I’ve been quiet for almost a month now and in part it was because I simply had not much to say or for that matter not much wisdom to share. In addition to not posting here, I also took a Facebook quasi-hiatus. I just found that I was spending too much time at the virtual water cooler and not getting much accomplished.
But I am back from this hiatus, and thought it would be interesting to write about one of my favorite films that deals with the blacklist. Our local library, during the winter and spring, holds Tuesday movie nights, and sometimes there’s a special guest star to comment about the film. Last Tuesday, we were graced with two special guests–Walter Bernstein and Martin Ritt, the screenwriter and director of The Front, which starred Woody Allen.
The Front is about the blacklist, specifically the one that centered on the television entertainment industry. Woody Allen plays a cashier at a diner who is asked by his blacklisted best friend to act as a front for him to submit his teleplays. In other words, the friend does the writing, and the front takes the credit. During the blacklist many screenwriters used fronts or pseudonyms so they could get work and make a living. Writers had it a little easier compared to blacklisted actors since it was easier to hide by a phony name or by someone else who took the credit (and a ten percent fee). In the film, the actor Hecky Brown, played by Zero Mostel, is blacklisted and he can’t find any work, ultimately his lack of work leads him to commit suicide.
The role of Hecky was inspired in part by the actor Philip Loeb, who played the part of Molly Goldberg’s husband in the television series, The Goldbergs. Although Loeb claimed to be never have been a Communist party member or sympathizer, he became tainted because of his membership of the council of the Actor’s Equity Association. Because advertising is so important to the networks, the sponsors of The Goldbergs told the network to fire Loeb or they would pull their money. Loeb, unlike many actors, was lucky to a degree. He was paid a $40,000 settlement, and was able to find some work. Yet it wasn’t enough: Loeb had a mentally ill son whom he financially supported as well as other money woes. A year after his last performance on the stage, Loeb committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills at the Taft Hotel in New York City.
The Front essentially turned out to be a revenge film made by former blacklisted actors (Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough), as well a Bernstein and Ritt. When Bernstein wrote the story, he knew that the studio would never agree to make it if it was rendered as a serious film. Thus the film was turned into a comedy with dramatic overtones. It received mixed reviews at the time of its release, but the good news is that the film is shown across University campuses and Bernstein is always invited to talk about those dark and shameful times in American history
After the film was shown, Mr. Bernstein answered questions about the production. He sprinkled his talk with several anecdotes that were included in the film. His presentation was interesting, but what surprised me was the lack of knowledge about the blacklist among the audience–especially because many of the people who attended were at least 60 years old and older. They never heard of the Hollywood Nineteen who were whittled down to the Hollywood Ten and who went to jail for contempt of Congress? They never heard of Red Channels, the tract that listed communists, communist sympathizers, and/or fellow travelers? Some questioned why certain people were blacklisted–union and labor sympathizers was part of an answer–but it just seemed that even those who responded didn’t really understand the allure of the CPUSA and what drove those individuals to join. So here we had a wonderful opportunity to discuss the history of what lead to the blacklist and look at the contemporary parallels, but it was squashed by lightweight questions. Or maybe this particular audience just didn’t want to get into the dialectics of Communism and its allure to people like Bernstein and Ritt.
In any event, it was an entertaining evening: I had the opportunity to see one of my favorite films, speak with Walter Bernstein and his wife, and the best part of the night: I was inspired to write two new scenes for Julius.