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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Steinbeck’s Synthetic Grapes

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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.