Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Days of Blacklisting

Tonight we saw the movie Trumbo, which is exceptionally good, especially for the performances of everyone, but Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo stands out, even from the fine showings made by Diane Lane as his wife and many, many others, including John Goodman as a producer of junk pictures and Helen Mirren as the evil columnist, Hedda Hopper.

Some have said that when they had had the upper hand in the 30s, the Communists had behaved badly toward people in the industry who did not share their political views. But the picture makes clear how the blacklist ruined careers, families, and self-respect, in addition, of course, to the ultimate irony of the House Un-American Activities Committee chairman J. Parnell Thomas ending up in the same federal pen as Trumbo, but Thomas's crime was tax evasion.

My father worked for AFTRA when the red scare was raging and I remember how he tried to stay as far from it as he could. Mail from both sides would come to the house. He knew a good many people on both sides, both many leftists in the film, tv, and radio worlds as well as people on the right both in the unions, especially SAG, and some of his classmates from Fordham.

We forget now how few people stood up for civil liberties in terms of the right to free speech and association. Edward R. Murrow was probably the most famous and the Boston lawyer Joseph Welch who excoriated Sen. McCarthy at the famous Army-McCarthy hearings.  It was ironic to see Otto Preminger, who had played the German prison camp guard in Stalag 17, as the independent producer who decided to put Dalton Trumbo's name on the screen as the writer of Exodus, along with Kirk Douglas, who gave Trumbo the screen writing credit for Spartacus, two notable steps that were the beginning of the end of the blacklist.

It's good to see this picture, now brought back to the Avalon theater, a community-run house here in DC, getting more exposure. Another irony was to see the then-head of the IATSE, the movie crafts union, always powerful and which had once sought to organize the actors, supporting the blacklist, when the IA itself was riven by mobsters and used this as an occasion to clean up its own tarnished image.

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