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The Boston Phoenix Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle

"Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist"

By Peter Keough

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  TENDER COMRADES: A BACKSTORY OF THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST, edited by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle. St. Martin's Press, 776 pages, $35.

Fifty years ago, Congress initiated the most grievous assault on freedom of expression in American history, and one for which it has yet to acknowledge any wrongdoing. Empowered by the first surge of Cold War paranoia and urged on by politicians frenzied with chauvinism and ambition, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began investigating the politics of the Hollywood film industry.

At first only a handful of writers, actors, producers, and directors -- the soon-to-be-famous Hollywood Ten -- were subpoenaed and asked the notorious question "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Soon hundreds more would follow as their colleagues turned them in: the alternative to being branded a red and blacklisted from employment was to "name names" of others with left-leaning sympathies.

This sorry period has been written about before, of course -- the most authoritative study is, perhaps, Victor Navasky's Naming Names. Now, Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle's moving and engrossing Tender Comrades provides the human faces -- and voices -- behind the rhetoric and the history.

A compilation of interviews with 36 people who refused to cooperate with HUAC and suffered the consequences, Comrades is not only a compelling indictment of repression but an alternative history of Hollywood, replete with vivid, often hilarious anecdotes and irreverent glimpses of film-industry icons. Mostly, though, it's a collection of portraits of the artists as disenfranchised men and women who are still vibrant, idealistic, hopeful, and without bitterness. Tender Comrades re-creates what Hollywood lost 50 years ago and probably will never recover.

The title is taken from a 1943 film scripted by the late blacklistee Dalton Trumbo; it's a tale about women factory workers that was said to be tainted by communist ideas because it included the line "Share and share alike -- that's democracy!" The humanism expressed in that sentiment is what originally drew many in Hollywood to the left in the 1930s. As Lionel Stander, a character actor noted for his roles in Frank Capra and Preston Sturges movies, puts it: "The power of the left existed because it said all the things that everybody believed in and wanted to hear; it represented every person who believed in human decency, justice, and equality and was against racism and bigotry. And the Communist Party always took the frontal position."

A bit overstated, perhaps, given Stalin's purges of the time. But in the days of the Depression, Hitler, Mussolini, and the Spanish Civil War, the party seemed like a good deal to the socially concerned and intelligent people in the industry. Not that their political views were reflected on the screen to any great degree. Rather, what concerned HUAC and the studios that abetted its investigation was the leftists' political activity in the real world: their support for striking farm workers, for example, or -- more alarmingly -- their attempts to organize those working in the industry itself. "It was a ridiculous idea that they were writing Communist propaganda," says director Jules Dassin, who achieved fame in Hollywood with such films as Night and the City (1950) before fleeing America for Greece, where he would make Never on Sunday (1960). "It was . . . that the organization of a guild demanding rights . . . was impossible for management to accept."

Whatever the reason, those with the integrity not to submit to HUAC were compelled, often at the height of successful careers, to find some other way of making a living. Many left the country; France and England benefited from the influx of blacklist casualties. Others began new careers in the US (Stander, ironically, ended up making a good living as a stockbroker). Many writers continued their Hollywood careers under pseudonyms, or "fronts," sometimes with comic results. Alfred Levitt, for example, screenwriter of The Boy with Green Hair (1948), relates how a story conference got off on the wrong foot when he was addressed by four different names.

For the most part, though, as this catalogue of broken lives attests, the few laughs that the blacklist produced don't dispel its tragedy and shame. Comrades is not perfect: its alphabetical organization ignores more compelling categorizations, and it goes easy on such sensitive subjects as some unrepentant Communists' justifications of Stalinism. And although such "friendly" witnesses such as Elia Kazan have gone to great lengths to exculpate themselves in books and films of their own, the absence of their side of the story here does not strengthen the book's argument. These minor glitches aside, Comrades offers convincing evidence of how a government gone wrong can oppress the human spirit -- and how, when it does, the human spirit can not only survive, but triumph.

Peter Keough is the film editor of the Boston Phoenix.

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