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by Marty Roth
DALTON TRUMBO called it “the time of the toad” -- a time, seventy years ago, when nine Hollywood screenwriters and one director were jailed for contempt of Congress for refusing to admit whether or not they were, first, members of the Screenwriter’s Guild and, only after that, members of the Communist Party.
The Ten held in contempt on November 24, 1947 included Alvah Bessie (best known for his 1966 novel, based on the life and death of Marilyn Monroe, The Symbol); Herbert Biberman (best known for his 1954 film, Salt of the Earth); Adrian Scott (best known for producing the 1944 hit movie, Murder, My Sweet and the 1948 social-justice movie, The Boy with the Green Hair); Dalton Trumbo (author of the bestselling 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun, and the screenplays for Exodus and Spartacus); Lester Cole (best known for writing the 1966 film, Born Free); Ring Lardner Jr. (best known for co-writing the 1942 film, Woman of the Year, and for writing the screenplay for M.A.S.H. ); Edward Dmytryk (best known for directing the 1954 film, The Caine Mutiny); John Howard Lawson, who worked on numerous screenplays, including the 1952 film, Cry the Beloved Country); Albert Maltz (best known for his work on Casablanca, 1942, and Broken Arrow, 1951); and Samuel Ornitz (whose twenty-nine screenplays included the anti-racist Imitation of Life, 1934).
They weren’t planning on going to jail, because they expected a liberal Roosevelt Supreme Court to support them. And if they had to face the worst, their lawyers advised, they would only get a fine and a one- year sentence for contempt, as opposed to five years for perjury. There had already been a number of Supreme Court precedents reversing contempt citations. But two of the liberal justices died, and Truman replaced them with conservatives. The Court then refused to hear their appeal.
Many of the ten had started as playwrights (most notably Lawson, who became a reputable, relatively successful leftwing experimental dramatist), directors, and actors in the world of East Coast theater. Most of them wrote before Hollywood: Bessie, for example, was a film and theater reviewer for New Masses and the Brooklyn Eagle and a writer for the New Yorker, while Lardner wrote for The Daily Mirror. Maltz and Trumbo wrote short stories, and all of them, then or later, tried their hand at novels. Lawson and Bessie were charter members of the Lost Generation, spending time as expatriates in Paris, after Lawson served with John Dos Passos in the Norton-Harjes ambulance corps during World War I and Bessie fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain.
They had joined and left the Communist Party at various times: Cole and Lawson as early as 1934 (Lawson is usually cast as the doctrinaire Communist functionary in Hollywood), Lardner in 1937, Scott in 1942, Trumbo in 1943, while Dmytryk was a member briefly in 1945. Lardner left the party in 1947, Bessie in 1950 and Cole remained a Communist till his death. Party membership was so secret that it was often not until the hearings that each knew some of the others were members.
They didn’t agree on much beyond their testimonial strategy. They had attacked one another in print at times, when Lawson and Maltz were publicly humiliated by the Communist Party apparatus. Lawson, for example, was criticized in 1934 as a “bourgeois Hamlet” who wrote adolescent works that lacked moral fiber. And Maltz was one of his most vicious critics. (Lawson quickly recanted, admitting that his middle-class background left him unfit to identify with working people.)
Maltz, for his part, had published an article in Masses opposing the Leninist position that art is a weapon in the class struggle and arguing instead for recognition of the virtue of form, thus aligning himself with Friedrich Engels, who had dismissed doctrinaire work as “pinch-penny” socialist literature. Maltz had the back luck to publish this just at the time when Earl Browder was being expelled from the Party for implementing Popular Front politics during World War II. For this, Maltz was attacked by Bessie, Biberman, Lardner, and Lawson, among others. Maltz had praised writers like John Steinbeck and James G. Farrell, and was charged with abetting fascism by championing such “vicious, voluble Trotskyites,” as Mike Gold wrote in The Daily Worker. Maltz publicly recanted, admitting he was wrong to say that men with bad politics could be good writers.
Trumbo was attacked in 1952 for the sin of “white chauvinism” in a screenplay on race relations. His response was to quit the Party.
They all turned on Dmytryk, who had decided in prison to become “friendly” and testify before HUAC.
EVEN THE MOST timid of them had joined the Party for the time-honored reason that it was the only political organization in the later 1930s and ’40s that addressed questions of poverty, race and gender. They testified as they did, challenging HUAC’s very right to exist, because of an embedded liberalism that would not allow them to tolerate this assault out of Washington. Dmytryk, however, accused the others of refusing to testify on orders from Moscow. In his opinion, “The Big Lie” was that the others “were all heroes, martyrs -- that kind of thing. Which is a lot of crap. They made me think we were fighting for an ideal, which, it turned out, we weren’t fighting for at all. They said they were fighting for freedom of speech, the commonweal. They weren’t. They were protecting freedom of speech for the communists. They didn’t give a good goddamn about freedom of speech.”
The witchhunt in Hollywood grew out of financial troubles during the Depression, which led the studios to demand a 50 percent cut in wages, and the countervailing efforts of the screenwriters to unionize and so protect credits, wages, and working conditions. In 1933, Cole joined with Lawson, Ornitz and others to establish the Screen Writers and Authors Guild of America.
The investigating committee was not only anti-communist but antisemitic. One of the HUAC’s founders, John Rankin (D-MS), accused Jewish filmmakers of “insidiously trying to spread subversive propaganda, poison the minds of your children, distort the history of our country and discredit Christianity.” Thirteen of the nineteen originally subpoenaed unfriendly witnesses were Jews, as were six of the Ten. It is ironic, therefore, that the Jewish content in their films came primarily from the gentiles — from Dmytryk (in Crossfire, 1947 — although the antisemitism in the film served as a substitute for the homosexuality in the novel, which was felt to be too controversial to display -- and Till the End of Time and The Young Lions) and Trumbo (Exodus).
The conservative screenwriter Rupert Hughes testified that he could “smell” Communists. Adolphe Menjou told the Committee that a communistic director or writer, even if he were under orders from the studio not to inject communism into the picture “could easily subvert that order . . . by a look, by an inflection, by a change in the voice.” The charge was injecting communist material or inflections or material into what? Proper American stories? Consider the following act of subversion: Bessie boasted of inserting pro-Soviet propaganda that was “subversive as all hell” into the film Action in the North Atlantic by acknowledging a union movement in the United States and showing scenes in a union hall.
The charge of poisoning minds, however, went both ways: In his book Film in the Battle of Ideas, Lawson wrote that “the rulers of the United States take the film very seriously as an instrument of propaganda” and that the influence of Hollywood movies is utilized to “poison the minds of US working-class people, inaccurately describing the reality of U.S. working-class life.”
ALTHOUGH the accusing executives, producers and actors couldn’t point to any subversive messages that weren’t laughable, nobody was laughing. A salient piece of evidence trotted out for the Committee was Trumbo’s screenplay for Tender Comrade (1943), the story of four war wives who decide to pool resources while their husbands are away. In the film, Ginger Rogers is made to utter the line “share and share alike.”
Lela Rogers, Ginger’s mother, said that None But the Lonely Heart was “pitched in a low key, is moody and somber throughout in the Russian manner.”
Ayn Rand reported to the Committee that in Song of Russia, the people occasionally smiled, “one of the stock propaganda tricks of the Communists.”
The Ten were sitting ducks, of course, because everything that was held against them had been accepted discourse during the war years; they were being made to atone for the sins of America in the backlight of the Cold War. The studios were attacked for having made popular front films during the war like Mission to Moscow or Song of Russia.
Harry Warner testified that “some of these lines have innuendos and double meanings, and things like that, and you have to take eight or ten Harvard law courses to find out what they mean.” Erica Sheen smartly associates this absurd ferreting effort with the discipline of the close reading of texts being worked out at about the same time by Yale academics.
What was in the films, not often enough by any measure, was not Communist propaganda but a modicum of social reality leavening the pap that the studios insisted on offering to the public. In Lawson’s script for Cecil B. DeMille’s Dynamite, for example, a coal miner tells an upper-class woman: “Those diamonds you have on your wrist were coal . . . They’ll be bringing it up long after you’re gone.”
Ironically, the subversive or allegorical meanings that the accusers sought to reveal emerged clearly in the work the Ten did after their release from prison. Dmytryk’s Caine Mutiny (1954) seems to comment on his recent past. It reveals an obsession with turncoats and, compared to its putative model, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) which took the side of the oppressed sailors, it vindicates institutional authority. “The enemies of the state are known,” Trumbo has the new dictator Crassus tell the old populist Gracchus after the defeat of Spartacus and his slave army. “Arrests are in progress. The prisons begin to fill. In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been filed.”
All but Ornitz, who died early, tried to resume their filmmaking careers. They continued to write for films sporadically using “fronts” and aliases, and eventually were able to work under their own names.
Marty Roth is an expatriate American who left the U.S. with the installation of George W. Bush (which seems like relatively small potatoes now). For ten years he was part of the editorial collective of Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine.