Saturday, May 3, 2003

Peter Steinfels on the priest who inspired On the Waterfront

Mob domination of the New York waterfront had already been the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé by Malcolm Johnson of The New York Sun. It was Mr. Johnson who pointed Mr. Schulberg toward Father Corridan, a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of waterfront skulduggery and a passionate commitment to the dockworkers.

The chain-smoking, salty-tongued Father Corridan was not immediately receptive to Mr. Schulberg's project of writing a screenplay. "We're doing tough stuff down here," Mr. Schulberg recalled the priest saying, "and don't need a Hollywood movie."

But Father Corridan invited the writer to meet his band of rebels operating out of St. Francis Xavier Labor School on West 16th Street in Manhattan. Soon Mr. Schulberg was deep into what, on Tuesday, he called "a world I couldn't imagine existed," of arbitrary power over who worked and who did not (employment was doled out in four-hour shifts), of daily kickbacks, of beatings and killings ensuring that no one got out of line.

Father Corridan was giving them a sense of hope," he said of the union dissidents. "If they got together and stood up to the mob, eventually they could clean up the union and get the rights that autoworkers and steelworkers already had."...

Halfway through Mr. Schulberg's remarks, James T. Fisher, co-director of the Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham and host for the session, introduced a clip from "On the Waterfront." It was the well-known scene where Karl Malden preaches a blazing sermon from the hold of a ship after a conveniently rigged "accident" has just silenced one of the rebel workers.

"Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary; they better wise up!" the priest shouts. "Every time the mob puts the crusher on a good man — tries to keep him from doing his duty as a citizen — it's a crucifixion!"

When a goon yells, "Go back to your church, Father," the priest retorts: "Boys, this is my church. If you don't think Christ is here on the waterfront, you got another guess coming."

The speech was in fact based on a talk that Father Corridan had given repeatedly. "The speech was written more by Father Corridan than me," Mr. Schulberg said. "Eighty percent of it was his words."