Review: ‘Blacklist: Hollywood on Trial’

For those not aware of the 1940s-'50s blacklisting that seeped into the '60s, docu is a must-see. The Cold War and fear of the Soviet Union fostered the investigations. Chairman J. Parnell Thomas and the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 summoned countless Hollywood celebs to Washington to testify about Communist inroads into filmdom. (HUAC took its show on the road to Hollywood in 1951.)

For those not aware of the 1940s-’50s blacklisting that seeped into the ’60s, docu is a must-see. The Cold War and fear of the Soviet Union fostered the investigations. Chairman J. Parnell Thomas and the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 summoned countless Hollywood celebs to Washington to testify about Communist inroads into filmdom. (HUAC took its show on the road to Hollywood in 1951.)

In Washington, some conservative actors — Robert Taylor (who says he had witnessed some things “slightly on the pink side, shall we say” and mentions an actor’s name in passing) and Gary Cooper (admittedly unfamiliar with tenets of communism or Marx) seem uneasy before the newsreel cameras, while Adolphe Menjou states firmly that he’d seen pics that shouldn’t have been made.

TX:Taped in N.Y. and L.A. by Koch TV Prods. and AMC. Exec producer, Lewis Bogach; director-writer, Christopher Koch; After the war, workers were striking, unions reportedly were buckling under to Soviet reps, and conservative interests were laying the blame at Communist workers’ doors.

The studios, worried that Reds might be attached to their pics, went along with the HUAC activities. Ronald Reagan comments, “We have been eminently successful in preventing them (Reds) from their usual tactic of trying to run an organization with a well-organized minority.”

Eric Johnston, then president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, repping studio toppers, declares that none of the 10 should be hired until he was acquitted or until he “purged himself of contempt and declared under oath that he is not a Communist.”

But independent Sam Goldwyn dismissed the resolution, and Darryl Zanuck said he wouldn’t fire anybody unless specifically told to by his board of directors.

The docu relates how many in Hollywood during the Depression had quietly joined the Communist Party, then a legal political group, and how some changed their minds. And spoke out. The Abe Polonsky-Edward Dmytryk exchange is chilling as writer and director each tell their side and reveal how, despite the years and times, agreement seems out of the question.

Those who didn’t survive are represented by taped testimony, by letters read in voiceovers, or, as in Dalton Trumbo’s case, in a brief clip and by his own words in letters. Screenwriter Paul Jarrico asked blacklisted screenwriter Richard Collins, who’d left the Party, not to name his associates. According to the docu, the next day Collins gave the committee 23 names, including Jarrico’s.

Many, guilty by association or by silence, were blacklisted. Radio actress Jean Butler, married to screenwriter Hugo Butler, left the country with him after hedodged a subpoena by the committee. Oscar-winning actress Lee Grant, married then to playwright Arnold Manoff, a Communist, was listed after speaking at a memorial service for blacklisted actor J. Edward Bromberg.

Non-Communist actress Marsha Hunt explains how she innocently got on the list , and adds tellingly, “There were those who no longer spoke to each other, friendships were broken, marriages split up, jobs were lost, and blacklists began to take place.”

Now, Dmytryk and writer Ring Lardner are the only surviving members of the Hollywood 10.

Koch unfolds the painful blacklist tales in clear-cut terms, though there’s not enough time for the whole story. The conservatives’ side doesn’t get much airing, and their reasons for the committee aren’t explored. But, for what’s left out, there’s still plenty of warning history.

Narrator Alec Baldwin opens with an overly flashy intro, saying that more than 250 professionals were blacklisted, and that this spec about Hollywood will reveal “one of its most fascinating and one of its most hidden scandals …” Hidden? News coverage was an all-pervading chill.

The editing’s superior, the pace rapid. “Blacklist” is a compact warning of the dangers of extremism. In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel about another philosophy, fascism, and called it, with decided irony, “It Can’t Happen Here.” In these cases, it did.

Blacklist: Hollywood on Trial

Production

Blacklist: Hollywood on Trial (Tues. (27), 10-11:30 p.m., AMC)

Crew

Camera, Erich Roland; editor, Gary Westphalen; music, Marc Aramian. Readers: Morgan Freeman, Ron Howard, Joe Mantegna, Martin Sheen, Rob Reiner.

With

Narrator: Alec Baldwin. Well-organized chronological account of the Hollywood 10 and Washington's post-World War II House Un-American Activities Committee plays with painful truths and facts along the way. Blacklisting of individuals reputed to be Reds plays like a nightmare; the celebrated 10 refused to answer any of the Congressional committee's questions and were shipped off to federal prison. Director-writer Christopher Koch, using interviews, news footage and letters read in voiceover, summons the past; it's a fascinating if worrisome story.
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