Sunday, May 18, 2014

Communism, Hollywood, Blacklists and Lies

In the early 20th century Communism was a political idea appealing to thoughtful people in numerous countries. It held out a solution to the abusive aspects of unrestrained capitalism and the corrupt favoritism of monarchies. No country was the signal leader in Communism as yet, and no issue of disloyalty to one’s nation arose, any more than in adherence to any other political ideology.

Then the Russian Revolution placed the Soviet Union as the world leader of Communism. In the United States the brutalities of the revolution caused many Americans to turn away from Communism now that it was associated with Russia and the destabilizing, violent churnings of Stalin’s murders.

But in World War II Russia was the United States’ ally, and the horrific losses suffered and determined conquest achieved by Russians on the Eastern Front brought the USSR back into guarded appreciation in the United States. Communists here felt vindicated, and Communism gained some new adherents, even though the USSR was now clearly the “home office” of the American Communist Party.

There was a sweep of liberalism across the United States; while voters chose Republican politicians, the labor unions gained in strength. And when even President Eisenhower, on leaving office, warned that the US’s principal challenge was its own “military industrial complex”, some saw Communism as the ultimate counterbalance – even though it meant perhaps a diversion of loyalty to Russia. 

But Russia, under Stalin and Khrushchev, very clearly had replaced the principals of communism with dictatorship and a program of expansion that had engulfed Eastern Europe and avowedly aimed at the world.

Communist Parties in Western Europe severed themselves from the USSR and remained viable independent political parties and an expression of an ideology unconnected to Russia. But in the US the Communist Party retained its links to Russia. 

Spy cases surfaced, with the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for smuggling the plans for the atomic bomb to Russia marking the beginning of the “arms race” and the Cold War that held over the world the real possibility of annihilation of all life on earth.

With this new and frightening world order of ever-readiness for universal death came a profound turning against those Americans who still adhered to the Communist Party in the United States. It might be looked upon as restraint that membership was not automatically considered treason. Senator Joseph Mccarthy headed a Senate investigative committee whose hearings were televised.

This was in the early days of popular ownership of television sets and my father and mother watched the proceedings as people later were fixated watching the burning and collapse of the World Trade Center – with this difference: the Mccarthy Hearings went on for weeks. 

My father, Fredric M. Frank, was a charter Member of the Screen Writers’ Guild, now the Writers Guild of America. He wrote films as a staff writer for Cecil B. de Mille. Patriotism and basic Christian faith (although my father was Jewish by descent) were values not imposed but shared by de Mille’s staff.

 When the Guild, moved by the Mccarthy hearings, began looking into Communist Party affiliations among its own membership, Fredric Frank was concerned, as were most Guild members then, about the influence that Communist adherents might have through the very influential medium of popular movies. 

A Blacklist was created by the Guild to alert studios to those writers who were members of the Communist Party or who refused to co-operate with the Mccarthy Hearings. Listed writers found work hard or impossible to get in Hollywood; most were forced to write under other names and/or to emigrate to Europe.  Among them were several of film’s finest writers.

One might well ask why these intelligent people continued to adhere to a party led by a foreign government that had so signally failed to effectively develop the principals of communism, that seized its neighboring countries’ assets and held on to them though the invading force of tanks – a country that was led by ruthless dictatorship and had a program of international imperialism. 

When many of their American comrades had renounced Russia’s travesty of communism, why did some still adhere and continue to be faithful to their Russian allied Communist Party when most Americans were looking upon Russia with cosiderable fear?

With the aging of the Cold War (without annihilation coming upon us), then with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the seriousness with which the Communist threat was taken in the 1950s ceased to be understood. And by the mid-1960s the Blacklisted screenwriters were free to write again under their own names in Hollywood.

And the backlash to the Blacklist set in. While the Guild as a whole took no responsibility for establishing the Blacklist, its members pointed out sacrificial victims, claiming their motives were not concern for their country but merely professional jealousy. Those targeted to take the blame for the Blacklist were now blacklisted themselves.

Among those targeted was my father, Fredric M. Frank. He had among his writing credits the de Mille films Samson and Delilah, the circus picture The Greatest Show on Earth for which he won an Oscar, and the classic The Ten Commandments. Now, at the height of his career, he was unable to get work.

In fifteen years (he died in 1977) he was able to sell only one screenplay. It was written solely by him, on speculation, and it was El Cid.

El Cid was sold through the producer Philip Yordan to Samuel Bronston who produced epic spectacle cinemas in Spain. Fredric moved to Spain for the better part of a year, rewriting his screenplay with the assistance of Spain’s foremost scholars of the life of Roderigo Diaz de Bivar, known as El Cid. 

Fredric’s contract with Bronston specified that when the completed shooting script was delivered and accepted and the final payment for the script paid, he was free to leave Spain and return home – this is a common clause in Guild scripts. (It was common practice in film making then for the miner rewrites needed in the course of shooting to be done by an uncredited rewrite person available on the set -- sometimes the producer or director's secretary..)

Seeing the completed film, my father was surprised to find rather fatuous scenes added to enlarge the role of Chimene for Sophia Lauren; and that now, instead of a producer’s credit, Yordan had a screenwriting credit. 

Yordan explained that Loren’s role had to be enlarged and his secretary, Clemmy, had done the job. He did not mention that the Italian government had put forth one million dollars to cover the costs of making Loren the second highest–paid film actress ever at that time. No wonder the role was enlarged and the camera lingered on her, to the disgust of her fellow-actor Charlton Heston.

That was how the issue remained until the 1990s. By this time the writers who had been blacklisted as Communists had become heroic victims and the writers who had supported the Blacklist were condemned or forgotten. 

But now the widow of one of the openly Communist writers, Ben Barzman, claimed that her husband was the actual writer of El Cid. Barzman had died in 1989 and never seems to have made any such claim himself, although Communist writers had long since been re-embraced by Hollywood.

But sympathy flew to the widow, Norma Barzman, whose claims grew more and more exaggerated. She may be seen repeatedly on features appended to the El Cid video, claiming that the Fredric Frank script was “trash”, “useless” and that, at the urging of Loren and Bronston, her husband re-wrote the whole shooting script – beginning with the opening scenes, inspired by the classic French play by Corneille.

Indeed, the whole of El Cid was inspired by Fred Frank’s reading of the Corneille play – and those opening scenes were filmed exactly as Frank, not Barzman, wrote them. (I have my father’s shooting scripts to prove it.)

Ben Barzman may have been the rewrite person at the shoots, present when the actors were present, but his contributions to the script were miner, if indeed his widow's claims are not complete fabrications intended chiefly to discredit a fancied political enemy.

The anti-Communist Blacklist lasted at most ten years – years of terrible struggle for the writers blocked from pursuing their professions in the United States. But the Backlash Blacklist, and the unconscionable support of claims such as those of Norma Barzman, have continued for more than thirty years and been perpetuated by irresponsible features producers and misplaced sympathies.

What’s to be gained from this? Hatred begets hatred, and no matter how patriotic the motive, the initiators can run the greatest risk of unending vindictiveness.