Burstyn, Joseph

Burstyn, Joseph
(1901–November 29, 1953)
   Joseph Burstyn’s involvement with STANLEY KUBRICK, as distributor of FEAR AND DESIRE, is a mere footnote to Burstyn’s enormous contributions to film history and indeed to the history of America in the second half of the 20th century. His importance is twofold. First, Burstyn virtually invented the very concept of an international art cinema. In 1952, New York’s Park East called Burstyn the “one-man catalyst who has brought Italian art films and New York audiences together. ” Secondly, as the U. S. distributor of Rossellini’s The Miracle (1950), Burstyn instigated the single most important legal battle in American film history. “The Miracle Case,” as it became known, went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court and brought about First Amendment protection for motion pictures, immeasurably changing the American cinematic landscape.
   In 1921 Joseph Burstyn came to the United States with his parents, fleeing the oppression of Poland. As a young man, he worked as a diamond polisher and salesman in the Midwest, but he soon entered the entertainment business as a press agent for a Yiddish theater in Cleveland. Eventually he landed in New York, working the Yiddish theater circuit as a press agent and stage manager for several years. Burstyn entered the motion picture business in 1930, initially bringing European films to wider audiences by dubbing them into English and adding music which he found in record shops. He met Arthur Mayer, then operator of the Rialto Theater (and former publicity director for Paramount), who became his business partner, an association which lasted until 1949, when Burstyn bought Mayer out.
   By 1939, Burstyn had accumulated enough clout in the business to warrant his writing a piece for the New York Times on the contemporary French cinema. In it, he bemoaned the state of affairs of international cinema in the United States. He viewed it as a business fraught with problems, many of which persist in the year 2001. “Like step-children,” Burstyn writes of French films,“they are relegated for the most part to some 250 intimate theaters around the country. ” He goes on to chide French producers and sales agents for harboring delusions of grandeur with respect to their films’ financial prospects in the United States, citing outrageously high price tags attached to most of the pictures. He also warns his fellow distributors to resist the temptation to acquire foreign films that simply mimic Hollywood pictures. For Burstyn, the value of these international films was their difference and their freshness.
   Burstyn’s greatest successes came after World War II, with neorealist films from Italy. Burstyn introduced what would be termed Italian art cinema to American screens, with pictures such as Rome: Open City (1946), Paisan (1946), and The Bicycle Thief (1948). His contribution to the way we have come to think of international art cinema cannot be overstated. The New York Herald Tribune declared that when Burstyn first entered distribution in the 1930s, the total American market for international films was about 500,000 people. By the time of Burstyn’s death in 1953, the U. S. art-house audience had ballooned to more than 7 million, thanks in large measure to his efforts.
   His greatest notoriety came with The Miracle, which he combined with two other short films—A Day in the Country (1936) and Jofroi (1933)—into an omnibus film which he called Ways of Love (1950). The film opened at New York’s Paris Theater to critical acclaim and enthusiastic audiences. The City License Commissioner, however, found The Miracle to be “personally and officially blasphemous,” because a character in the film believes that she is carrying the child of St. Joseph. Subsequently, the State Board of Regents withdrew the film’s license, effectively banning it from New York theaters. As Burstyn, together with the brilliant young attorney Ephraim S. London, fought the case all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, he garnered the support of organizations such as the New York Film Critics, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Jewish Congress, and the American Book Publishers Council. Burstyn’s victory in the case rocked the film industry and indeed shaped the future of American film history. The Supreme Court declared that “expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guarantees of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. ” The court indicated that it would hold all previous cases of motion picture censorship to be unconstitutional. Even though the entire motion picture industry reaped the benefits of this landmark decision, Burstyn received no support from anyone in Hollywood while he waged the battle. Only afterward did some producers offer financial help—to assuage the tremendous costs Burstyn had incurred during the appeals process—which Burstyn refused. “None of them would lend their names to the fight,” Burstyn complained bitterly to the New York World Telegram. “I could use their money, but if they would not stand up with me, I would rather be without it. ” Despite his understandable resentment, Burstyn retained a sense of humor about the ordeal. In accepting an award from the Italian movie industry in 1951, he quipped: “In five post-war trips to Italy I have . . . even learned to speak some Italian. I learned for example that Città Aperta means ‘Open City’; that Ladri di Biciclette means ‘The Bicycle Thief ’; and that Il Miracolo means trouble. ”
   In an interview with Park East, Burstyn tried to explain his motivations in his historic court battle: “Why did I fight the Miracle case? It surely wasn’t just for the principle, I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think I’m such a noble person. Principles don’t always guide me in the other things in my life; I don’t always do the things I’m supposed to. I don’t know why. Maybe it was just self-protection, for myself as a small businessman, and for the country I came to and adopted. The small man needs freedom more than the big one. Maybe it was because I have a feeling of frustration over not doing more creative work, and this was a form of expression that would have an original and permanent mark for the arts. I’m not sure. I do know that if I hadn’t kept up this fight I would now be completely defeated as a person. ”
   Burstyn’s keen eye for quality spotted the young Stanley Kubrick. Indeed, given the fact that American independent cinema was in its infancy at the time, Burstyn may well have been the only distributor whom Kubrick could have hoped to approach with his low-budget first feature, which had been titled Shape of Fear. Burstyn enthusiastically lauded Kubrick as “a genius. ” Furthermore, he hailed the film (which he released under the provocative title Fear and Desire) as “an American art picture without any artiness. ” This sentiment resonated with critic James Agee, who later told Kubrick, “There are too many good things in the film to call it arty. ” On November 29, 1953, shortly after distributing Fear and Desire, Joseph Burstyn died aboard a nonstop TWA flight from New York to Paris, apparently of natural causes.
   ■ “Burstyn, Film Man, Dies on Sea Flight,” New York Times: November 30, 1953;
   ■ Burstyn, Joseph,“Talent Surplus in France,” New York Times: August 27, 1939;
   ■ Cook, Alton, “Picture Plays: Burstyn’s Miracle Man of Marquee,” New York World Telegram: January 25, 1952;
   ■ “Distributor Fights ‘Miracle’ Hearing,” New York Herald Tribune, January 30, 1951;
   ■ “Joseph Burstyn, Censorship Foe, Dies on Plane for Paris,” New York Herald Tribune, November 30, 1953;
   ■ Mitgang, Herbert, “Transatlantic ‘Miracle’ Man,” Park East, August 1952, pp. 33–36;
   ■ Pollock, Arthur, “Movie Talk: 5th Foreign Film Crown Lies Uneasily on Joe Burstyn’s Head,” The Daily Compass, January 28, 1952, p. 8;
   ■ Winsten, Archer, “Reviewing Stand: Joseph Burstyn, Film Bantamweight,” New York Post, January 6, 1952.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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