Until his death in November, Ring Lardner Jr. was the last surviving member of the Hollywood Ten — the group of filmmakers subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and sent to jail for refusing to disclose their political affiliations. Lardner’s memoir takes its title from his famous remarks on the witness stand. Asked if he had ever been a member of the Communist Party, the Oscar-winning screenwriter said he could answer the question. “But if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.”
As Lardner makes clear here, he scarcely realized Hollywood was teetering on the brink of such political hysteria that his stance might mean the end of his screenwriting career. Before the hearings, he recalls, the Assn. of Motion Picture Producers head Eric Johnston had assured him that the pic org “would never contemplate anything as un-American as a blacklist.” A month later, producers passed a resolution stating they would never employ the Ten — or anyone who shared their views. Soon the industry would close ranks, stripping credits and even Oscars from blacklisted writers.
But this memoir, which traces Lardner’s rebellious streak all the way back to his boyhood in Greenwich, Conn., as the third of four sons of famed sportswriter and humorist Ring Lardner, exudes none of the bitterness or sanctimony one might expect from a writer whose career was short-circuited by political small-mindedness. A deft raconteur, Lardner writes with grace and wry detachment of even the darkest moments of his nine-month stint behind bars and decade-long exile from Hollywood. Assigned with one other screenwriter to a Federal prison in Danbury, Conn., Lardner recalls being told only a few of the Ten could serve time in the same jail — “the implication being that larger concentrations of Hollywood communists might prove dangerous.”
Lardner admits his early enthusiasm for Soviet communism and interest in the Party had an emotional element, born of the drastic social inequities he observed in Depression-era America.
He also admits to a naivete about the Stalinist system. He first traveled to Moscow under the aegis of the left wing National Students Union in the early 1930s after dropping out of Princeton — a trip that was easy to romanticize, he recalls, thanks to his romantic dalliances there. In Moscow, he befriended Budd Schulberg, with whom he’d later collaborate on “A Star Is Born” and other writing assignments for David Selznick. Schulberg recruited Lardner into the American Communist Party shortly thereafter, and in a cruel twist, years later, named him as a communist before HUAC.
Lardner, who won his first Oscarin 1942 for co-writing the first Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicle, “Woman of the Year,” eventually fought his way back from the blacklist, winning a second Oscar for the script of Robert Altman’s “MASH” 28 years later. What’s especially striking about the long-interrupted arc of his career, however, is how scrupulously Lardner sought to stick by his political ideals in an industry where politics are often skin-deep.
Lardner trots out plenty of biting anecdotes about the political conformism and hypocrisy that gripped the industry at mid-century. In 1945, Samuel Goldwyn asked him to adapt Gwethalyn Graham’s novel about the evils of anti-Semitism, then trashed his script, accusing him of “writing like a Jew.” He tells how Jack Warner, once known for such gritty social realist pictures as “I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang,” publicly declared after the war that he was through making films about “the little man,” and rehashes Louis B. Mayer’s Congressional testimony calling for legislation to regulate communists in private enterprise.
But Lardner is also quick to take pokes at himself. He broke into Hollywood as a publicist for Selznick after working briefly as a reporter for New York’s Daily Mirror, making his debut as an appraiser of movie material by advising the great producer not to buy “Gone With the Wind.” “I objected on political grounds to the glorification of slave owners and the Ku Klux Klan,” he recalls. “I didn’t have an opportunity to make an assessment of comparable significance until 35 years later when I declined an offer to write the pilot and be head writer of the television version of ‘MASH.’ I didn’t think it had much potential as a series.”
Lardner’s one failing as a memoirist is that he has crammed a huge array of autobiographical detail into this one slim volume. It would have been far more captivating had Lardner adhered to, and further elaborated on, his adventures in the screen trade and the political events that defined his career. The book is weakest when Lardner treats it as a soapbox, dilating on topics like alcoholism (a lifelong affliction of Ring Lardners Jr. and Sr.) and the fallacies of organized religion. It’s strongest when he’s recounting stories of such outsize Hollywood characters as producers Selznick and Darryl Zanuck and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
It’s Lardner’s powers of recall, after all, that drive home the gravity of the historical moment that thrust him onto the political stage. What makes this memoir so important a contribution to the literature of the blacklist, finally, is not just Lardner’s stature as a heroic figure at the center of the storm, but his novelistic gift for recounting the gloomy events that swirled around him.