Death of a Salesman (1952)

110, 112-113 or 115 mins | Drama | February 1952

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HISTORY

Playwright Arthur Miller received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Death of a Salesman . A Var news item noted that shortly after the play's opening in Feb 1949, the Music Corporation of America expressed interest in putting together a film package that would include Miller, the play's director, Elia Kazan, and its star, Lee J. Cobb. According to the item, Miller speculated that Twentieth Century-Fox might act as the distributing studio, but no further evidence of that studio's interest in filming the play has been found. An article in the Sep 1949 issue of NYT reveals that Miller planned to write the screenplay and intended to make the film independently in the East with Kazan. Although a HR news item announced that Warner Bros. studio head Jack L. Warner had bid $600,000 for the film rights for the play, Warner later denied the report. An Aug 1950 HR item indicated that producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna were planning to film the play, subject to approval by RKO studio head Howard Hughes. A Nov 1950 HR item announced that Kirk Douglas would star as "Willy Loman" with William Wyler producing and directing at Paramount.
       Miller sold the rights to producer Stanley Kramer and had no further participation in the Columbia production. HR news items indicated Kramer hired husband and wife associate producer team Edward and Edna Anhalt, but they were not listed in the credits for the film. In his autobiography, Miller complained that screenwriter Stanley Roberts' adaptation "chop(ped) off almost every climax of the play...leaving a flatness." He also expressed ... More Less

Playwright Arthur Miller received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Death of a Salesman . A Var news item noted that shortly after the play's opening in Feb 1949, the Music Corporation of America expressed interest in putting together a film package that would include Miller, the play's director, Elia Kazan, and its star, Lee J. Cobb. According to the item, Miller speculated that Twentieth Century-Fox might act as the distributing studio, but no further evidence of that studio's interest in filming the play has been found. An article in the Sep 1949 issue of NYT reveals that Miller planned to write the screenplay and intended to make the film independently in the East with Kazan. Although a HR news item announced that Warner Bros. studio head Jack L. Warner had bid $600,000 for the film rights for the play, Warner later denied the report. An Aug 1950 HR item indicated that producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna were planning to film the play, subject to approval by RKO studio head Howard Hughes. A Nov 1950 HR item announced that Kirk Douglas would star as "Willy Loman" with William Wyler producing and directing at Paramount.
       Miller sold the rights to producer Stanley Kramer and had no further participation in the Columbia production. HR news items indicated Kramer hired husband and wife associate producer team Edward and Edna Anhalt, but they were not listed in the credits for the film. In his autobiography, Miller complained that screenwriter Stanley Roberts' adaptation "chop(ped) off almost every climax of the play...leaving a flatness." He also expressed dismay that Fredric March was directed "to play Willy as a psycho." Miller stated that March had been the first choice for the stage role, but that he turned down the part. The following members of the Broadway cast reprised their roles for the film: Mildred Dunnock, Cameron Mitchell, Don Keefer, Royal Beal and Howard Smith. Kevin McCarthy portrayed "Biff" in the London production of the play. Although some sources cite Death of a Salesman as McCarthy's film debut, he had appeared briefly in the 1944 film Winged Victory (See Entry).
       According to information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Geoffrey Shurlock expressed concern about Willy's suicide and requested a rewrite of the ending to "build a voice for morality against suicide." The PCA also requested that the impression that Willy and the woman in his Boston hotel room were having an "illicit sex affair" be toned down by adding a bottle of champagne to the scene "as an indication that the couple have been having a party." The word "damnit" was not approved, yet remained in the final print of the film.
       After the film's release, Var reported that the vice-president of the National Sales Executives and the supervisor of the City College of New York salesmanship unit of the School of Business expressed concern about the story's image of salesmen, claiming that it was a "libel of a segment of the population." In Mar 1952, a chapter of the American Legion in Columbus, OH threatened to picket movie houses showing Death of a Salesman because of Miller's alleged links with politically subversive groups. In Apr of that same year the American Legion picketed Washington, D.C.'s Ontario Theatre, contending that Miller had been linked with Communist front organizations as identified by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
       The film received the following Academy Award nominations: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Mildred Dunnock), Best Supporting Actor (Kevin McCarthy), Best Cinematography and Best Music Score. In 1965 a record album of the play was recorded with Cobb as Willy and Dustin Hoffman as "Bernard." On 11 May 1966 on the CBS Network, Cobb and Dunnock reprised their roles for a television adaptation, with George Segal as Biff and James Farentino as "Happy." In 1984 Miller staged a Broadway revival of the play starring Hoffman, with John Malkovich as Biff. On 15 Sep 1985, the two actors reprised their roles for another CBS broadcast, directed by Volker Schlöndorff. Brian Dennehy starred as Willy in a television version of the play, directed by Kirk Browning, that aired on Showtime on 9 Jan 2000. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
15 Dec 1951.
---
Daily Variety
10 Dec 51
p. 3.
Daily Variety
3 Mar 1952.
---
Daily Variety
22 Apr 1952.
---
Film Daily
10 Dec 51
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
12 Jan 50
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
25 Aug 50
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
20 Nov 50
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
13 Apr 51
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
29 Aug 51
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
31 Aug 51
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Sep 51
p. 22.
Hollywood Reporter
1 Oct 51
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
10 Dec 51
p. 3.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
15 Dec 51
p. 1153.
New York Times
7 Sep 1949.
---
New York Times
19 Dec 51
p. 21.
New York Times
21 Dec 1951.
---
Variety
22 Feb 1949.
---
Variety
24 Oct 1951.
---
Variety
12 Dec 1951.
---
Variety
19 Dec 51
p. 6.
Variety
26 Dec 1951.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
PRODUCER
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Prod des
FILM EDITORS
Ed supv
Film ed
SET DECORATOR
Set dec
MUSIC
Mus dir
Mus score
SOUND
Sd eng
MAKEUP
Makeup
Hairstyles
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod mgr
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, as produced by Kermit Bloomgarden and Walter Fried (New York, 10 Feb 1949).
DETAILS
Release Date:
February 1952
Premiere Information:
New York and Los Angeles openings: 20 December 1951
Production Date:
31 August--1 October 1951
Copyright Claimant:
Stanley Kramer Co., Inc.
Copyright Date:
5 December 1951
Copyright Number:
LP1442
Physical Properties:
Sound
Western Electric Recording
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
110, 112-113 or 115
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
15573
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

One evening on his normal New York route, traveling salesman Willy Loman turns back home, fearful of his inability to keep his car on the road. His wife Linda consoles him, while his eldest son Biff, who is home after a long absence, is suspicious about his father's early return. Willy's pleasure at seeing Biff fades quickly and he bemoans his son's drifting, irresponsible life as a migrant farm worker. He reminisces about Biff and his younger brother Happy as cheerful, energetic teenagers while Biff listens upstairs, deeply disturbed. Happy explains to Biff that Willy's mind often wanders this way and worries that their father is losing his mind. Alone in the kitchen, Willy recalls his sons's enthusiasm whenever he returned from the road, and his promises of one day being more successful than his neighbor Charley and staying home for good. Willy reflects on how he brushed aside Biff's low grades in school, because he had earned a football scholarship, and that father and son enjoyed scoffing at Charley's whining, clingy son Bernard. Willy's musings take a darker turn as he frets about his lack of prosperity and the loneliness inherent in a life of constant travel. His ranting reminiscences are cut short when Charley comes by to see if everything is all right. Willy tells Charley that he has always regretted not taking his brother Ben's offer to go to Alaska, where Ben struck it rich. Charley, who is about to take a trip west, offers Willy a job overseeing his office in his absence, but Willy angrily refuses and continues discussing Ben reverently. Charley leaves, disgusted by his friend's foolish obstinacy. ... +


One evening on his normal New York route, traveling salesman Willy Loman turns back home, fearful of his inability to keep his car on the road. His wife Linda consoles him, while his eldest son Biff, who is home after a long absence, is suspicious about his father's early return. Willy's pleasure at seeing Biff fades quickly and he bemoans his son's drifting, irresponsible life as a migrant farm worker. He reminisces about Biff and his younger brother Happy as cheerful, energetic teenagers while Biff listens upstairs, deeply disturbed. Happy explains to Biff that Willy's mind often wanders this way and worries that their father is losing his mind. Alone in the kitchen, Willy recalls his sons's enthusiasm whenever he returned from the road, and his promises of one day being more successful than his neighbor Charley and staying home for good. Willy reflects on how he brushed aside Biff's low grades in school, because he had earned a football scholarship, and that father and son enjoyed scoffing at Charley's whining, clingy son Bernard. Willy's musings take a darker turn as he frets about his lack of prosperity and the loneliness inherent in a life of constant travel. His ranting reminiscences are cut short when Charley comes by to see if everything is all right. Willy tells Charley that he has always regretted not taking his brother Ben's offer to go to Alaska, where Ben struck it rich. Charley, who is about to take a trip west, offers Willy a job overseeing his office in his absence, but Willy angrily refuses and continues discussing Ben reverently. Charley leaves, disgusted by his friend's foolish obstinacy. Later, Biff expresses his concern about Willy to his mother, who angrily resents Biff's disrespect and distance from his father. Both Biff and Happy are dismayed to learn from Linda that for some time Willy has worked solely on commission, having been cut from his full salary. Linda secretly discovered that Willy borrows money from Charley to make ends meet. She berates her sons and pleads with Biff to make up with his father. Biff refuses, claiming he knows his father is a fake, but grudgingly promises to stay at home and find work. In desperation, Linda confides that Willy has attempted suicide and that any hope of a better life rests with his sons. When Biff finds rubber tubing by the gas furnace, confirming Linda's suicide story, he promises Willy that he will speak with his old boss the next day. The next morning, Willy enthusiastically informs Linda that Biff has asked him to dinner that night with Happy. When Linda reminds him about an outstanding payment on the refrigerator and their last mortgage payment, Willy decides to see his boss, Howard Wagner, and demand a sales position in town at the company store. Willy's hopes are dashed, however, when his young boss tells him that at sixty, he should retire and promptly fires him. Panicked, Willy telephones Charley for an appointment. On the way to see his friend, Willy falls into another reverie, reliving Ben's Alaskan offer and Biff's burgeoning football stardom. At Charley's office, Willy runs into Bernard, now a successful attorney, who asks after Biff and wonders why he went wrong. He recalls that Biff changed after visiting Willy in Boston, which upsets Willy. After Bernard departs, Willy again refuses Charley's offer of a job. That evening, Biff meets Happy at the restaurant and confesses that his former boss, Oliver, did not remember him and kept him waiting for several hours. While waiting, Biff recalled that he had been fired by Oliver for stealing long ago and bolted rather than endure a humiliating confrontation. Happy presses Biff to lie to Willy, but when their father arrives, Biff tries to tell him the truth. Willy abruptly reveals he has been fired, and as his sons respond with dismay, his mind replays Biff's inexplicable rejection of college and all his hopeful plans. He accuses Biff of being a failure to spite him and leaves. Biff tells Happy about their father's suicide attempt and declares he cannot help him. Meanwhile, Willy painfully recalls the night Biff found him in a Boston hotel room with a woman. That night at home, as Biff, Happy and Linda argue, Willy plants seeds in the garden while envisioning Ben offering him advice. Biff is determined to tell Willy the truth and over his mother's protests informs his father that his grandiose expectations have ruined the family and pleads for Willy to let him live his own life. When Willy accepts that Biff loves him despite his failure, he appears satisfied, but later drives off alone, imagining Ben at his side, and fatally crashes the car. Only the family and Charley attend the funeral and Linda is unable to weep for the loss of her husband. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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