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Directed by Elia Kazan
Remind Me

Man on a Tightrope

In 1952, Neil Paterson published his novelette Man on a Tightrope: The Short Novel under the title International Incident, which was based on the true story of the Cirkus Brumbach in East Germany in 1950. Screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood, who wrote the screenplays for films such as Rebecca (1940), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)--which earned him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay--and The Bishop's Wife (1947), adapted Paterson's story for the screen. The film, produced by Twentieth Century-Fox, was directed by Elia Kazan in an attempt to restore his damaged reputation after being linked to the Communist Party and his subsequent testimony before the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he identified Communist Party members and other left-leaning colleagues in Hollywood.

Set in Czechoslovakia in 1952, Man on a Tightrope stars two-time Academy Award winner Fredric March as Karel Cernik, who runs the Cirkus Cernik. The circus was once owned by Cernik's family until it was taken over by the Communist-run government in Czechoslovakia. Because of limited resources, Cernik is unable to maintain the circus at the level needed to continue traveling and for its performances. Complicating matters is the government's insistence that Cernik and his circus perform various acts approved and mandated by the government, including Marxist propaganda. Cernik must deal with the constant harassment from government officials who continually interfere with his circus, as well as complicated personal issues with Zama (Gloria Grahame), his young second wife, and his grown daughter, Tereza (Terry Moore), who is romantically linked with the circus newcomer, Joe Vosdek (Cameron Mitchell), whom Cernik doesn't trust. With deteriorating conditions and a dangerous political climate, Cernik contemplates escape for him and his circus from behind the Iron Curtain.

In his autobiography, Elia Kazan noted that after seeing the Cirkus Brumbach perform, he knew he had to make Man on a Tightrope to prove that he wasn't afraid to criticize the Community Party, for which he was briefly a member. The production hired the entire Cirkus Brumbach to perform in the film, shooting on-location in Germany with production offices established in Munich. Kazan's crew was almost entirely comprised of Germans and was the first major American film production to employ an all-German crew.

Kazan wasn't the only member of the production who had been affected by the fallout of the blacklist prompted by the House on Un-American Activities Committee. In 1948, the red-baiting newsletter Counterattack ran a smear campaign against Fredric March and his wife, actress Florence Eldridge, accusing them of having Communist ties. March and Eldridge sued the publication for defamation, eventually settling out of court in what was a major blow to Counterattack. A year later, March, who actively supported left-leaning causes alongside Eldridge, was once again listed as being sympathetic, including raising funds for Russia, which was still dealing with the devastating fallout from World War II. For a few months, March was semi-blacklisted, until Hollywood had decided it had enough of HUAC's bullying tactics. While he was no longer blacklisted, his career had been damaged and he was incredibly grateful to get the call from Kazan to work on Man on a Tightrope.

Kazan and March previously worked together in the original Broadway production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942, which also starred Tallulah Bankhead, Florence Eldridge and Montgomery Clift. Kazan greatly admired March saying, "Freddie March was as warmhearted and genuine a man as ever lived." Kazan also said that March was fully-aware of his tendency to sometimes overact. When production started on the film, March said to Kazan the same thing he said during rehearsals for The Skin of Our Teeth: "Watch out for me. I overdo everything."

While Man on a Tightrope received favorable reviews, the film did poorly at the box office, resulting in a loss for Twentieth Century-Fox. In his autobiography, Kazan stated that Fox studio boss had the film substantially cut from the director's intended artistic vision, turning the film into more of a conventional soapy melodrama. Kazan was furious and embarrassed by the film's reception and claimed that it further damaged his reputation amongst those who considered him a traitor for testifying in front of HUAC. However, Kazan once again proved his worth as a top-flight director the following year with the masterpiece On the Waterfront (1954) and again with East of Eden in 1955.

Director: Elia Kazan
Producer: Robert L. Jacks
Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood
Cinematography: Georg Krause
Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Art Direction: Hans Kuhnert and Theo Zwierski
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Fredric March (Karel Cernik), Terry Moore (Tereza Cernik), Gloria Grahame (Zama Cernik), Cameron Mitchell (Joe Vosdek), Adolphe Menjou (Fesker), Robert Beatty (Barovic), and Richard Boone (Krofta).

Elia Kazan: A Life by Elia Kazan

By Jill Blake



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