Guest Essay Archive


January 4, 2014

Robert Rossen: The Squeezing of a Screenwriter

By Ron Capshaw

Hollywood routinely celebrates the “Hollywood Ten”—a group of screenwriters who, in 1947, refused to admit membership in the Communist Party under questioning by the House Un-American Activities Committee—as lionhearted liberals repressed by the fascists in Washington. Toward the end of his life, Dalton Trumbo, one of the Ten, poured cold water on that conventional wisdom. Acknowledging the constraints that HUAC witnesses were under in that strange time, he said everyone brought before the committee, even those who “named names,” was a victim. What an uproar that caused. The other members of the Ten – who had spent years dining out on their sufferings – were in high dudgeon. They attacked Trumbo for taking a broader perspective, and none did so more hotly than screenwriter Albert Maltz.

This was ironic. Maltz was more of a victim than most – largely at the hands of his fellow communists, to be sure. He is famous for repenting a moment of frankness, an essay in which he called Marxism an intellectual straitjacket for writers. Maltz was the very sort of collaborator with ideological enforcers that he always accused HUAC’s “friendly” witnesses of being. He knuckled under to Red bullies and recanted his essay. (His scurrying back into the fold has an analog today – the Scientologists brutalize each other and enforce obedience, proving that there is something about Hollywood that lastingly nurtures cults.)

The Maltz affair sickened a fair number of movieland Marxists, with many abandoning the Party after such an illiberal display. It was obvious then, if largely forgotten today by the historically undereducated Left, that the Ten were not so much upholding free speech as they were trying to destroy HUAC, a confrontational method in line with “doing our revolutionary duty,” in the words of a communist actress who tried to buck up the Ten as they went off to prison for contempt of Congress.

Were there real heroes amid the blustery Bolsheviks and blustery counter-subversives of the blacklist days? Let me nominate one: Robert Rossen. Victor Navasky of The Nation singled out Trumbo as the most talented screenwriter in Hollywood but it was probably Rossen. Both in terms of quality and progressivism, Rossen had the better record. While Trumbo cranked out forgettable wartime agitprop such as Tender Comrade (in which he depicted a group of Rosie-the-Riveters pooling their income by moving in together as a gloriously successful commune), and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (with standard anti-Japanese outbursts), Rossen wrote the screenplays for Marked Woman (1937), Edge of Darkness (from 1942, considered today one of the best movies of the World War II era), Body and Soul  (from 1947, thought by cineastes to be the finest prizefight movie ever made) and the Academy Award-winners All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961). Mervyn LeRoy had brought Rossen to Hollywood on the strength of a single play he wrote; the investment paid off, for within a decade he was directing as well as writing.

Rossen was a member of the Communist Party from 1937 to 1947. A Jew, he joined the Party for anti-fascist reasons. By the postwar period, he had drifted out, having concluded that Marxism did not fit American conditions. But he still retained some sympathies with his former comrades.

That is, until All the King’s Men. While making that film, Rossen was summoned by John Howard Lawson, the head of the Hollywood Communist Party, to a meeting in which Rossen experienced his own Maltz-like episode. Lawson led other Party members, including Maltz, in berating Rossen for making a cinematic adaption of Robert Penn Warren’s thinly veiled novel about the rise and fall of the autocratic Huey Long. The comrades were worried lest the Louisiana governor remind American moviegoers of Josef Stalin (see photo).

All the King's Men balcony scene

The “meeting” that Lawson convened to discipline the wayward Rossen lasted through the night. He was made of sterner stuff than Albert Maltz; he told Lawson off and forever left the Party.

It took courage to stand up to this cultural commissar. Described by former Party members as a “sectarian son of a bitch,” Lawson ruled the Tinseltown Reds with an iron fist. He had spent a decade keeping mildly rebellious members in line. When fellow Ten members Adrian Scott and Edward Dmytryk dared to remove a doctrinaire screenwriter from a project, Lawson forced them to hire back said screenwriter and informed them that they were out of the Party until further notice. One of Lawson’s pronouncements was that “fascists”—which in the Party lexicon included everyone from Robert Taft to Leon Trotsky—were ineligible for free-speech protections.

Perhaps what gave Rossen his strength as an artist was his libertarian streak. Whereas Maltz’s and Trumbo’s screenplays had a way of consigning personal freedom to a backseat for the benefit of the “greater good” (in their minds, the workers making headway in the class struggle), Rossen’s Edge of Darkness took a stand against fascism in the name of individual liberty. True enough, Rossen honored the Party line in some respects in this film about a Norwegian revolt against the Nazi occupiers: the capitalist factory head is a collaborator, whereas the head of the anti-Nazi resistance is a labor leader. Crucially, though, in a scene where an aged teacher confronts a brutal Gauleiter and refuses to allow the quartering of German troops in his house (all the while being literally slapped down the stairs), there occurs a speech that is worlds away from Party doctrine:

“You cannot have my house. What’s mine is mine and I forbid you to enter it … Do you think you can stop the workings of my brain?. . . The individual man must stand against you like a rock.”

Such sentiments led Rossen to Penn Warren’s highly regarded political novel about Long of Louisiana, which showed not only the omelet, but the messy breaking of the eggs necessary to make one. All the King’s Men, in its film version, spends more time on the shady deals, the pay-offs, and the strong-arm tactics of the demagogue’s police force than on the hospitals and universities he built.

By 1951, it was Robert Rossen’s turn to be fixed in the glare of congressional inquiry. Taking the Fifth Amendment before HUAC, he got blacklisted. Unable to find work in New York theater, which was usually a haven for those booted from the film industry, Rossen, according to his son, was morose about not being able to work; his diabetes worsened and his drinking increased.

Two years later, Rossen appeared before HUAC a second time and named 57 communists. His statement before the committee —“given the world situation I don’t feel I can take the luxury of personal morality” –whether expedient or not, showed how far he had traveled from individual liberty to the greater good for Cold War America. Now that Rossen was back on the studio payroll, he was predictably ostracized by his former comrades. Lillian Hellman proclaimed him “unclean.”  Albert Maltz labeled him a stool pigeon.

Robert Rossen

Robert Rossen

His former comrades assumed greedy motives on his part, but the available evidence is that he never lost his social conscience. The theme of capitalist immorality is quite visible in that now-classic pool hall tale, The Hustler. In the Party, out of the Party, Rossen was always politically incorrect – always entertaining the possibility that those who gain power over others will overstep themselves and abuse it.

Robert Rossen is rarely taken note of in retrospectives about the communist controversy in America. Unlike with Trumbo, there are no documentaries honoring him narrated by A-List stars. But the Rossen story is emblematic. It tells us there were indeed heroes and victims – not only in the 1950s with the blacklist, but before that, when communist influence in Hollywood was at its high tide, a period that included the alliance with the Soviet Union to defeat fascism. When the moment arrived to take a stand for free speech – the Hollywood Ten celebrities’ incessant slogan, though it was inapt for their fight against HUAC – it was the “stool pigeon” Rossen who passed the test against communist thought-control that lesser mortals like Albert Maltz flunked. ⌘ 

Historian Ron Capshaw is a writer in Midlothian, Virginia.


July 5, 2014 

What’s Going On Here?

By B. O. Goodbody

Was America’s “singing Left” a threat to the American republic? After reading “Peter Seeger: The Communist Consumers Loved” on the First Things website recently,  I checked the “comments” section which followed. My favorite of these said the following:

I note this article has nothing to say about Seeger abandoning communism gradually (starting in the 1940s). . . . I also note this piece’s soft-pedaling of the House Un-American Activities subpoena, indictment, and trial, [is] as appalling as ever. Seeger was under indictment, trial, and conviction for 5 years! For refusing to testify about his political beliefs and those of his friends! This happened in America! The author says the “system” “vindicated” him? Preposterous.

When a serious student of American politics comes across a statement like, “the system—that hated thing—had vindicated [Seeger’s] right to his views,” his level of intellectual discomfort can only go in one direction. This essay offers up some reasons why mine has gone sky high.

Perhaps, early in her life, “from [the author’s] own spot in the Great American Middle—a subdivision of ranch houses erected on flat farmland west of Chicago,” the American system could hardly have seemed better. Thus, she thinks it “curious” that when the “postwar children of prosperity” sat down to enjoy some folk music, they were served up songs that included frequent references to “hard times,” e. g., people suffering in the Dust Bowl, or in a chain gang, or from the Great Depression.

Why “curious”? Your Cheating Heart was pretty popular back in those days. Would it be “curious” for Hank Williams to make reference to the ups and downs of romantic love? One did not have to be American communist in the 1950s to understand that this country also has had its ups and downs, even during the Eisenhower administration. Among these were Jim Crow, in north and south, two recessions, and poverty that was by no means confined to Appalachia. Yes, the bad old 1930s were a thing of the past, but for anyone who could read a newspaper and had some imagination, there was still plenty of room for improvement in the United States.

One genius quoted by the author observes, “One of the first things that must be understood about these [folk music] revivals is that the folk have very little to do with them.” One of the first things that must be understood about any sort of popular good or service is: who’s going to buy it? “The folk,” whomever they were, weren’t buying many records or attending concerts. But, unlike their predecessors, the young people who joined the economy immediately after the Second World War had a good bit of discretionary money to spend. Thus, all of the advertising pointed in their direction, to say nothing of graduation speeches suggesting that “today’s students are the most brilliant, most caring, most involved, blah, blah, blah, in the history of man.” These new consumers put their money down to listen to the sort of music they happened to like at the time. It’s called capitalism. The popularity of folk music came and went because of our market economy.

Another genius cited in this essay sees all sorts of “contradictions.” For example, the reader is supposed to be amazed that these song writers, part of “an alienated, jazz-driven, literary Bohemia turned to the simple songs of an old, rural America.” Shockingly, these sources included old English ballads, slave songs, even children’s ditties. It turns out that “several of [Woody] Guthrie’s best known offerings were built on borrowed melodies.” Did you know that This Land Is Your Land was “based on a Baptist hymn called When the World’s on Fire”? Next thing you know, they’ll be telling us that some of the tales in the Canterbury Tales were borrowed from other storytellers. What’s next? The plays of Shakespeare? The crime dramas of Alfred Hitchcock?

This article is full of telling details that would probably escape even the closest students of domestic communism in the United States. I had not realized that these “political themes made their way into popular music” on the direct orders of the CPUSA. (For any dummies out there, “CPUSA” means “Communist Party of the United States of America.”) You see, back in 1935, there was this Russian fellow by the name of Georgi Dmitrov, high up in the Party bureaucracy in Moscow. He ordered American communists to “go out and make antifascist alliances with liberals.” (We’re not told why they were not asked to make alliances with conservatives.) According another genius cited by the author, “the communists obediently fanned out into the American labor movement and civil rights activities.” (Now, I guess we know why they weren’t told to make alliances with conservatives.) Very impressive. When Georgi spoke, people listened.

On a personal note, one has to wonder about the author’s parents and neighbors. Why didn’t they tell her that, in 1952, Burl Ives had testified before the U. S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and had identified Pete Seeger as a communist? My parents were ever alert to serious threats to our national security. Indeed, I remember my father, of all people, quoting Plato’s famous line about the dangers of music to the state. There was no doubt about it, Pete Seeger made dangerous music. And, since Mr. Ives was the author of “Rudolph the RED-nosed reindeer,” I figured he must know what he was talking about. “Then, one snowy night . . . ” Great stuff.

“Even today,” says the author, “the back story is not well-known. But it should be.” But why must this “back story” be told? Well, don’t you see, “it sharpens our view of several interconnected matters.” Heavens, what could those be? 1) “the communist controversy in the United States,” the one that obsesses some on the far right to this day, but has been in decline since the middle of the 1980s; 2) “market capitalism’s ability to absorb and soften extreme ideas,” the ones that most American consumers and voters have forgotten about—anybody heard from Georgi Dmitrov lately?; and 3) “the decades-long domination of our cultural scene by the ‘forever-young’ generation born during and shortly after the Second World War.” (If the reference here is to the “Baby Boomers,” demographers direct our attention to those born between 1946 and 1964.)

I can understand the conservative desire to re-enliven the issue of domestic communism. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the GOP got a lot of points on the board with the Alger Hiss case, the fall of China, the unpopular Korean War, and charges of 209 (or was it 57? 257?) communists in the State Department. Let’s all “sharpen our view.” After all, with the passage of time, people tend to forget how “soft” the Democrats were on communism. Where are Joe McCarthy, Spiro Agnew, and Robert Welch now that we need them? And, yes, we must “sharpen our view” of the Boomers. Many young Baby Boomers, white and black, marched for the enactment the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the mid-1960s, an enlarged cohort of young blacks rioted in cities all over America. And Boomers marched and demonstrated against the Vietnam War. Their political activity helped create an atmosphere that much advantaged Republican candidates like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. If conservatives tell and retell “the back story” of Pete Seeger and other “Bolshevik balladeers,” they will help to recreate that atmosphere. All together now, let’s “sharpen our view”!

Seeger in uniform, 1944, photo by Joseph A. Horne (Library of Congress)

Some passages in the piece convey a mild disdain for Mr. Seeger even when he doing an honorable thing. To be sure, he did not volunteer for the Army. Like millions of other Americans, he was drafted. But here, we are told, “Seeger wasconscripted into the Army.” Sounds like they had to put hand-cuffs on the guy to make him cooperate. The only place where the people under discussion are given an inch in the humanity department is when the author allows “that they genuinely loved the music.”

Some of this author’s discussions about music raised chuckles from this reader. Maybe they could be rewritten with more attention to their potential for sustained humor. How about the influence of the Bolshevik balladeers on real politics? If ever there was evidence of Seeger’s political naivete, it appears in 1948 when he “went on the campaign trail with [former Vice President Henry] Wallace to enliven the Progressive Party’s rallies.” Apparently Seeger believed his candidate would do somewhat better than he ended up doing and was “demoralized” for awhile. One can see why. In his race against Truman, Dewey, and Senator Thurmond of South Carolina, Wallace came in fourth! He received a little over one million popular votes, half of which were cast in New York state, and no electoral college votes. Somehow, Seeger’s music failed to have much of an impact on election day.

It is also possible to get laugh or two at the expense of People’s Songs, which lasted from 1945 to 1949. Their efforts include “paeans to the Office of Price Administration,” a “song deploring the allegedly unjust provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act,” and a musical attack on the Marshall Plan. A friendly critic is quoted: the lyrics of such songs were “only likely to have meaning to the Communist Left” (and La La Land?). For once, the author’s conclusion is on target: “pretty dreary output.” No wonder there were some “party apparatchiks not of the musical persuasion.” They were highly doubtful that such “cornpone” music could “bring down the system.” Truer words were never spoken. In this case, Revolutionary music was to Revolution as Military music is to music.

Henry Wallace

We are told in this article that “Folk music did not go away with the political marginalization of Red folkies.” But it just might be that the marginalization of the Red folkies can be explained, in part, by the dreariness of their later “political songs”—many directed at the “Red-hunters coming after them” and, sometimes, at liberals who were deemed to have “betrayed” the Left. “Talking Un-American Blues” was a slap at HUAC; “The Birch Society” and “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” had an obvious target. Phil Ochs, a former liberal, came up with “I Ain’t a Marchin’ Anymore” and “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.”

As you will see, it is easy to understand why the author tells the story of Eleanor Johnson Buchanan. This housewife was particularly outraged by a song the Weavers sang called “The Banks of Marble.” It was “an invitation to the weary miner, the put-upon farmer, and the unemployed seaman to ‘make a stand’ and then ‘we’d own those banks of marble, with a guard at every door. And we’d share those vaults of silver that we have sweated for.’ ” Mrs. Buchanan played it various “community assemblies” to foster resentment against Pete Seeger and his colleagues. After all, her husband was a U. S. Marine who had seen action in Europe and “was now off fighting the communists in Korea.” As far as she was concerned the Weavers were a bunch of “domestic Reds” who “racked up big earnings by attacking the system [her husband] was risking his life to defend.” She and her father were “part of the popular groundswell against the Weavers that sidelined their act by the early 1950s.”

It is not hard to appreciate Mrs. Buchanan’s outrage. We can be certain that she agreed with the Congress when it concluded that Pete Seeger’s failure to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities warranted a vote for Contempt of Congress. And that she applauded his subsequent conviction (which he appealed, see below). On the other hand, she and her allies might have taken the time and trouble to think about what our men in uniform were fighting to defend.Was her husband overseas to defend just those Americans who happened to share the couple’s political opinions?

If she was still around in the early 1960s, she could have taken a look at a decision offered up by the United States Court of Appeals Second Circuit on May 18, 1962. The case was United States v. Peter Seeger, 303 F.2d 478. In a unanimous decision, Circuit Court Judge Kaufman and his two colleagues reversed a lower court and dismissed the indictment against Mr. Seeger. Without summarizing the whole opinion, allow me to underline three statements that Americans should appreciate (including Eleanor Johnson Buchanan):

The issue then is not only whether Congress, or the prosecutor, or even a judge might believe that the defendant is guilty of contempt; it is whether he has been accused and tried in full compliance with the transcending principles of fairness embodied in our Constitution and protected by our law. . . . The methods we employ in the enforcement of our criminal law have aptly been called the measures by which the quality of our civilization may be judged. . . . [Thus] We are not inclined to dismiss lightly claims of constitutional stature because they are asserted by one who may appear unworthy of sympathy. Once we embark upon shortcuts by creating a category of the “obviously guilty” whose rights are denied, we run the risk that the circle of the unprotected will grow.

The article in First Things ignores evidence of evolution in Seeger’s political opinions. He is forever the Seeger of the late 1930s and 1940s. If its author believes the it was “the hated system” that was vindicated, why wasn’t there more attention to one of its finer hours?

We’re told that what came to be called the New Left “had little taste for” the USSR, although “it did absorb the Old Left’s opposition to American foreign policy.” Again, one does not have to be a member of the Old Left or the New Left (much less a communist) to conclude that our participation in the Vietnam War or, more recently, the Iraq War, were not wise undertakings. Many Americans have so concluded. Our nation is having to learn the hard way that the most enviable aspects of our political system (which many of our own politicians often fail to honor) might be beyond the present capacities—social and economic—of many, if not most, developing countries.

Again, just because we are a powerful country does not mean that we know how to deal very well with this hard reality. For example, if the neoconservatives were serious about developing an effective American foreign policy that fulfilled (at least some of) their goals, they would demand much greater attention to the study of foreign languages in our schools. Fostering serious and worthwhile change abroad can be ennobling work. Like working in the Peace Corps. Haven’t heard much about that group lately, have you?

The author argues that the “real uniqueness” of the New Left “lay in a self-absorption of the most open and frank kind.” Perhaps. But this phenomenon in the West is hardly confined one political group. When it comes to music, the “personal, subjective stuff” has taken hold of an entire generation, left, right, center, and those sitting in the idiot box. Scratch an environmentalist, a pacifist, a feminist, or a representative of most any ethnic or religious group, and you will often find a person whose self-identity is strongly tied to a (relatively narrow) political cause.

One political difficulty with political “self-absorption” is that the parties (particularly the Democrats) find it more difficult to organize across its various constituencies. It is one price that we must pay for “identity politics.” Polite Democrats will listen when one group or another whines about their difficulties. But, not infrequently, their reaction comes down to: “Gee, isn’t that too bad? But gosh, but I’ve got my own problems.”

This development presents quite a challenge for political actors who like to think in terms of the Common Good, a vanishing concept in American politics. Were one or the other of our major parties to wake up one day, widen its embrace, and foster programs that explicitly addressed the general interest, this country would be greatly benefitted. Unfortunately, there are too many strong partisans in our midst who help cultivate an atmosphere that makes it almost impossible for honest politicians to reach across the aisle and get some things accomplished, and work on bipartisan solutions, often involving compromise, that address serious national problems.”

What is this article really about? Is it not an effort by an accomplished conservative student of American politics to use stories of controversial leftists from out of the past to shape people’s understanding today’s politics? If so, two can play at that game.

Frankly, while reading through this piece, I was reminded of some very controversial conservatives from out of the past. When Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI) was riding high in the early 1950s, he sent two of his assistants, Roy Cohn and David Schine, off to Europe. Their job? To check out publications made available to citizens of the host countries by the United States Information Agency. Were American taxpayers paying to disseminate books written by communists or fellow-travelers? They had the look of old-fashioned book-burners.
Cohn and SchineOne can almost hear these two American patriots discussing their findings:

Cohn: I don’t know, David. The author of this book made speeches in support of Lend Lease for the Russians. What is this? A New Deal for communists?

Schine: That’s nothing, Roy. The author of this book voted for Henry Wallace in 1948. Even contributed money to his campaign. We’ll have to check on how much.

Cohn: Uh oh. The hero in this guy’s novel fought on the communist side during the Spanish Civil War. That sort of story turns normal people into Reds. Off the shelf it comes!

And off the page goes this discussion. Thank you for your time and attention.

–B. O. Goodbody


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