New York Times
February 25, 1996


How to Learn From the Blacklist

For Hollywood, it was the worst of times: publicity-driven Congressmen making headlines by hounding screenwriters, directors and actors; studio bosses sacrificing their employees to political pressure; scores of careers put on hold for years or ruined forever.

The period and the players and many of their works have been brought back this month by the two old-movie cable channels. On Wednesday, February 28, American Movie Classics offers "Blacklist: Hollywood on Trial," a new 90-minute documentary. It will be accompanied by a day of programming, dedicated, says the news release, "to the entertainers who endured the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities."

Turner Classic Movies showed the 1976 documentary "Hollywood on Trial" early this month and has followed up with two dozen movies, mostly written by or featuring blacklistees. This marathon ends Thursday with a reprise of "Hollywood on Trial" and with "Exodus" (1960), the movie for which Dalton Trumbo received a screenwriting credit after having been blacklisted for a decade.

Why this renewed attention to a much-covered phenomenon? (Three plays about the Red-hunting mania were shown on Los Angeles stages last summer.) Mere programming happenstance? The need of survivors and heirs of the wounded to give their side of a bitter experience, to lay claim to the political and historical high ground? A fit of nostalgia? A response, perhaps, to the current Hollywood-bashing by a resurgent right? The safe guess is, some combination of all the above.

Both of this month's documentaries center on the famous whoop-de-do staged by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, when 10 "unfriendly witnesses," citing the First Amendment rather than the Fifth, declined to say whether they were or had ever been members of the Communist Party. Disappointed in their hope that their freedom-of-speech argument would be upheld by the Supreme Court, all 10 spent months in prison for contempt of Congress. The documentaries go on to tell of the tribulations of scores of blacklistees and of the success of a few of the more adept in making their livings under pseudonyms during the difficult 1950's.

The two works are as similar in content and spirit as they are in title. Both take a soft-focus approach to history, from the point of view of those -- some Communist, some tarred by association -- who were battered by the blacklist. That's understandable, if only as a matter of filial loyalty. The newer documentary was produced by Christopher Koch, the son of the blacklisted writer Howard Koch ("Casablanca"). Tony Kahn, the author of a recent National Public Radio series, "Blacklisted," who appears as an interviewer on the Turner offering, is the son of another blacklisted writer, Gordon Kahn ("A Yank on the Burma Road").

The Communists of the time are portrayed as idealists whose sympathies were shaped by the Depression at home and fascism abroad, and as victims of the cold war, which, it is implied, was instigated by Winston Churchill. That accords with the recollections of the blacklistees, who dominate both programs. Hollywood 10 survivors heard from are the writer Ring Lardner Jr. ("M*A*S*H*") and the director Edward Dmytryk ("The Caine Mutiny").

The testimony of Mr. Dmytryk touches on significant differences of opinions and temperaments among the Hollywood 10. He recanted while in jail, deciding, he says in the new documentary, that he was making a martyr of himself for an ideology in which he no longer believed. He went on to name names for the committee, thereby earning the disgust of his former comrades but salvaging his career.

Mr. Dmytryk seems to have been a lukewarm Communist compared, say, with true believers like John Howard Lawson, chief of the Hollywood cell. Abraham Polonsky, another blacklistee, can be seen on the American Movie Classics documentary still genially delivering Popular Front slogans.

In the glow of these programs, the Communists of the time were just like liberals, only a little more "progressive." That was also the message the Hollywood 10 delivered outside the hearing room, in an odd alliance with the Republican-controlled committee, which was delighted to have liberals and Communists lumped together in the public mind.

In ignoring the special nature of the Communist Party, both documentaries do a disservice to history. They note, accurately if superficially, that Communists were prominent in fighting against Generalissimo Franco, organizing American workers and battling race discrimination. But nothing is heard of the way the party kept its members in line, a line laid down in Moscow and enforced by resident commissars like Lawson. These writers, who sought public support on the grounds of freedom of speech, were permitted little freedom by their party.

Whatever their ideals, which you can hear proclaimed on the documentaries, party members had been tarnished by their thralldom to the Soviet Union despite its internal atrocities and external machinations. In a famously embarrassing flip-flop, they opposed American involvement in World War II as long as Moscow was allied with Berlin and turned gung-ho after the Soviet Motherland was invaded. They often clothed themselves in a Bill of Rights that they would not share with their ideological enemies, who included anyone who had an unkind word for Stalin.

The darker side of the Communist Party, well documented by 1947, goes unmentioned in these documentaries. The Hollywood 10, who had never told their liberal supporters the truth about their allegiance, were assuredly victims, even courageous victims, but not exactly in the vanguard of liberalism, a cause that their party despised and that they damaged. Yet it hardly needs saying that their failings were no excuse for Congress's interference in movie making, for the committee's bullying, for the studios' failure to stand up to aspiring censors or, emphatically, for the hurt done to American citizens, Communist or no.

The hearings were no triumph for the inquisitors. Despite the promises of the committee's chairman, J. Parnell Thomas, to expose the rampant Marxism in Hollywood movies, he finally rested his case on three tributes to a wartime ally: "Mission to Moscow," "North Star" and "Song of Russia." They were, granted, immoderately foolish concoctions (James Agee called "Mission to Moscow," which offered a benign account even of the notorious Moscow purge trials of the 1930's, "a great, glad $2 million bowl of canned borscht"), but there was nothing particularly subversive about that sort of Soviet-American Friendship Society propaganda while battles raged on the Eastern front.

For all their posturings, the Communists' ideological impact on movies was slight. Some, like Mr. Lardner and Trumbo, were talented craftsmen; some were hacks. But as demonstrated by the works on show this month, all played pretty much by the rules of capitalism.

The Hollywood 10 fared badly. A few of them seemed to be asking for it at the hearings, with bellowing performances that turned off even sympathizers. Other ostensible allies steered clear in the interests of their own careers. The movie establishment proved to be easily cowed, and the unfriendly witnesses soon became friendless witnesses. Thomas himself, later to be convicted of stealing from the Government and sent to the same prison as Mr. Lardner, was exposed as an overbearing, gavel-banging ignoramus.

Is America facing a resurgence of repression, as some contend? Caution is always in order in such matters, but so is perspective. However censorious the spirit behind the current campaigns against Hollywood and the national endowments, they do not bear comparison with the pain inflicted in the 1940's and 1950's. To pretend otherwise is to make light of the cost of the blacklist to the nation and to the very people being celebrated. And anyway, distorting yesterday's record in the service of today's cause is the sort of thing the Un-American Activities Committee or the Hollywood 10 might have done.


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