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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First Things has reprinted what your editor wrote a while back on Pete Seeger, who died Monday at the age of 94.

The Drama of Galileo — and of Losey, Eisler, and Brecht

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“I believe in the gentle force of reason; in the long run, no one can resist it. Nobody can watch me drop a pebble and say it doesn’t fall. Nobody can do that. The seduction of truth is too strong.”

So says Galileo Galilei in Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. The staged biography by the famed East German poet and dramatist pitted science (truth) against religion (rigorously enforced falsehood) and placed intellectuals on the side of the former.

Brecht’s work went through several versions beginning in the late 1930s, all of them featuring incidental music by the German/Austrian composer Hanns Eisler. In America, it played on Broadway in 1947 in a production directed by Joseph Losey. Losey’s conception of the play is still with us, in the form of the Losey-directed movie from 1974 that has the Israeli actor Topol in the lead role.

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Topol expressed admiration for the director but said that he was a man preoccupied “22 out of 24 hours of the day” with his own persecution by the U.S. government. Losey had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. After being blacklisted, he exiled himself to Europe (where he made Galileo, among other pictures).

If the theme of the creative mind under pressure from the Inquisition was relevant for Losey, it was more so for his longtime friend, Eisler, and his role model, Brecht. Both had run-ins with HUAC. Much more dedicated Reds than Losey (the American’s membership in the Party had been brief), they got deported as the communist controversy in America neared its height.

After deportation came the attempt to live in East Germany, “the land of real and existing socialism.” It was dicey; the truth was superintended by the scientific and cultural commissars of the Soviet bloc.

Hanns Eisler’s most ambitious project, an opera based on Goethe’s Faust, was condemned by East German academicians. They were enforcing the policy of Andrei Zhdanov, the Russian tasked with patrolling music and the arts behind the Iron Curtain and stopping any imperialist influences from creeping in. Eisler was denied authorization for his interpretation of Goethe and gave up writing the opera in 1952.

As Staatsdichter (state poet) of the German Democratic Republic, Bertolt Brecht fared better. He minded his p’s and q’s and was given the use of the grand Schiffbauerdamm theater for productions by his Berliner Ensemble, which became East Germany’s most distinguished institution. Aware that the theater could be taken away from his ensemble if he stepped out of line, he paid lip service to the theories of the Russian dramatist Stanislavsky and the socialist realism demanded by Zhdanov.

Brecht also doffed his hat to Trofim Lysenko, the truth-arbiter in the field of biology. “Lysenkoism” held that Mendelian genetics were a capitalist hoax; agronomists and horticulturalists in Russia and its satellite nations were to eschew Mendel and build upon Soviet theories exclusively.

He may be one of the few who, while being subjected to Zhdanovism, also dabbled in Lysenkoism. Die Erziehung der Hirse, a children’s ballad that Brecht wrote in 1950, about how to grow millet, highlights the wonders emanating from “Lysenko’s greenhouse in distant Moscow.” Stalin, “the Soviet peoples’ great harvest leader,” appears in a cameo role.

Brecht won the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.