Films, Allegories and McCarthyism

In the 1950’s, Senator Eugene McCarthy, aided and abetted by the head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, began to accuse hundreds of Americans of being either communists or communist sympathisers. Hoover had designed President Truman’s loyalty and security program and his agents carried out background checks on federal employees. This information was supposed to be secret but in 1950 when the Korean War began, Senator McCarthy produced a list of supposed communist party members or supporters working for the state department and presented it to the press. Much of his information came from Hoover.

The House Committee on Un-American activities was probably the best known and most active government committee involved in anti-communist investigations and probably became most well known for its investigation into the Hollywood film industry. In 1947 the committee began to subpoena various film industry workers and force them to testify about their support for the communist party. They were asked ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?’

The first witnesses brought before the committee refused to answer and became known as the Hollywood 10. They all cited the constitution’s first amendment which they believed guaranteed free speech and free assembly and therefore freed them from the requirement to answer the committee’s questions. They were wrong. The communists of the USSR may have been allies in the defeat of Hitler but now that Nazi Germany lay in ruins, the red menace was the new enemy and America was scared.

The committee questioned numerous people, actors, directors, screenwriters and many others and more than 300 individuals were blacklisted by the industry. Some like Charlie Chaplin, left the country. Some screenwriters wrote under pseudonyms to find work. Larry Parks, the star of The Jolson Story, testified in tears. He was blacklisted and left the movie business after his contract with Columbia Pictures was cancelled.

Two prominent ‘friendly’ witnesses were director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg.

On the Waterfront

Director Elia Kazan had originally employed Arthur Miller to write the screenplay for On the Waterfront but the two fell out over various things especially the fact that Kazan had identified eight former communists to the HUAC. Kazan then asked Budd Schulberg to write the script. There was still some difficulty in getting the film to the screen and eventually Kazan approached Sam Spiegel to act as producer. He was able to set up a deal with Columbia Studios.

The film stars Marlon Brando as dock worker Terry Malloy, brother of Charlie ‘the gent’ who is the right hand man of union boss John Friendly played by Lee J Cobb. Terry unwittingly leads fellow dockworker Joey Doyle into an ambush, thinking Doyle will be threatened to withdraw his statements to the crime commision. However Doyle is murdered leaving Terry shocked and confused. Later he becomes friendly with Joey’s sister played by Eva Marie Saint in her film debut. Charlie, played by Rod Steiger, tries to get Terry back into line in the famous scene with the two in the back of a taxi but fails. After John Friendly has Terry’s brother murdered, the local priest played by Karl Malden convinces Terry to tell everything he knows to the waterfront crime commission. Terry does so but is ostracised by his fellow dockers until Terry forces Friendly into a brutal fight. The dockers then stand with Terry when bruised and battered, he returns to work.

The film was thought to be Kazan’s response to criticism of his stand at the HUAC hearings although Schulberg later denied this, explaining how he attended actual waterfront hearings and based his film on those. Arthur Miller in his play A View from the Bridge has his character inform on two illegal immigrants but it is portrayed as a betrayal rather than the honest informing of Waterfront.

Either way, On the Waterfront is one of my very favourite films and Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy won him one the film’s eight Oscars. Forget about Don Corleone, this was Marlon Brando’s finest hour.

Spartacus

Spartacus was based on a book by Howard Fast who was jailed for his refusal to testify at the HUAC hearings. According to Wikipedia, he wrote the book while in prison. Kirk Douglas was disappointed at not getting the lead role in Ben Hur and looking round for a similar project came across Fast’s book. He purchased an option on the book with his own money. Later, financing was arranged with Universal Studios.

Dalton Trumbo wrote the script although he had been blacklisted but managed to continue working by using an alias. He had earlier been jailed for contempt of congress as he was a member of the Hollywood 10.  Kirk Douglas decided that Trumbo should be given a screen credit in his own name and this action helped to end the blacklist.

Anthony Mann was the original director but Douglas fired him after 2 weeks claiming he was scared of the scope of the picture. Douglas then hired Stanley Kubrick to direct, Kubrick having worked with Douglas previously on Paths of Glory.

The film has been said to have links not only to the McCarthy era but also to the American civil rights movement. Slavery is a central theme to the film and the fight to end segregation in America is reflected in the mixing of various races in the Gladiator school. The climatic scene where the rebels are asked to give up Spartacus and instead call out ‘I am Spartacus’, alludes to the HUAC hearings where witnesses were asked to name names.

Spartacus is a wonderful film and was restored twice, once in 1991 and again in 2015 where a version 12 minutes longer was produced as well as having a remastered soundtrack.

Kirk Douglas is excellent in the lead role and a trio of characters played by Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton work together so faultlessly they help elevate the film to an outstanding degree. Poor John Dall, who plays Glabrus is hopelessly outclassed by the British actors.

High Noon

High Noon is not a movie that I would have thought would be in any way related to McCarthyism or the HUAC hearings. However, the film was directed by Fred Zinneman from a screenplay by Carl Foreman. Foreman was called to testify before the HUAC . He admitted once being a communist party member but declined to name any fellow members and was therefore classed as an uncooperative witness. Realising he would be blacklisted, he later sold his partnership in the film project and moved to the UK.

John Wayne declined the lead role as he thought the film an obvious allegory of blacklisting, of which he was a fervent supporter. Gregory Peck amongst others turned down the role and it eventually went to Gary Cooper. Grace Kelly played Cooper’s new wife despite the age difference; she was 21 and Cooper 50.

Marshall Will Kane (Cooper) marries devout Quaker Amy Fowler (Kelly) however the Marshall gets word that Frank Miller, a vicious gunman who Kane had sent to prison years before has been released and is due to arrive on the noon train. At first Kane decides to leave town but then realises he will be caught out in the open with the gunmen coming after him. Not only that, the gunmen are making him run and ‘I’ve never run from anybody before’ he tells Amy.

Will returns to town but his new wife, whose extreme religious beliefs include an vehement opposition to violence, will have nothing more to do with him. As the minutes tick relentlessly down to noon he tries to get a group of deputies together, but for one reason or another they all fail him and he has to face Miller and his gang alone.

At the end of the film, reconciled with Amy, Cooper looks around disgusted by the townspeople who have shunned him and throws his Marshall’s badge to the ground.

The tension mounts up relentlessly in the film and builds to a wonderful climax. Another great aspect of the film was the music and the distinctive theme song, actually called ‘High Noon’ although mostly known as ‘Do not forsake me oh my darlin’’. It became a hit for Tex Ritter.

My brother and I watched this film a few months ago and afterwards he told me a story that our dad had told him years ago. Dad saw the film when he was in the army. Dad served in various places but wherever they were on this occasion, the film was projected in a big tent. Afterwards when the men dispersed after the showing, the theme tune had made such a big impression that they were all whistling or humming ‘Do not forsake me oh my darlin”.


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

 

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