Tender Comrades

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The statistics of the McCarthy era still are mind boggling: 6.5 million U.S. citizens were investigated for "loyalty" by state or federal agencies, including the FBI. In the entertainment industry, the Hollywood blacklist began in 1947 and lasted some 13 years. During that time, 1,500 radio, television, and motion picture employees were fired, and 350 were made unemployable by the industry’s self-imposed and "unofficial" policy of denying work to anyone whose name appeared as a Communist (or former Communist or Communist sympathizer) in testimony given by witnesses before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

The game was brutally clear: appear before the Committee, confess the error of your ways, and then name your friends who are now or were in the past members of the Communist Party. Perform this simple ritual of contrition and betrayal and you will continue to work in Hollywood. Should you refuse, or decide to plead either the First or Fifth Amendment, you will at best lose your job, and at worst you will both lose your job and go to jail.

Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle in Tender Comrades have compiled a valuable and long overdue collection of interviews with 36 victims of the Hollywood blacklist. Some of the individuals are well known, such as directors Jules Dassin and Martin Ritt, screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. (one of the so-called Hollywood Ten, who spent nine months in prison for refusing to cooperate with HUAC), and actor Lionel Stander. Many of them, however, like screenwriter Norma Barzman, are unlikely to be familiar even to film buffs. She and her husband, Ben Barzman, also a writer, chose to leave the United States in 1951 rather than testify before HUAC. They lived in London and Paris, where there were thriving communities of blacklisted Hollywood exiles helping one another to find work in European television and films.

The U.S. Communist Party, or CPUSA, was so riddled with FBI spies and informants that the U.S. government was always fully apprised of what the party was up to and who its members were. Testifying before HUAC was a sham exercise in public humiliation, since the "names" the Committee was so anxious to hear were already known and accounted for. Russia didn’t utilize rank-and-file CPUSA members as spies, a point made forcefully in Allen Weinstein’s recent book, The Haunted Wood, a well-researched history of Stalin-era espionage in the United States. "Party life was very social," Norma Barzman says in Tender Comrades. "After all, it was Hollywood. Mostly we gave parties to raise money for causes." She mentions "helping Yugoslav fishermen, lettuce pickers, [and] the victims of the ‘zoot suit’ violence."

Lionel Stander, one of Hollywood’s great character actors, was interviewed for Tender Comrades shortly before his death in 1994. He appeared in dozens of films during the 30s and 40s, and while he never officially joined the Communist Party, he was active in Leftist politics. As early as 1940 he began to have difficulty finding jobs because of his outspoken views. Stander’s 1953 testimony before HUAC is a courageous example of an American citizen standing up to government bullying. "I know of some subversion," Stander told the House Committee. "I know of a group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the Constitution of the United States by depriving artists and others of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness without due process of law."

There would be no work for Stander in Hollywood during the 1950s. For a number of years he worked overseas, most notably in Roman Polanski’s 1966 film Cul-de-Sac. In the 1970s, Stander was working again in Hollywood films like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, and on U.S. television, where he had his widest exposure as Max, the chauffeur, in the TV series "Hart to Hart," from 1979 to 1984.

Tender Comrades was published in a paperback edition just as the controversy erupted over Elia Kazan’s honorary Oscar in 1999. Because of Kazan’s position as a preeminent American film director, his 1952 decision to appear as a friendly witness before HUAC has remained for decades the single most polarizing event of the Hollywood blacklist era. His name is invoked often throughout Tender Comrades. Blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein says Kazan "disgraced the profession." Director Jules Dassin says, "What he did was diabolical." Writer and director Abraham Polonsky says Kazan had "a rotten character." Kazan’s statement to HUAC listed the names of his friends and colleagues from the 1930s who had been Communists, just as he himself had been from 1934 to 1936. His testimony assured that he would continue to work comfortably in Hollywood.

The former blacklistees interviewed here remain unrepentant. They share a conviction that the beliefs and conduct they held to as members of the Communist Party were honest and not at all incompatible with their sense of themselves as good American citizens. As screenwriter Maurice Rapf says:

I never knew anyone in the Party — in all the years I was associated with it, which was a long, long time — who was seeking anything but humanistic goals. Certainly, there was never any attempt on the part of the people I knew to overthrow the government of the United States… We did believe in class struggle. I still believe in class struggle.

There are, of course, other interpretations that dispute the historical portrait that emerges in these pages. Elia Kazan’s own 1988 autobiography, A Life, describes at length Kazan’s disgust with the Communist Left and why he chose to act in the manner he did and offer his testimony to HUAC. And a book published earlier this year, Hollywood Party, by Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, offers scathing documentation of the underhanded tactics used by the Communist Party to infiltrate Hollywood trade unions in the 30s and 40s, as well as the lockstep demands that the CPUSA — under orders from Stalin’s Moscow — placed on its members.

The blacklist was finally broken in 1960 when Dalton Trumbo — who’d been writing scripts (and even winning an Oscar) using aliases such as "Robert Rich" — received screen credit under his own name for his work on Exodus and Spartacus. Trumbo was one of the fortunate few blacklisted individuals who managed to work in Hollywood surreptitiously while the blacklist was in effect. Most weren’t so lucky. The "red scare" was more than a scare, it was a waking nightmare that destroyed careers and, in a few instances, lives. The first-hand stories told in Tender Comrades make for a fascinating and heartbreaking oral history of a shameful period in 20th century American culture.

Bob Wake