The Stalinist Ten--A True Story About Communists in the Movie Industry

By Allan H. Ryskind | January 8, 2015 | 4:55pm EST

Editor's Note: "The Stalinist Ten" is an excerpt from the newly released book, “Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters—Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler,” by Allan H. Ryskind. Ryskind, who is editor-at-large of Human Events, grew up in Beverly Hills and is the son of screenwriter Morrie Ryskind (Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera, Room Service).

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According to liberal legend, richly embroidered by the media, Hollywood was a wonderfully happy town until the year 1947, when something terrible, on the order of the San Francisco earthquake, took place. Ten members of the movie colony—men bursting with innocence and idealism—were suddenly hauled before the wicked House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where they were pilloried for their “progressive” views by publicity-hungry, bigoted, and venal politicians who accused them of being Communists. With a dash of bravado and belligerence, they refused to respond to any questions about their political beliefs, insisting they were protected by the Bill of Rights and, in particular, the First Amendment.

With a wave of “McCarthyite” hysteria sweeping the nation (in point of fact, Joe McCarthy had been in the Senate for less than a year and had yet to surface in the national media), they were indicted and eventually sent to prison for contempt of Congress. The Ten were also “blacklisted”—that is, they were barred from working in the motion picture industry for refusing to cooperate with the Committee. What’s more, the HUAC hearings set off yet another wave of anti-Red hysteria in which hundreds of writers, actors, and directors were driven from the entertainment media in violation of their “freedom of thought.” For the Dream Factory, the Dark Night of Fascism had descended. Though the memory of those years has faded, the Hollywood community has neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In a lengthy series for the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein claimed that historians now view the institution of the blacklist as a “seismic shift from the progressive ideals of the New Deal to the anti-Communist paranoia of the Cold War.” Patrick McGilligan, author of an insightful book, Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, goes so far as to say that Hollywood during this time suffered a “cultural holocaust.”

Liberals and those further to the Left have been monotonously regurgitating this version of events over the years, with even numerous conservatives now embracing a major portion of what has become the consensus history. But there is clearly another side to this story.

The Hollywood Ten, as they became famously known to history, are no longer household names, though Dalton Trumbo has been making a comeback, and Ring Lardner Jr., the last surviving member of the tribe (he died in 2002), is still mentioned as an important “martyr” to HUAC’s “inquisition.”

A crowd of supporters lifts up screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson in June 1950. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

Many were talented men who left their mark on politics and film and, contrary to accepted wisdom, often succeeded in putting their Communist convictions into their work. Lardner may be best known for his post-blacklist movie M*A*S*H, which was vigorously opposed to the Vietnam War and became the basis for a hugely successful TV series with Alan Alda.

John Howard Lawson enforced the Stalinist line in Hollywood, so it was not surprising that he also penned the 1930s film Blockade, which favored the Soviet side during the Spanish Civil War, and Action in the North Atlantic, a World War II film starring Humphrey Bogart, in which the Russians are shown as the heroes in the rescue of an American supply ship. Alvah Bessie, who fought on the Communist side in Spain, was hired to write a small but highly acclaimed piece of pro-Soviet dialogue for Action.

Trumbo is remembered for many excellent films, including Roman Holiday (with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn), Spartacus (with Kirk Douglas), and Papillon (with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman), and he became the first of the Hollywood Ten to break the blacklist in 1960, which meant he was the first of those officially banned from Hollywood to receive screen credit for his work without ever having to name a fellow Red conspirator or say he was sorry for siding with Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler against his homeland.

Trumbo is less well known for a script that never made it to the screen: An American Story, whose plot outline, in the words of film historian Bernard F. Dick, goes like this: North Korea finally decides “to put an end to the border warfare instigated by South Korea by embarking upon a war of independence in June 1950.” (In his papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society, Trumbo says he “dramatized” Kim Il-sung’s supposedly righteous war for a group of fellow Communist screenwriters, including at least two Hollywood Ten members.)

Joseph Stalin in 1943 (Public Domain)

Trumbo also seemed to think that Stalin needed a bit of a reputation upgrade. So one finds in his papers a proposed novel, apparently written in the 1950s, in which a wise old Russian defends Stalin’s murderous reign as necessary for the supposedly grand achievements of Soviet socialism.

Those celebrating Trumbo today as a sort of saintly curmudgeon do not feel obligated to mention this aspect of his Red ideology, nor do they point to his writings during the Soviet-Nazi Pact, when he was excusing Hitler’s con- quests. “To the vanquished,” he airily dismissed the critics of Nazi brutality, “all conquerors are inhuman.” For good measure he demonized Hitler’s major enemy, Great Britain, insisting that England was not a democracy, because it had a king, and accused FDR of “treason” and “black treason” for attempting to assist the British in their life-and-death struggle against the despot in Berlin.

Stalin, Hitler, Kim Il-sung? This is a trifecta of barbarous dictators, all sup- ported by Trumbo, whose reputation as a champion of liberty is rising in Hollywood even as I write.

Writers Albert Maltz, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, and Samuel Ornitz— each a Hollywood Ten figure—also left their mark in both radical politics and films, as did producer Adrian Scott and famed director Edward Dmytryk.

Several of the Ten have written about their ordeal in well-received autobiographies. All of them—save Dmytryk, the only one to renounce Communism completely—have been celebrated in countless articles, interviews and TV documentaries. Numerous movies, including The Majestic, with Jim Carrey, and The Front, starring Woody Allen and the late Zero Mostel, have dramatized the plight of the blacklisted writer, with the “victims” of the 1947 and 1950s hearings customarily elevated to icon status.

Screenwriter Philip Dunne, who organized a star-studded committee including Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to defend the Ten, tells an informative story in his memoir, Take Two. Dunne recalls that his young daughter, while attending a boarding school in Arizona, blurted out: “Daddy, my friends honor you.” Why? he wondered in astonishment. “Because you were blacklisted.”

Dunne had never been a Communist and was never blacklisted, despite his penchant for radical politics. But his kid’s remarks were revealing. “My daughter’s friends who paid me this unearned compliment,” Dunne writes, “were mostly sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, writers, professors, and artists from Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York: a fair cross-section within the intellectual community.” This community, he reflects, had elevated the Hollywood Ten and other blacklistees “to the status of national heroes.”

Whitewashing the Blacklisted

In truth, they remain heroes—and not only among America’s intellectual elite. Some of the accused may have been Communists, it is conceded by some HUAC critics, a proposition hard to deny since every one of the Ten has been revealed to have been a Communist through public confession or incontrovertible evidence. But not all had necessarily joined the Party, critics initially contended, and what evidence HUAC produced was allegedly weak or even doctored. As Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund suggest in their classic volume on the screenwriters, The Inquisition in Hollywood, there is “reason to believe” that the Communist Party cards of the Ten introduced into the hearing record “were fabrications.”

Even if some of the Ten did join the Party, they were not “subversives,” as the Committee’s members alleged, but good Americans who had become CP members out of a zeal to battle such pressing issues as poverty, fascism, and the oppression of the black race. Indeed, they proved their loyalty to this nation during World War II when they joined the military or wrote some of our best war pictures or spent enormous time and energy boosting the war effort on the home front. HUAC, in fact, had no legal—and certainly no moral—authority to subject these well-meaning citizens to the kind of public condemnations they received.

Such is the customary case for the Ten. The truth about the HUAC investigations is quite different. The Hollywood Ten, far from being “radical innocents,” far from having just “flirted with Communist ideas,” as their sympathizers so frequently insist, had all been committed to a Soviet America. Each had been an active Communist for several years. Each was participating in Communist activities during the year of the 1947 hearings.

Each was pledging loyalty to Stalin and the American Communist Party at the very moment a large segment of the liberal community was vehemently condemning Stalin, kicking Communist Party members out of both labor and liberal organizations, and forming new groups barring CP members from holding office or even joining.

Each had paid dues to the Party, met in secret CP gatherings, embraced CP projects, adorned various CP fronts, and lavished money or time or both on Party projects, and each had been issued a Communist Party USA card or a Communist Political Association card (the Communist Political Association was the name of the Party for fourteen months during WWII). The cards produced by the Committee were not “fabrications,” as Ceplair and Englund falsely suggest.

These men, along with hundreds of their comrades in the movie industry, were determined to transform Hollywood into a colony of the Kremlin. Indefatigable, they recruited Party members, taught radicals of all stripes their craft at Marxist “academies,” indoctrinated colleagues with their ideology, and schooled fellow writers on how to insert Red propaganda into American films.

They deeply penetrated or aided others in penetrating the screenwriters’, directors’, and actors’ guilds, and they worked feverishly to help fellow Reds seize control of the labor side of Hollywood through Herb Sorrell’s Conference of Studio Unions. If they could gain control over the guilds and the unions, they reasoned, they could then compel the producers to meet not only the economic and political demands of the Left, but the “content” demands as well—that Hollywood make radical, pro-Communist films. They never did subdue Hollywood completely, but they wielded enormous influence. And it took a determined anti-Red contingent in Hollywood and the long-scorned House Un-American Activities Committee to finally break their power.

By October of 1947, when the hearings began and the Soviet Union posed an obvious threat to the West, Hollywood’s Communists had been active in a subversive party that was entirely controlled by Moscow, had thoroughly penetrated American society, and was engaged in massive espionage on behalf of the Soviets (including the filching of atomic secrets).

The Party they wholeheartedly embraced had placed agents at the highest levels of our government to shift policy in favor of the Soviet empire, was furiously working for the destruction of our economic and political freedoms, and was pledging to overthrow the U.S. government, by force and violence if necessary. Many of the radical writers, including such high-octane screenwriters as Donald Ogden Stewart, for one, eventually admitted as much.

Adolph Hitler in 1937 (Wikimedia Commons)

Nothing the Communist Party in America ever did was without direction from the Kremlin. Nothing. When Hitler initially threatened Russia, Hollywood’s Party members, under Moscow’s orders by way of Party headquarters in New York, were passionately anti-Nazi; when Hitler turned his guns against the West—enabled by his 1939 Pact with Stalin—they devoted the whole of their lives to crippling the capacity of the anti-Nazi nations to survive.

Only when the Nazis double-crossed Stalin with their “surprise” invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 did Hollywood’s Reds—with Moscow still cracking the whip—renew their rage against Hitler. They were not honorable anti-fascists or patriotic Americans, as their defenders argue, but loyal Soviet apparatchiks, a fifth column working for Stalin inside our homeland.

None of this appears to bother Hollywood or the Ten’s supporters a whit. Nor is it much dwelt upon—though I cite one conspicuous exception below— in the unrelenting apologias. Hollywood cannot get enough of celebrating the “victims” of those 1947 hearings in movies, plays, books, documentaries, skits, oral histories, and public events.

Fifty years after the ’47 hearings, Hollywood commemorated the Ten but also other writers, directors, and actors who had allegedly been persecuted by HUAC in the 1950s. At the October 27, 1997, gala at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, these men and women received standing ovations from the audience and lavish tributes from those honoring them on stage. Representatives of the various writers’, directors’, and actors’ guilds sponsoring the triumphant occasion made grand apologies for their having been blacklisted. Such celebrities as Billy Crystal, Kevin Spacey, and John Lithgow were eager to lend their special talents to polishing the legend of the Ten and other targets of HUAC as they took part in skits reenacting the supposed horrors they had sustained.

That night at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, Stalinist Ten writers including Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, and Ring Lardner Jr. were warmly celebrated. So were Communist writers Abraham Polonsky, Paul Jarrico, Bernard Gordon, Bobby Lees, Walter Bernstein, and Frank Tarloff. Stunningly, the president of the Writers Guild of America, West, Daniel Petrie Jr., presented both Jarrico and Lardner with plaques that, Petrie noted, “are engraved with the text of the First Amendment”—an amendment those two were determined to extinguish. None was more lionized on this occasion than Lardner, one of the original Ten who, despite his passing, remains a major poster boy for HUAC’s “victims” to this day.

Ring Lardner's Confessions

Lardner came from a distinguished line of American writers and was an excellent scriptwriter himself. At the 1997 gala he was allowed to read the statement that he had not been allowed to give before HUAC in 1947 (because he refused to answer the Committee's questions), and at that gala he received not only his distinguished 'First Amendment' award but a thundering standing ovation from a crowd of more than a thousand awe-inspired guests, including dozens of Hollywood's finest.

Lardner was romanticized there, as he has been elsewhere, as a man who went to prison for daring to defy a poisonous congressional inquiry. But should all this praise have been heaped upon a devoted Red revolutionary who believed that the violent overthrow of America’s economic system was the surest path to a socialist utopia?

We don’t need the HUAC “inquisitors” or those hated “informers” to prove Lardner’s abiding loyalty to Stalin, though they provided plenty of solid information to underscore the point. We have evidence from the horse’s mouth. In The Lardners, Ring Lardner Jr.’s very incomplete memoir published nearly thirty years after his HUAC ordeal, he relates how he toed the Soviet line throughout the ’30s and ’40s.

Lardner discusses his “conversion to Marxism-Leninism” and his “affiliation growing stronger as I learned more facts and analyzed them in the cold light of reason.” In the late 1930s, he would go to “a Marxist study group one night” and “a meeting of the newly formed youth unit in the party on another.” Whenever he went out by himself in the evening in the 1940s, “it was to attend a Communist meeting of one sort or another.”

He claims that “most of the favorable accounts of the Soviet Union confirmed my own observations” and says that though he “frequently asserted the principle that advocating communism for America didn’t mean you had to defend everything that happened in Russia, in practice that’s what the preponderant majority of arguments came down to.”8 Lardner scrupulously followed Moscow’s script. From the special thrill he felt on joining the Communist Party in the ’30s through the ’47 hearings, he never deviated. Not once.

Screenwriters like Lardner, Lawson, Trumbo, and Maltz became prominent because they were part of the Hollywood Ten, but there were literally scores of other prominent writers in the Red camp, including Lillian Hellman (Watch on the Rhine and The North Star), Donald Ogden Stewart (Life with Father and The Philadelphia Story), and Paul Jarrico and Richard Collins (Song of Russia).

But did all these screenwriters deserve to be labeled “Stalinists”? Ceplair and Englund, clearly admirers of the Left, honorably conclude,

The initial answer must be “yes.” Communist screenwriters defended the Stalinist regime, accepted the Comintern’s policies and about-faces, and criticized enemies and allies alike with an infuriating self-righteousness, superiority, and selective memory which eventually alienated all but the staunchest fellow travelers. [“Fellow travelers,” though not formally members of the Communist Party, religiously followed the Party line.]

As defenders of the Soviet regime, the screen artist Reds became apologists for crimes of monstrous dimensions, though they claimed to have known nothing about such crimes and indeed shouted down or ignored those who did. . . .

The Hollywood Communists, Ceplair and Englund admit, defended the Soviet Union “unflinchingly, uncritically, inflexibly—and therefore left themselves open to the justifiable suspicion that they not only approved of every- thing they were defending, but would themselves act in the same way if they were in the same position.”

All of which makes one wonder why anyone would be opposed to questioning such folks before a congressional committee concerned with protecting citizens from Stalin’s American agents.

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