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The Hollywood Left Revealed (Continued) By: Art Eckstein
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A most disturbing pattern in these Party “trials” is how often those who were intellectually abused then passed the abuse on to others, becoming inquisitors themselves. Thus the Party’s rigid cultural commissar Mike Gold brutally abused the writer John Howard Lawson for being “too bourgeois” in his work, for failing to see that “art is a weapon” in the revolution--a failing which made Lawson’s writing worthless; Lawson had to accept the judgment (p. 27). But Lawson himself went on to become the head enforcer of intellectual discipline out in Hollywood. Lawson in turn forced the screenwriter Alvah Bessie to set aside a script in which Bessie offered an honest and complex account of his personal experiences fighting for the Left in the Spanish Civil War: Lawson ruled that the project was not ideologically sound (p. 128). Bessie himself, in turn, was then one of the board of stern inquisitors (including Mike Gold, Herbert Biberman and Dalton Trumbo) who in 1946 humiliated Albert Maltz--screenwriter of the classic film noir This Gun for Hire (1942), which made Alan Ladd a star--because Maltz had dared to argue that art should be free, that art need not be a weapon in the class-struggle, and that artists should be judged by the quality of their work, not by their politics. Maltz was forced first privately and then publicly to recant these heresies (p. 128). Maltz himself, in turn, was one of the board of inquisitors who brutally interrogated the Party director Robert Rossen in 1949 because of his Academy-Award winning film All the King’s Men--for the film’s attack on one-man rule, though about an American politican set in the American South, might be viewed as a covert criticism of Stalin. In fact, the Party ruled that Rossen’s trial take place at Maltz’s own Beverly Hills home—an obvious message both to Maltz and to others (p. 135).


But unlike Maltz, Rossen refused to submit either intellectually or morally: his outraged response to the interrogation of his art was “Stick the whole Party up your ass!” A noble sentiment. The terrible fact, however, is that most Hollywood Party-members--artists though they were--DID submit to intellectual discipline, and usually voluntarily and without even the necessity of a gruesome “trial.” The intellectual discipline included lists of books which Party-members were forbidden to read.[6] It appears, in fact, that those who had once been suspect were the most eager to serve on the inquisition-boards. This was a way both of demonstrating their (suspect) purity and—one imagines—a way of passing on the deep personal shame of the “trial” experience by inflicting it on and abusing others. Whatever it was, the whole process strikes one as psychologically sick. But then, the Party forbade its members to consult psychiatrists.[7]


Those who participated as inquisitors in these savage rituals—and that list includes all the Unfriendly Ten—were many things, but they were not innocents. In fact, Maltz later said that compared to the humiliation he suffered during the Party inquisition of 1946, his appearance before HUAC the next year--and even having to go to prison for refusing to testify--was like a walk in the park.[8]


For Dalton Trumbo--a man who for years had acted as a severe Party inquisitor--the real break with the Party apparently came when, in 1952, he too finally became a recipient of the sharp end. This is another new and important finding of the Radoshes (pp. 212-217). What happened was that Trumbo got caught up in a new Party internal campaign, “The Negro Liberation Movement.” In this campaign, Party people who used terms such as “white wash” or “black sheep” suddenly found themselves expelled from the Party as “white chauvinists” (p. 213); the whole atmosphere was evidently like today’s average university at its worst. A script which Trumbo had submitted to a new film company run by Albert Maltz and Herbert Biberman (the company which would later produce the now-sainted mine union film Salt of the Earth) was found to have serious “white chauvinist” defects; the script was rejected out of hand, and Trumbo was mercilessly chastized. We do not have the attack on Trumbo for his thought-crimes (from a board consisting of Biberman, Jarrico, Adrian Scott and Jean Field), but we do have a 30-page defense of his script written by Trumbo. To judge from that furious response, the charges against him appear not merely fallacious but ridiculous--and Trumbo was never friendly with either Biberman or Maltz again. Instead, he gradually dropped out of active participation the Party. His last attempt at the reform of Party conduct was the 1958 essay we have already discussed, and which was bluntly rejected.


It should be clear that for all the above reasons the CPUSA in Hollywood was definitely NOT “just another political party.” But Dalton Trumbo dominates this book and remains himself an enigma. He was a very talented and complex man--an Academy Award-winning screenwriter (1956: under an assumed name!), the screenwriter of both Exodus and Spartacus in a single year (1960). He eventually had many private doubts about the Party, telling a friend in 1956 that he was not at all surprised by Krushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s terrible and massive crimes, because all along he had kept a secret library of forbidden books that included Orwell, Whittaker Chambers and even Trotsky (p. 218--another important discovery from the Radoshes). Yet Trumbo also could never bring himself to criticize the Party in public. Well aware that most of the Hollywood Ten and the other blacklistees were “mediocrities” (this is another astounding statement: see p. 226), Trumbo was evidently also too proud to go back on his own past. Thus when in 1969 he got into a debate with the anti-Communist liberal comedian Steve Allen over the nature of the Soviet Union and the CPUSA, Trumbo’s tone towards Allen was by turns condescending, mocking, and savage. It was a stunningly bad performance, all the more strange since Steve Allen was saying things about the Party and the Soviet Union which Trumbo not only knew to be true but which he had said in private himself.[9] This is in character with the man who in 1944 had--following the Party policy of total support for war against the Nazis ever since Hitler had attacked the Soviet Union in 1941--denounced to the FBI people who had written him simply asking for copies of his anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun (1939).[10]


But as the Radoshes say, you won’t find any of these complexities in any popular-culture presentation of the Hollywood Ten or the blacklist. Dalton Trumbo’s son Christopher, for instance, has written a play about his father which is currently being performed on multiple stages around the country. Premiering in 2003, it has starred both Richard Dreyfuss and Paul Newman as Dalton Trumbo (you can’t get bigger names); and yet the play fails even to mention that Trumbo was a Communist, indeed a long-term Communist militant, a namer of names to the FBI, a stern inquisitor for the Party (against both Maltz and Rossen), who yet had second thoughts about Communism, though perhaps only because in 1952 he himself was finally victimized by the Party process. In Christopher Trumbo’s play, the fascinating intellectual trajectory of Dalton Trumbo, which is laid out so carefully by the Radoshes, is missing; Dalton Trumbo is not a Communist at all; he ends up blacklisted evidently for simply believing that it was immoral to inform on your friends. Meanwhile, there is even a “Dalton Trumbo Free Speech Fountain” (!) at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It is a favorite speaking spot of the ineffable Ward Churchill.[11]


Can the Radosh book, well-researched, well-written, and with very important historical discoveries, make a dent in the massive machine that now lies behind this enormous CPUSA propaganda victory? Probably not. But that shouldn’t prevent you, dear reader, from picking up Red Star Over Hollywood, reading it, and learning the truth.




[1] No doubt most Communist Party-members were themselves first attracted into the Party by such social idealism.


[2] The confrontation between Reagan, Lawson and Trumbo would make a wonderful scene in a film; we may be sure that we will never see it.


[3] Compare the account of Mission to Moscow in Red Star with that in Victor Navasky, Naming Names (New York, 1980): 300. In Los Angeles in May 2005 , in a debate between Navasky and Ronald Radosh over this film, the noted film critic Richard Schickel called upon Navasky finally to stop hiding the truth.


[4] Dassin interview in Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, ed. Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (New York, 1997): 209; Jarrico interview in McGilligan and Buhle, 398.


[5] In the most outrageous of all contemporary Hollywood depictions of the blacklist period, the grim and rigid Stalinist Biberman was played by handsome Jeff Goldblum and turned into an innocent liberal in One of the Hollywood Ten (2002).


[6] See Edward Dymtryk, Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist (Carbondale, Ill., 1995): 14.


[7] See Norma Barman, The Red and the Blacklist: The Intimate Memoir of a Hollywood Expatriate (New York, 2003): 85; similar is Paul Jarrico in McGilligan and Buhle, Tender Comrades: 384-85. There were two reasons psychiatrists were forbidden, according to Barzman and Jarrico: to preserve Party security (the Party was a secret organization, but you were supposed to tell everything to your psychiatrist), and because psychiatrists concentrated too much on psychological development of individuals, rather than social problems. There was, in fact, a single psychiatrist whose ideology was minimally acceptable to the Party--and he turned out to be an FBI informant: Barzman, ibid.


[8] See Barzman, The Red and the Blacklist, 73.


[9] The exchange between Trumbo and Allen was published in Esquire Magazine, January 1970, pp. 73ff. It can now be conveniently read on-line at www.marxmail.org/HappyJackFish.htm. And the exchange is well worth reading, to catch the character both of Trumbo and the surprisingly tough and erudite Allen.


[10] On the 1944 incident where Trumbo “named names” voluntarily to the FBI, see Art Eckstein, “The Truth about the Hollywood Ten”, Frontpage Magazine, April 18, 2005.


[11] See Art Eckstein, “Fountain of Lies,” Frontpage Magazine, March 13, 2005.

Art Eckstein is the author of “The Hollywood Ten in History and Memory,” Film History 16 (2005), and co-editor, with Peter Lehman, of “The Searchers”: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western (Wayne State University Press, 2004).


Art Eckstein is a Professor of History at the University of Maryland at College Park.

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