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

The Liberals, II — Jean-Paul Sartre versus Albert Camus

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In his 1982 memoir The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals, William Barrett contrasted Sartre and Camus—and noted how the Nazi occupation of Paris brought out their dissimilarities:

The break between them is usually attributed to their differences over the Soviet Union . . . . Sartre at this time had begun to be an ardent Fellow Traveler, enamored of the idea that Soviet Communism, whatever its imperfections, still represented a progressive and revolutionary force in the world. Camus had been a member of the Communist Party in North Africa in his earlier years; he knew the treacherous shifts and duplicity of the Party from the inside, and he was now an intransigent foe of the Soviet Union. It was typical of Sartre, by the way, that though he was the most celebrated Fellow Traveler in France, he never became a member of the Party. To join would be to diminish his Freedom—that absolute and somewhat vacuous freedom which his philosophy celebrates—and in this he was consistent with his own system. But the friendship survived even these political differences for a while. The break, when it came, was over more deeply personal and at the same time universal values.

The difference between the two men seems to me wonderfully revealed in a little incident related by the Dominican priest Father [Raymond Léopold] Bruckberger, who was active in the French Resistance and was close to both at the time. Bruckberger used to run into Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the café, the two of them huddled over books and notes and discussing points in philosophy. They struck him, he remarks, like two permanent graduate students. . . . They were joined one day by Camus, who was coming away from his labors on Combat, the clandestine paper of the Resistance that he edited. Sartre was then in the process of completing his big book Being and Nothingness, and he was in the midst of expounding to his hearers the view of absolute liberty which he develops in that tome. This liberty is a possibility we carry around with us like a terrorist’s bomb, which at any moment we could detonate in any direction. “Nothing prevents us . . . ” —this is Sartre’s recurring phrase to indicate that at any moment we can step off into a new direction out of the rut that we have hitherto traveled in life. At that moment a German officer in full regalia walked past on the sidewalk, and Camus, who had been listening in silence, remarked: “Even granted that liberty, there are some things we wouldn’t do. For example, you wouldn’t denounce me to the Germans even though you had the pure possibility of doing so.” The remark, Bruckberger tells us, seemed to disturb Sartre, as if he had never thought of the question so concretely and personally before, and he was at a loss for a reply.

This little episode seems to me to sum up the two men: Sartre the rampant ideologue, and Camus the advocate of what he came to call “ordinary values”—those elementary feelings of decency without which the human race could not survive.

–William Barrett

The Liberals, I — Bruce Bliven

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Here at Painting the Culture Red, a major part of our mission is to explore what liberals thought of the Soviet Union. Opinion on the Left was not monolithic. (Future posts will make this clear.) But let’s start with liberals who viewed that nation and its leader as democracy’s best hope.

The New Republic has given us a leg up on this. The February 3 issue retrieves an item “From the Stacks” by Bruce Bliven (1889-1977), one of the magazine’s longest serving editors.

Bliven led the flagship publication of Progressivism from 1930 to 1945. According to the current New Republic editors, Bliven’s “most egregious misstep” was “his sympathy for the Soviet Union.” That Stalin had set about publicly disgracing and killing his rivals was known to the world. The bloody purges “should have been a cue to renounce the USSR,” they write, “but much of the American left was not ready to assimilate that horrific reality.”

Here was somebody ready, at any rate, to complain to the dictator personally. In an open letter to Stalin, Bliven “scrounged for any scrap of logic that might excuse his hero, and endeavored to give the great comrade some heartfelt advice.”

Bliven to Stalin, March 1938:

The cables from Moscow tell us that fresh purges and additional trials are contemplated. I take it for granted that your heart sinks at this prospect, as do those of millions of other persons throughout the world. . . . What I now urge upon you is a revision of your policy . . .

In his 1970 memoir, Bliven said that he and the New Republic’s resident economist, George Soule, “were unforgivably slow to realize what was happening.”