Karen Sharpe made her movie debut, at the age of 18, in “The Sniper,” one of the resourceful, low-budget features produced by Stanley Kramer in the years following World War II. She didn’t meet him at the time; director Edward Dmytryk had chosen her for the fleeting role of a teenager at a soda fountain, briefly encountered by the protagonist Arthur Franz as a troubled loner with a rifle who begins targeting San Franciscans at random.
“The Sniper” was one of four movies completed in 1952 by the Stanley Kramer Company, which was concluding a distribution deal with United Artists and commencing one with Columbia. Miss Sharpe, a native of San Antonio, Texas, promptly auditioned for a Columbia project, a topical-equivocal “problem” melodrama about bikers on a weekend rampage, “The Wild One.” She might have been Marlon Brando’s leading lady in that immortal howler. Eventually, the role went to Mary Murphy, who had a far shorter Hollywood career than Miss Sharpe but does remain one of the few non-ridiculous aspects of “The Wild One” in retrospect.
Never at a loss for work, Miss Sharpe appeared in a major 1954 hit, “The High and the Mighty,” cast as a distraught newlywed on the endangered plane flight from Honolulu to San Francisco. She thought she had the ingenue role in “The Ten Commandments,” but Debra Paget was the choice. It was a crusher at the time.
After a decade as a familiar, confident movie and television actress whose credits never quite vaulted into the top echelon, she crossed paths with Mr. Kramer again: She was at Paramount playing opposite Jerry Lewis in “The Disorderly Orderly,” and the ever-ambitious producer-director was filming “Ship of Fools” on the same lot.
A year later she became Karen Sharpe Kramer. It was her second marriage and his third. About 20 years younger than her esteemed mate, Mrs. Kramer devoted herself to the role of Hollywood housewife and doubled as an uncredited production assistant on the remainder of his movies, beginning in 1967 with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Last year, Mrs. Kramer persuaded Sony Pictures, the contemporary incarnation of Columbia, to consider a 40th anniversary reissue of the movie for its home-entertainment division. That suggestion grew into a five-disc set, “The Stanley Kramer Collection,” that surveys 15 years of the Kramer output for Columbia. The early 1950s are represented by “The Member of the Wedding,” “The Wild One” and “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T” and the late 1960s by “Ship of Fools” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Mrs. Kramer, contacted by phone at her home in the San Fernando Valley, supervised a new batch of supplementary material, including introductions and commentaries in which she takes a prominent role. She recruited numerous admirers of the Kramer oeuvre, from Kevin Spacey in the case of “Member of the Wedding” to Norman Jewison, Garry Marshall and Quincy Jones for “Coming to Dinner.”
Widowed in 2001, Mrs. Kramer has inherited the late filmmaker’s estate, which includes outright ownership of some of the earliest UA features, such as “So This Is New York,” “Champion” and “Home of the Brave.” She clearly relishes her responsibilities as keeper of the flame.
“Coming to Dinner,” a drawing-room comedy ostensibly set in San Francisco and contrived to champion a whirlwind interracial romance, was the last major success of Stanley Kramer’s career. Many reviewers found its high-minded platitudes and precautions easy to tease when the film was new and enormously popular. In large measure, that popularity was secured because Sidney Poitier was a supremely attractive star in 1967 and because the finished film became a memorial to Spencer Tracy, who died soon after it was shot.
Mrs. Kramer isn’t alone in regarding the movie as a landmark in Hollywood lore and American social history. With the Stanley Kramer centennial year approaching in 2013, a sound argument can be made for re-evaluating his career as both an enterprising independent, circa 1948-1954, and then an established, socially conscious insider.
This set ought to be a precursor for an extensive Kramer DVD collection. “I hope it will be,” Mrs. Kramer says. “Stanley was an Oscar nominee six times as a producer and three times as a director. He didn’t win on those occasions, but he did get the Irving Thalberg Award, the ultimate honor for producers, in 1961.”
Mrs. Kramer was disappointed that Mr. Poitier declined to participate in the new “Coming to Dinner” supplements. “He thought he had said everything he could say on the subject,” Mrs. Kramer explains, “and heaven knows he’s earned the right to say no.”
Mr. Poitier’s absence does create an opportunity seized by the movie’s erstwhile newcomer, Katharine Houghton, whose recollections prove exceptionally astute and appealing. Mrs. Kramer feared the “Making of” featurettes might seem “lost” without updates from Mr. Poitier, who also declined to authorize interview material from 40 years earlier, but she was consoled by the thought that his presence is generously reawakened in excerpts and other people’s memories.
Although “Coming to Dinner” remains the most successful Kramer picture in the set, the gem of the collection is Fred Zinnemann’s prompt 1952 adaptation of “The Member of the Wedding,” in which Ethel Waters, Julie Harris and Brandon De Wilde vividly re-enacted their original Broadway roles. It was one of the three early Kramer films directed by Mr. Zinnemann, also entrusted with “The Men” and “High Noon.”
A Kramer-Zinnemann follow-up to “High Noon,” the film version of “Member of the Wedding” should have begun the producer’s Columbia deal on a high note, but it flopped. For some reason, the theater-wise public that had rallied to Elia Kazan’s film of “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1951 was unresponsive a year later to “Member of the Wedding,” despite its fidelity and heartfelt eloquence.
Only the final movie of the initial Kramer-Columbia pact, “The Caine Mutiny,” became a major hit. Indeed, that belated success covered the losses of everything else, including the notoriously misconceived “Dr. T,” which aspired to be as beguiling as “The Wizard of Oz” but fell short in many respects. At the retail level, it seems to have antagonized a preponderance of mothers who discovered that Dr. Seuss, as screenwriter, had made them the dupes of a dream-driven musical fable in which a little boy (the wonderful Tommy Rettig) envisions persecution at the hands of a snooty piano teacher (Hans Conried). Mrs. Kramer has not overlooked the strays and misfits in this initial collection.
TITLE: “Stanley Kramer Collection,” consisting of five movies produced and/or directed by Stanley Kramer between 1952 and 1967: “The Member of the Wedding,” “The Wild One,” “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T,” “Ship of Fools” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
RATINGS: All made before the advent of the rating system in 1968; adult subject matter by and large, although “Dr. T,” a satiric musical fantasy, was intended for a juvenile or family audience
DVD EDITION: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
WEB SITE: www.SonyPictures.com