the Blacklist, the Cold War
by Peter Biskind
Cut, no. 1, 1974, pp. 24-28
The Hollywood Ten and their brethren who were blacklisted in the 50s were victims of a witch-hunt conducted by the corporate establishment and its allies on the right. Its purpose was to eliminate remnants of the New Deal who might have been expected to quarrel with their solution to the United States’ postwar economic and political problems. These problems centered around two related areas: first, how best, without incurring the undesirable social fallout of New Deal-type programs, to maintain full employment and avoid economic collapse after the temporary stimulus of the Second World War had ended; second, how best to implement and consolidate new U.S. military and economic preponderance on the world scene. The Cold War was the answer to both problems. By wedding the nation to a permanent peacetime war economy and directing the power generated therefrom at an allegedly implacable external foe, the Soviet Union, the twin goals of prosperity and power might be achieved.
The anti-Communist ideology constructed to rationalize this policy required of its liberal adherents that they regard the corporate establishment as a vital center, besieged by potent enemies to the right and left, by McCarthy on the one hand and the Rosenbergs on the other. Although there was an element of truth in this view (there may have been a few genuine spies around, and certainly the right wing exploited anti-Communism for its own narrow and partisan ends), it was essentially a myth. This portrait of the CPUSA—long bereft of any genuine radical perspective and certainly not engaged in widescale espionage—was absurd. The battles with the right were mock battles in which there was more smoke than fire, and which served primarily to obscure the true nature of power in postwar United States.
It was one of the major contributions of early New Left theorists to see through this charade, and to identify the real enemy, invisible because it was everywhere. It was the broad, bipartisan coalition of “moderate” politicians and corporate interests who themselves created the Cold War consensus and dictated U.S. policy at home and abroad. As the editors of Studies on the Left wrote in 1962, the right
Although the red scare did sound a responsive chord for many elements of U.S. society, it was primarily a topdown affair engineered, as Senator Vandenberg suggested, to “scare the hell out of the American people.” In 1952, I. F. Stone took note of a series of United States Chamber of Commerce reports on Communism. (The Chamber of Commerce represented not the so-called “lunatic” right, but “responsible” corporations like General Motors and Standard Oil of New Jersey.) Stone wrote,
Stone’s perceptions were of course dismissed at the time as the ravings
of a madman, and the New Left analysis has yet to penetrate the labyrinth
of willful self-deception with which the liberals protect their myth of
the Cold War, a myth which continues to provide the framework for studies
of the witch-hunt. All the books under review reflect it to one degree
The liberal cold warriors of the 50s were only too pleased to adopt
the corporate establishment’s view of itself and directed most of their
energy against their Stalinist foes. When they did turn their attention
to the right, they were inclined to view the witch-hunt as a regrettable
excess of extremists who intimidated the benevolent center with a formidable
apparatus composed of the Hearst press, Neanderthal businessmen, traditional
reactionary groups like the American Legion, and demagogic politicians.
This apparatus, they felt sure, was solidly based on a firm xenophobic,
neo-populist foundation among the benighted U.S. masses, from whom nothing
better could be expected. This reading of contemporary reality was buttressed
by such studies of the U.S. past as Richard Hofstadter’s THE AGE OF REFORM,
which employed then fashionable categories of social psychology to lay
the blame for the red scare, by implication, at the feet of workers and
farmers, and to obscure its relationship to the imperatives of domestic
The witch-hunt, meanwhile, proceeded in a logical and orderly fashion
to isolate the CP from its liberal allies. First it destroyed the CP’s
base in the unions, and then it turned to the intellectuals and professionals
in the opinion industries, schools, and government. The purges were helped
along by such traumas as the “suicide” of Jan Masaryk in Czechoslovakia,
the Korean War, which seemed to offer positive proof of aggressive Soviet
designs, and, domestically, by the fiasco of the Wallace campaign, the
Hiss trial, and the Rosenberg case. By the time McCarthy arrived on the
scene, he could draw on a vast reservoir of carefully nurtured public
opinion and an extensive network of organizations in all walks of life
to flog the Democrats with a lash of their own making.
Since the liberals could not criticize the anti-Communist excesses of
McCarthy and the right without undermining their own Cold War edifice,
constructed with so much care and love, they were reduced to nitpicking
reservations about the methods employed in ferreting out Communist subversives.
The objects of the witch-hunt were characteristically held responsible
for their own plight. To the more imaginative observers, they were dangerous
subversives; to the more sophisticated, they were merely pathetic victims,
almost beneath notice.
The Hollywood Ten were a case of the latter. They never, it was said,
had much talent in the first place. Billy Wilder was widely quoted as
saying that “of the Unfriendly 10, only two had any talent; the other
eight were just unfriendly.” Richard Rovere ridiculed them in 1952
for preferring Whittier and Sandberg to Rimbaud and Pound. Rovere wrote,
The liberal cold warriors of the 50s were only too pleased to adopt the corporate establishment’s view of itself and directed most of their energy against their Stalinist foes. When they did turn their attention to the right, they were inclined to view the witch-hunt as a regrettable excess of extremists who intimidated the benevolent center with a formidable apparatus composed of the Hearst press, Neanderthal businessmen, traditional reactionary groups like the American Legion, and demagogic politicians. This apparatus, they felt sure, was solidly based on a firm xenophobic, neo-populist foundation among the benighted U.S. masses, from whom nothing better could be expected. This reading of contemporary reality was buttressed by such studies of the U.S. past as Richard Hofstadter’s THE AGE OF REFORM, which employed then fashionable categories of social psychology to lay the blame for the red scare, by implication, at the feet of workers and farmers, and to obscure its relationship to the imperatives of domestic corporate interests.
The witch-hunt, meanwhile, proceeded in a logical and orderly fashion to isolate the CP from its liberal allies. First it destroyed the CP’s base in the unions, and then it turned to the intellectuals and professionals in the opinion industries, schools, and government. The purges were helped along by such traumas as the “suicide” of Jan Masaryk in Czechoslovakia, the Korean War, which seemed to offer positive proof of aggressive Soviet designs, and, domestically, by the fiasco of the Wallace campaign, the Hiss trial, and the Rosenberg case. By the time McCarthy arrived on the scene, he could draw on a vast reservoir of carefully nurtured public opinion and an extensive network of organizations in all walks of life to flog the Democrats with a lash of their own making.
Since the liberals could not criticize the anti-Communist excesses of McCarthy and the right without undermining their own Cold War edifice, constructed with so much care and love, they were reduced to nitpicking reservations about the methods employed in ferreting out Communist subversives. The objects of the witch-hunt were characteristically held responsible for their own plight. To the more imaginative observers, they were dangerous subversives; to the more sophisticated, they were merely pathetic victims, almost beneath notice.
The Hollywood Ten were a case of the latter. They never, it was said, had much talent in the first place. Billy Wilder was widely quoted as saying that “of the Unfriendly 10, only two had any talent; the other eight were just unfriendly.” Richard Rovere ridiculed them in 1952 for preferring Whittier and Sandberg to Rimbaud and Pound. Rovere wrote,
Murray Kempton, in an often quoted remark from his influential 1955 examination of the 30s, PART OF OUR TIME, said,
The main thrust of Kempton’s argument was that the Hollywood left had simply sold out. It had been seduced by the blandishments of the old whore Hollywood; its left politics, which had never enjoyed more than a remote relation to reality, became no more than an empty gesture. This assessment established a frame of reference in which liberal writers of the 50s would examine the history of the Hollywood left for the remainder of the decade. In lesser hands, Kempton’s irony and acute sense of loss became vulgarized, became a snide and shrill redbaiting, as smug liberal pundits like fastidious gourmets picked over the remains of the feast of the 30s, and tossed bone after bone to the vultures.
Walter Goodman’s history of HUAC, THE COMMITTEE, was characteristic. He found the confrontation between HUAC and the ten “unfriendly” witnesses, as the uncooperative leftists were called, “unedifying.” Three weeks of long, rambling testimony from “friendly’ ’ witnesses, including Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Mrs. Lela Rogers (Ginger’s mother), Adolf Menjou, Robert Taylor, Jack Warner, and others, were filled with violent denunciations of Communism and precipitous descents into self-parody.
The Committee listened courteously as the friendly witnesses bandied about names of alleged Communists without, for the most part, a shred of evidence. When one of the Ten’s attorneys, Charles Katz, attempted to cross examine a friendly witness, he was forcibly ejected from the hearing room by deputies. When the unfriendly witnesses were called, Lawson first among them, they were refused the courtesies that had been extended to their predecessors. They were not allowed to read prepared statements and were subjected to harangues by Committee members. Lawson and others reacted angrily to these provocations, and they have never been forgiven for their breach of decorum. Walter Goodman invoked Edmund Wilson to dispose of Lawson’s statement: Wilson wrote,
In PART OF OUR TIME, Kempton had been at some pains to deflate “one of the myths of the fifties that communism in the thirties had a special attraction for the best talents.” He succeeded so well that this myth gave way to another: the notion that those involved in the social movements of the 30s and 40s, especially the Hollywood branch, were middlebrow philistines, lacking in literary taste, creative talent, good judgment, and elementary common sense. What Truman said of the Russians and the Nazis at the beginning of World War II applied to the Committee and its victims: they deserved each other. This was a serviceable perspective for 50s liberals. It meant they could join the triumphant procession of Cold War consensus with scarcely a glance backwards at the fallen victims of the witchhunt because, after all, the victims had only gotten what they deserved. They had been forced to relinquish their political rights, and this had been ratified by those who decided they were not “attractive” witnesses (Kempton), that they were “squalid and rowdy” (Alistair Cooke), that they were “puffed up with their own martyrdom” (Goodman), that they lacked “aristocratic tastes” (Rovere). Later, liberals subjected the victims’ motives to an ex post facto scrutiny that was both scholastic in its thoroughness and arrogant in its assumptions, dismissed their films with glib scorn, and who later reviewed their books with contempt. That is, later liberal intellectuals followed in the footsteps of HUAC and McCarthy to make sure that those who had been deprived of their rights, their livelihoods and, in some cases, their lives, were deprived of intellectual and moral legitimacy as well.
It was not until some thirteen years after the publication of PART OF OUR TIME, that Kempton, with characteristic honesty and eloquence, revised his opinion. Criticizing, in 1968, his earlier estimate, he wrote of himself:
It is not necessary in attacking the orthodox assessment of the Ten to become a votary of either their politics or their films. But it may be worthwhile, in view of the generally low esteem in which their work is held, to review some of their screen credits, and to recall the full extent and consequences of the blacklist. Dalton Trumbo, one of the most prolific of the original Ten, lists among his credits the following films:
And, during the blacklist:
And, since the blacklist:
Lawson scripted BLOCKADE, ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC, and SAHARA.
Maltz wrote DESTINATION TOKYO (1943—Daves); CLOAK AND DAGGER (1946—Lang); THE NAKED CITY (1948—Dassin). And, which will please auteurists, he scripted Don Siegel’s TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA (1970), from a story by Budd Boetticher.
Ring Lardner, Jr. worked on A STAR IS BORN (1937—Wellman); LAURA (1944—Preminger); FOREVER AMBER (1947—Preminger); THE CINCINNATI KID (1965—Jewison); and M*A*S*H (1970—Altman).
If we throw the net out a little further to catch people who were blacklisted but not members of the Ten, we come up with the following:
Michael Wilson won an Academy Award for A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951—Stevens). He wrote FIVE FINGERS (1952—Mankiewicz); SALT OF THE EARTH (1954—Biberman); FRIENDLY PERSUASION (1956—Wyler), for which he was denied an Academy Award; BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWFAI (1957—Lean), Academy Award; LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962—Lean); and PLANET OF THE APES (1968—Schaffner).
To these names we must add the actors and actresses: John Garfield, Zero Mostel, Lionel Stander, Will Geer, Morris Carnovsky, Art Smith, Jeff Corey, Howard da Silva, Kim Hunter, Gale Sondergaard, Anne Revere, Karen Morley; and directors Joseph Losey, Jules Dassin, Fritz Lang and, of course, Charlie Chaplin.
This list is far from exhaustive. Many of the attributions of scripts sold on the black market are still a mystery. Rumor has it, for example, that Trumbo scripted Joseph H. Lewis’s cult classic GUN CRAZY. Many of the films listed above are neither politically nor aesthetically interesting; many of the people who were blacklisted were not, it is true, exceptionally talented. Nevertheless, it should be clear from a glance at these credits that they include a good proportion of respectable films, certainly enough to challenge the orthodox view, as Walter Goodman puts it: “The absence of these writers mattered as little to the quality of America’s movies as their presence.”
Most of the people mentioned on this list did not work openly, if at all, from the late 40s to the middle 60s. At the height of the blacklist, an estimated 212 people, formerly regular employees of the industry, could not get work. Some managed to sell scripts at reduced price under false names. Others were driven out of the industry altogether. One of the original Ten ran the lights at a nightclub in San Francisco. Some emigrated to England, France, and Mexico. Others remained to become salesmen and day laborers. Another became a warehouseman. Many found that the blacklist followed them in their attempts to find work outside the industry. One blacklisted radio writer, according to the Fund for the Republic’s REPORT ON BLACKLISTING, attempted to get a job as a baker, but was laid off when his boss found out that he had been an unfriendly witness. During 1954-55 a bill was introduced into the California legislature which would have “denied licenses to any person who refused to testify before any Congressional committee investigating Communism.” This would have made it impossible for uncooperative witnesses to work “as contractors, barbers, beauticians, or at 150 other jobs requiring a license. It would have also made it impossible for a blacklistee to go into business on his own if he intended to hire helpers.”
The blacklist destroyed families and friendships. Collaborators of long standing, like Kazan and Miller, Collins and Jarrico, Kramer and Foreman, became estranged. Philip Loeb took his own life. John Garfield and Mady Christians, depressed and out of work, died of “natural” causes. So did J. Edward Bromberg. Canada Lee died after he had been forced to denounce his longtime friend Paul Robeson. As Victor Navasky recently wrote,
Until the Fund for the Republic’s REPORT ON BLACKLISTING, compiled by John Cogley, was originally published in 1956 (it was reissued in 1972), it was customary for members of the film industry to deny that the blacklist existed. The REPORT was the first documented and systematic attempt to show that it did, in fact, exist. The REPORT was not well received by the anti-Communist right; the Fund for the Republic itself came under attack by HUAC, and Cogley was forced to defend the REPORT before the Committee in 1956. The ensuing skirmish was a good example of the mock combat between the liberals and the right, for close scrutiny of the REPORT reveals how narrow was the area of disagreement between them. To its credit, it establishes that the blacklist indeed existed, quotes a number of moving first-hand accounts of its effects, and in an exhaustive study published as an appendix it “proves” that none of the 159 movies associated with the Ten show the slightest trace of “Communist propaganda.” Nevertheless, it shares with HUAC and its allies the assumption that the International Communist Conspiracy was a diabolical attempt to on the life of the United States. The REPORT is therefore unable, in any fundamental way, to challenge the intent of the investigations, although it is able to question its methods and results.
It would be a mistake to see the REPORT’s guarded tone and redbaiting as entirely defensive, as an effort to protect itself by avoiding any false step or inadvertent gesture that might provide an opportunity for the right to attack. Cold war liberals and former Stalinists militantly set out to destroy what they considered to be the remnants of Stalinism in liberal culture (i.e., any and all dissent from Truman/Eisenhower foreign and domestic policies), and to purge the “totalitarian liberals,” as they called them. They vied with each other in their zeal to prevent the anti-Communist issue from becoming the sole province of the right. They went so far as to prod the State Department into a more aggressive foreign policy, and they chided the business community for its “cowardice” in the face of the Red threat. Attempts to carve out a third position, distinct from both the US and the USSR were denounced by former leftists as “collaborationist liberalism” and “fifth columnism.” The philosopher and former Marxist Sidney Hook was well on his way to becoming a virulent anti-Communist when he wrote in 1947,
One of the allies who emerges most clearly from the REPORT is Roy Brewer, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood during the 50s. Brewer began as an organizer for the racket-ridden International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Motion Picture Machine Operators (the IA). Its president, George Browne, and a Chicago hood named Willie Bioff, his personal representative, were finally indicted and convicted for conspiracy and extortion. The IA controlled projectionists, among other groups, and was thus in a position to keep undesirable films off the screen, as it did with SALT OF THE EARTH. After the IA successfully destroyed the leftleaning Conference of Studio Unions, and consolidated its power, Brewer moved on to the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, and later became a studio executive. During his reign at MPA, he became one of the most influential of the “clearance” experts. Repentant ex-Communists who wished to regain their jobs, were required to perform abject rituals of rehabilitation (naming names, a public recantation in a national magazine like the Saturday Evening Post, breast beating conferences with clearance experts), before they were given employment. The political climate had shifted so far to the right that Brewer was considered a “moderate.” This is the man who said:
According to Brewer, the clearance procedures which he established constituted an act of mercy, and grew out of a genuine sense of compassion for those who repented and repudiated the Party. The REPORT appears to take him at his word, and to see in Brewer a staunch anti-Communist labor leader-with-a-heart. It is at pains to dissociate him from the “far” right, twice mentioning that Brewer repudiated crusading California Senator Jack Tenney.
At this distance, the distinction between Brewer and Tenney seems a fine one indeed, but the REPORT and its authors, as Hook pointed out, could not afford to be choosey. Brewer is of interest not only as an example of the bedfellows chosen by Cold War liberals, but because his career, as a union organizer, anti-Communist, and studio executive, reveals the uses of the blacklist in ridding the industry of intransigent left wing unions and cementing an alliance between industry and collaborationist labor bosses.
The study on Communism and the Movies by Dorothy B. Jones, which forms a substantial part of a fascinating appendix to the main body of the REPORT, is more revealing in many ways than the REPORT itself. It is an elaborate statistical study, heavy with social science cant about “objectivity” and characterized by scholarly tightrope walking: At one point she makes reference to a pro-Franco film “which told the other side of the story with respect to the controversy in Spain.” Jones reviewed the 159 films which the Ten had, in one capacity or another, contributed to, and sampled a number of films produced by repentant ex-Communists, as well as a selection drawn from the flood of anti-Communist films produced by Hollywood in the wake of the MAC investigations. With regard to the former two categories, she concludes that none showed any traces of “Communist propaganda.” The latter she criticizes because they were too heavy-handed and melodramatic in their portrayal of Communism. Those films, she says, therefore aided the Communist cause by failing to do justice to the subtitles of its tactics and propaganda. This was a characteristic tactic of Cold War liberals when they were attacked from the right by those who carried their anti-Communist position to its logical end. The liberals tried to turn the tables on their tormentors in the only way they knew how—by charging that vulgar anti-Communism helped the Communists.
Jones begins her study with an ominous reminder that Lenin loved movies:
In the process of acquitting the films of the Ten of the charges made against them, she indulges in an analysis of the Cold War which would have done John Foster Dulles proud. The militant Cold War rhetoric of Jones’ study, however, blinds her to its most important consequences. Her notion of Communist propaganda is so overwrought, so inflated with manichean demonology, that she overlooks what is perhaps the real significance of the Ten. Her study shows that, statistically speaking,
In attempting to assess the political importance of the Hollywood left in terms of the content of their films alone (there were other areas, including fundraising, publicity, and union work in which they were active), it must be recognized that in making the little fellow, the underdog, the tramp, a familiar and sympathetic figure, these writers made a modest, but not insignificant contribution. The movies they made were in no sense radical (in most of them the outcast is reconciled to society at the end). But they did give artistic form to the sense of deprivation and exclusion which millions of Americans experienced in the 30s. From the vantage point of the prosperous 50s, this may not have looked like a tremendous achievement, or any achievement at all, especially to those who looked for explicit class struggle and red flags flying, and were either pleased or disappointed when they found neither.
It is true that the Hollywood left cannot claim sole credit for this contribution. Directors like Ford, LeRoy, Capra, and Wellman, who cannot be counted among this group were responsible for some of the strongest “problem” films of the 30s. But it can be argued that the Hollywood left formed the backbone of this tradition, and attempted, until it was destroyed, to extend it into the 50s, when many in Hollywood turned to other themes.
The final point in Jones’s study worth mentioning is her ingenuous notion of “freedom of the screen.” She sees the entire study as an attempt to enable “movie-makers to speak freely on the screen on whatever subject they please.” This, of course, is nonsense. What she is in fact strengthening is freedom of the screen for the owners of the screens and the movies that are shown on them, the handful of major studios, and large banks which invested heavily both in the studios during the Depression and in individual productions thereafter and who, as became increasingly clear during the course of the IIUAC investigations, control the content of U.S. films. Jones accepts as “normal” the studio’s control of content, and she assumes that this content is non-political. “Communist propaganda” is termed a “distortion” of this content. What she means becomes clear in her discussion of a script by Lester Cole, a reworking of an earlier version by a different writer. The charming millionairess, the “amusing but harmless US Senator, and two representatives of large oil companies competing for business in the Far East” were transformed by the nefarious Cole into disreputable characters. In his script, “the heiress was traveling to escape labor trouble in her factories, the Senator was shown to be less amusing and more pompous ... and the oil men ... had become munitions salesmen.” According to Jones,
Presumably, the first script in which the oil men are merely on “business,” the heiress “charming,” and the Senator “amusing,” was not political but real, and therefore an example of the “free screen.”
The Fund for the Republic’s REPORT attacked the CPUSA not for betraying the left, but for betraying the United States. By the 60s, this perspective was no longer sufficient. Unquestioning faith in the benign intentions of the United States and the malign ones of its adversaries could no longer stand up against the increasingly naked use of U.S. imperial power. But esteem for the Ten was no higher among New Leftists than it was among Cold War liberals. The Ten’s emphasis on civil liberties seemed both disingenuous and uninteresting. The failure of the Ten’s politics to transcend a lowest common denominator, popular front liberalism confirmed the New Left’s instinctive aversion to their Old Left bourgeois lifestyles, their Bel Air homes and kidney shaped pools. And the Ten had other liabilities. It was difficult to feel much sympathy for people who had earned $100,000 a year, and even during the darkest days of the blacklist, who earned more on the black market than most New Leftists would see in a lifetime of subsistence living. In their glory, it was felt, they enjoyed more than their share of the spoils; and in their disgrace, they suffered no more, and frequently considerably less, than other less celebrated leftists who were driven front unions, factories, schools, newspapers, professions, and the civil service. In sum, the Ten were of another generation, sad remnants of the 30s, of a movement that was as ineffectual as it was inglorious, and best forgotten.
Eric Bentley’s THIRTY YEARS OF TREASON (1971) is a good example of this viewpoint, which is embodied in an essay at the end of the volume, but it is also an invaluable compendium of testimony, selected from the various areas with which HUAC preoccupied itself over the years. It begins with the investigation of the Federal Theater Project in 1938, ends with the investigation of the disruption of the Democratic Party convention in 1968, and on the way touches on the investigations of the Eislers, Hollywood, Harvard, the Metropolitan School of Music, and the New York Shakespeare Festival. The parade of witnesses, friendly and unfriendly, heavies (Kazan, Schulberg, Rossen, Odets, Cobb) and heroes (Hellman, Miller, Robeson, Stander, the Hollywood Ten) is familiar. However, the texts they spoke are fascinating documents of the political history of Hollywood, and there are frequently eloquent testimonials to private agonies that can yet be dimly perceived behind the ritual absolutions of the repentant, and the affronted cries of the accused. In addition to the actual testimony, which runs some nine hundred pages or so, Bentley has supplied useful introductory essays to each batch, and a good number of other related documents, including the Einstein pledge of non-cooperation, Nixon’s “Plea for an Anti-Communist Faith,” a selection from among the statements the Ten were not permitted to read, and a sampling of the anti-communist literature of the right.
Bentley’s afterward holds up the behavior of the New Leftists who appeared before the Committee at various points in the 60s, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, and Dave Dellinger, as models of openness which thoroughly confounded the Committee whose strategies were geared to the intransigence of the witnesses. Bentley goes on to say that for the radical, “Candor is no adornment, it is of the essence,” and the people who refused to testify “lacked candor.” Unlike Lawson, later witnesses, such as Dellinger, Davis, and Hayden
Oddly enough, Lawson’s testimony in Bentley’s own book refutes this assessment:
In other words, Lawson did attempt to impose his own rules of procedure, did try to use the hearings as a forum for his own ideas, but far from there being “nothing that the Committee could do to stop (him) from talking,” Chairman Parnell Thomas simply had him dragged from the stand.
In A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS, by Stefan Kanfer, the story of the Ten is served up for the 70s. On the surface, it is a more sympathetic portrait than that provided by the preceding decades. Time has dulled the edge of rancor. the Ten have become, like other relics of the United States’ radical past, a venerable institution. And, more important, it is less easy to patronize them now than it was ten years ago. They, at least some of them at any rate, have survived. It is the blacklist which is dead; their names once again appear on the screen. Kanfer indeed dissociates his views from those of his predecessors. Yet his own account is a pseudo-history, a history deprived of its social meaning, elevated to the status of the Metaphysics of the Absurd. The witch-hunt, rather than a political phenomenon, at once a product and an instrument of Cold War policy, is rendered by the metaphor of the “plague,” a disease which suddenly and mysteriously afflicted the body politic and just as mysteriously disappeared after it had run its course. Kanfer makes only a feeble gesture towards examining the social and political roots of the red scare because, presumably, there are none. It, like the plague, just happened. He bolsters his absurdist notion of history by frequent recourse to passages drawn from the literature of the Absurd: from Becket, Kafka, and Camus.
Kanfer’s sole attempt to suggest an explanation of the investigations and the ensuing blacklist, is to cite consensus historian Hofstadter on the “fundamentalist” mind. The witch-hunt in other words, was one of a number of periodic outbreaks of a native anti-intellectualism endemic to the U.S. character. Moreover, it was a grassroots phenomenon, by implication unrelated to the larger drift of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Rather than an active agent of this policy, the corporate establishment is seen by Kanfer as a victim of dangerous but essentially comical right wing fanatics who forced it against its will to offer up a sacrifice of dissident leftists. Although there is some truth in this picture (certainly, many elements of the industry would have been happy never to have heard of HUAC), Kanfer doesn't even begin to analyze the complex of conflicting interests that composed the entertainment industry at the time. Rather, this and all other problems of substance are more or less ignored, are left waiting in the wings, playing second-fiddle to anecdotes and gossip.
It must be admitted that, in this regard, Kanfer improves on Cogley. Where Cogley took pains to preserve the anonymity of some of his informants who might have been hurt by the publicity, Kanfer fills in the names. He identifies Cogley’s Miss B., and he can't resist telling us that this actress was in an “alcoholic slump.” Most of the gossip, like the prose, is second hand. Kanfer lifts the “tarantula on a wedding cake” simile from Chandler’s FAREWELL MY LOVELY (where it is “a slice of angel food” ) without attribution nor, apparently, remorse. He even steals from himself, using the felicitous phrase, “empurpling like an eggplant” twice, once to describe Parnell Thomas, and once to describe Jerome Robbins.
Kanfer seems unable to stanch the flow of ridicule which impartially washes over accusers and accused alike, overwhelming everyone in a torrent of authorial mockery. An associate editor of TIME, he delivers his shafts in authentic Timestyle which makes ludicrous his pretensions to judge the Ten for their concern or lack of concern for genuine cultural values. I offer only a few, from a vast number of unhappy examples: Hollywood becomes “Celluloid City,” Samuel Sillen “skies from N.Y. to L.A.,” studio executives are “studio toppers,” “the Reds were raping the future through the medium of celluloid,” and so on. The few occasions where the narrative rises above the depressing and wearying level of modish literary hackwork are those where he obligingly quotes other writers, like Kempton, Hellman, Mann, and Brecht, whose eloquent words merely accentuate his own tinsel.
The free-floating irony appears to have a life of its own which belies the moral judgments that Kanfer is at pains to inject now and then into the text. Although he warns against the pitfall of easy mockery, and defends the Ten’s attraction to Marxism as a “contagious impatience with circumstances,” the cumulative effect of his whimsical and snide asides is to undermine these judgments. The Ten’s politics (“Four star indignation”), the strategy (“Constitutionally guaranteed silences”), the deportment (“lofty and outraged”), even the accents (“wailed,” “croaked,” “strident”) are matters of immense hilarity. Kanfer’s style, Chandler cum TIME, and his politics, Kempton cum Walter Goodman, form a particularly offensive brand of liberal chic. He scores easy points off the right and left, and then backs up to chalk up a few for himself with a generous rhetorical tribute to the humane intentions, if not practice, of the Hollywood left.
The Hollywood left comprises a crucial chapter in the political and social history of Hollywood, and demands more serious attention than it has yet received. Basic questions have yet to be asked the Hollywood left at that time. These would deal with attempts to define membership in the group more precisely; to characterize their political position; to examine their relation to the CPUSA; to determine what kinds of efforts they made to inject their politics into their films; to find out the extent to which they were successful; to critically evaluate their films; to look at the guilds and unions with which they were involved. Without answers to these questions, an assessment of their achievements and failures seems premature, and inevitably prone to the sectarianism and sensationalism that has made it difficult if not impossible to discover the way they were.