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Hollywood’s ‘Un-American activities committee’.

Posted by keith1942 on March 23, 2016

huac_title

This committee did not really exist but there were plenty of possible contenders for membership. If it hadexisted, two definite members would have been John Wayne and Hedda Hopper. Both are characters in two recent films that include the infamous Congressional Committee hearings and the studio ‘blacklist’.

First up was Trumbo (2015), directed by Jay Roach and adapted by John McNamara from a book by  Bruce Cook, with a star turn in the title role by Bryan Cranston. The film starts in the late 1940s and follows the development of the HUAC witch-hunt, the craven appeasement by the heads of the studios and then the struggle by the famed Hollywood Ten [mainly writers] to continue working and finally end the blacklisting. The film works as a sort of biopic of Dalton Trumbo and over emphasises his role in the story. To give one example. The film includes the  dramatisation of Trumbo, along with the other nine ‘unfriendly witnesses’, being jailed for contempt of Congress. In a scene in jail he meets ex-Congressman Parnell Thomas, one-time Chair of HUAC, now in prison for misuse of his office payroll. In actual fact it was two other members of the Ten who were at the same prison as Thomas, Ring Lardner and Lester Cole. And it was Cole who exchanged the lines with Thomas [mis] quoted in the film.

But in other ways the film has merits. It seems to be the best treatment of the notorious era coming out of a mainstream US feature film. Early in the film there is space for the radical activities of the members of the Communist Party USA working in Hollywood, including supporting strikes and opposing victimisation of migrant workers. The political tensions between the various writers is also apparent; in a couple of scenes Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), another writers, draws attention to the contradictions between Trumbo’s radical sympathies and his privileged life style. Moreover the film treats the film footage, or recreations of the same, with proper respect and correct aspect ratios.

Trumbo and Hopper

Trumbo and Hopper

As you might expect the film has little sense of the actual politics of the Communist Party USA, or indeed of the International Communist Movement of which it was a member. Neither does it delve deeply into the politics that lay behind phenomenon like HUAC; for example the wartime alliance with the USSR and the question of the legacy of F.D. Roosevelt. It does though characterise the Hollywood conservatives, especially the aforesaid John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). The latter piece of casting would seem to continue the Hollywood convention of casting British actors as villains.

There is more British casting in the second film, Hail, Caesar! (USA 2015) with a Hedda Hopper style character played this time by Tilda Swinton. The film was by Ethan and Joel Coen. This is a pastiche of Hollywood at the start of the 1950s, revisiting the Capital Pictures studio of their earlier movie Barton Fink (1991). This is not serious drama like Trumbo. In fact it is pretty over the top. Despite being set in 1951 at one point a film is using Vista Vision, which only arrived in 1954: and the aspect ratios are all over the place. In the filming of a musical sequence Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum)  is aping not just Gene Kelly but also Fred Astaire.

Where HUAC and the blacklist make their entrance is when the Studio chief and fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) finds that his biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped and he is faced with a ransom demand. What the audience already know is that Whitlock has been kidnapped by a not very secretive group of blacklisted writers. They are assisted by Professor Marcuse (John Bluthall – I wrote that it is over the top). Of course, Trumbo is a political treatise compared with this film. I thought the plotline bizarre. However, on reflection it occurs to me that if you recognise that the paranoia of HUAC and the associated campaigns affected not just it proponents but many ordinary US citizens then the fantasy of the kidnapping might have been believed. In fact we have a sequence where the main communist subversive, Gurney, attempts to decamp to the Soviet Union with the ransom money.

Kidnapped Baird Whitlock

Kidnapped Baird Whitlock

Over the years Hollywood has ventured into the territory of what was popularly termed McCarthyism. During the actual period there were a number of films that supported the investigations, persecutions and reactionary rhetoric. John Wayne persuaded Warner Bros. to produce Big Jim McLain (1952), a supposed police procedural which used actual footage of the hearings edited [fairly obviously] into the studio-based sequences.

But there have also been critical forays into the territory. Trumbo details the way in which its protagonist and his follow writers survived by working under pseudonyms and ‘fronts’. This is the strategy highlighted for comic effect in Woody Allen’s The Front (1976). Howard Prince in  that film is a typical Allen creation. And there is little exploration of the actual HUAC and its activities. The film does also include the effects on the new medium of Television. A writer is also the focus in another film from the same studio, Columbia Pictures, The Way We Were (1973). In fact we have two writers, Katie (Barbra Streisand) and Hubbell (Robert Redford): though it is Hubbell who works as a screenwriter in Hollywood. There is an interesting sequence in which Katie and Hubbell return from the demonstration by Hollywood luminaries in support of the Hollywood Ten. However, the film was actually edited before release with a couple of scenes from this point in the film removed. It seems that the end product was more in line with Hubbell/Redford’s views than Katie/Streisand’s. She was clearly, like Katie, the more  radical. The film also suggests that the apolitical Hubbell has the greater writing talent. This is in line with Hollywood’s convictions that commitment and screenwriting are best separated.

Way we were

Guilty by Suspicion (1991) from C20th Fox was originally planned from a script by Abraham Polonsky, a writer and director whose best work [e.g. Force of Evil 1948) possibly came closest to a Hollywood critique of capitalism. However, Polonsky’s pitch for a filmmaker who was indeed a communist, was too close to history. The final film has a liberal filmmaker who finally testifies before the HUAC committee.

The Majestic (2001) from Castle Rock Entertainment has Jim Carey as Peter Appleton, a Hollyood writer accused of being a communist. The plot has Peter involved in an accident, suffering amnesia and turning up in a Californian town where he is believed to be missing war hero. Cleary the film sublimates the terrors of HUAC and allows the protagonist to indulge in a dream-like wish fulfilment. This continues when he recovers and appears before a Congressional Committee. An impassioned speech, relayed on television, sways the audience in his favour. Art least the film avoids a completely saccharine resolution as he finds he can no longer work within the required conventions of Hollywood.

Cradle Will Rock (1999) is set in the 1930s, when the HUAC predecessor, the Dies Committee, was investigating the Federal Theatre Programme: part of the New Deal. The film is based on actual events around the production of a theatrical musical The Cradle Will Rock. The film is very political by US mainstream film standards, [produced by Tocustone Pictures and distributed by Buebna Vista]. It uses what are usually described as ‘Brechtian techniques’ to present a radical representation of the events, issues and period..

There are also a number of US documentaries about HUAC and the blacklist. However, the radical screenwriters and other communist members or ‘fellow travellers’ in Hollywood were not greatly interested in the documentary. But after the blacklist at least three, Herbert J Biberman, Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico, were inspired to work in social realism – that memorable feature based on the real-life struggles of ‘Chicanos’ in New Mexico, Salt of the Earth (1954).

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