The Front
Comic revenge

by Norman Markowitz

from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 10-11
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

In April 1950, Albert Maltz addressed a defense rally for the Hollywood Ten with the following words:

“I abominate the manner in which our land is now being befouled by the men is charge of the machinery of government. You will notice that I do not limit my charge. When this case began, in the fall of 1947, I did that, as did others. I pointed to the evil actions of certain committees, to certain individuals like, J. Parnell Thomas, Rankin, and Attorney General Clark. But many things have happened in our land in two and a half years—bad things. And today, it would be blindness to view such events as the work of a few individuals alone or a few reactionary committees in Congress. On the contrary, the time has come when it must be admitted that what is at work here is the total machinery of our men in government, on a policy level and on an executive level. When I say this, I am referring to the loyalty oath, and the loyalty executive boards; to the low courts and the high courts; to the magistrate Judges and Supreme Court Justices; to public prosecutors and their sinister squads of perjured informers, who now roam the land testifying for expenses, and who know in advance that the government machinery will protect them in any lie they choose to utter ... All by arrangement and connivance and manipulation of what is solemnly called a Department of Justice ... Furthermore, I was not born in a land in which informers and professional perjurers wrote the Constitution, dictated the substance of debate in Congress, or decided who might lead a trade union, teach in a school, or write a book.”(1)

Maltz’s analysis was perfect, but a “correct” left analysis of the repression mattered little in 1950s United States. Malta and his Hollywood Ten colleagues soon went to prison for refusing to kowtow to HUAC. They refused to make the gestures of obedience to a society whose leadership had declared Communists to be the agents of hostile foreign power conspiring for world conquest. And, of course, they were not the only ones.

The primary leaders of the Communist Party were, with Strangelove logic, imprisoned under the Smith Act for having reestablished the party out of the Communist Political Association in 1945. Re-establishing the party was deemed synonymous with “conspiracy to teach or advocate” overthrow of the government by force and violence. (Evidence for these contentions consisted of quotations from Marx, Lenin, and Stalin and lectures from the prosecutors about the evils of International Communism.) Scores of other individuals were arrested for refusing to turn over to congressional and other investigatory bodies, books, private records, and lists of names. Thousands were dismissed from government and public service, tens of thousands kept from employment of various sorts by the dissemination of lists kept by local Red Squads, local right-wing vigilantes, franchise-business blacklisters, various state HUACs, the national HUAC, the Senate Internal Security Committee, and the industrious minions of the FBI. Millions who had signed their names to some left petition in the l930s and the 1940s or had participated in any way in the mass struggles were to some degree harassed and intimidated.

Also, the repressions didn't quite end with the fall of McCarthy, or the election of Kennedy, or the development of mass opposition to the Vietnam war. Rather, it continued from its national height in the early 1950s to police raids, provoked murders, and Kafkaesque trials and hearings for radicals and militants through the 1960s and the 1970s. Even with the very important changes in mass opinion in the last decade, it remains one of the most significant features of contemporary U.S. life that the public and police machinery established to stigmatize, harass, bankrupt, and if necessary incarcerate left-wing militants and destroy their mass organizations has continued to grow and develop.

All of this old and continuing saga would hardly seem to be the stuff for a traditional Woody Allen movie. For come who lived through the repression and for many young U.S. leftists today, the intrusion in THE FRONT of the classic Woody Allen character, the Jewish Schlemiel, always rushing into banana peels is the pursuit of unlikely situations and unwilling women, may seem offensive or at the very least unserious. Other critics might find a Columbia Pictures film that focuses collusively on the television blacklist a bit hypocritical and self-serving. After all, it was the Hollywood capitalists and their trade association representative, Eric Johnston, who ordered Dalton Trumbo and the other Hollywood Ten writers to testify before HUAC or face dismissal, and who subsequently turned their studios over to the making of cold war propaganda films. They offered no aid to the blacklist victims who were imprisoned. And they permitted the victims to return to work very slowly under various guises and at greatly reduced commissions. Given the fact that the same class responsible for the repression retains power in Hollywood, as in the society at large, it is doubtful that the big studios could ever sponsor a politically serious film about the “McCarthyism” of the postwar era.

Perhaps one should stop to ask what a politically serious film about the repression would constitute. Such a film would probably owe more to the introspection of Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST than to the slapstick of Allen’s PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM. Humor, pathos, and absurdity would have their place in such a film, but would develop from the real conditions of authorities and ruling groups attempting to distort and destroy human beings instead of from formula gags and artificial situations.

Serious films about the repression would also need a clear historical focus, presenting men like Eisenhower, Truman, Nixon, and J. Edgar Hoover as personalities to be comprehended within the contest of the developing class struggle and the major international rivalries of the period, instead of names to be dropped. However, these are the films of a U.S. socialist future, films that will deal realistically with both the general historical context and the practical manifestations of the repression—the workers beaten on assembly lines, the teachers purged from schools, the militants and intellectuals blacklisted in a spiral of repression, which served to build unity behind General Motors, the FBI, and the Strategic Air Command.

THE FRONT is manifestly a film of the cynical, searching present, from its opening collage of early fifties newsreel shots—Joe McCarthy’s wedding, Douglas MacArthur and Marilyn Monroe receiving the adulation of the manses in open cars, bombers in Korea and bomb shelters in the United States—to its schlemiel protagonist.

Howard Prince (Woody Allen), a downwardly mobile cashier-bookie, gets a taste of the good life in the l950s by becoming a literary front (or fence) for a group of blacklisted television writers. Prince is a clichéd embodiment of bourgeois conventional wisdom, fifties style. When he learns that his old friend, Howard Miller, has been blacklisted (it takes him a while to realize what blacklisting means), he replies to Miller, “How many times have I told you? Take care of number one.” Later, Prince suggests to Miller, in the best tradition of private enterprise, that other screenwriters be added to their arrangement so that profits can be expanded for all. Finally, with tailored clothes, a luxury apartment, and spots on TV talk shows under his belt, Prince burlesques the role of the triumphant bourgeois. He starts to read the scripts and makes critical comments on the grounds, “You have to be good. Blacklisted is not enough.”

Unfortunately, Prince’s pursuit of Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci), the lovely, refined TV production assistant—who admires him for the scripts he never wrote and expects him to be an intellectual knight in shining armor against the blacklist—mars the film’s generally successful attempts at political burlesque and weakens its moments of pathos and insight, along with its final dramatic resolution. Thus, Prince the budding entrepreneur takes second place to Prince, the Schlemiel in search of true love. When Prince, for example, convinces Florence to abandon her Paul Robeson concert tickets, he abandons his basketball tickets, and they both go out to dinner. At this point the film crosses the line into situation comedy. At the end, it remains embarrassingly unclear whether Prince has decided to fight HUAC because of his friend Hecky Brown’s (Zero Mostel) suicide or simply to win back Florence.

Even with these serious flaws and an inability to confront directly the larger political issues, the film does make valuable political points. It shows television’s subservience to advertisers, who in turn are subservient to a climate of opinion which permits blacklisters, businessmen, and right-wing zealots to determine who will work. Thus, the famous flap in the late fifties over a television drama on the Nuremburg trials is recounted in the story of a script held up because gas company protested references to concentration camps. The vulnerability of artists who sell their skills to show-business entrepreneurs is well treated. In one sequence, Hecky Brown stands helpless before a Catskills resort owner who gives Hecky work at a fraction of his former fee, proceeds to cut that fraction in half, and speaks eloquently for the owner’s class by shouting, “You Commie Son of a Bitch,” when the blacklisted comic literally hits back.

The film usually smuggles in and dilutes its political message—after the fashion, ironically, of the blacklisted screenwriters who in the l930s and the 1940s had to settle for a few minutes of social consciousness interwoven into the Hollywood product. However, it does capture the tome of fear and indifference that permeated most mess media in the era along with a portrayal of the genuinely sleazy types who had their counterparts in real life and were a significant, albeit low level, component of the repression. Thus, we see the redbaiting supermarket owner hobnobbing with TV organization men, the ex-FBI man with pictures of J. Edgar Hoover and Chiang Kai-shek on his wall and a blacklisting “Freedom Information Service” as his business.

Unfortunately, THE FRONT often appears uncertain about whether it is portraying characters or caricatures. It is hesitant about whether to use its characters to make political criticism or to serve simply as objects of sympathy. In his first meeting with the screenwriters, for example, Howard Prince hears one of them, Delaney, state with apparent determination that he is Communist, not an innocent, and that the blacklist is being used to whip up support for the cold war. While this is fine, the audience never learns from the movie what the American Communist party and the broader left movement, of which it was the leading force, had been about. (One wonders if the movie could have survived with Columbia Pictures if writer Walter Bernstein had dared to be more explicit about the backgrounds and beliefs of screenwriters and their views about the significance of the repression.)

What the film settles for is a scene where Delaney, the Communist, in tones reminiscent of the haunted left of the early l950s, tells Prince (after Prince has received a summons from HUAC) to stand on the Fifth Amendment. Prince’s friend Alfred Miller begs him to take a stand rather than to believe that he can beat the committee at their own game. All of this is fine, and even decent, but quite hopeless, given Prince’s position in the film. If he takes the Fifth, the network abandons him and he joins the blacklist with the label “Fifth Amendment Communist.” If he takes any action to fight back individually, he probably goes to jail.) Indeed, Miller’s call for commitment and resistance on Prince’s part is illogical and empty, since the film presents no politics on which commitment could be based and posits no way for individuals to fight collectively.

As it is, Prince replies to the committee,

“Fellas (and who but the Allen schlemiel character would address HUAC as fellas), I don't recognize the right of this committee to ask me these kinds of questions. And furthermore, you can go fuck yourselves.”

While this answer appeals to good democratic and civil libertarian sentiment, is hardly satisfying since it produces only a prison sentence and a goodbye kiss from Florence, whose love has thus been won with the help of HUAC police agents. Perhaps Bernstein might have introduced a more serious note at the conclusion by dealing with the legal appeals, fundraising struggles, and attacks by the press that provided the background for those imprisoned for contempt of the various public authorities. As it is, the film presents the audience with a kind of reverse Hollywood happy ending, where the hero gets both jail and the woman. One is left to decide whether the latter was worth the former.

The film’s saving grace and major artistic achievement, as I see it, is the performance of Zero Mostel, a splendidly executed self-parody, as the gross comic Hecky Brown (née Herschel Brownstein). Brought to the office of Hennessy, the ex-FBI men and professional blacklister, Hecky is willing to humiliate himself but he refuses to name any names. (Hennessy: “Would you say you were duped.” Hecky: “Tell me what it means and I'll say it.”) Although the personalities are quite different, Hecky’s eventual descent into hysteria and suicide is similar to that of Philip Loeb, the character actor driven to debt, despondency, and eventual death in the early 1950s as he desperately sought someone to charge him with something so that he could clear his name.

In his ranting and in his suicide, Hecky brings the repression home to the audience more effectively than all of Woody Allen’s bantering. “It’s Brownstein’s fault,” he raves to Prince, “I can't make a deal with them because of Brownstein. Brownstein, lay off or I'll kill you.” Hecky’s death, a suicide scene worthy of and perhaps imitative of Chaplin, permits Howard Prince to break for a few moments out of his self-imposed schlemiel pose, first as a distant observer at the funeral and then as an unfriendly witness who refuses to give to HUAC the name of “Herschel Brownstein, also known as Hecky Brown.”

With all or its faults, THE FRONT is a significant film with decent intentions, important limitations, and real, albeit modest, achievements. For the millions who are steadily fed a diet of anti-communist and anti-left propaganda where only the seasoning changes, it will hopefully help to take the horns off of communist targets, and, with all of its political evasions, at least challenge conventional views about who the real victims and the real victimizers were in the political wars of the 1940s and the 1950s. For these reasons, some pundits, both rightists and aging partisans of what used to be called “the vital center”, have already attacked it. For these reasons, also, it deserves critical support, with the accent on comradely criticism, from the U. S. left.


1. Pamphlet. “Two Addresses, Gale Sondergaard and Albert Maltz.” Hollywood, CA. April 21, 1950, pp. 10-11. Xerox copy available for $1.25 from The Alexander Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Library, P.O. Box 073, Berkeley, CA, 94701.