Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 11 June 5, 1968
Books — Red skeletons
A recent on Hollywood entitled his book "The Haunted House". It is very appropriate, for their are many skeletons to rattle in the history of Hollywood. Perhaps the worst episode was the way it bowed to the Red Scare witch-hunt after World War II. At the centre of this episode were the "Unfriendly Ten", later the "Hollywood Ten"—ten producers, writers and directors who were sentenced to jail terms for contempt of Congress following the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigation of the motion picture industry for evidence of Communist infiltration in 1947-19501.
They did not exactly refuse to testify—indeed they wanted to say a great deal. The crunch was that their testimony was not the sort desired by the Committee Investigators. The "Ten's" point was that the Committee was unconstitutional—it could not legislate in matters of Freedom of speech—and therefore they refused to answer the Committee's questions. Questions about their trade union and political affiliations. The Committee, as is clearly seen in the records quoted by Alvah Bessie in his account, was not primarily interested in what the defendants' views and rights were—they wanted to embarrass the industry chiefs and make sure that they buckled down during the cold war. The "Ten" were the scapegoats that the industry needed so that it could show its house was clean of "subversives".
The Committee had little trouble in achieving its aim. Despite protests by many leading actors and film-makers, the industry did buckle down, abd the effects are still noticeable today. There is some doubt in any case as to whether Hollywood films, except for some notable exceptions, actually did have freedom of expression in subject matter and treatment.
The "Ten" themselves—Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jnr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Sam Ornitz, Adrian Scott, Dalton, Trumbo and Bessie—were all talented, and some especially in the case of Trumbo, were among the very best. Lardner was the author of the brilliant satirical novel, The Ecstacy of Owen Muir; Scott produced Joseph Losey's first film. But the "Ten" were not the only ones to suffer. Several hundred people were blacklisted because of their alleged suspect" views. The Blacklist Operated in Hollywood from the time of the first subpoena. And it still exists, although the lead given by many independent producers like Otto Preminger has almost succeeded in its abolition.
Although Bessie's book is mainly concerned with his own experiences and those he was imprisoned with, he makes it clear that the Blacklist was the most singular!) damaging instrument used by the studios to stifle non-conformist and critical ideas for well over a decade. As for his own experiences they were far from pleasant. It took three years of protracted legal proceedings and all his money before sentence was passed, and the jail term lasted another year. Of the ten only Trumbo has managed to return to a successful Hollywood career. One of the highest paid screenwriters in 1947, today he is probably the highest. Between 1947 and 1960 Trumbo wrote thirty screenplays under various pseudonyms and for other writers, and didn't receive his first real name credits until 1960 with Exodus and Spartacus. He had won an Academy Award under the name "Ronald Rich" for The Brave One.
Other blacklisted writers did likewise. Ned Young, under the name "Nathan E. DoUglas" received an Academy Award in 1958 for The Defiant Ones, and Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman (both uncredited) wrote the script for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Others went to Europe where they had successful careers, notably Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin. But more were less fortunate. Some committed suicide or died shortly after the investigations began, the rest left the business for good.
The only director of the "Ten" was Edward Dmytryk who, before the investigations, had made some excellent thrillers with serious themes (the best was Crossfire) went into exile. His two best known films following his return were Broken Lance and The Caine Mutiny. He later went on to larger films like Raintree Country and The Young Lions, but since then he has degenerated into pap (The Carpetbaggers), except for a return to form in 1962 with Walk on the Wild Side. It is perhaps not without tragic overtones that we lament the co-incidence of Dmytryk's bad films with his "recantation" in 1957.
Bessie has written his part-autobiography with startling honesty and he genuinely surprises with his revelations. Only in one or two cases does he disguise real names, and the jacket of this paperback version lists the many famous names who crop up throughout the book. It is guaranted addictive reading to the confirmed movie buff, but Bessie's not surprising bitterness destroys some of the books's impact for readers who cannot be emotionally involved with the issues. Politicos will detect an almost embarrassing naivete about political ideas—at no stage does Bessie discuss his real affiliations with the Communist Party other than he wrote for several of its publications.
His attempts at satiric wit often degenerate into sareasm, but these are blemishes rather than flaws. For those with a yen for film writing, Bessie has presented much of his account in a form of a film treatment. A book about Hollywood that is worth reading—it is also cheap.
Inquisition In Eden by Alvah Bessie. Seven Seas Publishers, East Berlin, 1967. Originally published by Macmillan, New York, 1965. 308pp. 70c.