Thursday, November 25, 2004


This semi-recent article on Budd Schulberg (the author of What Makes Sammy Run? and On the Waterfront) is pretty good as such things go, portraying him as the complicated guy he is, and giving a fair portrayal of his reasons for testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Still, I can't help but feel frustrated that such a long article says almost nothing about this guy -- who had a long career and created one of the most famous and controversial fictional characters of the era -- except that he Named Names (tm). Any article about Schulberg, as about Elia Kazan or Edward Dmytryk, makes that the central event of his life and career. It's not so much bothersome as boring; there are other things to write about.

Nobody needs me to tell that that the Hollywood blacklist and naming names and HUAC have achieved mythological status, and, as always when history turns into myth, everything gets simplified (obvious example: many, many people think that Senator Joe McCarthy was the head of HUAC). The myth-making started in the middle of the HUAC hearings themselves, when Dalton Trumbo shouted "this is the beginning of an American Concentration Camp" (to which a HUAC member replied, pompously but accurately, "This is typical Communist tactics"), a rant that was both a nostalgic trip back to '30s "anti-fascism" and a look forward to an era when a comparison to Naziism would be the default comparison for anything the speaker doesn't like. Comparisons to the Nazis have become so commonplace now that I wouldn't be surprised to see a commercial based on it: "First they came for the Jews. Then they came for the Communists. And then they came for my delicious Hostess Fruit Pies!"

In recent years, in response to this overblown mythology, there's been an attempt to create a counter-mythology, whereby Kazan and Schulberg become brave heroes who did the right thing and suffered the slings and arrows of Steven Spielberg. But this makes even less sense than the standard myth of evil opportunists selling out to the fascists. To make Schulberg a hero, you'd have to demonstrate not only that he thought he was doing the right thing, but that he actually did some good, directly or indirectly. I can't see that he did.

In essence, HUAC's investigation of Communism in show business was an investigation of a phenomenon that had already peaked; yet another example of the rule that a government committee never gets around to investigating something until it's over. I think there's a strong case to be made that the influence of the Communist Party had a bad effect on the arts in the '30s -- pressuring writers and other artists to make their work crude, simplistic, and one-dimensionally targeted to The Masses. Schulberg split with the Party when they tried to pressure him out of writing What Makes Sammy Run?; others just followed the Party line. The disproportionate influence of a political party is never a good thing for the arts; when it's a political party like the Communist party, you can make a very strong case that it would have been worth an investigation at the time. But by the late '40s, this influence had dissipated and the arts had a whole new set of problems, which weren't at all helped by fears of the government cracking down on the problems of a decade ago. I'd be more impressed with Schulberg or Kazan or others if they had Named Names in the '30s when it might actually have done some good.

The ironic thing about the way the blacklist era is remembered is that the real villains of the era, the Hollywood studios, somehow don't get as much of a pummelling as a few people who talked to a government committee. The usual excuse for the Hollywood moguls is that they were afraid of government action, or of anti-Semitism. But when you come right down to it, what they were really afraid of was losing money. And once a Larry Parks was known to the public as a Communist, he became a potential money-loser -- because the public was highly anti-Communist ("liberals" and "conservatives" alike), and movie studios don't usually want to make a movie with an actor whose very presence will piss off most of the public. I'm not trying to dismiss the damage done to Larry Parks or to the other people who lost their livelihoods. But I think it's a mistake to blame this primarily on the government, when the real story, it seems to me, is of Hollywood focusing on the bottom line, as always. Talent is pretty expendable in Hollywood -- if you cut loose one writer or actor, you can usually find another just as good, because supply always exceeds demand. When an "expendable," like a second-tier star or a second-tier screenwriter, proved to have an affiliation that might make him unpopular with the public (and thus might hurt ticket sales of a movie with his name on it), he was cut loose without a moment's thought. An interesting question is what would have happened if a big star, a non-expendable, had been exposed as a present or former Communist; the closest this came to happening was the 1953 revelation that Lucille Ball had registered to vote as a Communist in 1936, and this soon became a non-issue -- because Ball was not an expendable, and she was worth more than the economic cost of this mini-Red-Scare.

And yet, as others have pointed out, the people who actually did the blacklisting were treated more kindly by history than the people who did not directly refuse to hire anybody. I think this may have something to do with populism; if you blame the government and people who collaborated with the government, you don't have to blame private citizens, let alone "the people" as a whole. This is particularly important for people in Hollywood, who are the ones most obsessed with the blacklist era; they live to please studio executives and the general public, and they don't particularly want to think that the people who pay them were the ones who really made the blacklist happen. In that sense, all the arguing about the Kazans and Schulbergs is not just overblown but irrelevant. They weren't where the action was; they were guys working out their personal issues with a movement -- Stalinism in the arts -- that had burned out some years before. The real issue at the time was a marketing issue: can the industry afford to be thought of as Communist-influenced at a time when the public is, in the words of Irving Berlin, getting "ready for Uncle Joe?" The most relevant comparison is to baseball; Buck Weaver was kicked out of baseball, despite only minimal participation in the 1919 World Series fix, because baseball was perceived as having a corruption problem and had to kick out anybody who was seen as linked to the gamblers and game-fixers. The Hollywood blacklist can be seen in much the same way: Hollywood was improving its image by booting out people who were affiliated with something the public didn't like. Pace Trumbo, it wasn't the beginning of an American Concentration Camp; it was another chapter in the great, sordid American story of branding and marketing.

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