THE BOOTLEG FILES: THE RUNNER STUMBLES Image

BOOTLEG FILES 565: “The Runner Stumbles” (1979 drama directed by Stanley Kramer).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm that last public exhibition of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A 1985 VHS video release.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is unclear why this film is out of circulation.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is possible.

Stanley Kramer occupies a curious niche in American cinema. Few directors have generated the level of contempt among many prominent film critics that Kramer harvested during his years behind the camera, with his detractors in the media faulting him for alleged heavy-handedness in presenting so-called “message” pictures that sought to challenge societal perceptions of racism, war, morality and religion. And while Kramer was, admittedly, not the most subtle cinematic artist, he was willing to take chances on material that other filmmakers lacked the courage to pursue.

But if Kramer had a lack of supporters among the critics, he had the support of the moviegoers – at least during his peak years from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, with titles such as “The Defiant Ones” (1958), “On the Beach” (1959), “Inherit the Wind” (1960), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963 – Kramer’s highly uncharacteristic slapstick epic), “Ship of Fools” (1965) and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967). But into the late 1960s and 1970s, it seemed as if Kramer’s ability to bring in audiences evaporated with the failures of “The Secret of Santa Vittorio” (1968), “R.P.M.” (1970), “Bless the Beasts and Children” (1971), “Oklahoma Crude” (1973) and “The Domino Principle” (1977). A number of film critics seemed to ratchet up their venom in calling attention to the deficiencies of these later works, and it seemed that many power players in the film industry were ready to write off Kramer as being old-fashioned and out of touch with the style and substance of the era’s most significant filmmaking trends.

But one person that had the utmost respect Kramer was playwright Milan Stitt, who enjoyed a burst of recognition with the 1974 Off-Broadway presentation of his drama “The Runner Stumbles.” Stitt was not eager to sell his play to filmmakers, and had already swatted away offers from other directors before Kramer sought out his acquaintance. Stitt was initially unenthused about adapting his work for the screen, but he was won over by the sincerity that Kramer offered in discussing a film version of “The Runner Stumbles.”

“This was a story which seemed to clarify for me in part something to believe in,” Kramer later recalled in an interview published in American Cinematographer. “I’m always looking for a project I believe in strongly enough to justify spending my time on, and I felt very strongly about this one.”

And it is easy to see what attracted Kramer to this work. “The Runner Stumbles” is based on a true incident from the early part of the 20th century involving a priest in an isolated Michigan town who was accused of murdering a young nun with whom he had a secret affair. “The Runner Stumbles” takes its odd title from Isaiah 40:31 – “but those who hope in the Lord / will renew their strength. / They will soar on wings like eagles; / they will run and not grow weary, / they will walk and not be faint” – and the spirit of the work is a frankly open questioning of hypocrisy and dogma.

The film takes place in a rural section of Washington State in 1927, where a small Catholic parish is run by the erudite Father Rivard. The priest is clearly in a state of theological exile, isolated by his diocese to this half-forgotten area as punishment for his earlier espousal of theories that were rejected by church leaders as being too radical for consideration. Assisting Father Rivard are a pair of elderly nuns that run the parish and inspire little love from their students.

Into this dreary world comes an unexpected burst of energy: the young Sister Rita, a nun who is assigned to offer assistance in running the school. Sister Rita brings a rich degree of happiness and pep to the parish – she almost seems like a flapper in a nun’s habit – and the children love her willingness to sing secular tunes and plant flowers around the drab church grounds. Even Father Rivard’s overly protective housekeeper is enchanted with her, as the young nun gives the older woman lessons that liberate her from lifelong illiteracy.

But things become problematic when the elderly nuns in the parish convent develop tuberculosis. Sister Rita cannot stay with them, out of fear that she will catch the disease, but there is no place in the immediate vicinity for her to find refuge. (After all, this is 1927 and a nun lacks the liberty to move into a boarding house or rent a motel room.) Father Rivard allows her to move into his rectory, but small town gossip begins to buzz that the priest and nun are spending too much time together. Alas, the gossip turns out to be right – and when Sister Rita is found murdered, Father Rivard is arrested and jailed as the likely killer when he confesses that his relation with the nun had turned carnal.

Although “The Runner Stumbles” presents difficult and often heartbreaking questions on whether the clergy should be held to a different set of morality standards and whether dogma suffocates the expression of faith, the film is not an extended anti-Catholic slam. Kramer and Stitt (who adapted his play for the screen) pose thorny challenges on whether people are responsible for emotional self-imprisonment or whether they possess the ability to create their own worlds despite the rigid traditions and narrow attitudes that exist to stifle free expression and iconoclastic behavior. In many ways, “The Runner Stumbles” is the most intellectual of Kramer’s works – though, sadly, too many people were either unwilling or unable to look beyond the priest-nun love affair plot foundation to truly measure the troubling depth of the story.

As with his other films, Kramer brought in a slew of fine performers for the cast: Beau Bridges as a seemingly indolent attorney hired to defend the priest in court, Maureen Stapleton as the somewhat unbalanced housekeeper, Tammy Grimes as a troubled town resident and (in a nice surprise) Ray Bolger as the dyspeptic monsignor who serves as Father Rivard’s icy tormentor within the diocese. In casting Sister Rita, Kramer picked Kathleen Quinlan, an up-and-coming actress who seemed on the fast track for major stardom following her triumph in the 1977 drama “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” Quinlan perfectly embodied Sister Rita’s youthful personality, seesawing between the sunny nun of the parish school and the conflicted woman who has difficulty containing suppressed emotions.

However, the most unusual aspect surrounding “The Runner Stumbles” involved the casting of Father Rivard. Kramer later stated that he originally envisioned the role as a comeback for Austrian actor Oskar Werner, who received an Oscar nomination for Kramer’s “Ship of Fools” but disappeared from view after the release of the 1968 “The Shoes of a Fisherman” – his only screen work in the 1970s was a guest shot in an episode of “Columbo” in 1975 and as part of the all-star ensemble in 1976 film “Voyage of the Damned.” But Werner was not available – Kramer claimed that the actor injured himself in a skiing accident, although Werner was in poor health at the time due to his alcoholism, so it is possible that Kramer was diplomatically covering up for him. Instead, Kramer chose a very different performer for the part.

“Stanley asked me if I would have lunch with him,” said Dick Van Dyke in a 1979 interview with the Associated Press. “I had never met him before, but of course I knew and admired his work. When he told me the role he wanted me to play, I said, ‘You’re putting me on, you’ve got to be putting me on.’”

Van Dyke admitted that he considered quitting the film, fearing that he was not up to the role. In later years, he stated that he was unhappy with his performance. But Van Dyke had nothing to be ashamed of – under Kramer’s vigorous direction, he brilliantly captured the inner tumult of a priest whose career was chopped down due to his academic pride and whose life is reduced to ruins for his inability to stay focused on his vows. It is an extremely subtle performance, made all the more remarkable in coming from a beloved song-and-dance comedy star with relatively little serious dramatic experience.

Alas, the work was all in vain. The influence driving critics of the day had no time for the film – Janet Maslin of The New York Times found it “dispirited” and Roger Ebert yawned about how “silly” it was.  But some critics were able to see the film’s genuine value. Robert C. Cumbow, writing for Movietone News, stated, “Though ‘The Runner Stumbles’ fails to grasp what it reaches for, it offers some surprisingly telling moments in its humble look at the crisis of faith versus self-interest.” And Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, returning to the film years later for their website Spirituality and Practice, noted, “Viewers of the film will be forced to exercise their values in regard to the conflict between duty and love, institutional obligation and personal needs.”

But that’s not what audiences in 1979 wanted. “The Runner Stumbles” flopped in theaters, effectively ending Kramer’s filmmaking career – a planned feature called “Three Solitary Drinkers” never came about after the failure of this production, and Kramer passed away in 2001. “The Runner Stumbles” had a brief VHS video release in 1985, but to date there has been no DVD or Blu-ray offering. A bootleg DVD of the film can be found for sale on the iOffer website.

I would love to see “The Runner Stumbles” return again and receive a second consideration – one based solely on the merits of the film and not on the preconceived notions of Kramer’s alleged shortcomings as a director. This is a fine, underrated film and it is not deserving of the obscurity in which it is now stuck.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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