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July 4, 2009

Karl Malden, 1912-2009

Karl Malden, who passed away this week at the age of 97, is well-known for many roles, from his Oscar-winning performance opposite Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to the cop he played opposite Michael Douglas on the TV show The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1977). But the first movies of his that I remember seeing as I was growing up were, appropriately enough, movies in which he co-starred with children.

One of those movies was Captains Courageous (1977), an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story about a spoiled teenaged boy who falls overboard and learns a thing or two about maturity and growing up when he is picked up by a "crusty old sea captain" (as the IMDb puts it) played by Malden. I haven't seen this film in decades, but to this day, I'm pretty sure I can remember how Malden's character -- named Disko Troop, of all things, which makes him sound like a refugee from the Village People -- reluctantly takes the boy under his wing and barks the words, "Right hand, starboard! Left hand, port!" When I started taking canoeing lessons at summer camp a few years later, I credited this film with giving me a head start on the terminology.

The other movie was Pollyanna (1960), the first of several films that Hayley Mills starred in for the Walt Disney studio. Here, Malden played the Rev. Paul Ford, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who changes his ways when the title character, an irrepressibly sunny girl played by the 13-year-old Mills, compels him to look up all the "happy texts" in the Bible. So in some ways, this character was the opposite of Malden's role in Captains Courageous: in the Kipling story, the child learned from Malden, but in the Disney movie, Malden learned from the child.

As I got older and learned more about film, I discovered some of Malden's more iconic roles -- all of which have received renewed attention since Malden's death on Wednesday -- and one or two of the shows he worked on are of particular interest for the Christian moviegoer.

Most notably, Malden played a Catholic priest who takes a stand against corruption and injustice in On the Waterfront (1954), a film that reunited him with his Streetcar Named Desire co-star Brando and director Elia Kazan. (This is the film that gave Brando his famous "I coulda been a contender" spiel.) Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today notes that Malden's character was closely patterned after a real-life priest named Rev. John Corridan, and she asks if a film grounded in the kind of "clear, moral passion" that Malden's character embodied could possibly be made today without being "pigeon-holed in a 'faith film' category". At any rate, it's certainly debatable whether a film of this sort would even be made by a major studio these days, let alone win eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, as On the Waterfront did. (Malden was nominated again in the Supporting Actor category -- along with his On the Waterfront co-stars Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger -- but this time, none of them won.)

Decades later, Malden played another Catholic priest, in an episode of The West Wing (2000). This would prove to be Malden's last on-camera performance, and Sr. Rose Pacatte reports that Malden brought with him some liturgical items that he had used when playing the priest in Kazan's film 46 years earlier -- prompting everyone on the West Wing set to "touch these items with reverence because of their link to this great film."

Malden also played a police inspector in I Confess (1953), perhaps the most Catholic film of Alfred Hitchcock's entire career; it concerns a priest who hears a murderer's confession and is then accused of the murder himself, but he cannot clear his name because it would mean violating the secrecy of the confessional.

Malden himself was not Catholic, but Orthodox. His family was actively involved in a Serbian Orthodox church in Gary, Indiana, and Malden kept ties to that community long after he moved to Hollywood. To what extent his attachment was cultural and to what extent it was religious, who can say, but in 2003, he gave a long and fascinating interview to a Serb-American magazine in which he discussed the various churchmen he had known throughout his life, and how he used to attend liturgy with members of Yul Brynner's family, etc. He also talked about how he and his wife of 70 years, who is Jewish, "never really discussed religion", and how his mother was originally Catholic, became Orthodox when she got married, and then became Catholic again when she spent her last days in an old folks' home.

Whatever his own religious inclinations, Malden was by all accounts a gracious and decent man, standing by friends like Kazan when they were all but ostracized within the industry, and enjoying one of the longest marriages of any Hollywood actor ever. He will be missed.

Related Tags: captains courageous, i confess, on the waterfront, pollyanna, west wing