Sunday, September 07, 2003

"Can They Teach Us Something About How We Should Live?"

When Hollywood on Trial was shown at Cannes, Variety described it as being as much a regular feature as a documentary. And why not? After all, it stars Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney and Ginger Rodger's mother, as well as Millard Lampell, Richard Nixon, Ring Lardner, Jr. and Jack Warner. It's Hollywood!

It was this combination of politics and the movie business that first attracted HOT's director, David Helpern, Jr., to the subject of the Blacklist. He came upon a special issue of Film Culture as a student. Then after his first documentary, "I'm A Stranger Here Myself: A Portrait of Nicholas Ray" was successful enough to interest investors in his work, he set about the strange and large task of making a film about the Hollywood Blacklist. Helpern is 28.

One of Helpern's partners in October Films, James Gutman, agreed to produce. Neither Helpern nor Gutman is old enough to remember the Blacklist, but their own political involvements in the sixties drew them to it.

For Gutman, who had traveled to Chile during the election of Allende on another documentary project, the period is bound up with his own political education. "I come from a long line of gray flannel capitalists," Gutman he said. He first met children of Blacklist victims while at Harvard (it's worth mentioning that the Blacklist also had victims in academia), but their parents had mostly given up their politics and gone into safer businesses. It started him thinking about the lack of continuity between the radicalism of the thirties and that of the sixties, both in the lives of his friends whose parents had been radicals but weren't anymore, and in the culture in general. What caused the break?

"The answer, of course, is McCarthyism," Gutman said. " The Blacklist itself. That silenced it."

It was the children of the blacklisted that most haunted him. He wrote his first screenplay about a young sixties radical who discovers that his uncle, now a doctor, was a radical in the thirties.

HOT's writer, Arnie Riesman, also got involved partly because he knew children of blacklist victims. One friend in particular was Tony Kahn, screenwriter Gordon Kahn's younger son. Kahn's memories prompted Riesman to begin into the phenomenon, and since he was the editor of a weekly entertainment paper (Boston After Dark), he assigned himself to interview visiting movie stars, and usually wound up asking them all the same question: Where were you during the Blacklist?

He got some fascinating answers, but when he tried to put together a discussion program for public television in 1970, no one would agree to appear on it.

Then in 1974 Riesman edited a special issue on the fifties for The Real Paper in Cambridge, and received an article on the Hollywood Blacklist written by David Helpern. The issue never appeared, but the article resulted in Arnie's participation in Hollywood On Trial.

He got the chance to ask his questions when HOT interviewed principals of the period in California and New York. The first confirmed acceptance of an interview came from Ronald Reagan, who was one of the more or less official keepers of the Blacklist in Hollywood. Reagan, seated in his flag-flanked governor's chair, politely explained how he helped run an office where anyone in Hollywood who wasn't working could come to find out if he was really too tall for the part, or if he'd just been blacklisted.

They were a little surprised at how many interviews they obtained. They shot first on the East Coast and then in California, with several interviews shot almost incongruously against lush outdoor backgrounds. Even the first uncut interviews were fascinating: Dore Schary, a scenarist and playwright ("Sunrise at Campobello") who rose through the ranks to become a studio executive, seated in his rococo living room, a portrait of JFK on the piano, giving a classic chronicle of the liberal dilemma, beginning with his efforts organizing the Screen Writer's Guild and his gradual but complete cooption by the studio blacklisters. And by contrast, writer Millard Lampell at his rambling New Jersey home, describing how he watched in horror as fear crushed the minds of his Hollywood idols, only to find himself subpoenaed and blacklisted a few years later, while working on a television special on paranoia.

"Some of them went to considerable trouble to talk to us," David Helpern said. "Dalton Trumbo had been very ill---he had a heart attack a year ago. His daughter told us he was too sick, but he was eager to talk to us. He promised us an hour and gave us three." So he appeared, frail but dandyish in his black sweater, slumped in a huge red chair, struggling against his weak physical condition to tell his story.

But some people were still frightened to talk about the Blacklist. A writer for a famous comedy team declined because he was just getting on his feet again and was afraid of the unwanted notice an interview might give him. A movie character actor and respected acting teacher refused for the reason that many more of the blacklisteds used to give---what if it started up again?

In some cases, Helpern and associates opened channels of communication long closed by the animosity and paranoia the Blacklist nurtured. David talked about one incident involving Leo Townsend, a cooperative witness. "We found him living in a one-room cottage at Malibu, trying to sell a TV pilot, a sad and lonely man in his sixties. He was abandoned by both sides, a real casuality. He was worried about doing the interview with us. He wanted us to like him." Townsend mentioned that he'd written a long letter to Trumbo after reading his famous "only victims" statement, but never received a reply. "But I can understand that," he told them. Helpern and Reisman related the story to Trumbo, who said he had intended to answer Townsend's letter but had been too ill. They passed that information back to Townsend.

Riesman's, and Helpern's immersion in the lives of Blacklist veterans fascinated them both, and the liveliness of their interest shows in the film. Part of that interest was Helpern's curiosity about what those who'd lived through the Blacklist had to say to the generation that experienced their form of radicalizing in the sixties.

"In the sixties we were forced to make decisions," Helpern said. "They were all around us. But now [in the 70s] there's no mass movement to identify with-so what do we do now? So I look at people who thirty years ago made a certain commitment. Did they know what they were doing? Are they glad? Are they heroes? What do they regret? Can they teach us something about how we should live?"

Helpern talked about one interview, with actor Howard DeSilva. "I asked him if he had ever considered cooperating with the Committee." Cooperating is the polite term for naming names. "He just smiled. 'Never,' he said. Well, why didn't he? That's what I want to understand in this film...You have to understand events through people, what they thought about, what they felt. I trust film---I trust its ability to portray emotion."

Frank Galvin, the documentary's film editor, is slightly older than the others, with a slightly different perspective. In his late 30s, he'd already served in the Navy, as the photographer who films incoming planes landing on aircraft carriers---usually a safer job than it looks, unless the plane crashes. The very first plane that he filmed did exactly that.

Now Galvin edits newsreel footage of HUAC hearings while reliving some of it, since he is old enough to remember seeing it the first time around. "I don't remember much specifically, but I do remember the mood of watching it." From a family he characterizes as "white collar, middle class Boston Irish Catholic" he remembers his father watching the McCarthy hearings and saying, "If those guys have nothing to hide, why don't they talk?" Frank didn't disagree, then. Then came Vietnam. "I saw it coming in 1962. I felt sure it was going to be bad, but not as bad as it got. I'd been reading Bernard Fall, I read every issue of I.F. Stone, the New Republic and the Nation. When McNamara came to Harvard and when the State Department issued their white paper, it started a new round of obsession. I was in a state of fury over government policy and in daily agony over the war. I came out of it a socialist anarchist-and Democrat, still. The only two people I've voted for President in fifteen years of voting were Kennedy and McGovern."

Frank was David Helpern's documentary teacher at the Orson Welles Film School in Cambridge. "He showed up one day in a ten gallon hat, plunked himself down and stayed for five semesters...Now he's one of the few young filmmakers around who is really professional."

There was a kind of meeting of the generations on the set of The Front, when the October Films crew was there to capture a few minutes of it, and interview the principals for their film. Once David Helpern took advantage of a lull in Zero Mostel's act to direct an extra for the H.O.T. camera. The two crews-the huge and hugely equipped Columbia crew and the small October Films group---were getting along famously, mutually interested in each other's film. "For years nobody wanted to hear about the Blacklist," Walter Bernstein said. "I got a great deal of satisfaction from talking to the October Films people. They really wanted to know...I was teaching a senior seminar in screenwriting at NYU while I was writing 'The Front' and none of my students knew anything about the Blacklist."

There is a natural bond between these generations. A panel discussion on the Blacklist organized in Los Angeles by young members of the New American Movement Media Group heard blacklisted actress Karen Morely say, "I feel very close and very warm toward the generation that stopped the Vietnam war." Will Geer hardly spoke of the old days at all, using his time to endorse the senatorial aspirations of former movement hero Tom Hayden.

It may be that history will show that it was the sixties generation that finally rang down the curtain on HUAC itself. The first test of the student movement at Berkeley was the 1960 anti-HUAC demonstration at the San Francisco Court House, where police turned fire hoses on white students for the first time. Ironically, HUAC was finally destroyed by a political extract of something it labored to annihilate or at least co-opt:political theatre. When Jerry Rubin showed up to testify in an American Revolutionary War uniform, the committee's option was as good as cancelled.

After their visit to the set of the Front, the October Films group discussed their observations. They were impressed with Bernstein's quiet humor. "He's allowed himself to see that he learned something about himself from being blacklisted, "Helpern said. "As horrible as it was, it did do something positive, in a personal way. Like Millard (Lampell) when he said he might have been a much more glib, slick human being otherwise. Or when Zero Mostel said he might not have done Shakespeare..."

It doesn't surprise Arnie Reisman that they are the ones making this film, and not actual children of Blacklist victims. "I can spot them in a room," he observed. "They're the most apolitical people there. They went to politically active schools but they weren't political. I mean, I can understand their point of view---look what politics gets you. It's a lesson that has to affect you even if you're five years old..."

"They took their parents culture," David Helpern observed, "but not their politics."

At this point HOT is nearing final edit. Frank Galvin is cutting and splicing footage according to what he and David decided the day before. Then David views the results on the Steenbeck editing screen. Meanwhile, Arnie has come in from working at home on a new treatment. He tells everyone about the testimony before the Church subcommittee that he'd heard on the radio that morning. A retired FBI agent talked about Communists in the fifties and blamed antiwar protests in the sixties and seventies on Communist influence. As Arnie narrated it, Senator Tower of Texas heartily agreed. "He told them,' When I made a speech at Berkeley I was called a fascist pig. Nobody would call me that unless they'd been trained, and only Communists are trained to call people fascists.'"

The editing room is just big enough for the Steenbeck, a table to rewind the film on, shelves for the film cans, the telephone and three or four chairs. Two well-thumbed copies of Eric Bentley's Thirty Years of Treason sit within easy reach, like Bibles.

"So we have fifteen minutes of introduction," David said. "Then thirty minutes on the thirties, and ten minutes on the what do we have to get into the thirties? The Depression, the labor movement, the New Deal---"

"The recognition of the USSR," Frank said.

"Right. The Spanish Civil War, fear of fascism...and also the transition into talkies, bringing big name writers to Hollywood from the East. And then the European influx," David concluded. "All that while the Writers Guild is being organized."

"So how do we get out of the thirties?" Arnie inquired.

"By getting into the forties?" Frank suggested.

David is on the phone. Someone asks him if he wants coffee. "No, thanks-give me just cremora. I like to lick it off my hand."

"With tequila?" Frank asks.

Later David asked Arnie if it had occurred to him that part of the reason they were doing the film was that they were Jewish. Many of the people blacklisted were Jews, and anti-Semitism played a strong part in the entire HUAC-related frenzy. A particularly obvious example was committeeman John Rankin of Mississippi simply reading some well known names (Danny Kaye, June Havoc, Eddie Cantor) and then revealing their birth names (David Daniel Kamirsky, June Jovick, Edward Iskowitz) as all the evidence he needed to discredit their criticisms of HUAC's activities.

"I just thought about it today," David said. "It hadn't occurred to me before."

"No, I've been seeing it more as anti-intellectuals ganging up on intellectuals," Arnie said. "I wish I could find a really strong mind on the other side, but I can't. This really was the American Inquisition."

Something that they all discovered in the course of making their film was that the Blacklist is not really over. The fear is still there: several people refused to talk to them about their involvement. Others claimed continued harassment. And there is at least one documented case of the son of a Blacklist victim himself being blacklisted, not for anything he had done, but because of his father.