August 21, 2009

THE PROBLEM ISN'T THAT THEY WERE PERSECUTED BUT THAT THEY WEREN'T PROSECUTED:

What made Budd Schulberg run (Mark Steyn, 8/21/09, Macleans)

A few years back, I was at Paramount taking part in some panel discussion, and at one point the subject of “artistic persecution” arose. “When,” I scoffed, “was the last time anyone in Hollywood was persecuted?” “The 1950s,” snapped the otherwise delightful Lynda Obst, the producer of Sleepless In Seattle, who was sitting next to me. I forbore to suggest to Lynda that the Hollywood blacklist was not what most societies would recognize as “persecution”—or, indeed, that the guys doing the persecuting were not the government but the studio suits at Warner Brothers, Universal, et al. No matter. Execs can be forgiven: it’s strictly business, right? For the Sean Penn/George Clooney generation, what Schulberg and his director Elia Kazan did was an affront to their sense of their own artistic heroism. As the Boston Globe’s Thomas Oliphant wrote, Kazan was “a pathetically prototypical rat-fink of the anti-Communist hysteria.”

In an ideal world—or if you were making the umpteenth movie on the subject—it would be helpful if the blacklist’s “victims” had been a little more accomplished. By contrast, Schulberg, as a writer, and Kazan, as a director, are too talented to be written off as mere snitches and toadies to state power. For one thing, their experience as “rat-finks” produced a true cinematic masterpiece, and a better film than any on their detractors’ CVs, post- or pre-blacklist. Schulberg’s script for On The Waterfront (1954) reads like transcripts from the Congressional hearings: “I just want to ask you some questions about some people you may know”; “Stooling is when you rat on your friends,” etc. Yet it’s not about Communist penetration of the movie business, but organized-crime penetration of the longshoremen’s union.

Schulberg and Kazan had hit upon the perfect analogy—for, until Hollywood leftists began demanding that personal loyalty trumps all other considerations, the notion that “ratting” was the ultimate sin was confined mostly to the mob. In Schulberg’s screenplay, the union men are “D & D”—deaf and dumb to the evils committed in the name of a bogus working-class solidarity. You couldn’t find a better parallel to all those “well-intentioned liberals” in the arts who stayed true to the theoretical ideals of Communism no matter how large the mountain of corpses grew. To elevate personal friendship above all is an absurdity, nicely caught in an exchange between Marlon Brando’s washed-up prizefighter Terry Malloy and Karl Malden’s outraged Catholic priest:

“Johnny Friendly used to take me to ball games when I was a kid.”

“Ball games?” says Malden, contemptuously. “Don’t make me cry.” It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for baseball seats?

They were pretty good seats, too. As a 20-year-old Dartmouth student, Schulberg visited the Soviet Union and was shown its artistic glories. He fell in love with the theatre of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Stanislavski’s wayward disciple. Meyerhold loved the older stylized dramatic forms—commedia dell’arte, pantomime—and refused to confine himself to Socialist Realism. So in 1939 Stalin had him arrested, tortured and his wife murdered. He was shot by firing squad in February 1940.

How about that? Executed over a difference of opinion about a directing style. As “persecution” goes, isn’t that a little more thorough than, say, being denied a writing credit on Hellcats of the Navy, as happened to Bernard Gordon? More to the point, if it’s all about “personal loyalty,” then what about the loyalty owed to Meyerhold by all those young American artistic lefties he befriended and inspired? Or is the “personal loyalty” owed not to persons but to the noble cause, in service of which any individual is dispensable? Even today, we continue to draw a distinction between Nazism and Communism—between the bad evil and the good evil, the evil that’s philosophically sound, admirably progressive and just ran into one or two problems on the ground, like a great movie idea that went off course in development.

In 1937, Schulberg wrote a short story about an ambitious kid on the make in Hollywood, and then decided to expand it into a novel. Demonstrating the same hands-on approach as Comrade Stalin with Meyerhold, the Communist Party told him to ease up on the Jewishness of the central character, and portray the striking screenwriters more appealingly. Happily, the American Commies lacked the enforcement regime of Uncle Joe. So Schulberg refused, and published What Makes Sammy Run? as written. In essence, he broke with the Reds for artistic reasons.

But he learned a broader lesson in the way they operate.

Terry: If I spill, my life ain't worth a nickel.

Father Barry: And how much is your soul worth if you don't?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2009 1:16 PM
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