With the Academy Awards still on our minds, and with a nod to his book Tender Comrades having been recommended as a good Oscars season read by Ben Mankiewicz (who writes that “somehow the shame of the Hollywood blacklist remains unknown to millions of movie lovers”), Patrick McGilligan has created this piece for the University of Minnesota Press blog to discuss his book of interviews with 36 blacklist survivors (including two members of the Hollywood Ten) who were silenced more than 60 years ago.
Q&A WITH PATRICK MCGILLIGAN
How did you get interested in the blacklist?
I had written a book about James Cagney, my first book, but most of the writing came out of library research. Not until moving to Boston and later Los Angeles did I begin to cross paths with some of the people who were entwined with his career. Many of them from the early 1930s were former Communists or left-wing people because that was Cagney’s politics at the time, partly owing to their influence. I was galvanized by meeting John Bright, co-writer of The Public Enemy and other Cagney films, who was also one of original ten founders of the Screen Writers Guild and one of the secret “gang of four” that established the Hollywood cell of the U.S. Communist Party. We quickly switched from talking about film to talking about politics. Our friendship grew. He was one of the tragic cases of the blacklist; you could say he sacrificed his career for his political ideals and beliefs. I had known about the blacklist, obviously, but I was remiss in thinking deeply about it, and doing specific work related to it until I met John.
Actually, early on my friend Ken Mate and I suggested filming a dinner party reunion between Bright and Little Caesar novelist and Hollywood screenwriter W.R. Burnett. They had known each other back in the day at Warner Bros. and once were friends.
Bright was up for it. Burnett said to us, “Me? Sit down for dinner with a Commie—never!” This was 35 years after HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) swept through Hollywood, and a reminder of how deep the bitternesses ran.
I had interviewed a few blacklisted personalities in the past, but usually only in passing as a journalist. Now, I began to do interviews diligently, tracking blacklisted people down whenever I had the chance.
Did this book start out as a film documentary?
Sort of. Ken Mate and I started out making a documentary about the blacklist around 1983, interviewing former blacklistees on both coasts and some who were living in Europe. That documentary was never completed. I went back to the transcripts for a small number of interviews in Tender Comrades, and I augmented some of those with fresh material from later interviews. The documentary project did make me all the more determined to devote a major book to the subject one day, and increasingly I thought it might be a book purely of interviews.
The idea for a book of interviews was given a jolt of energy when Paul Buhle phoned one day to say he had been interviewing some Hollywood blacklistees for a project of his own. I said to Paul, “Let’s put your interviews and mine together and we’ll have a great book.” Then there was a rush to interview a final list of people who had eluded me in the past—a trip to Athens to have a formal sit-down with Jules Dassin, for example, whom I had only interviewed briefly. All told, the interviews took about twenty years of work here and there.
The book is as much about filmmaking and life in Hollywood in the Golden Age as it is about the blacklist. Was that intentional?
It evolved that way. I felt politically sympatico with the blacklistees, but many of the blacklistees I met under other auspices, interviewing them for newspapers or magazines about their projects; a few, like Martin Ritt for example, were still actively making films. I was always interested in their careers, and especially in the cases of the writers, in the background of their work. An important thematic point of Tender Comrades is that most of these people boasted stellar careers as writers, actors, directors, producers. Film history owes a lot to them even before you get to the blacklist. People often quote the remark of Billy Wilder (I think it’s an apocryphal story but even so) that only one of the Hollywood Ten was talented and the rest were just unfriendly. I’m not sure of the exact quote, it varies in versions, but I hate that quote. It’s untrue. The Ten and the other blacklistees gave much creatively to Hollywood, and the quality of Hollywood filmmaking was diminished by their blacklisting. So the book tries to tell that story, their artistic contribution, as well.
Do you have a favorite interview among the three dozen people who are interviewed?
I think the range and number of the interviews is part of the attraction. This is a large sample group. The ones I knew best I knew off-stage as it were, over the years, between dinners and phone calls and letters. I’m proud of helping some of them, such as John Bright, Bernard Gordon, Bernard Vorhaus, Edward Eliscu, Sondra Gorney (the widow of Jay Gorney), get their own autobiographies published. The ones I didn’t know as well (like Robert Lees, part of the “Abbott and Costello” writing team, whom Paul Buhle interviewed) I only wish I had known better. I was at the funerals or memorial services of some, and I think of them as departed friends. Their photos decorate my office.
A handful of blacklistees are still alive, it is important to add, in their late 80s or 90s now. (One, still very active as a writer, is my agent’s husband—Walter Bernstein, who wrote “The Front,” the best movie about the blacklist—whom I have now known for over thirty years.)
It is important to say the blacklist never ended for many. Some never returned to America. Many never returned to filmmaking.
The blacklist remains an important subject today for anyone who wishes to understand American film history, especially if one wishes to understand the homogenization of movies set in motion by the blacklist and the corporatization of the industry that followed.
Patrick McGilligan has written several acclaimed biographies, including Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (a finalist for the Edgar Award) as well as New York Times Notable Books about George Cukor and Fritz Lang. His five-volume Backstory series is the definitive oral history of American screenwriting.
“This is not the usual book of remembrances—nostalgic, bittersweet, and all that. This is chapter-and-verse recall of our country’s most shameful epoch. . . . It is eloquent and revelatory, but most of all, it is a cautionary tale.”
“An acute portrait of that squalid time when the witch-hunt was on in Hollywood and of the thirty-six movie artists interviewed here who were deprived of a livelihood—even as hundreds of others lived in fear of the House Un-American Activities Committee—while havoc was strewn through their lives and their professions.”