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Elia Kazan’s Boomerang: A Study in Stylistic Context and Narrative Development

Elia Kazan’s Boomerang: A Study in Stylistic Context and Narrative Development

Mark A. Villano

In many ways, the 1947 film Boomerang demonstrates the typical collaboration between a young director, in this case Elia Kazan, whose interests are thematic and stylistic, with a mogul, Darryl Zanuck, whose primary concern is commercial. As such, a study of its script development and other pre-production processes can yield an appreciation for the enduring, and often creative, tensions that exist in commercial filmmaking. More strikingly, it reveals Kazan’s effort to adapt principles of Italian neo-realism to the American film context. Kazan’s ability to blend fact and fiction in a way that creates entertainment while raising consciousness about injustice in a specific social setting became an ongoing feature in his filmography.

This study makes use of primary research from the Twentieth Century Fox Archives at USC to shed light on the development process which brought Boomerang to the screen. Both Zanuck’s influence in story development, and Kazan’s creative force came into play. My interest is to explore the contributions of both.

Elia Kazan

Historical and Aesthetic Context

Both Darryl Zanuck and Elia Kazan derived personal satisfaction from the small film Boomerang. Although profits from the release were modest, Zanuck was pleased with the working relationship he developed with Kazan—one that had yielded a tight product, and that promised further collaborations. Kazan, on the other hand, saw the film as a successful experiment in the kind of stylistic and dramatic realism he had hoped to bring to the medium.

Zanuck considered his earlier efforts at large historical films, such as Wilson (1944), to be failures (i.e., commercial failures). By the time the concept for Boomerang was brought to him, he was looking for stories with controversial or shocking themes, preferably garnered from newspaper headlines.1 The story for Boomerang came from a 1945 Readers’ Digest article by Anthony Abbot entitled “The Perfect Case.” It told the true story of a Connecticut prosecutor who put his career on the line to protect a man accused of murder. Despite overwhelming evidence pointing to the man’s guilt, the prosecutor’s dogged investigation proved the contrary.

Zanuck believed Richard Murphy’s treatment yielded a fast-moving story that could easily be brought to the screen. Producer on the project was Louis de Rochement, whose previous features (The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine) evidenced the ability to bring documentary technique to the service of narrative form. Zanuck’s concern then became finding a director to team up with de Rochement.

Zanuck was known for his antipathy toward directors. For him, the two key elements in motion picture composition were screenwriting and editing.2 His choice to bring Elia Kazan on the project would prove significant, though. Their first collaboration, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), had been successful. Kazan’s youth and willingness to accept advice and technical assistance from others endeared him to Zanuck. Perhaps it was Zanuck’s desire for malleability in a director that influenced his decision for the young Kazan. In any case, thematic consequences resulted. De Rochement’s previous efforts showed the penchant to defend and celebrate established institutions. Kazan’s interest in dramatic exposition of social injustice, was to be the more driving force in this effort.3 This would distinguish Boomerang from de Rochement’s previous films.

The story concept called for a style that Kazan naturally gravitated to—realism. De Rochement’s concern for factual accounting was brought together with Kazan’s desire to express a true likeness to reality in drama. In his writings, Kazan is even more specific about what he hoped to achieve stylistically in his third feature. He called Boomerang a “commercial version of Italian neo-realism.” 4

Kazan is one of many filmmakers to acknowledge a debt to the creative force of Italian neo-realism. Its background is worth noting here. Italian films of the fascist period were at the service of the state and fascist heroic idealism. In 1943, Umberto Burbaro, a professor at the state film school, Centro Sperimentale, first used the term “neo-realism” in his call for a new kind of post-war filmmaking that would eliminate: (1) “naive and mannered cliches,” (2) fabrications that excluded human problems, (3) historical set pieces or adaptations with no connection to real people or problems, and (4) patriotic rhetoric. This liberation from fascist idealism came as Italian directors such as Visconti, de Sica, and Rossellini set out, in Fellini’s words, “to see reality without prejudice.” 5

Post-war American films similarly emerged from a period of “official optimism.” Hollywood had joined the war effort in providing films that presented the positive side of American values—values worth defending. After the war, however, idealized views of an all-inclusive democratic society collided with people’s experience. Americans were more acutely aware of social inequalities, racial prejudice, and corruption in business and government. A post-war disillusionment and cynicism ensued.

Hollywood had to deal with economic realities as well: the “Paramount decrees” (which ended vertical integration in the film industry), inflation, foreign quotas, and the advent of television. Studios slashed production costs and gave priority to lower-budget films that could be shot on location and with smaller casts. Add to this the regard for Italian neo-realism among many American filmmakers, and we see how many Hollywood films could take on greater social and psychological realism.

Elia Kazan’s work parallels this period of economic change, re-examination of the official optimism, and a new interest in the aesthetic of social realism. All this comes to bear on Kazan’s interest in Boomerang. The story was based on a true incident and deals with local government corruption. It could be filmed on location with a largely non-professional cast. There is a sense of immediacy and historical rootedness to the story. Perhaps most important to Kazan, it presents the challenge of treating the immediate event artistically. Kazan maintained that art should serve as an instrument for social awareness and reform. Here he had the chance to experiment with many of the thematic and aesthetic elements that inspired him.

The formal elements of filmmaking, such as photography, editing, use of music, etc., are beyond the scope of this study. I am interested, however, in the aesthetic possibilities that attracted Kazan to this project, given his interest in realism as a style, and social commentary in drama. To this end, I will examine two of the key facets in the neo-realist aesthetic that intrigued Kazan and influenced his direction of Boomerang: authenticity in visuals, and “amalgam” in acting.

It is neo-realism’s unique synthesis of realism and aesthetics that Kazan wanted to make “commercial” in Boomerang. What Italians called the “nuovo stile rosselliniano” (in homage to Rossellini) referred to an authenticity in the first neo-realist films that was difficult to define. Yet, this new filmic style made an enduring contribution to the progress of expression in cinematic language. What followed from Rossellini’s Roma Citta Aperta, the watershed neo-realist film, was a “cinema of the streets”: one that was faithful to the geography of Rome, in which common people could recognize details of their day-to-day reality. This was achieved not through some conscious effort of reconstruction, but through careful observation and meticulous attention to detail. The effect for viewers was to experience in film the drama of their own lives “as if seen for the first time, as in the birth of cinema.” 6

Kazan, too, was interested in revealing, in Rossellini’s words, the “autentico” and “universale” through an attention to concrete and contemporary detail. Inspired by events that had become nationally prominent the very year pre-production commenced, the script for Boomerang offered an opportunity to consciously create a more realistic drama about small town America. Location shooting in Stamford, Connecticut, became an important expression of the desire to re-create a flavor of life from the place where the events had actually occurred. A humble and careful observation of the locations could provide a “fabric” for composition and other artistic choices.

The direction of actors is another important element of neo-realist style. The unique quality of acting engendered by neo-realism is the result of what Bazin terms “amalgam,” referring to the mixture of actors and non-actors in realistic settings. The result is two-fold. The realism of the atmosphere for performance, with its minimal theatrical pretense, aided experienced actors in delivering authentic portrayals; while the proximity to, and influence of, experienced actors helped amateurs deliver convincing performances. Thus, a style of acting that was stylistically pleasing and realistically attuned could be achieved.

Dana Andrews and Jane Wyatt in Boomerang
Dana Andrews and Jane Wyatt in Boomerang

Boomerang, in contrast to neo-realist films, probably would not have been made without the star quality that actors like Dana Andrews and Lee J. Cobb brought to the film. Kazan, though, came from an acting tradition that stressed psychological realism and motivation in characterization. Kazan’s intent for all his films was to “get poetry out of the common things of life.” He saw in Boomerang the chance to actualize an important neo-realist principle. As part of this project, it was his intention to consult with local people and to use large numbers of amateurs on screen in order to add to the level of realism. The possibilities of “amalgam” were thus maintained and fostered even in this Hollywood film.

Narrative and Thematic Development

In discussing Darryl Zanuck’s contribution to the filming of Boomerang, Kazan said: “He wrote me notes, that’s all.” 7 That statement alone does not reveal the extent or significance of those collaborative efforts. If Kazan’s point is that Zanuck’s involvement during principal photography was minimal, that would be consistent with what we know of Zanuck’s primary concern in filmmaking: to influence the pre-production and post-production activities of writing and editing. An examination of archival sources in the Twentieth Century Fox collection at the University of Southern California, shows that, in this case, Zanuck was indeed the prime agent in story development.

The movie’s plot extends from the true story of the murder of a popular priest in a small Connecticut town. An outraged citizenry demands quick justice. However, a troubled investigation leads to political maneuvering and power struggles. Increased pressure on law enforcement yields a hasty arrest; yet, as evidence builds, the case appears full proof, and the town is confident the murderer has been caught. The local prosecutor, Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews), is handed a perfect case, and is promised professional advancement with a conviction. Harvey, however, concludes the defendant is innocent. In the face of political and personal pressures, he sets out to disprove a mountain of incriminating evidence. At personal risk, Harvey nonetheless concludes, “it is just as important for a State’s Attorney to use the great powers of his office to protect the innocent as it is to convict the guilty.”

Arthur Kenndy and Dana Andrews in Boomerang
Arthur Kenndy and Dana Andrews in Boomerang

Archival sources dated from December.1945 to February.1947, document the entire period of script development. Richard Murphy’s treatments, story outlines, and script revisions, as well as summaries of story conferences involving Zanuck and Kazan, are included among the documentation. With these, we are given a telling portrait of narrative development at Fox under Zanuck’s leadership.

A Revised Treatment dated December 24.1945 and a First Draft Screenplay of April 2.1946, show Murphy’s first attempts at dramatizing the Anthony Abbot article which details the Connecticut case. Although the article does little more than document how a prosecutor was able to disprove a ten-point, seemingly irrefutable, case against an accused person, Murphy fills in character and narrative information.

In Act I, we meet Harvey, the State’s attorney, and immediately feel a sympathy for him and his wife. Personal as well as social stakes are added to the investigation of the priest’s murder. Harvey’s “reform” party’s agenda rides on a quick resolution to the case. The opposition party is trying to blame the reformers for a lack of competence connected to the handling of the case. Public pressure is put on the police as well, fueled by the opposition newspaper. In addition, Harvey is promised a candidacy for governor based on a quick conviction. (Script Notes dated August 21.1946 by a Mr. Charles O’Neil, who is versed in both film production and the facts surrounding the historical case, affirms the consonance of these story points with the historical situation in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at the time of the actual case.)

Act II proceeds with mounting public pressure for action. Finally, a suspect named Waldron is placed in custody. Evidence begins to accumulate: Waldron knew the priest; eight witnesses identify him; another witness disproves his alibi; a ballistics report identifies his gun as the murder weapon; and, finally, he signs a confession. At Waldron’s arraignment, Harvey shocks everyone by announcing his belief in the man’s innocence and asks the State to drop its case against him. During a recess in the court proceedings, Harvey meets with several players: the judge who threatens to prosecute him for malfeasance in office; a leader of his party who reminds him of the political and career stakes that are involved in his prosecuting this case; and the chief detective, his friend, who has handed him a perfect case. His wife alone offers him support.

After the recess, Act III continues with a point-by-point refutation of each piece of evidence against Waldron. Harvey’s dramatic performance in the courtroom shows the result of a painstaking investigation made by his office in preparation for the case. Murphy adds a dramatic touch to the refutation of the original ballistics report: Harvey directs that Waldron’s loaded gun be fired at him in the courtroom to show that it malfunctions when held at the angle the actual murder weapon must have been positioned. The astonished courtroom applauds Harvey.

A Story Conference with Zanuck dated May 21.1946 concerns this first draft. It shows that although Zanuck had an appreciation for the techniques used to dramatize the actual events, any attempts at being “realistic” would have to take second place to his primary concerns. He found the first two-thirds of the movie to be good, but thought the third act had “no suspense, no one to root for…everything is solved…in this story we come to a point where you have to throw technique away and get some ‘movie’ into it.” Zanuck recommended a “personality clash” or some other form of excitement be added “even if it departs from what actually happened.”

Zanuck’s main suggestion is that the Court recess be extended to a 24-hour period in which the pressures on Harvey can be extended into dramatic scenes, rather than remain as short “talks.” He also suggests that a new character surface at that time who can add a new dramatic twist to the plot—someone who might carry with him a dark secret from Harvey’s past, which then becomes a new threat and impetus for dropping the prosecution. Furthermore, this could be a character who places Harvey’s own life in jeopardy. This character would even be in the courtroom with a gun, threatening Harvey as he decides what he will do.

Zanuck was certainly correct that the first draft’s third act lacked the excitement and personal jeopardy we usually associate with a Hollywood feature. However, for a story that purports to be based on a realistic treatment of actual events, his script suggestions may seem somewhat contrived or unreasonable. Yet, they are suggestions that were immediately implemented, as the Revised Draft of June 14.1946 shows. Zanuck’s perspective is clear: “If we don’t have suspense in this kind of picture, we don’t have a hit. If we merely resolve conflict quickly in a documentary fashion, we have no movie.” He also claimed that the kind of dramatic scenes he was recommending were “acting scenes”—scenes that would attract stars to the film.

As stated, the First Revised Draft creates a 24-hour recess. After meeting with the judge, Harvey confronts a mob outside the courthouse as Waldron is being transferred back to jail. The chief detective prevents any violence. The short scene underlines Harvey’s conflict with the town’s people. Afterward, McCreery, a party leader, meets with Harvey in his office, setting out the wider political stakes:


We’ve cleaned up this city — we’ve thrown out

the crooks and grafters — we’ve made this town

a decent place to live. Is one man’s life worth

more than the community?


Yes…it is.

That evening, an exhausted Harvey returns to his home where Paul Harris is waiting for him. This new character is also a party member. He has more than one reason to be concerned about the next election. The City is set to buy land for a new Recreational Center for the town’s youth from the Sunset Realty Company—a dummy corporation that Harris created:


I’ve sunk every cent I own into it, and some

of the Bank’s. If the city doesn’t buy at my

price I’m ruined…and if we don’t win the

election, the city won’t buy.

Harvey is outraged by the revelation, but Harris pulls a gun on him. Besides threatening his life, Harris reminds Harvey that Madge, Harvey’s wife, is chair of the project. Although she knew nothing of the scheme, her name will be dragged through the mud. Harris insists that Waldron be prosecuted to protect the party’s position in the next election, or else.

Woods, the opposition paper’s reporter, notices Harris leaving Harvey’s house and becomes suspicious. A scene between Harvey and Madge (Jane Wyatt) follows. A veiled reference to his precarious chance at the governor’s seat is made. The twist here is that Harvey’s wife, who had been a support in earlier treatments, is now implicated in the pressures on Harvey to go ahead with the prosecution.

The final courtroom scene proceeds as in the first draft, but with the added tension of having Harris in the room, with a gun under his coat. As Harvey dramatically disassembles the case against Waldron, Woods passes a note to Harris indicating his knowledge of the Sunset Realty Affair. Just after Harvey has the bailiff fire Waldron’s gun at him, another gun shot is heard. Harris has committed suicide.

The Story Conference of July 15.1946 indicates that Zanuck was satisfied with the changes to the second and third acts. The only suggestions from this conference had to do with a character named Crossman, an enigmatic figure running through the script, whom the audience identifies as the true murderer. Both Zanuck and Kazan agreed that other red herrings should be eliminated from the script as a way to highlight Crossman’s role. In the script, after the courtroom scene, Crossman leaves in a hurry. It is later discovered that Crossman died when his speeding car swerved off the road during a chase with police. Thus, although in reality the historical murder case was never solved, justice is here exacted.

The Script Notes offered by Charles O’Neil on August 21.1946 addressed the contrivance of some of these story developments. Regarding the need for both Crossman and Harris to be mentally deranged, O’Neil writes, “this gives us two dealers in psychopathic violence—a lot for the script to carry.” His suggestion to combine the two characters into one, Harris’, seems strong. The motive for the priest’s murder would be the cleric’s knowledge of the realty scam. That suggestion was not taken, nor was his proposal that the character of Madge be made stronger—more the politician’s wife, rather than someone who passes coffee and is understanding. One of O’Neil’s notes that was adopted involved creating a scene between Harvey and Waldron, so that we learn more about the defendant.

The script revisions of June 19.1946, August 28.1946, and January 11.1947 show minor changes compared to the work done to accommodate Zanuck’s earlier directives. It is safe to say that Zanuck’s influence on the script heightened its dramatic and commercial qualities, as well as lowered its sense of realism. This does not mean the hope for a social realist film was now lost. The thematic and stylistic efforts of Kazan would now need to come into play.

Kazan’s Synthesis

Zanuck’s prominence and effectiveness during story development is evident. I would like to return to Kazan’s thematic intentions regarding the film. As was stated, this involves the combination of commercial concerns with the goals of Italian neo-realism.

We have already examined the conditions for the openness of American filmmakers to Italian neo-realism. Neo-realist dramatic components adopted by post-war American films include themes of human suffering, social difficulties, and common people struggling to survive against oppression while maintaining their sense of dignity. The American films, however, would present happier or more hopeful endings, and heroes who, although they may be tarnished, redeem themselves. Also, in the American films, the problem of identity may accompany the individual in his or her struggle against social forces. This last point shows a key evolution of neo-realist principles as they are translated to the American screen. In the face of social problems, the issue of the relationship of the person to the social order is highlighted.

With this in view, Boomerang cannot be judged simply as an expose of local political corruption or an examination of the workings of the American legal system. It must be approached as the story of a particular human being’s struggle for dignity within the social order. Kazan is able to blend fact and fiction in a way that creates entertainment while raising consciousness about injustice in a specific, contemporary social setting.

Therefore, in examining Kazan’s goal of creating a “commercial version” of neo-realism, we cannot speak merely of formal or thematic similarities or dissimilarities. The common impulse of both the neo-realist director and Kazan is toward an aesthetic of realism, a poetry of the common, the concrete, and the contemporary. Yet, both observe this poetry as it occurs at a different place along the individual-societal boundary. Rossellini, for instance, observes it in the organic unity of the communal life—the life of the city or the country—as it experiences crisis. Kazan, for American audiences, observes this poetry in the interface between the individual and the communal, the person and the social order, as the problem is confronted. Some might view this development as a “sell out” of neo-realist principles for the sake of the commercial concerns of a Darryl Zanuck. Others will see in this Kazan’s adaptation of neo-realist principles, themes, and aesthetics to the contemporary situation and needs of another audience.

As was mentioned, Kazan received a certain personal satisfaction from Boomerang. That does not mean he was unrealistic about the film. He noted: “Although it is a trifling story, it has an air of reality….The value of the picture is that it made me feel, this is my medium….I could go into an environment and make a film with the people around, a few actors maybe, or maybe not…” 8 In addition, we see in Boomerang the beginnings of the aesthetic and thematic concerns that would follow Kazan through Gentlemen’s Agreement (1948), Pinky (1949), Man on a Tightrope (1953), and, the summit of his work, On the Waterfront (1954).

1 Leonard Mosley, Zanuck: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Last Tycoon (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1984), 227.

2 Ibid., 225.

3 Thomas H. Pauly, An American Odyssey: Elia Kazan and American Culture. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), 99.

4 Lloyd Michaels, Elia Kazan: A Guide to References and Resources (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985), 8.

5 Philip Charles Rossi, A Rhetorical Analysis of Italian Neo-Realism in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1977), 16,17.

6 Jose Luis Guarner, Roberto Rossellini (New York: Praeger, 1970), 18.

7 Elia Kazan and Michael Ciment, Kazan on Kazan (New York, Viking Press, 1974), 56.

8 Ibid., 55.

Mark A. Villano

Contributing Writer

Mark A. Villano received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has taught courses related to screenwriting, media studies, religion and film, and the philosophy of film at Yale University, Ohio State University, and Marymount California University.

Basinger, Jeanine, John Frazer, Joseph Reed, Jr., ed. Working With Kazan. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University, 1973.

Bazin, Andre. “An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism.” In What Is Cinema? Vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967, 1971.

Guarner, Jose Luis. Roberto Rossellini. New York: Praeger, 1970.

Kazan, Elia, and Michael Ciment. Kazan on Kazan. New York: Viking Press, 1974.

Michaels, Lloyd. Elia Kazan: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.

Pauly, Thomas H. An American Odyssey: Elia Kazan and American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983.

Rossi, Philip Charles. A Rhetorical Analysis of Italian Neo-Realism in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1977.

Primary Sources from the Twentieth Century Fox Archives at the University of Southern California

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