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Arthur Miller Movies: 2 Family Dramas Illustrate Shattered ‘American Dream’

Arthur MillerArthur Miller movies include adaptations of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and The Crucible. One of the most influential 20th-century American playwrights, Miller was also known for his relationship with Marilyn Monroe, for whom he wrote The Misfits.
  • Part one of this three-part post about significant “Arthur Miller movies” offers a brief look at two father-son dramas, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.
  • All My Sons had its message corrupted in Universal’s 1948 film version so as to appease right-wing American nationalists.
  • Death of a Salesman had its Stanley Kramer-produced 1951 transfer derided by Arthur Miller himself.

Arthur Miller movies: Big-screen visions of the shattered ‘American Dream’

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

One of the best-known – and in some quarters, most admired – playwrights of the 20th century, Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Miller spent his career exploring the dramatic possibilities of sociopolitical issues, usually within a family setting and with a particular focus on the so-called American “everyman.”

People – or rather, men – like Chris and Joe Keller, Willy and Biff Loman, John Proctor, Eddie Carbone, and, in his rare screenplays, Marty Ferrara and Gaylord Langland: losers, delusional types, dreamers whose aspirations were never to become reality.

To date, four Arthur Miller plays have been turned into noteworthy motion pictures: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible (twice), and A View from the Bridge.

In addition, Miller and his second wife, Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe, collaborated on one project: The ill-fated psychological Western The Misfits, the actress’ last completed film.

This three-part article (see links at the bottom) provides a brief look at these six “Arthur Miller movies,” beginning with All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.

All My Sons: First Arthur Miller Broadway hit

Arthur Miller (born on Oct. 17, 1915, in New York City) wrote his first stage play while attending the University of Michigan: the partly autobiographical No Villain (1936), which remained unproduced for nearly eight decades.

The story of a New York garment maker whose business, like that of Miller’s father, is destroyed by the Great Depression, and of his communism-oriented college student son, not coincidentally named Artie, No Villain would have its world premiere in December 2015 at London’s Old Red Lion Theatre.

The first Arthur Miller play to be staged on Broadway was the American Midwest-set The Man Who Had All the Luck, written in 1940 and mounted four years later under the direction of Joseph Fields, whose My Sister Eileen and Junior Miss had been major hits. Miller’s Broadway debut, however, ran for a total of four performances.

Three years would pass before Miller, age 31, became a Broadway name following the warm reception accorded to his Henrik Ibsen-inspired All My Sons. Directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Ed Begley, Arthur Kennedy, Beth Merrill, and Karl Malden, the politically conscious family drama ran for 328 performances at the Coronet Theatre, eventually earning the author his first Tony Award.

Fractured father-son relationship

All My Sons features at its core the gradual fracturing of a starry-eyed father-son relationship:

  • Patriarch Joe Keller is a dedicated all-American family man who, we learn, also happens to be an all-American businessman whose greed – and defective aircraft parts – have led to the death of 21 World War II fighters.
  • His devoted, idealistic son, Chris – whose eyes are opened before the final curtain – is a war veteran entangled in a relationship with his MIA brother’s former girlfriend, whose father had been Joe’s disgraced business partner.

With its mix of family love, romance, betrayal, and tragedy, All My Sons was ideal film material. That is, as long as key changes were made to appease post-WWII Red Scaremongers.

All My Sons Burt Lancaster Edward G. Robinson Mady ChristiansAll My Sons with Burt Lancaster, Edward G. Robinson, Mady Christians, Louisa Horton. Fathers and sons form the core of All My Sons & Death of a Salesman. Ironically, Arthur Miller would stay away from his son Daniel, born with Down syndrome in 1966.

All My Sons goes Hollywood: Appeasing right-wing nationalists

Directed by Irving Reis – briefly an A-list filmmaker thanks to the commercial success of the 1947 comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer – Universal’s All My Sons (1948) stars two actors known for their “liberal” politics: Veteran Edward G. Robinson, who would be gray-listed during the McCarthy era, and budding box office draw Burt Lancaster.

“I wanted to play Chris Keller,” Lancaster remarked at the time, “because he had the courage to make his father realize that he was just as responsible for the deaths of many servicemen as if he had murdered them.”

The businessman’s greed and inevitable comeuppance were indeed found in producer-adapter Chester Erskine’s screenplay. But so were the changes necessary to ensure American nationalists wouldn’t target either the talent or the studio associated with the film version of All My Sons.

That’s how Arthur Miller’s indictment of systemic all-American corruption was transmogrified into an indictment – and subsequent disposal – of an individual “bad apple” within an otherwise healthy society.

Timid ‘heroism under fire’

When All My Sons came out, The New Republic enthused that “in the present state of political weather a citation for unusual heroism under fire” should be awarded to both Irving Reis and Universal.

Yet as the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther reminded his readers:

“The play, as we understand it, made the sharp and unmistakable point that there is something horribly rotten about a system which permits huge profits to be made out of war. And in showing the ultimate comeuppance of a man who made a personal pile by selling defective materials to the Air Forces, through the failure of which young fliers died, it clearly indicated that the individual was not alone to blame, but also the whole social structure which tolerates and even encourages private greed.

“But that is a rather forward idea and, extended a bit, it might suggest that there are faults in the capitalist system – which, of course, would be downright treasonable. So, in putting together the screenplay, Chester Erskine very carefully left out – no doubt, on higher instructions – any such general hints and confined the drama’s indictment to the greed and narrow-mindedness of one man.”

A commercial disappointment bypassed at the Academy Awards, All My Sons was one of about a dozen releases shortlisted for a couple of Writers Guild Awards: Best Written American Drama and Screenplay Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene. The winner in both categories was the mental illness drama The Snake Pit.

Also in the All My Sons cast: future Hollywood Blacklist victim Mady Christians as the Keller matriarch, Louisa Horton as Chris’ fiancée, Howard Duff, Lloyd Gough, and Arlene Francis.

Death of a Salesman Fredric March Mildred DunnockDeath of a Salesman with Fredric March and Mildred Dunnock. Arthur Miller once said that his legacy would be “some good parts for actors”; Death of a Salesman provided three such parts, earning March, Dunnock, and Kevin McCarthy Oscar nods.

Tony Award + Pulitzer Prize winner Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller’s best-known and perhaps most well-regarded play is the Brooklyn-set Death of a Salesman, the story of a delusional everyman/salesman (of what exactly?) who, though nearing his breaking point, stubbornly refuses to come to terms with the fact that, in spite of decades of tireless dedication to his job, the “American Dream” has been and will forever remain an unachievable goal for himself and for his two adult sons.

Under the direction of by-then Academy Award winner Elia Kazan (Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947), and starring Lee J. Cobb as salesman Willy Loman; Mildred Dunnock as his docile wife, Linda; and Arthur Kennedy and Cameron Mitchell as their maladjusted sons, Biff and Happy, Death of a Salesman opened to rave reviews in February 1949, running for 742 performances at the Morosco Theatre.

Staged at a time when nationalist fervor and anti-communist hysteria had made it dangerous to as much as question the concept of American exceptionalism and/or the viability of the American Dream, Death of a Salesman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, in addition to six Tonys: Best Play, Author, Director, Producers (Kermit Bloomgarden and Walter Fried), Supporting or Featured Actor (Arthur Kennedy), and Scenic Design (Jo Mielziner, also for his work on several other plays).

Group Theater cofounder, Broadway director, and drama critic Harold Clurman, who had produced Miller’s All My Sons, raved in The New Republic:

“The play has tremendous impact because it makes its audience recognize itself. Willy Loman is everybody’s father, brother, uncle or friend, his family are our cousins; Death of a Salesman is a documented history of our lives. It is not a realistic portrait, it is a demonstration both of the facts and of their import. ‘We had the wrong dream,’ says Biff, Willy Loman’s son, and what Miller is saying in terms few can miss is that this wrong dream is one the greater part of America still cherishes.”

As evidence of its lasting relevance, in the ensuing decades Death of a Salesman would win three Tony Awards in the Best Reproduction/Best Revival of a Play categories: In 1984, starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman (a production that became a much-lauded television movie the following year); in 1999, starring Brian Dennehy; and in 2012, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Death of a Salesman movie: Curious behind-the-scenes talent

As a result of its Broadway success, Death of a Salesman was bound to make its way to Hollywood. Independent producer Stanley Kramer, who had set up shop at Columbia Pictures in 1951, handled the transfer of Arthur Miller’s play to the big screen.

Miller was left out of the production; Laslo Benedek, whose two previous (credited) directorial efforts had been the MGM musical bomb The Kissing Bandit and the minor noir Port of New York, and Stanley Roberts, known for numerous B Westerns and the crime comedy Song of the Thin Man, were the curious choices for, respectively, director and adapter.

Two-time Academy Award winner Fredric March – an actor known for his liberal views and Miller’s first choice to play Willy Loman on stage – replaced Lee J. Cobb as the all-American loser. Hollywood newcomer Kevin McCarthy was brought in from the London stage production to play Biff, while Mildred Dunnock and Cameron Mitchell reprised their Broadway roles.

Though a box office letdown like All My Sons – Fredric March hadn’t had a notable hit since The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) – and notwithstanding the current perception that it was savaged by critics upon its release, the 1951 movie version of Death of a Salesman did receive at least some important positive notices.

Here’s the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther:

“… Mr. Kramer’s production is so faithfully transcribed and well designed that it stands as a nigh exact translation of Mr. Miller’s play, both in its psychological candor and its exhibit of a bleak bourgeois milieu. …

“Mr. March’s performance … fills out considerably the lack of humanity in the main character that Mr. Miller somehow overlooked and thus makes the character more symbolic of the frustrated ‘little man.’”

Arthur Miller lambastes film adaptation

Arthur Miller perceived the Stanley Kramer-Laslo Benedek-Stanley Roberts collaboration as way less than a faithful transcription of his play and Fredric March’s performance as anything but emblematic.

In his 1987 autobiography, Timebends: A Life, Miller wrote:

“My sole participation [in Kramer’s Death of a Salesman movie] was to complain that the screenplay had managed to chop off almost every climax of the play as though with a lawnmower, leaving a flatness that was baffling in view of the play’s demonstrated capacity for stirring its audiences in the theater. …

“[Fredric March] could certainly have been a wonder in the film, but as a psychotic he was predictable in the extreme; more than that, the misconception melted the tension between a man and his society, drawing the teeth of the play’s social contemporaneity, obliterating its very context. If he was nuts, he could hardly stand as a comment on anything.”

Partial Oscar snub

Unlike another 1951 big-screen adaptation of an Elia Kazan-directed Broadway hit, Kazan’s own A Streetcar Named Desire, or another (however bowdlerized) depiction of American social ills, George StevensA Place in the Sun (from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy), Death of a Salesman failed to be shortlisted for Academy Awards in the Best Picture, Director, and Writing categories.

On the plus side, Fredric March, who, in spite of Arthur Miller’s qualms, delivers one of the most memorable – albeit, admittedly, most unhinged – performances of his career, received a Best Actor nod. Curiously, one of his competitors was Broadway’s Biff, Arthur Kennedy, for his work in Bright Victory; Humphrey Bogart was the eventual winner for The African Queen.

Also nominated were Kevin McCarthy and Mildred Dunnock; both, regardless of McCarthy’s co-lead role, in the supporting categories.

Besides, Laslo Benedek was one of a dozen filmmakers shortlisted at the Directors Guild Awards, while Stanley Roberts received two Writers Guild nods.

“Arthur Miller Movies: 2 Family Dramas Illustrate Shattered ‘American Dream’” follow-up posts:

Playwright Arthur Miller & ‘The Crucible’ Demythologize American Exceptionalism.”

Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe Collaboration + Anti-‘Waterfront’ Drama.”

“Arthur Miller Movies” endnotes

“I wanted to play Chris…” and the New Republic quote about All My Sons via Kate Buford’s Burt Lancaster: An American Life.

All My Sons’ box office failure is mentioned in Clive Hirschhorn’s The Universal Story.

In Timebends, Arthur Miller says he wanted Fredric March to play Willy Loman, but March turned down the role.

Arthur Miller’s non-relationship with his son, Daniel, is the subject of Suzanna Andrews’ Vanity Fair article “Arthur Miller’s Missing Act.” Daniel was Miller’s son with his third wife, photographer Inge Morath.

“Some good parts for actors” via Mel Gussow’s Conversations with Miller.

Burt Lancaster, Edward G. Robinson, Mady Christians, and Louisa Horton All My Sons image: Universal Pictures.

Fredric March and Mildred Dunnock Death of a Salesman image: Columbia Pictures.

“Arthur Miller Movies: 2 Family Dramas Illustrate Shattered ‘American Dream’” last updated in September 2021.

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