Lots of singing... Not much dancing

Commie-Hunters of 1947

More persistent than Banquo's ghost or a Brittanica salesman, the phenomenon of the Hollywood Ten trial, and the terrible trouble people with a past encountered in the 1940s and '50s, still dogs us almost thirty years after it started. Each time it shows up it invokes terrible bitterness that doesn't seem to subside with time. Even the week before last The New York Times devoted a series of spreads to a bout between two old birds (Lillian Hellman and Diana Trilling) slugging it out for whatever audience still wants to know who acted badly during the bad times.

The subject will no doubt supply thesis meat forever. The Ten rival Alger Hiss in library entries, and they too (although to a considerably lesser extent than Hiss) had the pleasure of being hounded by junior Javert Richard Nixon. Now, with the making of a new documentary called Hollywood on Trial, the scab has been torn open again. Expect screams. Old Dalton Trumbo, who talked his head off about the subject, having suffered deeply and survived, died several weeks ago. Someone is sure to stick a microphone through the freshly packed dirt of his grave to catch his last excoriations.

Among those Trumbo excoriated while he still kicked, was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Schlesinger felt compelled to call the Ten hacks who would never have gone to Hollywood if they were interested in anything but big salaries. This struck a deep, nasty nerve in the Ten, some of whom had felt guilty enough while they still had the salaries. To be attacked for having been stripped of them left the writers not only without money, but without honor as well.

The standard line on the Hollywood Ten goes that they decided to forego honor for the first time when they left the East Coast. Some had been active in the Party when they lived in New York, others got involved once they came to Los Angeles. For the most part they were, like Fitzgerald's character Pat Hobby, well-paid and kicked around. Men like Trumbo and Adrian Scott were filled with electric energy when they got to Hollywood to work, but the movies turned almost everything they did to pablum.

"Of the Unfriendly Ten," Director Billy Wilder is often quoted as saying, "only two had any talent; the other eight were just unfriendly." Wilder is wrong--they had talent, but they were not company men in a company town. They felt self-conscious in the industry. Moss Hart, the New York playwright, once told Clifford Odets (not one of the Ten but persecuted later) that Odets's Hollywood experience had persuaded many writers to turn left and go west. "You mean," Odets asked eagerly, "my plays convert them?" "No," Hart said, "your salary."

When the subpoenas went out, in September, 1947, J. Parnell Thomas's Committee had provided the economic ruination and moral justification for the Tens' existences. As the members of HUAC furiously prodded the screenwriters for answers which would hardly have made any difference anyhow, they filled out their wildest, most exhibitionistic fantasies and put themselves in the movies. After setting themselves up with Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou (not to mention Ginger Rogers' wailing and unspeakably irrational mother), the Congressmen waited to pin the squirming red worms to the wall.

The best of the writers, however, knew how to manipulate dialogue well enough to turn themselves into heroes and the questioners into heavies:

CHAIRMAN J. PARNELL THOMAS. It is a very simple question. Anybody would be proud to answer it--any real American would be proud to answer the question, "Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" --any real American.

RING LARDNER JR. It depends on the circumstances. I could answer it, but if I did I would hate myself in the morning.

The Committee stories bear repeating as often as Grimm because they correspond to the screenwriters' own self-image at the moment. For years they had been the leftists who sat by pools in their Hawaiian print shirts, hauling in $1500 a week. Suddenly they were Everyman again, the Everyman they had been writing dialogue for for years. They harbored the screenwriters' dream--to play their own words. When the chance came, they were so noble, so articulate, so right, that almost nobody believed them--anymore than anybody could really believe what they had been writing for the screen all that time.

David Halpern's Hollywood On Trial takes a long, diffuse perspective on the Ten and their times, starting with the thirties and moving in little leaps up to the dissolution of the blacklist in the sixties. The footage of the hearings is glorious because, of course, they were staged by the Committee to look like movies. The best actor of all is a young Ronald Reagan who earnestly looks through his clearframed glasses at the Chairman and summons the words of Jefferson to make his point. ("I guess Jefferson..." a humble pause... "said it best...") Gary Cooper shrugs and grins and says of Marxism: "From what I've heard I don't like it because it isn't on the level."

The Ten, on the other hand look, even at the peak of their fashionability as a liberal cause, just as the Studios wanted them to. They were all a little strange in their appearance--there was something foreign about these men with high foreheads and mustaches, thick lenses and paunches. The Committee had cast two sets of roles: American and un-American. There was no question which the writers were to play. After the oldest of the accused, John Howard Lawson, finished his emotional and over-worded lambasting of the Committee, a loud angry whisper was heard in the hearing room: "Jew!"

These men, who had written Pride of the Marines, Objective Burma. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Destination Tokyo had now become the enemy themselves. In the Halpern film, only Dalton Trumbo explains the awful terror that came with the subpoena, the process of "getting ready to become nobody." Halpern shows the progressive effect of pressure and time on the writers. They age, dry up, crease and sag--but those with spirit make their physicality irrelevant. The polar two in the film are Trumbo and Edward Dmytryk.

Trumbo, obviously dying as the 1975 interviews which interpolate the film were made, nevertheless communicates a self-confidence and circumspection missing from some of the other writers who couldn't rebound the way he did. Successful enough to be generous, Trumbo is able to empathize to the extent that he projects himself back in time: "I had three children. I had a nice wife. Why should I go to jail?"

Sadly, the repentant friendly witness, Edward Dmytryk, can be watched falling apart; he presents an outlay of all the conflicts playing inside the weak paradigm. Dmytryk stood with Ten, went to jail, came out and gave names; he was subsequently hired by Hollywood's reigning young liberal Stanley Kramer. Now, his pictures and career faded, all he does is apologize and explain with a slight tremble. Trumbo's pictures were no better than Dmytryk's for the most part (his dialogue stank) but he had his integrity and his anger to clutch to, and it kept him a man to the end. Alvah Bessie never got another script job again--he stage managed the Hungry in San Francisco for $80.00 a week; still he had his anger. Albert Maltz speaks in the film with broad gestures and soft strength. Dmytryk trembles.

Halpern's film tries to explain the period, and of course, it does not. It stretches and sprawls and sometimes the interviews just go flat. But it is by far the best work done on the ugly little freak blacklist, and it is hard to imagine anybody attempting to match the ambitious perspective of Hollywood on Trial. It pulls in Herbert Hoover and Zero Mostel. Joseph McCarthy and Walt Disney, and although it doesn't have the footwork some documentaries do, it is an impressive mosaic.

In Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon the studio head Monroe Stahr, worried by union activity under his nose, orders the screenwriting department to send him a two page "treatment" of the Communist Manifesto. No doubt many of the blacklistees never read any more Marx than Stahr did, but they found that they had to pay for it later. The most remarkable and admirable thing about the Hollywood Ten still, is that they took responsibility for their past and showed a willingness to proclaim their ownership of a collective legacy of principle. Some smart guys think they should have done things differently. Somebody named David Denby, a writer for the Boston Phoenix himself, has the gall to call them "hacks" and not radical enough. He says that their maneuvers were self-protective. This is a shameful stance to take. The Ten have nothing to apologize to anybody for, except maybe a few bad scripts. They proved which side they were on