No discussion of On the Waterfront, the novel, can be undertaken without at least mention of the movie. The book was highly praised when it was released in 1955, a year after the film received eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. On its own, the novel was a best seller.
Originally, the book was titled simply Waterfront. It was no simple novelization of the film, “that bastard word for a bastard byproduct of Hollywood success,” as Budd Schulberg states in his Introduction in the 1987 edition. The book was compared to the works of Émile Zola and Theodore Dreiser by the critics because of its use of the ‘naturalist style.’ The naturalist school featured detailed realism, that in this case, suggested that social conditions, heredity, and environment had inescapable force in shaping the characters that populate books. The critics, after all the awards, praise, and kudos the film received, were surprised that there was still so much to say than a 90 minute movie could suggest.
Originally inspired by a 24-part series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson, called “Crime on the Waterfront,” Budd Schulberg wrote a long piece for The Saturday Evening Post, titled “Father John Knows The Score.” Schulberg took an unorthodox approach to writing the screenplay by not spending a month or two, but literally years absorbing the unique atmosphere of the New York Waterfront. He hung out at the west side Manhattan and Jersey bars that were the unofficial headquarters of the waterfront racketeers and Irish and Italian “insoigents.” He spent nights drinking beer with longshore families in their $26.50 a month railroad flats. Along the way he interviewed longshore union leaders and the outspoken labor priests from St. Xavier’s in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, one of which the book is dedicated to; Father John Corridan described as “a rangy, ruddy, fast-talking, chain-smoking, tough-minded, sometimes profane Kerryman.” it’s a welcome antidote to the stereotypical Barry Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby “Fah-ther” that Hollywood was so fond of. Father Corridan’s speech was a unique blend of Hell’s Kitchen and baseball slang and he expressed an encyclopedic knowledge of waterfront economics and man’s inhumanity to man. This maverick priest was the Father John of Schulberg’s article for The Saturday Evening Post. Schulberg was surprised to find that just a few blocks west of comfortable watering holes like Sardi’s there was this entire world that the rest of Manhattan didn’t know existed.
Schulberg’s ‘escort’ or protector, and his cover was one of Father John’s most staunch adherents, Little Arthur Browne, Brownie as he was known. Brownie was one of the standup “insoigents” in the Chelsea local run by the fat cats and their “pistoleros.” Brownie was probably the model for Runty Nolan of the book and Kayo Duggan of the film. Browne had been beaten up, had his nose flattened by “the cowboys” –the local union enforcers–been thrown through a skylight and even tossed in the river unconscious, all things that Runty endures in the book. Schulberg got most of the local dialect that he would write into the screenplay as well as the novel during Runty and his forays into the local bars which were, in places, ten to a block.
Schulberg had discussed with director Elia Kazan his research into the waterfront, and Kazan urged him to write a screenplay, which was thrown back in Schulberg and Kazan’s faces by one of Hollywood’s leading moguls. So, he set out after this to write a novel when some smarter Hollywood mogul accepted the screenplay. The film was made after a few changes to the script, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. The film was an astounding success. Filmed over 36 days on location in various places in Hoboken, New Jersey, including the docks, workers’ slum dwellings, bars, littered alleys, and rooftops. Furthermore, some of the labor bosses’ goons in the film–Abe Simon as Barney, Tony Galento as Truck, and Tami Mauriello as Tullio–were actual former professional heavyweight boxers. Terry Malloy’s (Brando’s) fight against corruption was in part modeled after whistle-blowing longshoreman Anthony DiVincenzo, who testified before a real-life Waterfront Commission on the facts of life on the Hoboken docks, suffering a degree of ostracism for his deed.