August 6, 2009


Letters from the Big House: Brian Dennehy helps restore the name of Dalton Trumbo (Quinton Skinner, 1/18/05, City Pages)

This worthy experiment in democracy has endured a number of body blows over the years, notably during the post-WWII Red Scare, when congressional hearings were used as a cudgel to shatter lives and careers. One notable casualty was screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo, whose refusal to sing to the House Un-American Activities Committee got him fired by MGM Studios and imprisoned for a year in 1950. During that time, Trumbo fired off the letters that compose this show, which comes to Minneapolis after successful runs and critical approval in New York, Philadelphia, and Colorado.

Trumbo, writing in isolation and extremity, used his epistles to vent his considerable pith, albeit tempered with humor. A bevy of big-name actors have taken a shot at the role, including Paul Newman, Richard Dreyfuss, Tim Robbins, and even geriatric bomb-thrower Gore Vidal.

The prior players are notorious apologists for evil, but one would have liked to think better of Mr. Dennehy than to play a Stalinist traitor as a sympathetic character.

Hollywood's Missing Movies: Why American films have ignored life under communism. (Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, June 2000, Reason)

The cinema's great potential for persuasion excited Stalin and his wholly-owned American subsidiary, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), which lived off Soviet cash until it criticized Gorbachev's reforms as "old social democratic thinking class collaboration." Correspondence between American communists and their Soviet bosses can now be perused in The Soviet World of American Communism (1998). Editors John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Kyrill Anderson gathered newly declassified material from the Moscow-based archives of the Communist International (Comintern), the Soviet organization that controlled national communist parties. Members of the CPUSA made some documentary films in the 1930s, but nothing that could compete with the American commercial cinema, which the party set out to co-opt.

"One of the most pressing tasks confronting the Communist Party in the field of propaganda," wrote the indefatigable Comintern agent Willi Muenzenberg in a 1925 Daily Worker article, "is the conquest of this supremely important propaganda unit, until now the monopoly of the ruling class. We must wrest it from them and turn it against them." It was an ambitious task, but conditions would soon turn to the party's advantage.

The Depression convinced many that capitalism was on its last legs and that socialism was the wave of the future. In the days of the Popular Front of the mid-'30s, communists found it easy to make common cause with liberals against Hitler and Spain's Franco. In 1935, V.J. Jerome, the CPUSA's cultural commissar, set up a Hollywood branch of the party. This highly secretive unit enjoyed great success, recruiting members, organizing entire unions, raising money from unwitting Hollywood liberals, and using those funds to support Soviet causes through front groups such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. "We had our own sly arithmetic, we could find fronts and make two become one," remembered screenwriter Walter Bernstein (Fail Safe, The Front, The House on Carroll Street) in his 1996 autobiography, Inside Out.

During the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, for example, actor Melvyn Douglas (Ninotchka) and screenwriter-director Philip Dunne (Wild in the Country) proposed that the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, a conclave of industry Democrats, condemn Stalin's invasion of Finland in late 1939. But the group was actually secretly dominated by Communists, and it rejected the resolution. As Dunne later described it in his 1980 memoir, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics, "All over town the industrious communist tail wagged the lazy liberal dog."

"There was never an organized, articulate, and effective liberal or left-wing opposition to the communists in Hollywood," concluded John Cogley, a socialist, in his 1956 Report on Blacklisting. As former party member Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) put it, the party was "the only game in town." But even though the Communists were strongest in the Screen Writers Guild, influencing the content of movies was a trickier matter.

Communist cultural doctrine cast writers as "artists in uniform," producing works whose function was to transmit political messages and raise the consciousness of their audiences. Otherwise, movies were mere bourgeois decadence, a tool of capitalist distraction, and therefore subjugation. Party bosses V.J. Jerome and John Howard Lawson (a co-founder of the Screen Writers Guild and screenwriter of Algiers and Action in the North Atlantic) enforced this art-is-a-weapon creed in Hollywood, as they had done earlier among New York dramatists. Albert Maltz (Destination Tokyo) was to challenge the doctrine in a 1946 New Masses article, arguing that doctrinaire politics often resulted in poor writing. Responding to the notion that "art is a weapon," Maltz suggested, "An artist can be a great artist without being an integrated or logical or a progressive thinker on all matters."

As a result of such heresy, the party dragged him through a series of humiliating inquisitions and forced him to publish a retraction. Maltz trashed his original article as "a one-sided, nondialectical treatment of complex issues" that was "distinguished for its omissions" and which "succeeded in merging my comments with the unprincipled attacks upon the left that I have always repudiated and combated." Maltz was to defend that retraction until he died in 1985.

Dalton Trumbo (Kitty Foyle), a Communist Party member and for a time the highest-paid screenwriter in town, described the screenwriting trade as "literary guerrilla warfare." The studio system, in which projects were closely supervised, made the insertion of propaganda difficult if not impossible. Hollywood did not become a bastion of Stalinist propaganda, except as part of the war effort, when Russia was celebrated as an ally. Ayn Rand, then a Hollywood screenwriter and one of the few in the movie community who had actually lived under communism, was to point out that, in their zeal to provide artistic lend-lease, American Communist screenwriters went to extraordinary and absurd lengths. In such wartime movies as North Star and Song of Russia (both 1943), they portrayed the USSR as a land of joyous, well-fed workers who loved their masters. Mission to Moscow (also 1943), starring Walter Huston, went so far as to whitewash Stalin's murderous show trials of the 1930s.

But if Comintern fantasies of a Soviet Hollywood were never realized, party functionaries nevertheless played a significant role: They were sometimes able to prevent the production of movies they opposed. The party had not only helped organize the Screen Writers Guild, it had organized the Story Analysts Guild as well. Story analysts judge scripts and film treatments early in the decision making process. A dismissive report often means that a studio will pass on a proposed production. The party was thus well positioned to quash scripts and treatments with anti-Soviet content, along with stories that portrayed business and religion in a favorable light. In The Worker, Dalton Trumbo openly bragged that the following works had not reached the screen: Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and The Yogi and the Commissar; Victor Kravchenko's I Chose Freedom; and Bernard Clare by James T. Farrell, also author of Studs Lonigan and vilified by party enforcer Mike Gold as "a vicious, voluble Trotskyite."

Even talent agents sometimes answered to Moscow. Party organizer Robert Weber landed with the William Morris agency, where he represented Communist writers and directors such as Ring Lardner Jr. and Bernard Gordon. Weber carried considerable clout regarding who worked and who didn't. So did George Willner, a Communist agent representing screenwriters, who sold out his noncommunist clients by deliberately neglecting to shop their stories. On a wider scale, the party launched smear campaigns and blacklists against noncommunists, targeting such figures as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, and Bette Davis.

These were among the many actors defying the party-backed labor group, the Conference of Studio Unions. The CSU, which was trying to shut down the industry and force through jurisdictional concessions that would give it supremacy in studio labor, clashed with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and its allies, who were trying to keep the studios going. Katharine Hepburn stumped for the CSU, reading speeches written by Dalton Trumbo, while Ronald Reagan, then a liberal Democrat, headed the anti-communists in the talent guilds.

These were the true front lines of the communist offensive, and bloody warfare broke out in the streets outside every studio. The prospect of communist influence in Hollywood got Washington snooping, but in classic style, the politicians got it backward.

The first head of what eventually became the House Committee on Un-American Activities was New York Democrat Samuel Dickstein. As the recently declassified "Venona" documents (decrypts of Soviet cables) reveal, Dickstein moonlighted for Soviet intelligence--not out of ideology but for money. Initially concerned with pro-fascist groups in the late 1930s, the committee after the war was dominated by right-wing Republicans, though its most loathsome figure was Mississippi Democrat John Rankin, a sulfuric anti-Semite.

In 1947, while investigating Comintern agent Gerhart Eisler, whose brother Hanns was a composer in Hollywood, the committee found movie people coming forth with stories of Communist Party intrigue and decided that there was enough to justify hearings. They selected fewer than 50 witnesses of various job descriptions and political profiles, including party heavyweights John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo.

Eager to exploit Hollywood for publicity, the committee stupidly made film content the issue, ignoring the party's vast organizing campaigns in the back lots despite convincing testimony from, among others, Walt Disney. More important, the committee ignored the reality that it wasn't what the party put into North Star and Song of Russia that really mattered but the anti-communist, anti-Soviet material it kept out.

While the committee welcomed the publicity, the beleaguered film industry circled the wagons. Studio bosses, although adamantly anti-communist, asserted defiantly that no congressman could tell them how to run their business. A celebrity support group, including such figures as Humphrey Bogart and Danny Kaye, journeyed to Washington to defend their own.

The hearings featured a series of angry harangues by Stalinist writers who came to be known as the Hollywood Ten. Dalton Trumbo, who joined the party during the Nazi-Soviet Pact and even wrote a novel, The Remarkable Andrew, to support the Pact, bellowed, "This is the beginning of the American concentration camp."

-Elia Kazan is dead but his leftwing critics won't let go (Gerard Jackson, 1 October 2003, BrookesNews.Com)
The left's blacklist is one we never hear about. And just in case you think it's dead, several years ago two young left-wing writers on the Sony Studio Lot got Robert Montgomery's name taken off a building because he had been a "friendly witness" to HUAC. Funny thing, though, Richard Dreyfus and his fellow liberals didn't complain about this act of leftwing bastardry.

It was Dreyfus who maligned Elia Kazan by falsely claiming that his anti-communism "lasted barely as long as it took to testify in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee." That is a lie, as we shall soon see. Mr Nice Guy Dreyfus also claimed that Arthur Schlesinger Jnr had written in the New York Times that the only people "against Elia Kazan, were communists themselves." Not true. Schlesinger actually wrote: "Mr. Kazan's critics are those — or latter-day admirers of those — who continued to defend Stalin after the Moscow trials..." (emphasis added). Mr Dreyfus and his fellow celluloid intellectuals appear to fall into the category of "latter-day admirers".

These are the same leftwing hypocrites, led by the likes of Polonsky, who successfully worked for years to block Kazan's nomination for the lifetime achievement award given each year by the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Yet in 1998 when these august organisations once again blocked Kazan's nomination they gave their annual achievement award to Leni Riefenstahl, Nazi Germany's favourite and most famous movie maker.

In his autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life, he wrote: "After seventeen years of watching the Soviet Union turn into an imperialist power, was that truly what I wanted here in the [US?] Wasn't what I'd been defending up until now by my silence a conspiracy working for another country?"

Elia Kazan made it abundantly clear in his book why he acted as he did: ". . .If you expect an apology now because I would later name names to the House Committee, you've misjudged my character. The 'horrible, immoral thing' I would do, I did out of my true self. Everything before was seventeen years of posturing. The people who owe you an explanation (no apology expected) are those who, year after year, held the Soviets blameless for all their crimes." Perhaps he should have added lying journalists to his list.

Higson not only misrepresented Elia Kazan she even suggested that those he testified against were not communists. In fact, every single one of them, little Miss Higson, was a dedicated Stalinist. I doubt if she would have tried to cast doubt on their totalitarian affiliations if they had been proven Nazis.

Higson quoted Abraham Polonsky, one of the Hollywood Ten, as calling Kazan "a creep". The real creep was Polonsky. This wretched creature was an unrepentant Stalinist until the day he died. His support for every murderous twist and turn of Stalinist policies was so mind-boggling that even his fellow Stalinists came to view him as particularly "orthodox".

Meta Reis Rosenberg, another Hollywood Stalinist, described the situation during the '30s among the Hollywood left as one where there "was no really independent thinking among the rank and file", among whom she counted Polonsky. It's a great pity that Higson made no mention of these facts.

The behaviour of the Hollywood Ten (nine after Edward Dmtrytyk renounced communism) in front of HUAC was so repulsive that their Hollywood supporters abandoned them out of disgust. As Lauren Bacall later said, "We were so naïve it was ridiculous." Yet Richard Dreyfus still defends these fanatical Stalinists as "principled" people. So much for Hollywood patriotism.

[originally posted: 1/18/05]

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 6, 2009 12:50 AM
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