Hide in Plain Sight
The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950â"2002
By Paul Buhle, Dave Wagner
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2005 Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner
All rights reserved.
Living Room Modernism
Woody Allen fans and other casual viewers OF The Front (1976) have often been puzzled that a film about the entertainment blacklist of the 1950s was set in television and Manhattan, rather than movies and Hollywood. Even more puzzling was why the plot had to be a comedy rather than the dark history it really was, both for those who were punished and for American culture at large. Director Martin Ritt and writer Walter Bernstein explained early on that the film could only have been made with the participation of Allen—and so was necessarily a comedy. Ritt and Bernstein's personal experiences with the blacklist, moreover, had been in their up-and-down careers in television. It was the world they knew best.
Other films plotted around the blacklist have been more popular, but none (with the possible exception of The Way We Were) has had The Front's lasting impact. The cruelty and the opportunism at the heart of the blacklist as an institution, not to mention its undeniable anti-Semitic undertones, are revealed here in the sheer absurdity of anathemizing popular entertainers as "Un-American."
The Front was about more than the individual lives of the entertainers, though. It also effectively dramatized the loss of New York's role as the leading forum for the Popular Front culture of the 1930s and 1940s and the transformation of the city's role in that culture into something more discrete and more private. The steady if ultimately unsuccessful attempt to suppress the social possibilities in the new medium of television was also meant in part to show that even New York, if only under extreme duress, could be as "normal" and as "American" as Indiana—or at least New Jersey. And if New York could be forced into line, so could the rest of the country.
That The Front's writer, director and actors are reenacting history is established early on, when Michael Murphy (in the role of Bernstein) drags Woody Allen, as the front, into a deli to meet two blacklisted writers. They are clearly stand-ins for Abraham Polonsky and Arnold Manoff. Bernstein, Polonsky and Manoff had all been blacklisted in Hollywood, and in New York they formed a kind of collective to help each other survive by writing under the table for television, notably for You Are There. One of the further ironies of the movie is that several of the actors themselves had barely returned from the blacklist. The Polonsky figure is played by blacklistee Lloyd Gough, the villain in the Polonsky-scripted Body and Soul (1947), starring John Garfield. (The great proletarian actor of the 1940s had died of a heart attack at 39, between HUAC subpoenas. By way of poetic justice, his daughter, Julie, was given a cameo in The Front.) How all of these characters came to be in this time and place is the real backstory of the movie and of the blacklist itself.
During the late 1930s, native Brooklynite Bernstein had attended Dartmouth and been recruited into the Young Communist League by Budd Schulberg, scion of a Hollywood producer's family who earned midlife fame by writing On the Waterfront and simultaneously fingering old friends. Bernstein had been one of the admired younger writers of The New Yorker during the war, and a correspondent for the armed forces paper Yank.
After the war, Bernstein tried his hand at theater, writing a never-produced play for his then-close friend, Elia Kazan. He also had an early shot at Hollywood, working with director Robert Rossen, whose All The King's Men would capture the 1949 Academy Award ceremonies and propel the ex-Communist auteur first toward resistance, then abject surrender to HUAC. Bernstein meanwhile retreated from Hollywood for personal reasons, returning to New York at the invitation of a fledgling television director and fellow future blacklistee, Martin Ritt.
In New York, Bernstein's real media career began. Sometimes as "Paul Bauman," sometimes as himself, the young man quickly became a regular writer for Danger, one of the most admired dramas of the new medium, many of whose episodes were directed by another rising talent, Sidney Lumet. Named and then pursued, Bernstein acquired one "front" after another. Then he found something like a calling: Bernstein, Polonsky and Manoff became the principal writers for television's multi–award-winning "docu-drama" You Are There, decades before the genre had been invented. Liberals in particular loved the program, although as Polonsky quipped, several of the nation's most famous liberals would have demanded the heads of those who wrote it if they had only known the truth.
By the time he returned in earnest to the theme of his early days on television in The Front, Bernstein settled on two comic figures to tell the story. Along with Allen, the larger-than-life Zero Mostel was cast as "Hecky Brown." Mostel, too, had been blacklisted in real life, and one of the scenes in the movie was based on an incident in which Bernstein drove the beloved actor and stand-up comic to a hotel in the Catskills, where he had been promised $500 to do his stage act (his pre-blacklist fee had been $3,000). In the film, the hotel manager informs Hecky when he arrives that he will be paid $250, and Brown responds to this humiliation with drunken rage by rifling through the manager's pockets for bills. Later, after grieving for his old life while pleading to be "cleared," reminiscing about how in the old days he might woo a gorgeous comrade with "a big ass" by joining her in a May Day parade, Brown moans to the Woody Allen character, "It's all Brownstein's fault. I wouldn't be in trouble if it wasn't for Brownstein." This was, of course, the Jewish name and identity that he was born with.
"People change their names," the front shrugs, "It's no big deal." But the audience comes to understand that discarding an old identity for the sake of a new one is painful and humiliating—and meant to be. Even the now-prosperous front, who loves his new uptown apartment with its grotesque mid-century wall sculptures and avocado chairs and carpets, is not in the end willing to pay the price, which was not so much to abjure his political views (he didn't even know what the Fifth Amendment was) but his Jewishness and his humanity.
The genius of The Front is that it managed to capture the absurdity in all of this, as when the self-described "practically illiterate" front, in an incident that actually happened to Bernstein, rejects a script by one of the writers, telling him it's just not up to snuff. "I can't submit just anything," Allen says indignantly, "My name's gonna be on it." In a similar but real incident, famed 1950s television writer Reginald Rose recalled, 40-some years later, that he had once proposed a television drama about race relations and, knowing it would be turned down, agreed to drop the idea if he could write a script about blacklisting. The executive in charge of program practices at CBS first demanded that the show be about something other than television because the medium had no blacklist—even though he was the very network executive personally responsible for enforcing it! The executive then decided that the cast list of the show had to be cleared in advance to make sure there were no controversial figures on it. A show about the blacklist, then, could be made only by submitting names.
In the short run at least, the absurdities were mainly distractions. The medium was so full of promise that writers like Bernstein, far from looking down on it, were eager to join in. "Television," the later Emmy Award–winning Bernstein reflected in his memoirs, seemed "this wonderful electronic tabula rasa that everyone was rushing to write on." Neither film nor theater, it was at once simultaneously live and shot with a camera. Experimentation flourished in a world of fresh talent and of artistic discoveries. Something hugely important was being invented in practice, and talented left-wingers were definitely in on the ground floor. As would become clear in later decades, despite the relative success of the suppression of both themes and talent, Bernstein's generation and its liberal younger colleagues had a lasting influence, unfolded over time in unexpected and surprising ways.
Behind the story of the television blacklist lay the metaphorical smoking ruins of the film capital. The sentencing of the Hollywood Ten in 1951 to prison time and the continuation of the Hollywood hearings frightened many, but in the light of the Korean conflict and the growing dread of a World War III, it was only one of the terrors of the day. In Hollywood, prospects were bad for everyone. Investors and studio executives were fleeing from mature themes and from much of the best talent, attendance figures had fallen down around the industry's ankles and the rapid rise in the number of television sets and eyes glued to them was cause for serious worry for everyone in the film industry. It was not until theater receipts began to pick up again in the late 1950s that the new medium would be revealed as a major source of salvation for the movie studios.
From a longer perspective, all this turned out to be only one more turnaround in the evolution of popular media, scarcely more dramatic than the appearance of network radio and the corresponding crisis of vaudeville a generation earlier; or, for that matter, the arrival of the daily penny newspaper, the cheap novel and the popular magazine over the course of the nineteenth century. There was a difference, of course. By 1950, American daily life had become scrutinized as never before by an expanding field of specialists in market research. TV had caught them largely unawares—but not for long. The realization that huge profits were to be made from the consumer prosperity of the moment led everyone connected to the new medium to search for fresh ways to exploit it, with often predictably banal results. In this context, the "militant highbrows" (in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.,'s memorable phrase), that is, the prestigious cultural critics of the day who had earlier derided film, now elevated it to the status of "art" as they singled out television as commercialism's chief engine for dumbing-down the masses.
In the medium's ferocious demand for new product, though, one question was going unanswered. Where was the talent to come from? The most obvious answer was that they would arise from the ranks of the most celebrated entertainment-industry veterans of the 1940s, which meant substantially the Popular Front milieu. But there was a problem. In their search for work, many of these figures had to rely upon official amnesia, the kind that permitted so many former radicals to become leading liberals of the anticommunist variety, including labor functionaries, magazine columnists and so forth. Who really cared if Burl Ives, Mitch Miller, Eric Severeid, Mike Quill, James Wechsler, James Burnham or, for that matter, Eleanor Roosevelt had dabbled in left-wing ideas and associations just a few years back?
Those among the writers and directors who remained unrepentant radicals had an even deeper need for eluding vengeful memory. At a time when the conservative political mood and advertisers wielded such power over the content of television shows, producers had virtually nowhere else to turn for the experience and creative energy for the new storytelling medium except to those who had been steeped in the left-wing traditions of the New York stage and the Hollywood film. And so the content of television shows was prepared by new generations of writers and directors who owed to the 1930s–1940s their inspirations for form as much as for narrative content.
Some performers, most notoriously Lucille Ball, got a free pass from the blacklist. The committee forgave not only her family connections with the 1930s Left when she had registered in California as a Communist elector; they also overlooked her participation in assorted Left events of the recent past (among other things, she had hosted fundraisers as well as study groups for new party members at her home). This lapse suggested that the blacklisting system was somehow more porous than the blacklisters had claimed. A surprising number of actors, directors and writers slipped through the net, especially if they had not been active in Hollywood or well known to informers during the forties—or if they made the right financial payoffs. On the other hand, since the "names" had been well known to the investigating committee members well before they asked the questions, perhaps the entire system of punishment was conveniently selective after all.
When the smoke of the McCarthy era started to clear and détente became a favorite term of early 1960s media for describing the relations of those telegenic fellow-reformers, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the connections of left-wing artists and their work, if not the Byzantine logic of the blacklist, began to make more sense. From a distance, it now became evident that radicals had invented some key elements of presenting stage drama that were eventually synthesized as the Hollywood style of filmmaking. It was this aesthetic development that early TV was built on, and without which the new medium could not have made claims to respectability among the critics or won its audience of middle-class consumers. Along with camera and editing techniques, foremost among these was a performance tradition that came to be called "Method" acting. It was Method that provided the historical depth of vision, the degree of irony, the training and the sensibility that was to be characteristic of the new medium. Here lay the source of the richness of television's best early work, before the blush faded from the rose.
In part an exaggerated nostalgia for the trickle of creativity amid the chaos of heavy local programming (in reality as often mediocre as the days of early cable, and more than likely to reflect such dubious venues as talent contests staged at auto dealerships), the memory of a television "Golden Age" has a real basis in the boldness of its experimentation with live entertainment. Early television seemed, as many veteran theatergoers of the time excitedly observed, something like the last revival of vaudeville, with old-time vaudevillians like Ed Wynn still very much on hand. Given low expectations for profits (and production costs), it also had a looseness, a range for experimentation in other live programming aside from drama, that would vanish by the 1960s.
In part because the audience was smallish, largely urban and disproportionately Eastern in the first postwar decade, television boldly poked at the political or social conservatism of America and the security-obsessed government at the height of the Cold War—before largely if not entirely subsiding into the conformity of the age. You Are There mocked McCarthyism as surely as The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw later showed the networks doing their best to keep the counterculture and antiwar movement out of the "entertainment" schedule and confining the latter, however distortedly, within "news." But even the subtlest mockery had its limits. What might be called the Pink Scare of the middle 1950s, a second round of attacks from advertising agencies as well as the familiar red-baiting columnists and the American Legion, went after television shows and their performers. Conservatives' scalp-hunting often succeeded, with the compliance of sponsors and ad agencies eager to avoid the "controversial," whether in the talent they hired or the narrative themes they approved.
All too quickly the prestigious video experiments in live theater were abandoned. They were replaced with prerecorded programming, particularly episodic series with continuing stars—mostly sitcoms and Westerns. This change was framed and accelerated by the move of most television production from New York to Los Angeles, a process that was all but complete by 1960. And yet it would be wrong to conclude that the networks, despite their huge capital investments, had complete control of all issues of social content in television. For one thing, neither the network execs nor the sponsors and their agencies could successfully predict what would be the audience-winning shows a year or two ahead. For another, deep within the entertainment production process forces were at work and artists in place that pink-baiters in the press, ad agencies and network execs seemed equally unaware of. Radical methods, themes, writers, directors, actors and technicians were already at hand in the process that produced the sitcom, the detective show, children's programs and the weekly dramatic series. Just as remarkably, these people sometimes worked with the assistance of HUAC's friendly witnesses who had grown ashamed and were themselves now eager to reinstate social themes. (Continues...)
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