Imagine you are a progressive and anti-Fascist in 1930s America. You join a communist organisation because it seems they are the only ones standing up to Hitler and Mussolini. Pearl Harbor happens, and you feel vindicated — it’s Uncle Sam and Uncle Joe together. Then the war is won. The USSR becomes the enemy, Fascists are recuperated for democracy [tm], and opportunist politicians like Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon seek to make their names by declaring you unamerican. “Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?”
That was the situation which confronted many Hollywood figures in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Some capitulated, others stood firm. With this season we showcase the work of some notable blacklist victims.
Leo Hurwitz / Paul Strand | USA | 1942 | 80 minutes
Paul Robeson narrates a mix of dramatizations and archival footage about the bill of rights being under attack during the 1930s by union busting corporations, their spies and contractors. In dramatizations, we see a farmer beaten for speaking up at a meeting, a union man murdered in a boarding house, two sharecroppers near Fort Smith Arkansas shot by men deputized by the local sheriff, a spy stealing the names of union members, and a dead Chicago union man eulogized. In archival footage we witness police and hired thugs (or do I repeat myself) beating lawfully assembled union organizers, and men at work and union families at play.
This independent production took directors Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand five years to make and presents a Soviet rather than Hollywood approach to narrative in declining to focus upon a single identification figure/hero. Indeed, the character who has the most screen time is the one playing the bosses’ spy. The actor who played him, Howard Da Silva, had himself been a steelworker and would go on, like Robeson, to be a victim of the blacklist.
The Sound of Fury / Try and Get Me
Cy Endfield| USA | 1950 | 88 minutes
Based on Jo Pagano’s novel The Condemned, the film recreates a dismal chapter in American history. In 1933, the otherwise peace-loving citizens of San Jose, CA, were stirred up by blind hatred into forming a mob and lynching two accused kidnappers (this same incident was fictionalized in the 1935 Fritz Lang film Fury).
Director Endfield wound up in the UK, where he directed the likes of Hell Drivers, featuring a young Sean Connery, and Zulu.
Salt of the Earth + The Hollywood Ten
Herbert J. Biberman | USA | 1954 | 94 minutes
Based on an actual strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico, Salt of the Earth deals with prejudice against Mexican-American workers, who struck to attain equality in wages and treatment with their Anglo-American counterparts. While never officially banned — that would have been unamerican, after all — the film’s stance and exposure of the divide and rule practices of the bosses in the political climate of the times obviously contributed to the extremely limited release that it did receive.
Director Biberman was one of the Hollywood Ten and had earlier directed the short documentary of the same name, which will be shown before Salt of the Earth.
Tell them Willie Boy is Here
Abraham Polonsky | USA | 1969 | 94 minutes
Polonsky returned to direction after 21 blacklist years since Force of Evil, with this contemporary Western about a manhunt for a Piute Indian presumed guilty of a crime defined by circumstance rather than by fact. The allegory about witch-hunting is there for the asking, taken a stage further than usual in the bitter irony whereby the hitherto Americanised Willie, accused in effect of being an Indian, gradually reverts to being an Indian in the archetypally savage sense.
Polonsky’s service with OSS during World War II — i.e. the organisation that subsequently became the CIA — counted for nothing as far as HUAC was concerned and he was blacklisted.
Johnny Got His Gun
Dalton Trumbo | USA | 1971 | 111 minutes
Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war novel of the same name, about a WWI doughboy who is left limbless, blind, deaf and mute and – in contradiction of the military doctors – mentally intact following a shell explosion was first published in 1939. With the US’s entry into WWII Trumbo had the novel withdrawn from publication, feeling that the fight against fascism was paramount. When receiving correspondence from isolationist/America First/Nazi sympathisers during the war he would pass it on to the FBI. Much like Polonsky this mattered naught to HUAC. With the novel enjoying a new lease of life in the context of Vietnam and Trumbo’s fronted work in the 1950s coming into the open, he then made his directorial debut — and, as it would turn out only directorial credit — with this adaptation.
Martin Ritt | USA | 1976 | 95 minutes
Several blacklist victims appear before and behind the cameras in this comedy about the relationships between a front — i.e. a non-blacklisted person who presented the work of those blacklisted as their own — and his clients. Woody Allen plays the front, who gradually becomes politically and morally aware and ends up himself taking a stand.