Hollywood’s blacklisted filmmakers remembered in season at Manchester’s HOME

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A season on Hollywood’s blacklisted filmmakers of the 1950s is being held at Manchester’s HOME – and we’ve been chatting to its curator Andy Willis. 

The beginning of the Hollywood blacklist marks its 75th anniversary this year. One of Tinseltown’s darkest chapters, this saw anyone suspected of Communist Party USA membership or having ties or sympathies with any Communist group as being a threat to America. Those suspected were often called before the House of the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to give testimony. People across the entertainment industry found themselves blacklisted and their careers, and often lives, ruined. Those who could work had to under pseudonyms, often at bargain basement rates.

An aspect of the blacklist not often discussed concerns those filmmakers who relocated to Europe when Hollywood slammed its doors on them. In May, Manchester’s HOME is hosting Hollywood Blacklistees in Europe, a season of seven movies made by exiled writers, directors, and actors. Running Saturday 14th to Tuesday 31st, it showcases the range of movies made by blacklisted filmmakers.

The season includes gritty thrillers, such as Jules Dassin’s Night And The City and Rififi. There are British classics with Cy Enfield’s Zulu, and The Bridge On The River Kwai, written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. It’s also showing a cult favourite with Horror Express, produced by Bernard Gordon, and written by Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet. There’s also social drama in the form of Time Without Pity, directed by Joseph Losey and Calle Mayor, starring Betsy Blair.

The exhibition is curated by Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Salford. We caught up with Andy to discuss the season and the history of the Hollywood blacklist.

Rob: Before we discuss the season, let’s talk about the Hollywood blacklist. For anyone unfamiliar with it, could you tell us what it was?

Andy: A few people have been asking me that, and it’s proving more difficult than I thought to sum it up quickly! Basically, during World War 2 the Soviets had been a key ally against the Nazis. But postwar America shifted away from supporting the Soviet Union as the world moved into the Cold War.

As that shift progressed, there was a focus on Hollywood and the entertainment industry. In 1947 a list was made of 19 people suspected of being Communist Party members, and they were called before HUAC. At that point (Senator Joseph) McCarthy had nothing to do with it; McCarthyism was a thing that came later.

Of those 19, 10 were subpoenaed for contempt of Congress after giving what was seen as unfriendly testimony”, which meant they refused to say whether they had been at Communist Party meetings with other people. They appealed, but in 1950 were sent to prison and became known as The Hollywood 10. Dalton Trumbo was one of them, and the 2015 film Trumbo features that Hollywood 10 period.

In between the initial HUAC hearings and The Hollywood 10 being sent to prison, a list containing lots of names was drawn up by various right wing organisations in Hollywood. At a meeting of big Hollywood producers at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, it was decided the film industry would have a blacklist. So many people found themselves going into work one day to be told they wouldn’t be going into work the next day.

Brian Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo

Trumbo depicts the events that befell the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.

As it was illegal to have a blacklist, Hollywood did not acknowledge its existence?

Yes, there wasn’t officially a blacklist. But in 1950, after The Hollywood Ten affair, a pamphlet was produced called Red Channels, containing a list of 151 names. That was really the first of the long lists, and would be supplemented by people whose names were given in testimony at the HUAC hearings.

But there was an unofficial list that had been agreed upon by powerful Hollywood players, such as Walt Disney and Samuel Goldwyn. Disney was actually one of the first to testify as a friendly witness. Also, The Hollywood Reporter was very much part of suggesting people as well. Hard to imagine now The Hollywood Reporter would get behind stories of the film industry being infiltrated by Reds. And let’s not forget the blacklist extended beyond Hollywood to the whole entertainment industry.

One film in the season is the wonderful Horror Express, produced by Bernard Gordon, who had been a blacklisted writer. His experience was as you’ve said: he went into work one day, was told his work was no longer satisfactory, and he was out.

Yeah, Gordon ends up in Spain working in this mini script factory they have running there. Of all the ironic things you could have, a group of left wing scriptwriters and fellow travellers beavering away on Franco-endorsed epics in Spain! It’s the strangest of things. The two writers on Horror Express, Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet, were both blacklisted as well. Gordon knew them because, like many blacklistees, they were based in France.

Plus, non-blacklisted filmmakers were taking credit for blacklisted writers’ scripts. Gordon’s friend, the producer and Hollywood hustler Philip Yordan, has over 60 script credits for movies he didn’t write.

Exactly, and Gordon said something like, “He had so many script credits for a man who never wrote a single line of dialogue!”

Of course, it was fantasy that Hollywood lefties were sneaking Communist propaganda into movies. HUAC couldn’t provide any evidence for it.

Yes, but as writers were the most vociferous and easily identifiable early on, it became generally accepted they were the ones sneaking these messages into the work. While some of the liberal ideas in their movies are quite heavy-handed, these were films being made towards the end of the war. The writers were being asked by the government to make pro-Soviet Union films to help the war effort. They later found themselves blacklisted for movies the US administration had told them to write!

A lot of people said under oath they had been members of the Communist Party, but it must be remembered there was nothing illegal about that. It had been a legitimate party to be in, but suddenly membership was ending careers. Which speaks to how intense that shift was from World War 2 into the Cold War.

Many who were targeted for the blacklist had been on peace committees and things like that. Acceptable things to be part of, but subsequently seen as Red fronts. Many were accused of such activities, when they were just Americans trying to support people coming out of the siege of Stalingrad and things like that.

Were people involved in this left wing activity also crucial in establishing Hollywood unions that guaranteed workers’ rights?

That’s right, and there is another story to this about the tradespeople in the industry who were blacklisted for union organising and such. Their stories are not often spoken about. We’ve done this season with films featuring famous names, but many unknown craftspeople were blacklisted. They would have been at a greater disadvantage than the writers, actors, and directors too; I’m guessing it would have been impossible to relocate to France and be an assistant lighting cameraman. As a result, many of those people saw their careers just end.

Why have you decided to programme this season now? And do you see any parallels between the Hollywood blacklist and current political tribalism and cancel culture?

To the latter point, I didn’t think of the season in those terms. During lockdown I read a lot about the blacklist out of interest, and when things were getting back to normal thought it would make a good season. There’s a great book by Rebecca Prime called Hollywood Exiles in Europe, and I thought that was an interesting angle from which to approach the blacklist. But, films such as Horror Express will not feature in a serious book, but give the season something extra.

On your second point, being sidelined and prevented from working because of the ideas that you have, I do think that’s around at the moment. I’ve not thought about the season as a metaphor for that, but it resonates with things going on, people being accused of things that on reflection don’t stick. But, the mud has been thrown and it’s too late.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in Horror Express

Horror Express

Which ties into the title of the 1991 Robert De Niro film about the blacklist, Guilty By Suspicion.

I rewatched that for this season. When I first saw it I didn’t realise it was supposed to be based on blacklisted director John Berry. That film does what lots of movies about the blacklist do: suggests blacklisted people were accidentally caught up in things. From what I’ve read about John Berry, he was a strong left wing character, and certainly not accidentally swept up. One of his obituaries said he always had a bust of Lenin in his Paris apartment.

But, Hollywood’s movies about the blacklist tend to erase those people’s politics. They just become these well intentioned liberals caught up in this bigger drama. Not many films portray the characters as true left wingers. Obviously the Trumbo biopic is a bit more explicit about that, but usually they’re espousing fairness rather than any particular political affiliation.

The season showcases the work of blacklisted writers, directors and actors. How did you go about selecting the titles?

I wanted to have Jules Dassin’s Rififi in the season, but then thought what if we have Dassin’s Night And The City too. On Night And The City Dassin wasn’t allowed to do as much postproduction as he was in Hollywood. There he was allowed to be involved through the whole process, not just brought to direct on set and then hand over to someone else.

I thought that was an interesting aspect to what happened to him after relocating. Plus, Night And The City is set in London, which is a good anchor. That and Rififi bookend the season. Horror Express shows that the exiles in Spain didn’t just work on blockbusters, but also genre films.

With The Bridge On The River Kwai, I wanted something that everyone would know, but maybe not realise the writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson weren’t allowed their names on the film. For decades they weren’t acknowledged as the film’s writers. The original credited writer was Pierre Boulle, who had written the novel, and who, the story goes, couldn’t speak English. The version we have restores their credit.

Boulle also wrote the novel Planet of the Apes, and Michael Wilson wrote the screenplay for the 1968 film. Initially he wasn’t allowed to have his name on that either. Which gives lie to the notion that the blacklist was broken in 1960, when Dalton Trumbo was credited on Exodus and Spartacus. Some people were not fully integrated back into Hollywood until much later.

With The Bridge on the River Kwai and Zulu, when they’re rewatched through the prism of blacklisted Hollywood filmmakers working on them, the liberal sensibilities are a little more evident. Zulu is very much about the British class system. Some people were surprised we included it, but those class aspects are very important, and I’ll be flagging that in the intro for the film.

We picked Joseph Losey’s Time Without Pity because that was the first film he could have his name on after being blacklisted.

Night And The City

A film included I hadn’t heard of is Calle Mayor. Could you tell us why you selected it for the season?

That has one of the most interesting stories behind it. Betsy Blair was a blacklisted actress based in Europe. She met the director Juan Antonio Bardem in Cannes, where I think he was on the jury. Someone told her she should work with him, but Blair resisted because Bardem was working in Franco’s Spain. Which as we’ve said is ironic because of all those blacklisted writers beavering away there!

But, they told Blair that Bardem was a fellow traveller, a Communist Party member and an anti-Francoist. She spoke with him and agreed to travel to Spain to make the film. While they were shooting, Bardem was arrested and imprisoned. Blair had to lobby the producer, saying she wouldn’t finish the picture unless they got Bardem out of prison. It took something like a week or a month, not a great length of time. But, because she pushed the producer, the producer pushed the powers that be, and Bardem was released. So Calle Mayor is a good example of blacklisted actors working with, and standing up for, people of similar political hues in Europe.

Did these Hollywood exiles coming over to Europe influence European cinema?

An element of that can be seen with someone like Jules Dassin and Rififi. Rififi seems an archetypal French heist film, but it’s very Hollywood in its construction of the suspense elements. Far more than typical French crime films of the thirties or the post-war period. But, the film’s influence can be seen in later French crime films of the sixties.

Conversely, you can see a European influence on the filmmakers’ Hollywood sensibilities. Joseph Losey’s low budget films made when arriving in Britain were quite melodramatic in a Hollywood way. By the time of The Servant and Accident, and into the seventies, he had become an archetypal European arthouse director.

Interestingly, when directors such as Jules Dassin and John Berry could return to work in Hollywood, they made films about the black American experience. These were guys interested in movies about social exclusion and political issues, and returned to America in the time of the Civil Rights struggle and the Black Power movement. Jules Dassin directed Uptight in 1968, and John Berry made Claudine in 1974. They were far from those characters depicted in films such as Guilty By Suspicion, they remained committed.

As well as introducing all the films being screened, you are also giving an hour long introduction to the season as a whole.

Yes, and of all the intros I’ve done to seasons this is one of the most important. I’m 60 this year, and since the beginning of my interest in film I’ve had a sense of what the Hollywood blacklist was. From talking to people, I realised a lot of folk now don’t know there was a Hollywood blacklist. So the one-hour introduction event will provide that context, discuss some of the filmmakers we couldn’t include, and suggest other films audiences might want to look up if they find these engaging.

To find out more about the Hollywood Blacklistees in Europe season click here.

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