The Liberals, III – Dore Schary

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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

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Don, Bobby, and the Pact

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A Friendship Fractured. For the screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart (see previous post), it was not always easy to toe the Communist Party line. Doing so estranged him from admired friends like Robert Benchley (pictured above, with magazine to which he contributed). The 1939-1941 alliance between the supposedly anti-fascist leader Josef Stalin and the biggest fascist of them all, Adolf Hitler, was “a rather questionable pill to swallow,” wrote Stewart in his autobiography, but “because I trusted the Soviet Union to have the correct Marxist understanding of the situation, I refrained from publicly criticizing the pact.”

Stewart’s By a Stroke of Luck! (1975) is full of tales of Hollywood and, before that, the Algonquin Round Table in New York City. A screen adapter of talent  (The Philadelphia Story, Life with Father), Stewart (1894-1980) was a native Ohioan who made glittering friends in Manhattan during the Roaring Twenties. He regularly traded barbs at the famed Algonquin Hotel gatherings with Benchley and other writers and humorists. (Stewart describes himself as elegantly attired but inwardly uneasy, ever worried that his jokes wouldn’t go over with the group.)

By the 1930s, Benchley had given up literary journalism for acting, and he and Stewart had budding careers in Hollywood. Stewart, a joiner and Popular Front activist, had a tendency to proselytize: “At my suggestion Bobby [Benchley] started to read the Webbs’ Soviet Russia – A New Civilization and reported after the first few pages that it seemed like it might be a good idea.”

Dialectical materialism didn’t take with Benchley, though, and when the pact arrived, he was incredulous that his friend Don did not reconsider his promotion of the Soviet government and the Bolshevik cause. Stewart caught hell from him, as is recounted in By a Stroke of Luck!:

“All along, since my ‘conversion,’ I had been deeply sure Bobby respected me for my political activities, even though he wasn’t at all interested in them, with the exception of rights for Negroes, about which he felt very strongly, and for which he had once or twice let me use his name on a committee. But now, as he kept pressing me with increasing scorn about the Stalin pact, I felt a horrible gulf opening between us; worse than that, I realized that my confident assumption that he had understood my ‘new life’ and had sympathized with it had been an illusion. I couldn’t answer his questions, other than to plead that Stalin must have had good reasons. ‘What reasons?’ shouted Bobby, and his contempt for me was so violent that I couldn’t answer.”

We’ll close with a passage from a 2005 book by Deborah Martinson:

“Humorist Robert Benchley told the story of one evening finding [Donald Ogden] Stewart at a rich man’s dinner party in Hollywood, waving his caviar-piled cracker and glass of champagne and telling anyone who would listen, ‘Comes the Revolution, none of you will have any of this . . . join us while you can, because we are going to take this away from you.’ “

“I’m Not Going to Fight.”

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Screwball Comedy’s Ephemeral Joke. The movie That Uncertain Feeling, with screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart, was released by United Artists on April 20, 1941. An insurance man played by Melvyn Douglas (left) finds out that a concert pianist (Burgess Meredith, right) is dallying with his wife. Douglas confronts his rival. The bourgeois-hating, modernist musician declares: “I’m not going to fight.” Douglas’ sly retort: “No, I know, I understand—you’re an isolationist.” The screenwriter, Stewart, was an isolationist when he wrote that line. He wouldn’t be for long. A communist who accepted Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler, Stewart would zigzag when the Party did. The very next month, Hitler broke the pact by invading Russia, and Reds turned gung-ho for U.S. intervention to save the flagship of Marxism-Leninism.