In Hollywood 60 years ago, the 300 or so secret communists working in the movies included an obscure Toronto-born writer, Ben Barzman, whose story neatly symbolizes the hypocrisy built into the legends about battling HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Typically, Barzman received US$30,000 in 1943 money as one of five hacks credited with writing a Dick Powell movie, True to Life, about a radio scriptwriter who runs out of ideas, rents a room from an unsuspecting family, borrows their lives for plot purposes and then -- you'll never guess -- falls for the beautiful daughter.
When the Republican scoundrels running HUAC trolled through Hollywood for headlines, Barzman (1911-1989) feared that he, like some of his friends, might be called to testify. So in 1947 he and his wife pre-emptively moved to England and then France, beyond the reach of a HUAC subpoena.
In Europe they were treated as political heroes. Picasso, in his communist period, embraced them and said, "We are the same." They were thrilled. They worked in Europe for 30 years, apparently victims of the anti-communist blacklist but actually its beneficiaries. Mordecai Richler, in London in the 1950s, sensed that people like the Barzmans were living on borrowed persecution. He treated them as comic figures in his 1957 novel A Choice of Enemies.
The most faithful of communists, the Barzmans believed in the goodness of the Soviet Union. They accepted the rigged Moscow Trials of the 1930s, then the Hitler-Stalin pact, then the revelation of Stalin's crimes (they thought it "wonderful that the Soviet Union could admit to the dreadful things it had perpetrated"). The crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 didn't weaken their faith. But in 1968, when Soviets tanks destroyed the Czech government, the Barzmans finally sensed that something was amiss.
Their story becomes an irony-laden metaphor in a current book, the best account of this subject I know: Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance with the Left (Encounter), by Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh. The authors have no affection for commie-hunting politicians from Washington, who were trampling on civil rights while playing to the crowd, but they demonstrate that the now-famous battle of the Hollywood Ten was less a morality play of virtuous liberals against evil reactionaries than a farce disguised as a tragedy.
At the heart of the story a mystery remains. Why did the Hollywood 300 become secret communists in the first place, and why did they later allow themselves to be manipulated by the party for the sake of anti-American propaganda? James Lardner's father, Ring Lardner Jr., was one of the Hollywood Ten; he served a jail term for refusing to answer questions. In 1996, four years before his father's death, James wrote a poignant article in the Washington Post, "The Gilding of the Blacklist: A Son of the Hollywood Ten Revisits a Heroic Legacy." He asked how those men could possibly have overlooked the fact that communism produced a monstrous dictatorship in the first place it was tried, the Soviet Union.
The answer turns out to be sadly banal. Communism was fashionable (and this was Hollywood), it was hard to get out once you got in, and when the party ordered its still-loyal members to remain silent it was morally easier just to follow orders. In Hollywood, HUAC and the communists helped each other: HUAC needed ready-made villains and the movie communists wanted to look like victims of a right-wing witch hunt. The communist party hoped to make anti-communism itself appear evil, a strategy that worked beautifully while destroying a few dozen careers. Joseph McCarthy's mendacious campaign served communism in the same way.
Dalton Trumbo, the cleverest Hollywood communist, realized that keeping membership secret was the great mistake, a damning indictment in itself. He also understood the nature of Soviet communism, yet remained dutifully silent for decades, supporting what the Radoshes call a "fable of innocence destroyed by malice ... that Hollywood tells itself each night when it goes to sleep."
In Hollywood, the myth remains alive. In 1999, when Elia Kazan (an ex-communist who "confessed") was recognized for his lifetime achievement at the Academy Awards, many eminent Hollywood citizens (Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, Richard Dreyfuss, etc.) sat in sullen silence through his standing ovation.
Do the Hollywood communists still matter, more than half a century after they faced HUAC? Absolutely. To this minute, their rewritten story distorts cultural history and colours the self-image of Hollywood leftists, making even the dullest among them feel like brave radicals and potential martyrs.