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Lives of the Party By: John Meroney
The Washington Post | Wednesday, May 28, 2003

The Intimate Memoir Of a Hollywood Expatriate
By Norma Barzman
Thunder's Mouth. 464 pp. $27.50

Hollywood has always been fertile ground for political activism. In the 1930s, the Communist Party began to see the film capital as prime territory for recruitment. By the end of World War II, Party members were active in many of the unions. Because propaganda was central to Stalin's methods, the Soviets considered Hollywood, with its extensive media network, a crown jewel.

Norma Barzman and her husband, Ben, were writers during this era. They were also communists. Yet if Barzman contributes anything to the literature of the so-called Hollywood blacklist, it is her unwitting confirmation of something many have long denied: The Party was more than just a political organization, and those who investigated communism may actually have been on to something.

In 1943, when the average annual income was $1,300, Ben Barzman received $30,000 for a picture called "True to Life," starring Dick Powell. Later, he was handsomely compensated for "Back to Bataan," a World War II picture starring John Wayne. Norma, meanwhile, was working as a reporter for the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Examiner. She was also crafting her own film ideas. She came from a wealthy family but was insecure about being embraced by the celebrity establishment.

It was equally disheartening to the Barzmans that they never really generated much interest in anticommunist circles. The klieg lights that shone on the Hollywood 10 excluded them. And while other Party members were serving jail time for defying Congress, the Barzmans were living the high life in Europe: They had voluntarily left L.A. to make pictures overseas. Still, they imagined themselves fleeing the Cossacks.

Leading Hollywood anticommunists such as Ronald Reagan and labor chief Roy Brewer always argued that the Party was a highly disciplined group that manipulated good people, especially liberals. Former communists, such as director Edward Dmytryk, were especially blunt when it came to exposing Party machinations. They likened it to a cult. That it was ultimately controlled by Moscow was also disturbing.

These facts never seem to trouble Barzman. She proudly describes how she and her husband worked overtime to influence producers to include propaganda in pictures. When Ben was writing RKO's "The Boy with Green Hair" in 1948, Howard Hughes, who owned the studio, wanted a line praising the American military as peacekeepers. Party doctrine said otherwise, so Ben and the director, Joe Losey, also a communist, made sure the fix was in. "Ben said he and Joe pretended they were responding to Hughes's 'directives' but that Joe was careful to shoot the picture in such a way that there was no possibility for change," Barzman writes. Unable to afford losing his investment, Hughes had to release the film as it was.

On a personal level, the Party was equally rigid. Barzman describes her marriage as a Stalinist "collective." She and Ben were "an ideal young man and woman surging forward with the Red flag." They structured their family according to the tenets set forth by a Soviet educator so that "the children would make an effective collective." The Party even kept members from seeing therapists, virtually a Hollywood necessity. The view, Barzman recounts in quotation from her later analyst, was that analysis was "basically the tool of the class enemy to justify inequities of society by attributing them to flaws in personality rather than the system." For the Barzmans, communism was "so strong and all-pervasive that the ordinary trials of everyday married life became small and unimportant."

But The Red and the Blacklist is no mea culpa. At times it is bitter and defiant, unapologetic when the mass horrors of Stalin's regime become public. "We shrugged it off," Barzman writes. "Not even the Soviet tanks invading Hungary . . . changed our opinion." Animus is reserved for directors Elia Kazan and Robert Rossen and actor Lee J. Cobb because they renounced the Party. Barzman is most nasty when it comes to Edward Dmytryk, director of "Murder, My Sweet."

"Eddie was the person who, more than any other, would influence our lives," she writes. Dmytryk did that by persuading the Barzmans to move to England in 1949 so that Ben could work with him on "Christ in Concrete." He also testified before Congress in 1951, identifying Ben as a Party man. Norma Barzman describes Dmytryk as a brute who was cruel to his wife (a charge Dmytryk's widow, actress Jean Porter, vehemently denies). Even worse, Dmytryk came to the Party "with little understanding and no study." Barzman was "put off by Eddie's steely eyes and the streak of cruelty we sensed in him. . . . Eddie just wasn't 'our kind of guy.' He never cracked a book, except for science manuals."

Dmytryk, who went on to make such memorable pictures as "The Caine Mutiny" and "The Young Lions," said that the Party suffered its deepest blows whenever an influential member was exposed, because he couldn't continue to manipulate outsiders. That was why the Party was fixated on secrecy, and why it considered naming names the ultimate sin. Reading Norma Barzman's memoir, it becomes clear that a greater transgression for the diehard Party faithful was to break ranks with communism and then go on to succeed at filmmaking. •

John Meroney is at work on a book about Ronald Reagan's Hollywood career.

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