Out of the Vaults: “America America”, 1963

Meher Tatna 12/04/2020

When director Elia Kazan made America America in 1963, his most celebrated work was behind him. He never regained the audiences of his heyday in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and his last few movies had all lost money. Therefore, he had to struggle to find the financing for America America, his most personal film which was based on the story of his Uncle Joe Kazantzoglou who escaped Turkish oppressors in Anatolia and struck out for America in 1896.

In order to achieve the documentary realism of the film, Kazan found locations in Greece and Istanbul, shot the film in black and white, brought only a few of the supporting cast from the US, and used mostly local talent, including the lead actor Stathis Giallelis. Shooting had already begun in Greece when his producer Ray Stark pulled out, and Kazan had to wait till Warner Bros. stepped in with the money.

Adrian Danks writing in “Senses of Cinema” in the March 2012 issue talks of how the hostility of Turkish authorities caused Kazan to move production to Greece, whereupon customs officials seized the cans of film already shot. “Owing to a prescient switch of labels between exposed and unexposed product, the valuable cargo survived.”

The screenplay, written by Kazan, was based on Kazan’s own novel of the same name that started out as a short story. The film starts with an unprecedented beginning where the director introduces himself and the story via voiceover against the image of a cloud-covered mountain: “My name is Elia Kazan. I am a Greek by blood, a Turk by birth, and an American because my uncle made a journey.”

Set in 1896, a rebellious young Greek man Stavros (the Joe character played by Giallelis) witnesses the massacre of his Armenian neighbors at the hands of the Turks in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). (Kazan was foreshadowing the Armenian Genocide to come in 1915.) Knowing that they would be coming for the Greeks next, Stavros’ father (Harry Davis) gives his son all the family’s jewelry, carpets and money and sends him to Constantinople to his uncle to invest it all in the uncle’s carpet business. The idea is to eventually reunite the whole family in the metropolis. But Stavros’ eyes are on a bigger prize – he wants to go to America. Constantinople is only the first step.

But he arrives at his uncle’s shop with nothing. He has been cheated by a fellow traveler (a very fine Lou Antonio) on the road who takes advantage of his naiveté to slowly separate him from all his belongings and even his donkey. The furious uncle (Salem Ludwig, Kazan’s colleague from The Actor’s Studio) plans to salvage the situation by marrying Stavros off to a rich merchant’s daughter Thomna (Linda Marsh). Stavros will have none of it, preferring to labor as a ‘hamal,’ one of the dockworkers doing back-breaking work, saving his meager wages for a $110 ticket of third-class passage to America, till a prostitute steals his savings and he is beaten up by her pimp’s thugs. He is forced to return to his uncle, defeated.

In the last act, the marriage between Stavros and Thomna is arranged, but Stavros is still determined to deceive everyone and board a ship to America as soon as he can get the money. It’s only when he first speaks alone with his fiancée in a touching scene that he comes to the conclusion that he cannot betray her and calls off the wedding. A casual lover makes it possible for him to finally board the SS Kaiser Wilhelm for America, but it’s only in the sacrifice of a friend that he makes it to Ellis Island. (The Ellis Island scene was actually filmed in the hall there; it had closed in 1954.)

After the last scene, the film returns to the cloudy mountain and Kazan resumes his voiceover to tell the audience that Stavros (meaning Uncle Joe) did bring the family over to America (including the child Elia) in time. And he then recites the credits of his whole cast and crew.

Kazan’s purpose was to show that Stavros’ journey through all the pain and humiliation was reflective of what a typical immigrant suffered to get to the promised land of America. The film’s cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, a frequent collaborator of Kazan’s, was instrumental in achieving the documentary feel of the film, something not seen in Hollywood films of the time. The juxtapositions of close and long shots such as the cramped interiors of the rude houses in Anatolia against the stark beauty of the land, or the busy landscape of the docks and bazaars contrasting with the carpet merchant’s rich and cluttered rooms are things of beauty, frequently captured with handheld cameras. The editing is a combination of traditional cutting and dramatic jump-cuts marking the passage of time via editor DeDe Allen. If the lead character’s acting abilities fall a bit short, the supporting cast more than carries him, though some of the American accents are a bit jarring. One wonders why Kazan didn’t shoot the dialogue in the vernacular and add subtitles, but that is quibbling. And technologically, the film is a marvel, epic in scope, ambitious in scale and aesthetically groundbreaking.

Kazan won Best Director at the Golden Globes in 1964. Stathis Giallelis won the now-defunct New Star of the Year; he was also nominated for Best Actor. The film was nominated for the also defunct Best Film Promoting International Understanding. The art direction by Gene Callahan won the film its only Oscar. It was nominated for Best Picture, Screenplay and Director.

Martin Scorsese is one filmmaker upon whom the film had a profound influence, enough for him to mention it in his documentary “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.” But in general, critics were not kind and audiences stayed away.

In a long profile on Kazan in the November 9, 1947 issue of the New York Times, staff writer Murray Schumach ended the article this way: “He dreams of making epic films that will portray America and its people; movies that will be shot, not in studios, but in fields, mines, factories. “I want to make folk movies, not folksy movies,” says Kazan. “Odets discovered the Bronx, but no one has discovered America.” Kazan hopes to become the nation’s cinematic Columbus.”

America America was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2001 as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and was recommended for restoration.

It was preserved by Warner Bros. in association with UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservation funding was provided by Warner Bros., the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and The Film Foundation. Warner Bros. used their fine-grain master positive at YCM Laboratories in Burbank to restore it. Supervised by Haskell Wexler, the film’s director of photography, and Ned Price of Warner Bros., new elements created include a duplicate picture negative, a re-recorded track negative from the original mag track, a check print and a release print from the duplicate picture and track negatives.


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