Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Stage to Screen Blogathon: Death of a Salesman (1951)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Stage to Screen Blogathon, currently underway from October 17-19 and hosted by Rachel’s Theatre Reviews and The Rosebud Cinema.  For a complete list of the participating blogs and the topics discussed, click here.

Traveling salesman Willy Loman (Fredric March) returns home early from his established New York route one evening…and his devoted wife Linda (Mildred Dunnock) is understandably nervous.  She will later explain to Willy’s two sons, Biff (Kevin McCarthy) and Happy (Cameron Mitchell), that their father seems to be losing his tenuous grip on reality.  He drifts into nostalgic reveries of days gone by, and occasionally has difficulty delineating between the past and present.  His advanced age and inability to concentrate on his job has resulted in his demotion at work; he is no longer on salary and must depend on the commissions from his sales.  He’s not crazy, but Linda has noted signs that her husband is contemplating suicide.  At sixty-three years of age, a lifetime of bad career decisions, missed opportunities and unreasonable expectations have left Willy Loman disillusioned and depressed. 

Many of those unreasonable expectations are rooted in his son Biff—Willy has never wavered from his conviction that Biff was destined for great things, and because Biff has had difficulty “finding himself” ever since graduating from high school it has led to constant friction between father and son.  (There’s an event from both men’s past that brought all this on—which neither individual will discuss.)  Willy is haunted by visions of his older brother Ben (Royal Beal), who achieved great success in life (“When I was 17, I walked into the jungle…when I was 21, I walked out—and by George, I was rich!”), yet confounded by the down-to-earth pessimistic practicality of his neighbor and best friend Charley (Howard Smith), who’s first to admit he doesn’t have all the answers (“My salvation is I never took any interest in anything”) and whose son Bernard (Don Keefer) is a successful attorney, scheduled to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court.

Willy’s offspring have their own problems: Happy is what his mother describes as “a philandering bum” and Biff’s earnest attempts to reconcile with his father only produces more aggravation.  To pacify his father (at Linda’s request), Biff tells Willy that he has a business proposition for an old employer, a man named Bill Oliver—but in his zeal to meet with Oliver, Biff confronts the cold hard reality that he has no influence with a man for whom he once worked…and who fired him after Biff stole company property.  (Biff has continued his devotion to petty theft by swiping a fountain pen during his get-together with Oliver.)  At a restaurant in which they plan to treat Willy to a celebratory meal, Happy tries to persuade his brother to lie to Willy about the Oliver deal going south.  The senior Loman could use some good news, since he was let go by his boss (David Alpert) earlier that morning.

But Biff is simply unable to sustain the fantasy that has enveloped his father’s world—we learn that the reason he’s denounced his father as a “fake” all these years is due to the incident that’s gone undiscussed between the two of them: Biff discovered his idol had feet of clay when he visited his father’s hotel room in Boston unannounced…and found Willy dallying in an extramarital affair.  Biff finally confronts his father and explains that even though he’s never going to be what Willy has envisioned he still loves him.  With that knowledge—and having made sure he’s paid his insurance premium—Willy takes his own life in a car crash.  At his gravesite, Linda muses on the irony that they now own their home “free and clear”…and yet there’s no one with which to share this.

Death of a Salesman, considered by consensus to be playwright Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, was already under consideration for silver screen treatment even before Salesman was awarded the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  Shortly after the play’s opening in February, Variety reported that the Music Corporation of America had expressed interest in putting together a movie package that would include Miller, Salesman director Elia Kazan, and lead actor Lee J. Cobb…and according to Miller, would probably be produced at 20th Century-Fox.  Subsequent trade paper announcements speculated on the possibility of an independent production (with Kazan directing and Miller penning the screenplay) and deals at RKO and Paramount (William Wyler directing and Kirk Douglas starring).

Instead, Arthur Miller sold Salesman’s rights to independent producer Stanley Kramer, who had just inked a deal with Columbia Pictures for a series of motion pictures.  Kramer secured the services of performers Mildred Dunnock, Cameron Mitchell, Don Keefer, Royal Beal, and Howard Smith—all of whom had been in the original Broadway production—as well as Kevin McCarthy, who had played Biff in the London version of Salesman.  But Kramer was warned off Lee J. Cobb, who originated the role of Willy on stage, because of the actor’s past political affiliations; instead, Stanley went with a seemingly bigger draw in two-time Academy Award winner Fredric March.  (While many lamented the loss of Cobb, the actor did reprise the role opposite leading lady Dunnock in a CBS network production that was televised in 1966.)  Stanley Roberts adapted Miller’s play for the screen and László Benedek was assigned the director’s chair.

Apart from the acknowledgement that the film version of Death of a Salesman was based on his play, Arthur Miller had little participation in the motion picture.  There’s speculation that this might be the reason why the playwright later distanced himself from the movie; he remarked that director Benedek “chop[ped] off almost every climax of the play as though with a lawnmower” and he had no love for March’s portrayal, either, believing the actor interpreted Willy Loman as “a lunatic.”  (He could hardly criticize Roberts’ script, most of which used Arthur’s language verbatim from the play.)  It’s not hard to discern why Miller felt the way he did—again, despite his non-participation it was he who took much of the heat when the film was released due in part to his having attracted the notice of the House Un-American Activities Committee when Salesman hit theaters (because of the HUAC attention, chapters of the American Legion threatened to picket movie venues; the Washington, DC chapter actually did so in the case of the Ontario Theatre).

Arthur also objected to a one-reeler that had been paired with the main feature entitled Life of a Salesman, a propagandistic short subject designed to convince audiences that being a salesman really wasn’t the soul-sucking existence depicted in Miller’s play.  It was thrown together at the last minute to appease those groups who saw Death of a Salesman as an anti-American film and an affront to capitalism, but Miller objected in the strongest possible terms—even threatening to sue Columbia over its inclusion.  The studio backed down at the last minute, and Arthur won the day: “Why the hell did you make the picture if you're so ashamed of it?”

Columbia head Harry “White Fang” Cohn no doubt regretted greenlighting Death of a Salesman; the movie was a box office failure and sort of soured the relationship between the studio and producer Kramer, who would only see big receipts in two of the films in his Columbia contract, The Wild One (1953) and The Caine Mutiny (1954).  Admittedly, the film is a bit of a downer (Willy Loman is not visited by an archangel who demonstrates to him life isn’t all that bad) and audiences just weren’t jazzed about seeing a movie critical of “the American Dream.”  Kramer himself (along with director Benedek) came under criticism for the “cheapness” of Salesman—something Kramer and Benedek had little control over (according to his contract with the studio, the producer wasn’t allowed to exceed $980,000 in his budgets).  Despite the criticism and tepid response from moviegoers, Death of a Salesman garnered five Academy Award nominations: nods for March, Dunnock and McCarthy, and in the categories of Best Black & White Cinematography (Franz Planer) and Best Score, Adaptation or Treatment (Alex North).

Right now I hear you asking: “Alvin, why have I not come across Death of a Salesman at any time on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in recent memory?”  After all, the 1951 version got a vigorous airing on television in the late 50s/early 60s, and is not only available for non-theatrical screenings but has aired on stations outside the United States.  Sadly, by the 1970s it dropped out of sight…and if you Google “death of a salesman dvd” you’ll more than likely be pointed toward the 1985 TV version starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy, which was produced after a successful theatrical revival of the play in 1984.  The speculation has long been that Miller preferred this version to the 1951 film, and since the movie rights to Salesman reverted back to his estate at that time he had no interest in a VHS release (let alone DVD).  The only way to see the 1951 version of Death of a Salesman is to get into contact with your friendly neighborhood bootlegger.

The unavailability of the 1951 movie is a tragedy almost equal to the subject matter in the play itself.  Arthur Miller went to great lengths to express his disdain for Fredric March’s turn as the heartbreaking hero in his play…but what is not generally known is that Miller originally offered March the opportunity to play Loman on stage, only to be turned down.  Freddie has come under considerable criticism for his performance (with many believing he’s “over-the-top” in the second half of the movie) but I was blown away by him the first time I watched the 1951 version.  He convincingly conveys the deterioration of a man who’s lied to himself all his life, who’s blinded by the contradictions of his warped philosophy and is frightened by the bewilderment that everything has gone wrong…somehow.  I recall reading about the time of the TV production that Miller was most praiseworthy of Dustin Hoffman’s presentation of Willy…and yet when I watched it (I had just finished reading the play for a college English class, an event that had a rather profound effect on my life) all I saw was a guy in unconvincing old-age make-up.

Mildred Dunnock gives the performance of a lifetime as the supportive Linda; I bow to no one in my admiration for both Thelma Ritter (nominated in the same Best Supporting Actress category as Dunnock for The Mating Season) and Lee Grant (Detective Story) but Dunnock was robbed at the Academy Awards (sorry, Kim Hunter fans—it’s true) and there’ll be no further discussion about it.  Oddly enough, it’s not Dunnock giving Linda Loman’s legendary “attention must be paid” speech that makes me weep—it’s a statement she makes to son Biff shortly before that, criticizing his frequent absences from home: “Biff, you’ve got to get it through your head—that one day you’re going to knock on this door and there’ll be strange people here.”  Linda spares no criticism of her sons, but in Dunnock’s hands one never gets the impression that’s she simply a one-dimensional nag or scold—she just doesn’t want to see her husband hurt anymore.

The cast in Salesman is all great—McCarthy, Mitchell, Beal, Jesse White, Claire Carleton—but I need to give special props to actor Howard Smith, who’s tattooed into my brain as the corpulent boss of James Daly in that great Twilight Zone episode “A Stop at Willoughby” (“Push push push!”); he’s splendid as neighbor Charley, who Willy acknowledges as the only friend he’s got despite their mutual antagonism (the fact that Charley is willing to offer Willy employment—which the proud Loman refuses to capitalize on—is just emotionally devastating).  Another Zone veteran, Don Keefer—he was the poor fool transformed into a jack-in-the-box in “It’s a Good Life”—plays Charley’s son Ben…and I got a little choked up when I watched him in this movie last night since the actor shuffled off this mortal coil in September at the age of 98.

There are rumors that there is a splendid-looking copy of the 1951 Salesman circulating on grey market video (culled from a 16mm print) but the one I have is a bit splicey (it’s still watchable, though).  The film was preserved in 2013 by Columbia and The Film Foundation in honor of Stanley Kramer’s centennial, and while I’m optimistic that a future release on DVD might be in the works I can certainly understand the studio’s hesitancy to release a movie they technically don’t own.  The 1951 Salesman is, I think, unquestionably the finest film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s voluminous output…and if you have the opportunity to see or acquire a copy, grab it.


Rick29 said...

Fascinating history and critique of a tough-to-see film. For me, it's always hard to imagine anyone other than Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman--the TV adaptation you mentioned was my introduction to Miller's play. That said, I would love to March's performance again and am hopeful that--someday--it reaches DVD.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

For me, it's always hard to imagine anyone other than Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman--the TV adaptation you mentioned was my introduction to Miller's play.

I don't know if the Cobb-Dunnock version is available, but I would love to see it. Having seen so many Lee J. Cobb performances in films, I can imagine the kind of Willy Loman he'd be, and I'd bet dollars to donuts he's the best. I felt it was necessary to defend March because he's slagged so often, but I really think he does a sensational job.

Jill said...


Thank you so much for bringing attention to this fantastic adaptation. You know how I love Freddie, and he does have a tendency (at times) to be a honey spiral-sliced ham. But not in this performa

rockfish said...

Huge March fan, too. I'd love to see this version, as I too found that Hoffman was spattered with too much putty and grey paint to be taken seriously in the recent version.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Jill wrote:

You know how I love Freddie, and he does have a tendency (at times) to be a honey spiral-sliced ham.

*cough* Inherit the Wind *cough*

And The Rockfish weighed in:

Huge March fan, too.

I agree with Jill that Freddie can be overripe now and then...but I really enjoyed his performance in this one. However, judging from the other precincts I think we're in the minority on this one.

Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Arthur Miller as a playwright; especially the way he manages to create characters and tap into really subtle nuances, but I've always struggled to get into the 1985 adaptation (I haven't seen the '51 version you mention for the obvious reasons!). Miller's endorsement is puzzling, as I though it was quite weak. Salesman was actually on stage in London a few years ago, so perhaps I made the error of seeing that first. Such a shame that Benedek's is not more widely available as I think I'd prefer it - fingers crossed it makes it to DVD sometime soon!