New York Times drama critic Bruce Weber writes, near the beginning of his review of a new off-Broadway show based on the letters of the late Hollywood screenwriter and author Dalton Trumbo, that Trumbo was "a leading member of the Hollywood 10, a group of writers, producers and directors who, after appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington in 1947, were branded as Communist sympathizers and blacklisted by the studios." Rather than answer the question whether these career-crippling accusations were justified or not, Weber ends his notice: "The theater makes you hungry for the whole truth, no matter how eloquent one side of the story is." Let us review the films and the facts about Communism and Hollywood to see what is merely eloquent and what is the truth.
Trumbo and eight of the other "Ten" not only were Communist sympathizers, they were or had been card-carrying members of the Communist Party USA. Which means, as scholars John E. Haynes and Harvey Klehr have documented using the archives of the Soviet Communist Party, that Trumbo and company were participantswitting or unwittingin a secret conspiracy, directed and financed by the Kremlin, to overthrow the United States government. (See The Secret World of American Communism and, with Kyrill M. Anderson, The Soviet World of American Communism, both published by Yale University Press.)
Now, the blacklist should be condemned insofar as it caused much pain and injustice to innocent people. But what was the morality of Trumbo and company in wrapping themselves in the Constitution their party was attempting to destroy, at the direction of Stalin's Kremlin? How could they square their professed allegiance to the First Amendment with their party's blind allegiance to the monster Stalin?
The research of Haynes and Klehr puts in a new light the legend of these ostensibly courageous, articulate men refusing to testify before their politician inquisitors, and as a result falling victim to the cowardly studio bosses, being packed off to prison for contempt and seeing their careers ruined, at least for a time. But the New York Times, like the Leftists who still defend Alger Hiss after the Venona tape revelations, will have none of it. Facts and truth must be pushed asideignored, buriedin the name of the "Cause." Just as the Times did when its reporter Walter Duranty covered up Stalin's forced starvation and mass purges in the 1930s.
The hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities were inspired at the time by concerns about Communist subversion of the motion picture industry, which in those pre-television days reached about 80 million Americans every week. The Left dismisses these concerns as right-wing paranoia, but we have the films written by the blacklisted writersand some not blacklistedthat speak for themselves.
Take Trumbo's "Tender Comrade" (1943), on the surface a sweet tale of four women working in a war production plant who rent a house together (for $90 a month!) when their husbands are off at war. The premise of this very sappy film appears innocent enough, as are early references to "share and share alike" and running the household like a "democracy" in "meetings." But the giveaway, and what especially got Trumbo and director Edward Dmytryk in hot water, is the scene when the housekeeper (!) receives in the mail a medal awarded to her soldier husband. (Like most wealthy Leftists, Trumbo didn't let his ideals interfere with living wellhe owned a ranch. Their idea of sharing is to coerce their fellow citizens through the government to give up part of their hard-won earnings.) One of the girls (Kim Hunter, herself later blacklisted), wants to hang the medal on the wall in the living or dining room, for all to see; she exclaims that the housekeeper shouldn't "keep this all to herself." "It's part ours," she enthuses. "Share and share alike. Isn't that right?" To which the housekeeper assents, "Democracy." Needless to say, that is hardly Lincoln's definition of America's constitutional democracywhich is a political, not a social, ideal. Rather, for "share and share alike" (the American Communists' euphemism) substitute Marx's mythical "From each according to his ability. To each according to his needs," add the party's tyrannical control ("democratic centralism"), and we have the Communists' Orwellian definition of "democracy."
What is the morality of secretly inserting Communist propaganda into a simple wartime morale booster being viewed and heard by many, many thousands of unsuspecting citizens burdened by worries about loved ones in the servicesespecially using a soldier's medal as the vehicle? Seen in this light, blacklisting of Communists like Trumbo takes on a different perspective.
Another illustration is "Body and Soul" (1947), frequently cited as one of the best boxing movies. Written by one-time party member (and later blacklisted) Abraham Polonsky, the corruption of the boxing ring is clearly a metaphor for capitalism. "It's business," is the mantra of the corrupt promoter as he tempts the aspiring champ (John Garfield) into moral compromise. The next year Polonsky directed "Force of Evil," another blatant piece of red propaganda. This film is now revered as a classic by the (mostly) liberal or Leftist movie aficionados, like director Sydney Pollack.
It should be said, in fairness, that some of what these Communists inserted in their movies is far more palatable. In "Tender Comrade" Trumbo wrote a scene in which the Kim Hunter character happily blurts out that she has wed. Her new name is Dumbrowski. The unpleasant member of the quartet (later revealed as an isolationist as well) cracks, "You mean you traded a name like White for Dumbrowski?" To which the film's star, Ginger Rogers, interjects, "And what's wrong with Dumbrowski?" Pre-war Hollywood movies never, ever had scenes of tolerance like this. (Although "Tender Comrade" is pretty bad on its own terms, Trumbo was overall a talented and respected writer. His superior pre-blacklist scripts included sharing credit on "Kitty Foyle" , for which Ginger Rogers won the best actress Oscar, and his patriotic adaptation of the Ted W. Lawson, Robert Considine book recounting the Doolittle raid, "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" .)
Members of the "Ten" also promoted racial tolerance, which became a prominent theme in war pictures. For example, John Howard Lawson, described as one of the ringleaders of the "Ten," did this in Humphrey Bogart's "Sahara" (1943). And Albert Maltz wrote the 1945 short film, "The House I Live In," in which Frank Sinatra premiered the song that became one of his standards, teaching true Americanism to a bunch of kids who were bullying another boy because they didn't like his religion. This short received an honorary Oscar. Movies and scenes like these, and in many other movies of the '40s, helped to make America a much more tolerant country than it had been before the war.
After his release from prison, Trumbo wrote under pseudonyms in the '50s (e.g. "Roman Holiday" ) and later was resurrected, his name emblazoned back on the screen as writer-adaptor of Otto Preminger's "Exodus" (1960) as well as "Spartacus" (1960), starring and produced by Kirk Douglas. One of his blacklisted pals who also made it back was Ring Lardner, Jr. How fitting that this credited screenwriter of "M*A*S*H" (1970), one of the most vicious anti-American movies ever made, was a Communist. This hugely popular movie, much beloved by the Clinton generation, was directed by Robert Altman, who is still active, most recently with "Gosford Park" (2001). Altman is the patriot who shortly after September 11 told the London Times: "When I see an American flag flying, it's a joke," adding: "This present government in America I just find disgusting...."
Thus, the Left comes full circle. And readers of the New York Times, like readers of Pravda in the days of yore, wouldn't have a clue.