Considered within the film industry to have served as “Hollywood’s Conscience” during his career as film director and producer, Stanley Kramer created some of the most respected and successful works in the annals of American motion pictures. The master behind such classics as “The Caine Mutiny”, “High Noon”, and “The Defiant Ones”, Stanley Kramer died on February 19th, 2001 in Woodland Hills, California.
Known throughout his 30-year career for taking on hard social issues during an era of film making defined by escapism, Stanley Kramer often attributed his empathy for underdogs and moral causes on his own hardships. Born September 19th, 1913 in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City, Stanley Earl Kramer suffered abject poverty after being abandoned by his father in his early years. Raised by his mother, Mildred Kramer and his maternal grandparents in cramped cold water flat, Kramer divided his time between his education and odd jobs throughout his childhood. Though his family hoped to steer his exceptional academic skills into law school, Kramer was introduced in his youth to the film industry through his mother’s clerical work for Paramount Studios in New York, and set his cap on a film career.
At age 15 Kramer entered New York University during the Depression and in 1933 at age 19 he graduated. He won a writing contest, which won him an internship at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood. He left New York permanently for Los Angeles where he later found work as a screenwriter, and set builder at MGM. MGM offered Kramer an income and an opportunity to improve his carpentry skills. He had some success submitting his screenplay to smaller studios and sold his first screenplay “Stuntgirl” to Republic Pictures, Columbia Pictures and its radio affiliate CBS Broadcasting. Kramer graduated to senior editing and earned his first producer credit in 1942 when he was mustered into the Armed Forces.
Kramer’s assignment to the US Army Signal Corps during World War II proved a blessing in disguise. Assigned to stateside work making training films and “industrials”, Kramer gained valuable film making experience, and finished his tour of duty with the rank of first lieutenant. Returning to the film industry, Kramer found that that field, like many others, was overwhelmed with applications from out-of-work veterans and that there were no positions available to him. Scraping together his own funds, Kramer launched his own independent film production company, releasing “So This Is New York” in 1948. The film, based on two works by Ring Lardner and starring his radio show acquaintances Henry Morgan and Rudy Vallee, earned critical notice, though its follow up, “Champion” with Kirk Douglas, made a splash with audiences.
Between 1948 and 1951 Kramer enjoyed unusual success for an independent filmmaker, his work embracing such timely topics as ethnic bias in the military (“Home of the Brave”) and the lasting effects of war on those who fought it (“The Men”, which introduced Marlon Brando). While the film establishment and the conservative sectors regarded his work coldly on the other hand thinking audiences and early civil rights supporters applauded Kramer’s films. In 1951, after the success of “Cyrano de Bergerac”, (star Jose Ferrer earned an Oscar for his title role) Kramer signed a 5-year contract with Columbia Pictures, a sacrifice for funding he later likened to selling his soul to Columbia’s head Harry Cohn.
Kramer, married to actress Ann Pearce and endowed with Columbia’s facilities, funds and star power embarked on such successful efforts as “High Noon”, a multiple Oscar nominated western drama which starred Gary Cooper as a lone man standing up for his beliefs. “High Noon” earned Cooper an Oscar and launched the career of Grace Kelly, as well as enabling Kramer to secure the talent of some of the film industry’s finest stars.
Kramer gravitated toward themes, which seemed to transcend generation, based on evils that humanity never seemed to cure: “The Wild One” (again with Marlon Brando) explored social rejects returning to attack those who denied them. It was perhaps his honesty and selection of stories that caused Columbia to scrap Kramer’s contract shortly before the release of “The Caine Mutiny”, Humphrey Bogart’s final, and arguably finest film. “The Caine Mutiny” earned a total of 6 Oscar nominations for the studio, as well as a small fortune in box office returns.
Kramer moved on to hand picked projects that included the racially charged “The Defiant Ones” with Sidney Poitier, “The Pride and the Passion” with Cary Grant, and the controversial Gregory Peck vehicle “On the Beach”, a cautionary supposition on the use of atomic weapons. Continuing to tackle hard issues, Kramer brought to the screen the true-life tale of the trials over teaching evolution in 1960s “Inherit the Wind”, a film that marked the beginning of the filmmaker’s 4 projects with Spencer Tracy. Tracy starred in Kramer’s Nazi war crime epic “Judgment at Nuremberg”, teamed by Kramer with a number of Jewish and German actors, including Werner Klemperer and Marlene Deitrich. Kramer broke his serious mold to make the 1963 hit “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, with Tracy leading an all star cast through a 3-hour romp, whose slapstick almost disguised the central crisis of conscience faced by Tracy’s character.
Kramer’s appreciation for talent recognized not only breaking stars, but often gave those actors discarded by the Hollywood systems some astonishing final vehicles. In 1965, “Ship of Fools”, starring Vivien Leigh placed the terminally ill actress in a final Oscar nominated film, while the hugely successful topical comedy “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” marked the last performance of Spencer Tracy. Tracy, whose ill health and personal demons had kept him away from Hollywood for several years co-starred with Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier in the study on interracial romance. The film garnered a number of Oscar nominations, including a posthumous nod for Tracy and a win for Ms. Hepburn. Kramer, however, was overlooked.
All told, Stanley Kramer’s 35 motion pictures earned a total of 85 Academy Award nominations, with wins of 15 awards-none of which went to producer-director Kramer. While his films provided star vehicles, critical acclaim and awards for such luminaries as Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum and Marie Windsor, Kramer’s one Oscar was received out of competition: a 1961 Irving Thalberg Memorial Award for overall excellence. Kramer’s topical films were highly regarded and frequently honored outside of the United States, particularly on the International Film Circuit. Among his many awards, Kramer received 3 British Academy Awards, 2 of Italy’s David di Donatello Awards, 3 Berlin International Film Festival Awards, awards from the Moscow International Film Festival and the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival, and 2 American Golden Globes, including a special award for Artistic Integrity.
Kramer, who remarried in 1966, retired from film making in 1977 and left Hollywood to raise a second family with his wife, actress Karen Sharpe in Seattle, Washington. Kramer spent an active retirement, teaching at area colleges, authoring a popular regular column for the Seattle Times and hosting radio shows. After returning to California in the late 1980s, Kramer was honored with a Producers Guild of America David O. Selznik Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1998 a special NAACP honor acknowledging his effort to highlight and counteract racism.
Stanley suffered for a number of years from severe diabetes. His wife Karen, of 35 years, took care of him and his increasing fragile health. He finally, in 2000 entered The Motion Picture and Television Fund Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. After a brief battle with pneumonia, Stanley Earl Kramer pasted away peacefully in his sleep on February 19 2001. His wife Karen Sharpe Kramer and daughters Katharine, Jennifer and Casey survive him. His son Larry is also deceased.