A film guide for the left

Book review

Blacklisted: The Film Lover’s Guide to the Hollywood Blacklist By Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner Palgrave Macmillan, 288 pp., $24.95

Paul Buhle, standing among the apex of writer-historians of the political left, is rather unique in his study of the movement within the film community. Following a wealth of texts, including the renowned Encyclopedia of the American Left, Buhle began work on a series of books detailing the pains of the blacklist and its fallout on the entertainment industry. The first of these was Tender Comrades (co-authored by Patrick McGilligan), which offered first-person accounts of those years.

However, it is within his partnership with Dave Wagner that Buhle’s work has really prospered. The pair, following a biography of Abraham Polonsky, produced the celebrated Radical Hollywood and more recently Hide in Plain Sight. Still, their current effort remains singular in its mission; it is the left’s answer to the everyday film guide.

Blacklisted opens with a reader-friendly yet carefully constructed introduction that offers not only an explanation of this book’s rationale, but also some important history. While most authors of such material prefer to write about blacklistees “accused” of communism, Buhle and Wagner have focused primarily on those who were actually members of the Communist Party USA. While sympathizers of various political persuasions are discussed, only those Hollywood names designated as “card-carrying” (at any point) are accentuated.

As this book, apart from its introduction, is not a standard text but largely an alphabetical listing of films written, directed or produced by blacklist victims, the authors needed to devise a short-hand manner of conveying information. Each blacklist victim is designated by a “bullet” wherever his or her name may appear in the book. However, those who would go on to become friendly witnesses of the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC) are marked with a dagger.

Even a brief scan over the pages will readily give rise to heroic names such as Hellman, Biberman, Bessie, Lawson, Trumbo, and the like. But this book also celebrates the work of screenwriters Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo, who created the best scripts of Abbot and Costello’s career, as well as Constance Lee and Karen DeWolf, primary writers of the Blondie film series.

Not content to offer simply a survey of films, most of the entries are chock full of information that can be found nowhere else. An example is the work of the latter pair of writers and their impact on the seemingly light series, which actually concerns the disinheritance of a millionaire’s son (Dagwood), thrust into the working world. It was by design that Blondie was such a liberated woman, but did you know that star Penny Singleton became an official with the American Guild of Variety Artists and, in the 1960s, stared down the strong-arms of both show business and the mob as she led the Radio City Rockettes on strike?

Fittingly, Blacklisted’s entries are doled out in an equitable fashion; the low-budget films of such independent studios as P.R.C. are given the same consideration as major Hollywood epics and deeply moving message films. As the authors clarify, these progressives of the film industry, these Communists who were to be summarily broken by the forces of reaction, were the industry standard. Movie musicals, dramas, horror flicks and comedies often included material that reflected important imagery including class equity, women’s rights, and the so-called American dream. After all, many of the films herein were products of the Popular Front years and even those of later vintage commonly had creative forces that hailed from the period. While they would be accused of subversion once the Cold War began, the Hollywood blacklistees had simply been guilty of offering varying levels of democratic values in their products.

With Blacklisted, Buhle and Wagner offer the reader Carl Forman’s legendary allegories in High Noon, Boris Karloff’s increasing activism with SAG following the experience of Frankenstein’s painful makeup processes, the populist symbolism of The Wizard of Oz and Gordon Kahn’s hidden anti-imperialism in Tarzan’s New York Adventure.

There are also entries on most of the films which take the blacklist as its subject including The Front and The Way We Were.

The authors have stated, however, that their study should be viewed as but a start in the documentation of Hollywood’s blacklist. Now that much of the inside story on Hollywood’s blacklisted writers, directors and producers has been told, we can only hope that the authors might next cover the plight of actors, composers and production people.