Our wonderful–and wondrously talented–friend Sean Mac an tSithigh has written, produced, and directed the film described below. Please note it is available online at www.tg4.ie @ 15:50 EDT, Easter Sunday April 24.
The Irish Priest who took on the Mob and inspired the Movie
For over a decade Fr John Corridan, a Jesuit priest of Kerry descent, took on the Irish mobsters and corrupt union officials who controlled the New York waterfront during the 1940s and 1950s. Corridan’s one-man crusade would strike at the heart of organised crime in New York and expose a brutal system of extortion, corruption and murder in the world’s greatest port. The priest’s courageous campaign for the rights of dockworkers was the inspiration for the 1954 movie classic On the Waterfront starring Marlon Brando.
Coinciding with the centenary of Fr Corridan’s birth, a new documentary chronicling the priest’s remarkable crusade has been made by RTÉ journalist Sean Mac an tSithigh and will broadcast with subtitles on TG4 (Ireland’s Gaelic language station) on Easter Sunday. This is the first television documentary to be made about this truly inspirational, but largely forgotten, figure in Irish-American history.
In 1945 Fr. Corridan was assigned to the crime-ridden New York waterfront. Working in the predominantly Irish ghettos of Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea, the priest was shocked to discover the brutal exploitation of the ordinary dockworker. Gangsters connived with powerful businessmen and corrupt politicians to generate huge wealth – garnered at the expense of the working class. The survival of the system was copper-fastened by the existence of a code of silence within the community – a code that was generated by a culture of terror and fear. Over one hundred dockworkers were murdered between World War I and World War II – yet no one was ever convicted.
Fr. Corridan made it his mission to crack the code of silence on the waterfront and expose the brutal underbelly of the world’s greatest city. By forming alliances with influential journalists, Corridan openly challenged the oppressive gangster culture and publicised the criminal activities of the Manhattan waterfront. The revelations sparked public outcry among the shocked citizens of New York and led to extensive investigations into the criminal operations of the port and the eventual downfall of high-ranking union officials.
Father Corridan’s friendship with writer Budd Schulberg resulted in the creation of one of the greatest movies ever made. In 1954, On the Waterfront won 8 Academy Awards and is today regarded as a classic. While Marlon Brando plays the leading role, Karl Malden plays the equally important role of Fr Pete Barry, the courageous and fiery priest in the movie. This character is the cinematic representation of Fr. Corridan and the movie is the monument to the priest’s work.
Those interviewed in the new programme include Prof James Fisher, Fordham University; Tom Hanley, a former longshoreman who also had a role in the movie On the Waterfront; Maurice Brick of the Kerryman’s Association New York; and Prof. Joe Lee of Glucksman Ireland House, NYU.
The documentary Misinéir na nDuganna: The Priest, The Mob, The Movie uncovers the sinister and powerful figures who reigned supreme over the hidden world of the New York Waterfront and tells the remarkable story of the man behind the movie – the Irish priest who risked his own life in his efforts to empower the weakest in society. Fr Corridan stands among the greatest crusaders for social justice in American history.
For further information please contact Seán Mac an tSíthigh +353 87 7737673
Seán Mac an tSíthigh
RTÉ / TG4
+353 87 7737673
Misinéir na nDuganna: The Priest, the Mob, the Movie
Easter Sunday 24th April on TG4
Available online at www.tg4.ie @ 15:50 EDT
Additional background note:
THE CLASSIC 1954 film, On the Waterfront, is renowned among film buffs for the legendary performance of Marlon Brando as longshoreman Terry Malloy, the gritty Hoboken, N.J., locations, and the brilliant direction of Elia Kazan. Far less well known–even among dedicated fans of the Academy Award-winning film–is that the inspiration for the film, Fr. John Corridan, was a Jesuit who graduated from Regis High School in New York in 1928.
“Pete” Corridan, as he was known in the Society, was a labour priest and associate director of the Xavier Institute of Industrial Relations, housed in St. Francis Xavier Parish on 16th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Shortly after Fr. Corridan arrived at Xavier in 1946, the labor school’s director, Fr. Philip Carey, SJ, assigned him to work with longshoremen from the nearby Chelsea piers. Corridan quickly became the leading authority on the labour situation in the Port of New York and a passionate advocate of democratic reforms in the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), a union with an overwhelmingly Catholic membership.
Fr. Corridan compiled voluminous records on the politics and economics of the waterfront. When investigative reporter Malcolm Johnson of the old New York Sun launched an investigation of corruption in the docks in the autumn of 1948, he came to Corridan for help. The resulting series of articles, “Crime on the Waterfront,” was a sensation that earned Johnson a Pulitzer. Johnson showed that the piers of New York Harbor were a racket-ridden jungle in which gangsters operated with the cooperation of union officials.
“Crime on the Waterfront” was followed up by another Sun series that targeted Joseph Ryan, the “life president” of the ILA. In February 1949 Fr. Corridan confided to a San Francisco Jesuit: “the material for this second series was submitted to the reporter [by Corridan] and was published under his name with very little change. This, of course, is top secret.” The articles for the Sun cracked open the waterfront’s “code of silence” for the first time and instigated a growing demand for reform.
By the time novelist Budd Schulberg was commissioned to write a screenplay based on Johnson’s articles in 1950, Fr. Corridan was known throughout the Port of New York as the “Waterfront Priest.” He wrote fiery articles for America and other publications condemning the “shape-up” system of waterfront hiring, testified before congressional committees investigating union corruption, and sparred with Joe Ryan in televised debates. Malcolm Johnson urged Schulberg to “go down to Xavier and meet Fr. John. He really knows the score.”
Schulberg was soon treated to a tour of the waterfront by one of Corridan’s longshoreman disciples, Arthur “Brownie” Brown. One lengthy pub crawl turned into an obsession for Schulberg, who became a tireless advocate of waterfront reform and a great admirer of Corridan, whom he considers the greatest individual he has ever known. Schulberg described Father Corridan as a “tall, youthful, balding, energetic, ruddy-faced Irishman whose speech was a fascinating blend of Hell’s Kitchen jargon, baseball slang, the facts and figures of a master in economics and the undeniable humanity of Christ.”
Between 1951 and 1953 Schulberg produced numerous versions of a Waterfront screenplay while deals for the film project were made, then broken. The renowned director Elia Kazan came on board in 1952. After meeting the street-smart, earthy Corridan at Xavier, Kazan grilled Schulberg: “Are you sure he’s a priest? Maybe he’s working there for the waterfront rebels in disguise.” Schulberg viewed Corridan as “the antidote to the stereotyped Barry Fitzgerald-Bing Crosby” portrayal of the priesthood “so dear to Hollywood hearts.” Corridan agreed and exhorted Kazan and Schulberg to “make a Going My Way with substance.”
The project was turned down by every major studio in Hollywood before finally being rescued by independent producer Sam Spiegel. Corridan served as adviser on the film and helped secure clearances from the Port Authority for the use of piers in Hoboken, where the film was shot in late autumn 1953. He also provided the filmmakers with his speeches and writings on waterfront conditions, including the famous “Christ is on the waterfront” speech he had first presented at a Jersey City chapter of the Knights of Columbus in 1948. In On the Waterfront, Fr. Pete Barry (Karl Malden) provides a stirring rendition of the speech over the body of a slain longshoreman. Kazan and Schulberg refused repeated demands by the producers to shorten the scene, which is the moral core of the film since it persuades longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) to follow his conscience and testify against waterfront criminals.
On the Waterfront won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture. Corridan had hoped that the film would help persuade longshoremen to overthrow the ILA, but he was bitterly disappointed when the rank and file voted to recertify the ILA rather than join a new reformist union ardently backed by the Jesuit. Budd Schulberg, for his part, felt that On the Waterfront did not adequately capture the magnitude of Corridan’s work on behalf of longshoremen and their families. In 1955 he published Waterfront, a novel featuring Fr. Pete Barry as the main character.
Pete Corridan left the waterfront in 1957 and later taught at Le Moyne and Saint Peter’s colleges before embarking on a rewarding career as a hospital chaplain in Brooklyn. He died in 1984. A courageous, driven individual who endured personal struggles while battling waterfront evils, he was a deeply committed Jesuit who honoured his vocation. (background article by Prof. James Fisher, Fordham University)