johnson and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who brings in film director Elia Kazan, he goes outside waterfront circles to get the film made and becomes a celebrity in his own right. The film becomes a huge success, but it didn’t actually have the huge effect on waterfront politics, did it?
JF: The film is fascinating because, as big of a failure as Corridan was in terms of the actual West Side piers with the rank and file, who really wanted no part of him, that’s how great a success he enjoyed with figures like Budd Schulberg and Malcolm Johnson — not only as collaborators in journalism and films but as spiritual collaborators too. These gentlemen credited Corridan with instilling in them a tremendous religious humanism, a spiritual humanism, and a zeal for social justice and things that they had not experienced prior to meeting him. So he was very successful in that way, in this interfaith or ecumenical outreach to other individuals who shared some of his passions.
They got the film made, and it was a struggle over four years. They shot the film in Hoboken because they’d been intimidated, really threatened, on the West Side. They made the film in 35 days on an $800,000 budget. No one suspected it would be a movie considered to be in the top 10 by almost everybody in film — critics and historians. It’s a magnificent film and the key thing about the film is that it is told almost entirely from Fr. Corridan’s perspective. It really retells his story in a movie and it tells the story of how he came to the work, how he sized up the ills of the waterfront, and what he sought to do. In the film, his apostolate is fulfilled by Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, who in fact finally discovers his conscience and stands up and testifies against the mob and then leads the men heroically back to work after himself being beaten and threatened with death and nearly killed.
The film is really the story of Fr. Corridan and how he liked to tell the story and how he wished it had ended. There was always a lot of debate about this; Elia Kazan would have liked to have seen Marlon Brando’s character killed in the final scene. It would have seemed more realistic. But in fact he wasn’t killed and in a way became a fulfillment of the desires of, certainly, Schulman, and of course Corridan, to see through to a triumphant conclusion the mission that they shared. The film really becomes the final testament to Corridan’s work, and no one else had ever noted this before: the film is entirely from his perspective. So it’s a remarkable monument to him for that reason.
BH: The film becomes a huge success and yet Fr. Corridan felt he was a failure?
JF: Around the time of the movie’s release there was an attempt to overthrow the ILA and replace it with a new union with Jesuit backing and other reformers backing it, but that attempt was defeated by the old union, the ILA, in two elections, and that was the end of the reform crusade. Corridan was done, because he got a new religious superior who wasn’t happy with his partisan advocacy. The triumph of the film was mirrored by the failure of the political causes it represented. I like to say they got a beautiful film but they lost all the other struggles. So that was the end of it. Fr. Corridan never spoke about it after that.
I did speak to some of Fr. Corridan’s relatives and they said, at this point, he wasn’t talking to anybody. He was very, very, very heartbroken. He probably came close to leaving the Church and the priesthood at that point. He felt that he’d been betrayed and felt deeply bitter. He did feel that the Church basically sided with corrupt forces, the powers and principalities. He was a prophetic figure. He had this prophetic Christian witness that had been rebuffed and destroyed by fellow Catholics. That was a very embittering experience for him, because he was a tough guy but I think he was also very sensitive. He’s a loner and he had this crusading temperament but he also had this very sensitive interior and he was pretty much broken by this experience.
BH: You talked about the Irish Catholics in America having an intimate relationship with violence. Is that the Irish American Catholic legacy?
JF: I’m an historian. Other than from my own experience, I can say from an historian’s perspective that there was a spiritual intimacy with violence that was invested in leaders like Frank Hague, Bill McCormack and Joe Ryan. The one thing they all had in common — they all had a personal history of an ability and willingness to use their own physical force to reinforce their authority. That was seen as a given, an essential. In other words, you could not be taken seriously as a leader on the waterfront unless you had a personal record of willingness to demonstrate your own personal history of violence. They didn’t randomly and indiscriminately practice violence, but violence was seen as a tactic or device to be deployed legitimately in the name of what I call right order, and that was a big part of the Church’s teaching at the time. The Church would now speak differently, but at the time it was understood — it was called sensus fedelium — the sense of the faithful was that the Church understood that right order had to be restored sometimes at all costs, and that might include violence. That’s why I call it an intimacy with violence, because it had a spirituality associated with it that was entrusted to these leaders, that they wouldn’t do this randomly or irrationally.
Fr. Corridan said the same thing that I do in my book: there’s no reason to deny the Catholic legitimacy of these powerful business and political figures like McCormack, Hague, Ryan and others. There’s absolutely no reason retroactively to say, “Well, they weren’t really good Catholics.” They were good Catholics as Catholicism was understood in the time and place where they lived. They were very good Catholics and devout Catholics. They took that responsibility very seriously. It’s a different kind of Church that they functioned in and thrived in than the one we know today. The church we know today, of course, is outspoken against violence, but that wasn’t quite the case in those days. History is about change over time. Sometimes Catholics are a little uneasy with reckoning the fact that things changed a lot and the Church of the past is very different than say than the Church of today or the Church of the future. It’s a process of change going on all the time. The reality of Catholic life changes constantly.
BH: What do you hope people take away from this book?
JF: Sam Spiegel, who produced the film On the Waterfront, used to say to Budd Schulberg and Kazan, the screenwriter and director, he’d say: “You’ve got to open it up again,” because he always wanted them to open the script and revise it and get deeper into the heart and soul of it. That’s what I tried to do in this book and it wasn’t simple. It’s a story that had never been told. I think by opening it up it becomes a question of the integrity, in a way so that Catholic historians can be able to examine their own history, their own past, in ways that are thoroughly historical and not really subject to any kind of intimidation or any kind of discouragement from asking questions. I think the Church is struggling with issues of intellectual honesty right now. I think that’s something that — maybe we can try to reopen the historical accounts as honestly as possible. I teach at a Jesuit school. We have academic freedom, all those wonderful things, but sometimes you almost get a sense, because you’re in a place that represents a kind of Catholic tradition, you don’t want to be seen as giving scandal or causing trouble but at the same time, sometimes, you need narrative integrity. You’ve got to feel that you can tell the story truthfully and openly. Certainly it’s imperfect but to be able to be devoted to the process itself might be a way of trying to restore the integrity, and also, of course, it’s a way of honoring the past. It’s a way of honoring the experience and suffering of those in the past, too. In that respect it becomes a way of reconciling with the past.