The Liberals, III – Dore Schary


This morning, in the wee hours—your editor was suffering from insomnia—the Turner Classic Movies channel aired The Metro Goldwyn Mayer Story, a movie short with Dore Schary, MGM’s vice president in charge of production, announcing the studio’s offerings for 1951.

We said this site would explore the different attitudes toward the Soviet Union on the part of liberals. Dore Schary was a liberal and also an anti-communist, which makes him an interesting person to consider.

A stage director, writer, and actor from Newark, New Jersey, Schary (1905-1980) came to Hollywood in 1932. He worked his way up as a screenwriter and producer for Columbia, MGM, and RKO, bringing to the screen dozens of movies including Boys’ TownThe Farmer’s Daughter, Gentleman’s Agreement, Adam’s Rib, Annie Get Your Gun, and Bad Day at Black Rock.

A firmly believing Jew and staunch advocate of the policies and programs of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party (he wrote the play Sunrise at Campobello and produced the movie version), Schary had tangled with Hollywood communists in the mid-1930s. In his memoir, he described being an instructor in John Howard Lawson’s and Donald Ogden Stewart’s screenwriting night school but quitting when the two ordered staff at the school to sign an anti-imperialist petition opposing FDR’s Latin America policies.

“Not one of the men or women I knew who had almost unswervingly followed the party line had ever said to me, ‘I am a Communist,’ ” Schary wrote, “but even if they had I would not have avoided them or thought of denying them employment.” He took the same live-and-let-live attitude toward racial bigots. If the politically extreme people he met in the movie business “were people of talent [they] deserved to be working.” (Heyday, 1979)

The presence of radicals like Lawson and Stewart in the new Screen Writers’ Guild, of which Schary was a cofounder, meant that management could easily ignore the guild since it was beyond the pale to have to negotiate “with Reds.” As Schary tells it, he and other regular Democrats in the guild had to persuade its communist members to subordinate themselves within the organization, or it would not be taken seriously by management in negotiations seeking better pay, benefits, and working conditions for studio workers.

In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating the loyalty of Hollywood writers and directors who had ties (in many cases, stale ties) to the CPUSA. This put Schary, by now a top executive at MGM, in a tough position.

Several of those called to testify went to Washington and denounced their congressional interrogators. They were cited for contempt of Congress and later sentenced to a year in prison. The spectacle they made with their “contrived and mechanical outcries” (in Murray Kempton’s words) put their bosses into a state of public relations panic. It fell to Dore Schary, the FDR liberal, to draft the studio executives’ Waldorf Statement ejecting these directors and writers, the Hollywood Ten, from the movie business.

The man who believed that the talented should work was one of the architects of the blacklist.

He tried to soften it by having a “clearance” provision inserted in the Waldorf Statement, whereby individuals could solicit certain trusted third parties to vouch for them, in a semi-official way, and thus be taken off the blacklist. The Schary safety valve was meant to offer some semblance of due process, so that this anomalous and harsh action by the film industry could be carried out in an orderly way.

It wasn’t. Schary did try to get blacklisted people work, though. The actress Betsy Blair said she and her friends believed “it’s our revolutionary duty” to go to jail (Tender Comrades, 1997). She also said being out of a job for ideological reasons was an indignity. Her then-husband Gene Kelly prompted Dore Schary to call the American Legion in Washington to vouch for her. This permitted Blair to appear in the movie Marty (1955), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award.

Dore Schary

Dore Schary

Raul Castro to Company: Your Idea Stinks

In bad odor:  Jose Antonio Fraga Castro

In bad odor:
Jose Antonio Fraga Castro

Fragrance finito. The news from Havana: Labiofam was forced on Friday to put a stopper in the “Hugo” and “Che” colognes it uncorked on Thursday.

We had said that these power-to-the-people perfumes, named for Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez, were put on the market. It appears we were in error. They were prototypes. After 24 short hours they have evanesced, and Labiofam—which turns out to be a state-run company directed by José Antonio Fraga Castro, the nephew of Fidel Castro and President Raúl Castro—is in trouble.

“Symbols are sacred,” read the reprimand in Granma, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. “Initiatives of that nature will never be accepted by our people or by the Revolutionary Government.”

“For this grave error,” it went on, “the appropriate disciplinary measures will be taken.”

It was signed by the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers, of which Raúl Castro is the head.

Labiofam “said it had obtained the agreement of the families of Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez to use their names” on these products “but that has now been denied by the Cuban government,” reported the BBC.

Perfuming the Culture Red

Hints of mango and papaya

Hints of mango and papaya

This site has been relying on a visual metaphor for cultural emanations of communism. We never thought of the sense of smell.

We’re thinking again, what with the products that a Cuban company called Labiofam has just brought out, in hopes that the wafting aroma of Marxist-Leninist heroes will attract the cologne-buying public.

Bottles of “Ernesto” and “Hugo” are now available, one named after Ernesto “Che” Guevara of Argentina, the other after Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, reports Peter Walker in London’s Guardian newspaper.

The marketing description of “the Argentinian revolutionary’s personal aroma” is “fragrant citrus and woodsy notes,” while the Bolivarian strongman’s is being billed as “a fruitier scent, with hints of mango and papaya.” Labiofam, a Cuban enterprise that is “better known for making homeopathic medicines and dietary supplements,” worked with Robertet, a French firm, to develop these colognes.

Fragrant citrus and woodsy notes

Fragrant citrus and woodsy notes

The Guardian reporter notes the irony that Che Guevara, whose image has adorned college students’ dorm rooms for generations, should have a scent named after him. He was averse to bathing or even changing his clothes. This “supposedly dated back to his youth,” Walker says, “and is variously explained by a disdain for bourgeoise conventions or, more charitably, a fear of asthma attacks brought on by cold water.”

Kempt or unkempt, Guevara wore many berets, you might say, after the insurgency he and Fidel Castro led deposed the dictatorial Batista regime in Cuba in 1959. Guevara was a prison warden, presiding over hundreds of executions of accused counterrevolutionaries without benefit of trial.

He also apparently had charge of the island’s beverage-bottling plants, which the revolutionaries seized from Coca Cola, Pepsi, and other companies.

“Every one of those Che Cokes or Pepsis was an adventure,” writes the historian Carlos Eire. A nine-year-old when the guerrillas of the 26th of July Movement took over Cuba, Eire recalls that “no two bottles ever tasted the same. Awful, every bottle, every sip. I stopped drinking them altogether and stuck to seltzer, which was very hard for the Revolution to screw up.” (Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, 2003)


Steinbeck’s Synthetic Grapes


Grapes of Wrath movieOne of the major social justice novels of the Depression era, The Grapes of Wrath, just turned 75.

National Public Radio commemorated this milestone.

John Steinbeck’s 1939 Dust Bowl epic about the Joad family was based on articles he wrote for the San Francisco News and the Nation on the plight of agricultural workers migrating from drought-ridden Oklahoma to California. It’s a crude monument to the New Deal, a saga heavy with Okie-approximating dialect that is interrupted by “interchapters,” or mini-editorials, on sharecropping, mechanization, and the rapacity of “the great owners” in whose hands massive wealth is concentrated. The landowners’ neglect of the migrants will bring “an upheaval” that takes their land away, unless the government steps in with ameliorating programs.

John Ford’s 1940 Hollywood adaptation, which naturally had to pare away all the sociopolitical apparatus, is widely acknowledged to be superior to the original.

Steinbeck’s novel, and the journalism that preceded it, relied on research reports from a colorful manager of a migrant camp in California, a Farm Security Administration official named Tom Collins. That was the unromantic truth discovered by Jackson J. Benson (writing on Steinbeck in the April 1976 issue of the Journal of Modern Literature). “Contrary to the story which has developed into a myth about the writing of The Grapes of Wrath,” wrote Benson, “Steinbeck never did travel to Oklahoma and then make a trip back to California with a migrant family.” This idea, he said, “came from two sources: first, the confusion of two different trips, and second, a bit of conscious deception by Steinbeck.”

Murray Kempton, in his classic study of communism and culture in the 1930s, mentioned Steinbeck as a practitioner of the “plebian fiction” of that day. But he highlighted the Communist Party’s dissatisfaction with Steinbeck’s work: In Dubious Battle (1936), about a fruit-pickers’ strike, was condemned by CP literati for not adhering to the Party’s formula of the proletarian novel. (The biblical references and Christ imagery in The Grapes of Wrath must have displeased them as well.)

Steinbeck did, though, take the Depression-era affect with him through life, always presenting himself as a writer in close contact with the downtrodden. It was a pose he labored to maintain in Travels with Charley: In Search of America. “Once a bum always a bum,” wrote Steinbeck in that much beloved 1962 travelogue, in which the celebrity author, then 58, supposedly plumbed the depths of the American soul.

He wrote the book after driving from New York to California and back in a camper with a poodle named Charley. The account was largely fictional, the reporter Bill Steigerwald revealed a couple of years ago. Encounters with fascinating people along the way were invented by Steinbeck, and his publisher expunged passages that would have made clear that this was no solitary immersion in America’s gritty reality but a scenic vacation with his third wife.

Agnieszka Holland on the Prague Spring

Burning Bush still --Agnieszka Holland film

From Agnieszka Holland’s latest, Burning Bush

In 1968, over 150,000 Red Army troops entered Czechoslovakia to reverse the political liberalization known as the Prague Spring. Agnieszka Holland’s new movie Burning Bush, about the Soviet invasion and its aftermath, aired originally on HBO in Europe.

The work of Holland, a Pole educated in Prague, is familiar to American audiences. Her long list of directorial credits includes Europa, Europa (1990), The Secret Garden (1993), and Washington Square (1997), as well as episodes of television’s The Wire and Treme.

Her frame for depicting the events of 45 years ago is the libel suit against the Czechoslovak government that was launched by courageous relatives of the young dissident Jan Palach. The government sought to defame Palach, one of several East bloc activists to commit suicide by self-immolation to protest the Soviet domination of their countries.

Flagg Taylor has written about the film here and here. Also a free preview is available. (International trailer here.)

“There Are Intellectuals Who Say Anticommunism Is Somehow Uncool.”


Scott and Taylor, coverA book has just been published by the University Press of Kentucky on The Lives of Others, the landmark drama about the East German secret police. This Oscar-winning movie from 2006, mentioned previously on the site, is examined from just about every angle in Totalitarianism on Screen: The Art and Politics of “The Lives of Others” edited by Carl Eric Scott and F. Flagg Taylor IV.

Your editor has an essay in this multi-author volume. Also included is an interview with the president of Germany, Joachim Gauck. He was a lead investigator of the repressive activities of the Stasi in the now-defunct German Democratic Republic.

Here are some sharp words from Gauck, as translated from the German by Paul Hockenos, who conducted the interview:

“There are European intellectuals who say that anticommunism is somehow uncool, and that it doesn’t belong in democratic political culture. But you can only think this if you’re far enough away from the suffering that Soviet communism inflicted. In fact, the West has to learn that there are two kinds of anti-communism. One stems from conservative arrogance, such as that in the United States and West Germany. This variety is useless. The other variety stems from suffering, the deprivations of rights, and powerlessness. And if you’re not able to feel this, then you lack something as a human being. And, sadly, western Germany and western Europe still have to learn this. The seriousness of the threat of communism to our democracy project has to be respected.”