America, America (1963): Kazan’s Personal, Oscar-Nominated Film

Shot in black and white, and running three hours, America, America, Elia Kazan’s autobiographical drama concerns the escape and immigration of a Greek youth, living at the turn-of the century-Turkey, to America, thus fulfilling his dream of beginning afresh in the land of opportunity.

Kazan’s script, based on his uncle’s immigration experience was too episodic, and the film also suffered from an excessive running time (three hours), deliberate pacing, and an uncharismatic performance from Stathis Giallelis who, as the leading man appears in every scene.

The tale begins in the late 1890s, as the young Greek Stavros Topouzoglou (Giallelis), living in a poor village in Turkish Anatolia witnesses brutal oppression by the Turkish authorities of the Greek and Armenian minorities.  Entrusted by his father with the family’s financial resources, he is expected to go to the Turkish capital Constantinople (renamed Istanbul in 1930), and work in the carpet business of his father’s cousin (Harry Davis), though his dream is to go to America.

His journey begins on a donkey and on foot through the impoverished towns on the way to Constantinople. Naive, he dissipates the money and arrives at the cousin’s home penniless. The older man is disappointed, but he proposes that Stavros marry a wealthy merchant’s (Paul Mann) young daughter (Linda Marsh). However, Stavros realizes that the marriage would end his American dream and so refuses, abruptly leaving the place.

Homeless, Stavros survives by eating discarded food and working at hazardous jobs. He saves some money, but he loses it after meeting a woman (Joanna Frank).  He is forced into living in an overcrowded place, a scene of chaos and bloodshed attacked by authorities searching for anarchists and revolutionaries.  Injured, the unconscious Stavros is thrown among piles of dead bodies slated for disposal, but he topples from the cart transporting the bodies and makes his way to the cousin’s residence.  Deprived resistance, Stavros agrees to marry his intended bride, but confides in her his plan to emigrate to America by using the dowry money.

Stavros then reencounters Hohannes (Gregory Rozakis), a young Armenian, whom Stavros aided with food and clothing during his voyage to Istanbul. Hohannes is being sponsored to America by an employer who seeks cheap labor, and the offer is also extended to Stavros,  who subsequently embarks on the voyage.

Other obstacles include Stavros’ affair with the young wife, Mrs. Kegabian  (Katherine Balfour) of an older businessman (Robert H. Harris), who lodges a criminal charge against Stavros that would result in deportation to Turkey.

However, Hohannes, very ill now with tuberculosis, jumps off the ship realizing he would be denied entry.  The sacrifice involves exchanging documents with Stavros, which allows the youngster to enter America in Hohannes’ place.

The climactic image of the Statue of Liberty restores faith among the immigrants for a better life. He begins at the bottom, working as a shoeshine boy, saving money to bring his family–including Elia Kazan–to the land of opportunities.

A box-office flop (one of the few in the helmer’s long and distinguished career), “America, America” discouraged Kazan from pursuing his initial goal of making two more chapters of his personal saga.

Was it the excessive running time (six minutes short of three hours)? the lack of a more compelling and recognizable lead (instead of an unknown, who looked right but could not act much)? The mixed reviews, which inevitably compared this picture to Kazan’s previous critical and commercial successes?

Surprisingly, the two outstanding production values, Haskell Wexler’s moody lensing and Manos Hadjidakis’ score, were not nominated for Oscars. Both cinematographer and composer continued to do distinguished work in other films, for which they later received the Academy’s recognition.

Kazan offers the opening and closing narration, placing his feature in both the personal and political contexts in which it was made.

Kazan’s Concluding Narration

America, America, following in the footsteps of Orson Wells’  Citizen Kane, concludes with the following statement by Kazan, which credits his collaborators in front and behind the cameras.

“And he did bring them. It took a number of years, but one by one, he brought them here. Except for his father. That old man died where he was born.

This film was made in Turkey and Greece. It was photographed by Haskell Wexler. It was edited by Dede Allen. The production designer was Gene Callahan. The costuming by Anna Hill Johnstone.  The music was composed by Manos Hadjidakis.  All under the management of Charles Maguire.”

And here are the actors: Stathis Giallelis, Frank Wolff, Harry Davis, Elena Karam, Estelle Hemsley, Gregory Rozakis, Lou Antonio, Salem Ludwig, John Marley, Joanna Frank, Paul Mann, Linda Marsh, Robert Harris, Katharine Balfour.”

Oscar Nominations: 4

Picture, produced by Elia Kazan
Director: Elia Kazan
Story and Screenplay (Original): Elia Kazan
Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Gene Callahan

Oscar Awards: 1

Art Direction-Set Decoration

Oscar Context:

In 1963, the Best Picture contest was rather weak. Kazan’s movie was nominated for the top award, but the winner was Tony Richardson’s period piece, “Tom Jones.”

The other three nominees were: Joseph Mankiewicz’s “Cleopatra,” which nearly sank the studio behind it with its mega-budget, the all-star anthology “How the West Was Won,” and modest b/w “Lilies of the Field,” for which Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor, thus becoming the first black ever to win the lead Oscar.

Credits:

Released by Warner (Athena Enterprises)

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