Fighting Words, Part 2

Two series look at screenwriters and the legacy of the blacklist
by Imogen Sara Smith  posted August 20, 2014
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This article is presented in conjunction with the film series Cineaste Magazine Presents: Screenwriters and the Blacklist: Before, During, and After, at Anthology Film Archives, from August 22-September 2, 2014.

In 1962, blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky published a frustrated yet idealistic manifesto in the French journal Présence du Cinéma. He envisioned screenplays moving towards “compression, density, structure, elegance, metaphor, synthesis, magnitude and variety, all held within a unified verbal structure. I am, of course, speaking of poetry, and the literary form I have in mind of the screenplay is the poem.”

In Force of Evil (1948), his directing debut from his own screenplay, Polonsky achieved much of this—an extraordinary fusion of words and images, ideas and atmosphere, the intellectual and the visceral. Few films make a stronger argument about the link between crime and capitalism. Gambling, crime, and high finance are all united by their separation of profit from any useful product or service: it’s just money changing hands. These three combine in the scheme cooked up by crooked lawyer Joe Morse (John Garfield) to make a fortune by masterminding a takeover of New York City’s numbers game. In an added dollop of irony, Joe’s scheme involves taking advantage of the popularity of betting on 776 on the Fourth of July. Both the mobsters and the suckers hope that “the old liberty number” will translate into a quick (illegal) buck; what better way to celebrate the all-American holiday?

Polonsky’s script, based on Ira Wolfert’s 1943 novel Tucker’s People, is famous for lyrical dialogue that creates an utterly distinctive sound and rhythm—well described by William Pechter as incantatory. One member of the cast, ingénue Beatrice Pearson, is stilted in her delivery, but the others make this stylized language sound like it emanates from the city’s steaming alleys, pervasive and authentic as the stench of summer sidewalks. Above all, the film is flavored by John Garfield’s voice-over narration: biting and fluent, tense with coiled energy, delivered in a Bronx accent as thick as a pastrami sandwich. Polonsky’s language and David Raksin’s soaring, romantic score are balanced by grubby New York settings: cramped, sweaty little rooms, dingy diners and cave-like nightclubs. The lighting and cinematography by George Barnes were deliberately based on Edward Hopper’s paintings, with wide shots of tiny, isolated figures moving through urban canyons; stark lamplight in offices at night; the bleak dawn light under the grey shroud of the George Washington Bridge.

Polonsky got the chance to direct his own script—joining a club with few other members besides Sturges and Wilder—thanks to John Garfield’s independent Enterprise Studios. Body and Soul (1947), Polonsky’s first screenplay and Enterprise’s first production, had been a big hit, but the more radical and pessimistic Force of Evil was unsurprisingly shunned. Body and Soul may hold some kind of record—Polonsky, director Robert Rossen, and three of the stars (Garfield, Canada Lee, and Anne Revere) all fell afoul of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (though Rossen later named names and was able to work again.) John Garfield, though never officially blacklisted, is perhaps the most tragic victim of the witch-hunt. Never a Communist, he had strong ties to left-wing causes, and he made a principled stand before HUAC by asserting his patriotism but refusing to name anyone; he remained under suspicion and under intolerable pressure to choose between his career and what Polonsky called his “street-boy’s honor.” When he died of a heart attack at 39, many of his friends openly declared that HUAC had killed him. Garfield’s last screen performances in Force of Evil, The Breaking Point, and He Ran All the Way are taut, electrifying portrayals of men trapped in unbearable conflict with themselves, stretched like a rubber band to snapping point.

Garfield, who had little formal education, found the key to Joe Morse’s character in the Phi Beta Kappa key he wears on his watch-chain. It symbolizes Joe’s truculent pride in how he has climbed out of orphaned poverty—such as Garfield himself grew up in—to become a well-heeled success. Bright and bitter, vain and self-loathing, Joe Morse is one of those quintessentially noir characters whose misfortune is not to be quite unscrupulous enough. He wants to save his estranged brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), who runs a small numbers bank, from being ruined by his takeover scheme. Leo’s wife insists he is a businessman, but he admits he has always been crooked too, albeit on a penny-ante scale. In this film, there’s about as much daylight between business and crime as there is between the jostling skycrapers of Wall Street.

Joe’s white-shoe law partner disdains his shady deals but happily shares in their profits. Leo indignantly rejects Joe’s help, but his moral indignation is thin cover for resentment of the more successful kid brother for whom he made sacrifices. Doris (Beatrice Pearson), an innocent young girl who works for Leo, keeps telling Joe how evil he is, while practically begging him to seduce her. Only Joe is honest about his own greed and cynicism, telling Doris that to give and want nothing back is “perversion, it’s not natural.” The others want to be forced to sin, so they can believe they are victims rather than perpetrators. Joe himself is actively and willingly corrupted by the ruthless gangster Tucker (Roy Roberts), boasting to Doris about how Tucker opened his pockets and “I could smell money spreading in the air like perfume.”

Some of the film’s best scenes are those between Joe and Tucker’s wife (Marie Windsor), crackling with her come-ons and his brush-offs. She needles and provokes him, less out of desire or even boredom so much as the need to prove him weak. The nice girl and the femme fatale, the good brother and the bad brother—Force of Evil uses these tropes only to complicate them. Both women are peripheral to the relationship between the brothers, whose guilt-steeped bond, poisoned but unbreakable, is the emotional core of the story. Garfield removes Joe’s hard shell of glib confidence layer by layer, going down one step at a time into the haggard terror underneath. Fear is the brother of greed, and money is the promise of safety. In the film’s first scene, a man places a bet on the number from the license plate of a car that almost ran him down, figuring it’s lucky. Joe agrees: “If you don’t get killed, it’s a lucky day.”

Blacklisted in 1951, Abraham Polonsky would not direct another movie until 1969. He wrote for television, stage, and film using fronts, but in his 1962 manifesto he made a case that “the serious writer who cannot direct should stop writing for film.” His discussion of the fundamental challenges of writing screenplays conveys some of the reasons why screenwriters have always been the most overlooked and underrated contributors to films. The Hollywood studios made a deliberate and concerted effort to deny them power; scripts were passed from hand to hand, making it difficult to know exactly who did what, and all but a few of the most powerful writers had no control over how their scripts were altered or filmed. By paying writers outrageously high salaries, the studios bribed them to surrender their independence. Prejudice against writers is embedded in cinema studies, with the auteur theory assigning authorship to the director, and the principle of film as a visual art downgrading the importance of its literary elements.

It is therefore a very welcome development that Anthology Film Archives has begun devoting series to writers. “Screenwriters and the Blacklist,” a three-part series opening with ten films released before their writers were blacklisted, is especially interesting because writers were among the primary targets of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Ironically, the blacklist brought them more attention than they have otherwise received; there is certainly an unintended tribute in HUAC’s description of Abraham Polonsky as “a very dangerous citizen.” (Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner took the phrase for the title of their fine study, A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left.)

In practice, the blacklist was largely an attack on big-city Jews: among the writers featured in the Anthology series, Polonsky, Alvah Bessie, Bernard Gordon, Alfred Lewis Levitt, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, and Nathanael West (born Nathan Weinstein) were all Jewish New Yorkers, as was John Garfield (born Julius Garfinkle). That the studio heads who enforced the blacklist were nearly all immigrant Jews is no coincidence—the moguls were always haunted by the fear of being perceived as un-American. The blacklistees were targeted for their progressive social activism and communist ties, but the effect of their banishment was also to purge an urban, unapologetically New York tone that had flourished in Hollywood movies since the dawn of the talkies. In the opening scene of Taxi! (1932), James Cagney lounges in his cab on a Manhattan street, listening as a Jewish immigrant harangues a baffled Irish cop. Finally he leans out and addresses the man in Yiddish, leading the even more baffled cop to inquire, “What part of Ireland was your family from, Nolan?” In his best Irish brogue, Cagney replies, “Delancey Street.” (In fact, Cagney learned Yiddish growing up in Yorkville.) What did small town audiences make of a scene like this?

Based on a play by Kenyon Nicholson, Taxi! was written by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, the team who worked on Public Enemy, Blonde Crazy, Three on a Match, Union Depot, and other early talkies that distilled the tough, rapid-fire, wisecracking urban sound of pre-Code movies.  The Polish Glasmon died in 1938, but Bright was later blacklisted; he had been a founder of the Screen Writer’s Guild, known for its communist leanings. He had also graduated from the same brawling Chicago newspaper world as Ben Hecht, and found his perfect muse and mouthpiece in Cagney. Taxi! showcases the actor’s many moods: freewheeling, barely contained ebullience as he flirts and spars with Loretta Young; a hair-trigger temper and blind rage as he whips up his fellow taxi drivers to battle a mob takeover, or pursues the killers of his brother. The film tosses together high-pitched drama and spontaneous, loose-knit scenes of young proletarian New Yorkers going to the movies, riding the subway back from Coney Island (with Leila Bennett and George E. Stone as schlumpy comic foils to the central couple), competing in a foxtrot contest (against a smooth, uncredited George Raft.) On screen, Cagney was always just a time-step away from dancing, even at his most scarily belligerent. The way he stood on the balls of his feet, the speed of those feet as he was propelled into motion by the forward slant of his body, the skittering pace of his words and the sudden vocal leaps that burst like steam released from an overheated engine—all these things made Cagney a personification of the driving, fighting energy that carried people out of poor, crowded, inner-city immigrant neighborhoods.

In the 1930s, much of Hollywood ran on this energy, but the studios constantly fought to control it, battling labor unions, stars like Cagney who wanted more autonomy, and the left-wing politics that burgeoned during the Depression. Taxi! exemplifies the quick and dirty style of pre-Code movies, which tossed unprocessed lumps of reality in with snappy entertainment—breadlines and chorus lines, soapbox and softshoe. Social issues were not segregated in message movies—they were just part of life. The Production Code that was strictly enforced after 1934 changed this with its see-no-evil approach to movie content: films could not openly admit that such things as racism, abortion, drugs, or homosexuality existed. Filmmakers still found ways to say what they wanted, but obliquely, often in under-the-radar B movies that could be sold as straight thrillers or crime melodramas.

Five Came Back (1939) is a good example of a seemingly unpretentious adventure drama that takes a conventional premise in a surprisingly radical direction. Excellently directed by John Farrow and acted by an ensemble with no major stars (except Lucille Ball, then toiling as a contract player), the film was a surprise hit for RKO, both profitable and praised by critics. Centering on a plane crash in the jungle, it is often described as a template for later disaster movies, but the screenplay by Nathanael West, Jerome Cady, and Dalton Trumbo is distinguished by a focus on character development and relationships rather than action or spectacle. Twelve people are aboard a flight to Panama that goes down in a remote region of the Amazon; the twist is that most of them find they are happier in the jungle than they were in their ordinary lives.

The one who articulates this is Vasquez (Joseph Calleia), an anarchist being extradited back to South America to be executed for assassinating a politician. For him, the crash is a reprieve, but the jungle camp becomes a kind of utopia for almost all the passengers: a classless community where everyone works for the good of all. Until some headhunting Indians turn up at the end, the jungle is unrealistically benign—the survivors are clean and healthy, living on bananas and ample fresh water. An old couple, very touchingly played by C. Aubrey Smith and Elisabeth Risdon, recover the warmth and closeness of their marriage; a gangster (Allen Jenkins) bonds with his orphaned nephew; a young woman whom everyone initially shuns for her dubious morals (Lucille Ball) gains respect; the pilot (Chester Morris) moves beyond the emotional paralysis caused by his wife’s death. Two in the group fail to rise to the occasion:  a rich playboy (Patric Knowles) who proves to be an idle, whining drunk; and the detective (John Carridine) guarding Vasquez, who cares about nothing except the money he’ll get for bringing in his prisoner.

Five Came Back succeeds because it doesn’t feel overly schematic or heavy-handed; the dialogue is rich with color and detail, and the characters—rapidly sketched and typed as they are—become real and important to us. The ending could seem hopelessly contrived, but it manages to take off, like the fragile overloaded plane that needs to clear the mountains. Patched together but still damaged, the plane can only carry five people, but nine remain, and certain slaughter by headhunters awaits all who stay behind. Vasquez announces that he will not go, and that he alone can fairly decide who deserves to survive. (When someone else suggests they follow the policy of women and children first, Ball’s character retorts, “I think the women have as much right to choose as the men.”) With the exception of the rich playboy, who predictably offers a bribe, the passengers all agree to let Vasquez decide their fate: “I am the law now,” the anarchist declares.  This is a striking moment where unabashed Hollywood hokum and provocative political fantasy unite.

Three Faces West (1940) is a different and rarer breed: a movie that deals openly with contemporary problems and wears its liberal heart on its sleeve. Everything about this film is unexpected; it must be seen to be believed. The plot combines and explicitly compares refugees from Nazi Europe with Okie refugees from the Dust Bowl. The star is John Wayne, playing a paragon of communal values. The director (Bernard Vorhaus) and one of the screenwriters (Samuel Ornitz) were later blacklisted. The other writer was Joseph Moncure March, author of the long poems “The Wild Party” and “The Set-Up,” and the film has a lyrical, delicate, high-minded tone, at times genuinely poetic. The cinematographer is John Alton, who works his magic with dust and rain and candles and low shafts of light cutting through the huge prairie night.

The movie’s unusual blend of left-wing ardor and romantic patriotism is unveiled in the opening scene: on a radio program called “We the People,” refugee doctors from Vienna and Prague offer their services to any small town or rural community that will give them a home. Dr. Karl Braun (Charles Coburn) and his daughter Leni (Sigrid Gurie) receive an invitation and set off across country with high hopes. Their new home turns out to be in the blasted heart of the Dust Bowl; they arrive in the midst of a black blizzard and struggle through gales to visit many sufferers from “dust pneumonia.” There is no prejudice against the foreigners—they are warmly welcomed, and the doctor is compelled by the need for his services among people who have struggled along with only a vet in town. But his spoiled, cosmopolitan daughter is horrified: “How can people live in such filth?” she shudders, and insists that they leave immediately.

Of course she has a change of heart, and falls in love with the town’s leader, John Phillips (John Wayne). Some of the most interesting scenes in the film are the ones in which Phillips leads meetings of the local farmers to debate how they should respond to the devastation of the dust storms. First they heroically try to follow the advice of pamphlets from the Department of Agriculture (“These plans have been drawn up by experts.” “Ain’t no college professor gonna tell me how to farm my land.”) Then they learn that the government considers their land doomed and wants them to relocate to Oregon (“We can always stay here and go on relief.”) When they vote to leave, some disgruntled troublemakers start a mutiny, arguing that they should go to California instead, the land of plenty where there is work for all (Phillips points out that this will mean they go from being proud landowners to unwanted migrant fruit-pickers.) Few if any films of the time showed the Dust Bowl with such documentary clarity: the scenes of people shoveling mounds of silt as if it were snow, the desolate parched earth and black clouds advancing, the momentary ecstasy of a rainstorm, the caravan of jalopies heading out from the main street, with a radio announcer narrating the great evacuation—these images feel as true as newsreel footage, but are also overlaid with poetic meaning. “Our law is written by the wind, the dust,” Phillips says. The wind symbolizes what can’t be fought, and wisdom lies in knowing when to resist and when to bend rather than break.

After the mutiny among his followers, John Phillips takes off in disgust. He tries to get Leni to go with him, arguing that they should forget about their duty to others and think of themselves. She tells him it won’t work: “You could shout, ‘I am free,’ but even the echoes would know you are lying.” He returns to lead his people, and the film ends like so many westerns with a celebration of pioneers founding a new community. But westerns never advanced such a clear vision of social responsibility as an essential American virtue.

This heartwarming conclusion is not as radical as Tom Joad’s final vision in The Grapes of Wrath, but Three Faces West is remarkable for the optimism of its left-wing sentiments, including its strong denunciation of Nazism. The vigor of this diseased ideology is compared to the feverish energy of a patient just before the death rattle. Hollywood’s general failure to attack Nazism before America’s entry into the war, even as many of the moguls were privately active and generous in their support of Jewish rescue organizations, is a dispiriting demonstration of the studios’ habitual caution and cowardice. (Two recent books, Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler and Thomas Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939, have explored the degree to which the studios cooperated or even collaborated with Nazi Germany.)

Of course, once the war did start, the Nazis became stock villains, though they usually remained almost as faceless and ill-defined as the “Japs.” Northern Pursuit (1943), written by Alvah Bessie and directed by Raoul Walsh, is typical of wartime adventures that depicted Nazis as ruthless, devious and fanatical, but made no attempt to explain their ideology or specific atrocities. This is all the more surprising since Bessie, later one of the Hollywood Ten, was a passionate anti-fascist who had joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American unit that fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The film’s opening, with a U-boat landing German agents in northern Canada, immediately recalls Powell and Pressburger’s marvelous The 49th Parallel, a superior piece of propaganda that does take time to define the nature of Nazi fanaticism. Northern Pursuit initially follows an interesting tack as a Mountie of German ancestry (Errol Flynn) appears susceptible to a captured Nazi’s talk of the Fatherland, and is suspected by his fellows of disloyalty. But Flynn is far too uncomplicated and opaque a presence to allow for ambiguity or ambivalence, and it is soon made plain that he’s just serving Canada under cover, his loyalty as pure as the dazzling snow scenes that dominate the movie. Even the Nazis aren’t fooled for a minute.

A better example of superior propaganda is Pride of the Marines (1945), co-written by blacklistee Albert Maltz and starring John Garfield. The film is based on the true story, reported in a book by Roger Butterfield, of a marine named Al Schmid who was blinded in combat and awarded the Navy Cross for his actions as a machine-gunner on Guadalcanal. This was probably the first film to address the difficult adjustments of disabled veterans, and the heart of the story is the long, bitter struggle through which Al—a working class Average Joe with stubborn notions of manly independence—finally comes to accept his blindness. Handsomely and earnestly directed by Delmer Daves, Pride of the Marines is steeped in wholesome, conventional sentiments—and some unwholesome ones. Al, an enthusiastic hunter, says, “I bet it would be even more fun shooting Japs than bears,” and when he returns a hero, a young girl sighs worshipfully, “You shot 200 Japs, didn’t you?” A friend returning to combat tells the blinded Al, “I’ll mark the first Nip for you,” and he bursts out savagely “Get him in the eyes!”

Several long scenes are marked by unusual toughness and honesty. The grimy realism of the sequence on Guadalcanal is heightened by contrast with the light, corny scenes of everyday life in Philadelphia. There is a long, tense scene of the marines waiting for an attack, redolent with the heat, the stink, the thirst, the guys’ nervous banter. During the attack, Garfield gives an unnerving portrayal of battle frenzy, screaming “One big bowling alley!” as he mows down the attackers, and weeping with frustration, “Why can’t I shut ya up?” Few wartime films were as honest about the real nature of battlefield bravery, the sweaty panic and hysteria of men sitting in a muddy hole with the corpse of a friend, facing waves of enemies trying to kill them. Also striking is an extended scene in the veteran’s hospital in San Diego where the wounded soldiers engage in a free-form, free-for-all airing of their worries and prejudices and beliefs: the fears that their jobs will be gone, that their wives will prove unfaithful, that they’ll be displaced by Mexicans, that it will be Bonus Marches and selling apples all over again; the faith others have in the G.I. Bill, in Americans’ ability to pull together in peace as in war. All the inspiring speeches in the movie are delivered by Al’s buddy LeRoy Diamond—also based on a real person—who lectures him that his loss was not for nothing, because the war is a noble cause that must be won. The Brooklyn-born, Jewish Maltz uses Diamond (played by Brooklyn-born, Jewish Dane Clark) as his mouthpiece; comparing Al’s disability to the discrimination he faces because of his religion, Lee argues, “We need a country where no one gets booted around for any reason.”

As in Three Faces West, this hopeful spirit is rather heartbreaking in retrospect, since Maltz and Garfield would soon find themselves booted around by HUAC. In 1945, however, Maltz was nominated for an Academy Award for his Pride of the Marines screenplay. He also received an Honorary Academy Award the next year for The House I Live In, a musical short in which the argument for racial and religious tolerance is crooned by Frank Sinatra. The Writers Guild of America gave an award to his screenplay for Daves’s Broken Arrow (1951), one of the first westerns to present a sympathetic view of Native Americans. (The crude dehumanizing rhetoric about “Japs,” while surely true to the way soldiers spoke during the war, is a glaring blind spot among these pleas for tolerance.)

Perhaps the Hollywood studios worked so hard to dilute and curtail the power of writers because it is they, more than anyone else, who get to speak through a movie, to control how stories are told, what messages are conveyed, whose voices are heard. In practice, writers were subordinate to producers, directors, and even stars. As a result, it can be hard to know whose voices you are hearing. The documentary Red Hollywood looks at how Ring Lardner, Jr., put political views he disagreed with in the mouth of Tess Harding, Katherine Hepburn’s character in Woman of the Year (1942), and mocked them by making her a pretentious chatterbox who holds forth on world affairs but is so self-absorbed and hypocritical that she adopts a refugee orphan only to neglect and ignore him. Yet the film starts out with a much more balanced treatment of Tess and her romantic sparring partner, the down-to-earth sportswriter played by Spencer Tracy, before pushing her into unwomanly caricature. Lardner, who won an Oscar for his screenplay, was not responsible for the film’s notorious ending, an excruciatingly unfunny sequence in which Tess, trying to win her husband back by proving she can be a conventional wife, creates slapstick chaos when she attempts to cook breakfast. (The guilty parties were director George Stevens and Joseph Mankiewicz.) Woman of the Year illustrates another reason why screenwriters tend to be overlooked: the film is remembered for the chemistry between Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in their first meeting, which completely overshadows any point Lardner may have wanted to make about the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact.

The same year, in Tom, Dick and Harry, Paul Jarrico also used courtship as a template for comparing world views and ways of life, as Janie, a switchboard operator played by Ginger Rogers, tries to choose between three men who propose to her. The film is a glaring example of the cultural shift to more traditional roles for women after the freedom of the interwar years. “It’s just as natural for a girl to want to make a good marriage as it is for a guy to want to get ahead,” says Janie, who dreams of bagging a millionaire and shamelessly flings herself at the first one she meets. Though the script has many clever and imaginative elements (Jarrico was nominated for an Oscar), Tom, Dick and Harry is weakened by the unsympathetic protagonist; the movie condescends to her even as she is presented as irresistible to every man she encounters. Ginger Rogers, so tough-minded and elegant in the 1930s, gives a mannered, gratingly cute performance, all annoying baby talk and big schoolgirl hair-bows and poufy dresses. This performance only suits the surreal, hyper-stylized dream sequences in which she envisions marriage with each of her three suitors. It is interesting that Dick, the millionaire, is attractive and well-bred, while the one who comes off worst is Tom (George Murphy), the go-getter auto salesman, who is unromantic and narrowly obsessed with business. Her dream about marrying him is an absurdist satire on materialism and domesticity, as she presides over a kitchen and a rapidly multiplying brood of kids while her husband rushes in and presents her with a vacuum cleaner as if it were a bouquet.

Harry (Burgess Meredith) is the antidote, a charming auto mechanic who doesn’t believe in “this every man for himself” attitude and tries to convince Janie that money won’t make her happy. Appalled by his blasphemy against the American dream, she sneers sarcastically, “Don’t be ambitious. Don’t try to be somebody. Don’t believe in success.” Harry is another obvious mouthpiece for the screenplay’s message, but Janie never comes around to his point of view: she decides to marry him only because she hears bells when they kiss. Why he wants to marry her is even harder to explain. But Jarrico had fun slipping some subversive elements into the subconscious of his Average Jane: in one of her dreams, a newspaper carrying the story of her marriage also has the headline: “Hitler Assassinated! Nazi Dictator Struck Down in Moscow.”

Message movies must overcome audiences’ resistance to being preached at; there are various possible strategies, but there can be few stranger than that of The Boy with Green Hair (1948), and it is largely the strangeness that makes the film so affecting. Written by two future blacklistees, Ben Barzman and Alfred Lewis Levitt, from a story by Betsy Beaton, it was the first film directed by Joseph Losey, who would also be blacklisted. It is a movie in which visions and miraculous events intrude on ordinary life, and this feels natural because it is about a child’s consciousness. Peter (Dean Stockwell) is a sullen, sensitive war orphan taken in by a kindly retired vaudevillian (Pat O’Brien). After overhearing ghoulishly casual talk about nuclear war in the grocery store, and gazing at the pictures of European war orphans in a school charity drive, he wakes one morning with bright green hair. Fleeing from ostracism, he has a vision in a forest clearing where the orphans from the posters come to life and tell him his freakish hair marks him as a symbol of renewal and that he must speak out against war for the children of the world. Obviously confounded by the film, RKO ran an ad campaign with the tag line, “Please don’t tell why his hair turned green!”—as if this were a science fiction mystery. They still lost money on it. A celebration of difference as well as a protest against the psychological and imaginative damage that war wreaks on children, The Boy with Green Hair has a sincere warmth and hopefulness that Losey would never repeat.

Joseph Losey fled the country in 1951, and in later life called his blacklisting a blessing in disguise, since he went on to a successful career in England. Another writer who worked abroad, Bernard Gordon, wrote an autobiographical book called Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist. Gordon received more retroactively assigned credits than any other screenwriter when the Writers Guild of America undertook the task of properly crediting blacklisted writers. He had been named before HUAC by William Alland, the producer of the second movie he wrote, The Lawless Breed (1953). The film opens rather prophetically with the legendary outlaw John Wesley Hardin (Rock Hudson) completing his autobiography in prison and taking it to a publisher on his release, determined to set the record straight by telling his own story.

Told in flashback, The Lawless Breed has a subtly rueful, elegiac undertone, as a middle-aged man who has spent 17 years in prison looks back on his reckless and violent youth. This is undeniably a romantic apologia for the outlaw: in the film he never shoots anyone except in self-defense, he’s not a criminal and is never looking for trouble. (The real Hardin claimed to have killed 42 men, shooting some on bets, and was guilty of cattle rustling among other crimes). But the film also powerfully depicts the hero’s realization of the senseless waste and self-perpetuating cycle of violence, enabled by the western law that says you can kill a man as long as he drew his gun first.

The Lawless Breed is directed by Raoul Walsh without a single showy camera angle or movement, just strong clean action and straightforward storytelling. The screenplay has a ballad-like structure, with episodic verses and recurring refrains—crooked card games, gunfights and ambushes, an undertaker with a fancy hearse who keeps appearing as a portent of death. From the beginning, when the rebellious young Wes takes off after being whipped by his father, a hellfire preacher, he is in continuous motion. He shoots his first man over a card game—his skill at gambling and his skill at shooting are both a kind of curse, driving him along the outlaw’s path even as he keeps insisting that all he wants is to marry his good-girl sweetheart and settle down on a horse farm. On the run after a string of killings, he takes up instead with Rosie (Julie Adams), a saloon girl, and becomes a drifting gambler. Rosie tells him he’ll never buy that horse farm, that he only clings to the dream so that he can feel superior to his surroundings. But he does buy a farm, and gradually Wes and Rosie both change and gain new love and respect for each other; there is a sweet scene where he brings home a preacher to marry them, taking her by surprise in her white petticoats, which pass for a wedding gown.

But Wes is still being hunted by the law and blamed for every crime in Texas; when he’s finally brought to trial the jury refuses to sentence him to death, but he bitterly tells the judge, “If you weren’t afraid of public opinion, I wouldn’t have been convicted at all.” In the final section of the film, he returns home after his release from prison; there are very moving scenes of his passionate reunion with Rosie and his awkward first meeting with his son. Hudson is surprisingly good in these scenes, full of delicate restrained emotion and the weight of regret for lost time. There is a coda about his efforts to prevent his son from repeating his mistakes and restarting the cycle of bloodshed—seeing the boy twirl a six-shooter, he flashes back to all the gunshots he fired and took—giving a graceful resolution to this classically structured script. Each of the films in this first part of the Anthology series ends on a redemptive or optimistic note; it will be interesting to compare this pre-blacklist selection with the films in the next two parts, which will cover the period of the blacklist and the aftermath.

History is written by the victors, it is said. In the case of the blacklist, the victims became the victors precisely because they wrote the stories, and they could tell the truth because it was, after all, only the movies. 


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Imogen Sara Smith is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is the author of two books, In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: the Persistence of Comedy

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