Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tough Kid by John Gloske

John Gloske. Tough Kid: The Life and Films of Frankie Darro. Lulu. 2008

Frankie Darro was born Frank Johnson, Jr. in 1917 and was raised by a traveling circus family. He learned aerial performing and juggling at a young age. His parents added him to the act by having him emerge and shouting to audiences, after his parent’s aerial act, “my father tanks you from the bottom of his heart, my mother thanks you from the bottom of her heart, and me, I thank you from my bottom, too.” A dance routine was later added.

In 1922, Frank’s mother was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown in Long Beach. Frank, Sr. took his son away from his became and became a stunt man and extra in movies as Frank Darro. The father put his five year old son, Frankie, over a studio fence once upon spotting director Raph Ince. Before studio guards could grab Frankie, he performed head spins and back flips. The tactic worked and Ince hired Frankie, reportedly claiming “let’s put this kid in a show.” Ince didn’t have a role for Frankie, yet he knew director Del Andrews did. “Judgment of the Storm”, released in 1924, was Frankie Darro’s first movie.

Darrow performed in at least 57 silent films from 1923 through 1929. Only six survive today, as many silent films saw the silver content on the film sold and the prints destroyed.

Darrow’s films were financially beneficial to his father. This was before a law was passed that protected children’s film earnings. Frankie’s mother sued for a share of his earnings, a fight that was in courts for years.

Darro filmed 26 Westerns with Tom Tyler, of which one remains today, for Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) owned by Joseph Kennedy. Kennedy’s company made low budget movies for under $30,000 for quick profits and so Kennedy could meet female actors. These films did well before rural audiences.

With the switch to talking movies becoming obvious, Kennedy sold a substantial interest in FBO to RCA in 1928. RCA and Kennedy then bought several vaudeville houses in urban areas so their films could appear in big cities. This new company was a $300 million corporation named RKO. Kennedy resigned from RKO.

Darro’s voice, made raspy from heavy cigarette smoking beginning at age 15, allowed him to make the switch to talking movies. Many silent film actors lacked the proper voices to make the transition. Darro was 5’3” which allowed him to play teenage roles into his twenties.

Darro appeared in “The Lightning Warrior” serial, receiving $2,000, which was double what he had earned in his previous serial. The dog in the serial, Rin Tin Tin, received $5,000. Subsequent film work followed, increasing his pay to $4,000. In 1934, his work a 12 chapter serial earned him $5,000.

Darro received second billing in “Little Men”, a sequel to the successful “Little Women”.

Darro appeared in nine Warner Brothers films between 1931 and 1935 even though he never had a studio contract. He appeared in “The Public Enemy” which was directed by William Wellman.

Darro appeared in several independent Westerns that starred Kermit Maynard and were produced by Talisman Studios. Talisman, lacking a distribution network that larger studios had, sold their films to several regional distributors. The regional distributors would rent the films out until the prints wore out, upon when they could buy more prints from Talisman,

Darro’s size and ability to ride a horse earned him roles as a jockey in numerous films. He appears as a jockey in “A Day at the Races” starring the Marx Brothers. Harpo Marx would remain a lifetime friend. Similarly, he was a jockey in “Saratoga”, the movie Jean Harlow was filming when she died. He also was a jockey in “Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry”, the first movie that teamed Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

Darrow provided a voice in the Disney cartoon movie “Pinocchio”.

When Darro turned 21, he learned his father had failed to save any of his earnings. Darro declined to sue his father for mismanaging his funds, as some other child stars did.

As an adult, Darro’s earnings from then on were his own. He starred in some Monogram Studio films with Mantan Moreland, a present day cult hero.

Darro was drafted to fight in World War II. Before he left, he worked for one day on Universal Studio’s Dead End Kinds serial “Junior G-Men of the Air”. Monogram Studies assured Darro his contract with them would remain when he returned. While in the Navy, he contracted malaria, which would recur throughout the rest of his life.

After the war, movie attendance declined. Returning soldiers and their families were moving to suburbs and away from where movie theaters were located. Many rural theaters closed. Television became a major competitor, increasing from 14,000 sets in 1947 to four million in 1950 to 31 million in 1954,

Darro appeared in Monogram’s “The Teen Agers” series of movie with producer Sam Katzman, Actor Paul Picerni noted the financial stinginess of Katzman who gave actors a pay check and a wardrobe check, yet only gave the, their pay checks. Picerni quotes Katzman as stating “if the actors don’t ask for their wardrobe checks, I save them until the end of the year, and then I cash them myself.”

Darro appeared in the Columbia Pictures serial “Chick Carter, Detective” which the author describes as being “slightly above the unwatchable”. The serial was meant to be based on the Nick Carter radio series and books yet the movie serial could not obtain copyright permission. The serial was an early example of movies with product placement with planned appearances of Royal Crown Cole and Capitol Records. The serial is noted for numerous comedic scenes between Darro and Noel Neill.

Darro made several films with the Bowery Boys beginning in 1947, returning him with some of the Dead End Kids he briefly worked with in 1942. He had the role of Jimmy, a cousin of Slip Mahoney, portrayed by Leo Gorcey. Later, for reasons unknown, his character’s name becomes Feathers. Then he had the role of Johnny Higgins.

Darro noted that the information provided in movie press books that studios provided were totally made-up. Press books lied in stating he carved wood figures during shoots and that he was a pilot who took cast and crew on flights. It was alcohol that kept many cast members such as Leo Gorcey busy inbetween shoots, although the press books never mentioned that.

Darro was hired to play a boxer when he was teamed again with Mickey Rooney in “Kid McCoy”. The gossip columns claim Darro became upset at Mickey Rooney and that Darro knocked him out in anger during a boxing sequence. Darro was cut from the film.

When filming a role as a jockey in “Heart of Virginia” in 1948, Darro was thrown by his horse and required knee surgery.

While movie roles became scarcer, Darro took employment selling men’s suits. Fans would arrive at the store just to watch him.

In 1959, columnist Army Archerd asked Darro for his advice for parents of child actors. His advice was “so if your little darling has terrific talent, let him develop it in a local theater and bide his time. Don’t bring him here because it’s 100 to 1 that he’ll never get a chance to use it.”

“Pride of the Maryland” released in 1951 was Darro’s last movie where he receive star billing above the movie title.

Director William Wellman, who has used Darro in a few movies prior, hired him for two movies in 1952. This was less than the 8 or 9 films he used to make. Plus, neither role was a starring or key supporting role.

In 1953, Darro received only one day of film work, in the movie “Siren of Bagdad”, where he performs a back flip and has one line.

Darro appeared in “Racing Blood” in 1954, a 75 minute movie that some critics claimed was too long. The film is noted for its use of Cine-color, a process where a movie was filmed in black and white and then dipped into color dye. Unfortunately, the dye cracked and fell off the film print.

Darro appeared in screenwriter and associate producer Edward Wood, Jr.’s move “The Lawless Rider” which reunited him with Noel Neill. He was paid $600 for that movie.

In 1955, Darro was unable to find any movie or TV work until he was hired to play the robot Robbie in “Forbidden Planet”. Unfortunately his drinking made him stumble and almost crash the robot, which was caught by stage hands, during his second day of shooting. Darro was fired and replaced by Frank Carpenter. It is noted the poor ventilation inside the 6’4”, 84 pound robot suit would cause even Carpenter to faint,

Producers fear unreliable actors and they worried that Darro’s drinking had made him unreliable. It was hard from then on for Darro to find film work. He won a small role in 1956 as a palace guard in Cecil De Mille’s color remake of “The Ten Commandments”. He also filmed two episodes of the TV series “Judge Roy Bean”. The practice then was to use the same cast in two different episodes yet never show them consecutively.

1957 brought only a bit part for Darro in the movie “A Tip on a Dead Jockey”.

1958 brought a title role for Darro in an episode of the TV series “Peter Gunn”, a Blake Edwards production. Blake Edwards then had Darro appear in his movie “Operation Petticoat”.

Darro did stunt work of back flips and a long jump doubling for actor Jimmy O’Dea in Walt Disney’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” in 1959. Also that year, Blake Edwards had Darro appear in an episode of the “Mr. Lucky” TV series. Darro’s last work for Blake Edwards was stunt double work in the 1961 movie “The Notorious Landlady”.

Darro did an episode of the TV show “Alfred Hitchock Presents: and one day’s work on the TV series “The Untouchables” in 1960.

Darro found no film work at all in 1961. 1962 brought work in another episode of “Alfred Hitchock Presents”.

Red Skelton hired Darro for sketch work on his TV show in 1962 with the condition Darro not show up drunk. Darro remained on the show until he did show up drunk in 1965 and he then was fired. Darro was brought back for one episode in 1968.

Darro had two lines in the 1964 Paramount movie “The Carpetbaggers”. That was his final movie dialogue. Jerry Lewis demanded Darro be in his film “Disorderly Orderly”. Darro performs a silent comedic role in that movie. Darro also filmed an episode of the TV show “Perry Mason” in 1964. In 1965, he did an episode of the TV show “The Addams Family”. In 1967, he did an episode of the TV show “The Guns of Will Sonnett”.

Jerry Lewis called Darro back for a silent bit part in the 1967 movie “Hook Line and Sinker”.

Mantan Moreland was performing USO shows. Moreland fell ill just before a USO tour in Vietnam and recommended Darro replace him. Darro accepted and did the tour.

The author John Gloske worked on a San Francisco TV show that presented public domain movies entitled “The Worst of Hollywood”. Darro was hired to host the show. Unfortunately, Darro showed up drunk and incoherent and had to be replaced.

Darro appeared in the 1974 TV movie “The Girl on the Late Late Show”. His role lasts 20 seconds. His last role was a few seconds in the film “Star Crash”.

Darro took pride when director William Wellman stated that Darro was his favorite actor, adding “there was only one thing wrong with Frankie…he never grew taller.”

Frankie Darro died in 1977 at age 59.

Home by Julie Andrews

Julie Andrews. Home: A Memoir of My Early Years. New York: Hyperion. 2008.

Julie Andrews titled her autobiography “Home” after the first word she spoke; a word that remains important throughout her life.

Julie Andrews’s first acting appearance was in a pre-school program at age 3. When a friend’s hat covered her eyes, Julie Andrews helped guide her friends. She cites this as how she “already knew that the show must go on.”

Her parents were professional singers. She traveled with them on their singing tours. She also took piano lessons and began studying and living the show business life.

At age 12, Andrews made her singing debut singing in a musical review. The previews were very positive. She counts this as the first major break in her career.

Julie Andrews soon afterwards was performing twice a night, six days a week. Self-critical, she kept a record of how she thought each performance went. She was invited to a screen test at MGM Studios in Elstree, England, yet the result was “she’s not photogenic enough for film.”

This did not dissuade her from taking acting lessons. She claims she was awful, at first. She also took guitar lessons. She was able to play piano but was unable to read music. She received a Royal Command Performance.

Julie Andrews with her parents performed pantomime at the London Casino.

At age 17, Julie Andrews fretted about her future. Her signing voice was changing. Then she received the lead in “Cinderella” at the London Palladium and she knew the direction she wanted her life to go. She thought, though, that while she would remain in acting, that her career had already reached its zenith.

Andrews toured America in the play “The Boy Friend”. This success helped led her to a role in the Broadway play “My Fair Lady”.

Julie Andrews notes she is often asked for her thoughts of not being cast in the movie “My Fair Lady”. She admits she wishes she had been cast yet she understands that Warner Brothers needed a more famous person to be in the movie, namely Audrey Hepburn. She writes how she and Audrey Hepburn later became friends and that Hepburn told her “Julie, you should have done the role…but I didn’t have the guts to turn it down.”
Julie Andrews then found more theater success in the Broadway play “Camelot”. She notes how actor Richard Burton could alter his role and some nights play the role dramatically to a silent and enthralled audience and other nights play the role comedic and have the audience laughing.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sarah Jessica Parker by Marc Shapiro

Marc Shapiro. Sarah Jessica Parker. Toronto: ECW Press, 2001.

Sarah Jessica Parker grew up in Nelsonville, Ohio, the fourth child of parents who divorced. Her father was only occasionally present in her life for most of the rest of her life. The first word it is claimed she spoke was “dangerous”. She grew up wearing armbands supporting one of her politically liberal mother’s causes. Her movie seldom took the children to the movies and kept the television on PBS.

Sarah Jessica Parker was active in school theater productions, following the footsteps of her talented older sister Rachel. Sarah later stated she acted to have time away from her family. She auditioned in a local low budget television play. Her small size and poise allowed her stand out amongst the approximately 500 others she competed against. Her brothers observed this and they too auditions for roles, and soon Sarah and numerous siblings were winning roles in regional theater presentations. With this now a family endeavor, her mother took Sarah and her brother Timothy to try out for a Broadway play. They both won roles. Other siblings followed and they too found acting jobs in New York City.

Sarah Jessica Parker starred on Broadway in “Annie” for two years. After that run, she faced unemployment and the realization that there were far starring roles for young people to wait around for. She took a position signing in the Metropolitan Opera’s children’s choir, noting “I needed to be one of 25 kids and not be treated specially.” She did some small roles in televisions and movies. She became comfortable before cameras. At the age of 16, shoe won the lead role on the TV show “Square Pegs”. She won praise portraying nerdy high school role, a role the author stated was a natural one for her. The show ran for one season and was then canceled.

The TV exposure led to movie roles, including the hit movie “Footloose”. She dated Robert Downer Jr. whose slide into alcohol and drug use seriously challenged and eventually ended the relationship. Parker got a role on the TV series “Equal Justice”. Recalling the long hours needed to film a TV show, she almost declined the offer. When the show went on what was to be a permanent hiatus during its first and only season, Parker won a role in the movie “L.A. Story”. She credits that movie’s star and screenwriter Steve Martin for helping her learn to play a challenging role.

The positive reviews Parker received from the movie led to other offers. She refused any roles calling for nudity, a position she has kept. She also became involved with the American Civil Liberties Union. Planned Parenthood, the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee, and fundraising for UNICEF.

After appearing in a few movies that were financial disappointments, Sarah Jessica Parker appeared in the hit film “Ed Wood”. Her comedic role in the independent film “If Lucy Fell” showed she could handle a wide range of roles.

Sarah Jessica Parker then won the lead role on the TV series “Sex and the City”. Her insistence on no nudity and on trimming back some of the foul language were accepted. The show was a hit and was awarded the Best TV Comedy series. Parker took on some producer responsibilities including making some fashion and hair decisions with characters. This led to a dispute with actor John Corbett over what pants to wear with Corbett finally agree with Parker’s choice. Parker also insisted none of the actors accept commercials and other roles that might cheapen the show’s image. Some were concerned she might have been inconsistent when she then did commercials for a hair coloring company.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hollywood on Trial by Gordon Kahn

Gordon Kahn. Hollywood on Trial. New York: Bon & Gaer, 1948.

This book begins with a statement from Thomas Mann that includes “I’ve seen a great many Hollywood films. if community propaganda had been smuggled into any of them. It must have been thoroughly hidden. I for one never noticed anything of the sort.”

This book describes the House Un-Americans Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation into Communist influences in movies. The author argues “no such films have been made” and notes that when Rep. J. Parnell Thomas claimed that the movies “Best Years of Our Lives” and “Margie” were communist influenced films that the suggestion was widely ridiculed. The author concludes, since there were no communist subverted movies that HUAC was not investigating films but there were investigating people. They were investigating what people did in their private lives; not what they did while working on films. HUAC sought to drive people out of the film industry, not for what they did, but for who they were.

Eric Johnson, President of the Motion Picture Association of America, during the hearings state “I will never be a party to anything as un-American as a blacklist”. At the time, 19 “unfriendly” witnesses had been named and their careers were at stake. Ten eventually would be blacklisted.

Prior to the hearing, there was a strike of film industry employees. Warner Brothers and its fire department turned their water hoses on picketers, injuring some. Warner then called for police reserves. These police reserves tear-gassed and clubbed picketers. At the HUAC hearing, Jack Warner was a leading witness who claimed “Communist propaganda” had been placed into movies in other studios and that he had stopped any such propaganda finding its way into any Warner Brothers film. Warner testified “anyone whom I thought was a Communist, or read in the paper that he was, I dismissed at the expiration of his contract” and later even re-admitted he fired people based on “hearsay”. Warner provided HUAC with a list of people he thought had “attacked the Government with violence and overthrowing” it. Later Warner returned before HUAC to amend his testimony by removing the names of Guy Endore, Sheridan Gilney, Julius Epstein, and Philip Epstein from the list he previously provided them, adding the Epstein made “very good American films”. Warner later added the name of Clifford Odets to the list.

Rep. J. Parnell Thomas wanted to embarrass New Deal democrats over the movie “Mission to Moscow”. Jack Warner first testified that former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union requested on behalf of the Roosevelt Administration that Warner Brothers make the movie to appease Soviet Union officials. Warner later corrected this testimony and claimed his brother came up with the idea of making the movie after reading the book.

Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) testified he was born in Russia and he denounced Communism. He claimed MGM vigilantly saw that no subversive script ever was filmed at MGM. He defended requesting a deferment from military service for Robert Taylor until he was finished completing the movie “Song of Russia”. Taylor had been quoted in the press claiming “Roosevelt aides” had delayed his desire to be a wartime soldier. Mayer also testified he heard rumors from unnamed people that screenwriters Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, and Donald Ogden Stewart were communists, but stated he couldn’t fire them, noting “I have asked counsel. They claim unless you can prove they are Communists they can hold you for damages.” Mayer further testified that MGM not only made no subversive films but had in fact created two anti-communist films, “Ninotchka” and “Comrade X”.

Actor Robert Taylor testified and denied he had been forced to appear in the movie “Song of Russia” as others had claimed. He also stated he “did not believe that anyone in the Roosevelt Administration had asked the movie to be made, noting the script had been written long before anyone from the government began discussing the movie. Robert Taylor did testify he saw “signs of Communist activity in Hollywood” but he did not personally know any.

Author Ayn Rand testified that films showing happy Russians living in clean cottages “is one of the stock propaganda tricks of the Communists.”

James McGuiness, a candidate for President of the Screenwriters Guild, testified the Guild then was controlled by “Communist and the boys who play with them.”

Lela Rogers, mother of actress Ginger Rogers, testified that her daughter had to deliver a line “share and share alike—that’s democracy” in a movie. She thought that line was Communist propaganda.

Ronald Reagan, President of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) testified that were some Communists in his Guild. George Murphy, a previous SAG President, estimated that 1% of SAG members were Communists.

HUAC called witnesses and inquired if they were or ever had been Communist Party members. Most of those accused were denied requests to make statements. John Howard Lawson, as did others accused, stated he had a constitutional right not to answer that question. Rep. Thomas ordered officers to take Lawson away. He and others were later cited for contempt of Congress.

Roy Brewer of the International Alliance of Stage Employees testified that Communists were trying to gain control of the film industry’s unions.

Screenwriter Samuel Ornitz testified and accused HUAC of bigotry against Jews.

Writer and theater director Berthold Brecht testified how he fled Nazi Germany for America. He testified he had never been a member of the Communist Party. HUAC members quoted writings of his that called for overthrowing the government. Brecht testified those writing referred to Hitler and not the U.S.

Louis J. Russell, an FBI agent, testified that Tovarisch Kalatozov, a Soviet agent, lived near Hollywood stars and had been spotted at a Hollywood cocktail party. Russell further testified that George Eltenton, a Shell Development employee who previously had been a screenwriter, asked Haakon Chevalier, a University of California Professor, to approach atom bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer to relay information to the Soviets. Oppenheimer replied that was treason and refused. HUAC noted that this Soviet activity had been initiated by a Hollywood screenwriter.

The Committee for the First Amendment was created. Most of its members felt HUAC had denied civil liberties to witnesses. In opposition, William Randolph Hearst helped created the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The Hearst newspaper editorials called for Federal censorship of movies.

Congress voted to cite screenwriter Albert Matz for contempt of Congress by 346 to 17. This was the first of ten similar votes. Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, wife of actor Melvyn Douglas, was one of the 17 “no” votes. She stated HUAC had no right to tell the film industry the type of movies that should be produced.

Columnist Ed Sullivan of the New York Post wrote that Wall Street financiers of the film industry sought to have the ten people who were cited for contempt of Congress banned from the industry.

The film industry created a censorship program that met William Randolph Heart’s criteria.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Radical Hollywood by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner

Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner. Radical Hollywood. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 2002.

The authors claim that Leftist authors wove their political beliefs into screenplays. The book discusses many of these films, such as how screenwriter Michael Wilson, who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951, wrote the screenplay to the 1843 movie “Colt Comrades”, a movie where Hopalong Cassidy uncovers a banker monopolizing the cattle market. The authors claim Hopalong Cassidy was meant to symbolize Franklin Roosevelt. “The Wizard of Oz” was based on a Populist book with the rainbow, then a pro-radical sign understood by audiences, written into the movie. Other examples the authors discuss are “Border Patrol” which showed a hateful silver mine owner and “Salt of the Earth” about miners uprising against mine owners.

These authors discuss how several Westerns had Marxist themes, such as “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here” by screenwriter Abraham Polonsky. In 1943, State Sen. Jack Tenney claimed Communists were subverting the film industry. The film industry quickly gathered to deny the allegations. The authors claims there were many Left Wingers in the film industry along with indifferent industry leaders. The authors note, though, that these radicals were not dangerous and that even most Communists did not expect a workers’ revolution to occur in the U.S.

The authors discuss the international radical movement that existed in Russia, Europe, and the U.S. from the 1920s through the 1950s. Hollywood was little impacted during the 1920s. German liberal and radical Expressionist filmmakers left Germany as the Nazis emerged in Germany in the 1930s. Many went to Hollywood where they influenced American filmmakers. Jean Renoir was among those who successfully reached out in the films to the global market.

Among the claims of this book as that the American Popular Front and leftist social movements communicated their ideals to audiences through film. Orson Welles worked with Communist members in producing “Citizen Kane” which ridiculed a conservative American publisher, William Randolph Hearst. Leftist film people worked with Dudley Nicholas on producing several films. The film noir movement was an attempt to show the worsening conditions of U.S. materialism.

The authors note that not everyone brought before HUAC were blacklisted. The Leftists who cooperated and named which fellow associates were part of the movement escaped the blacklist. Informing on associates is presented by the authors as more of a matter of personal ethics than a political decision, as informing meant ruining the lives of others. About 80% called before HUAC refused to testify, even though many of them were no longer affiliated with Communist organizations.

This strong refusal to cooperate with HUAC led people such as Rep. Richard Nixon, columnists Louella Parsons and Walter Winchell, and author Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to conclude that American movies were tainted by Communist ideas. Yet, only a few pro-Russian films and a few lines from movies were found to outwardly express communistic ideas. Michael Wilson claims Left Wingers tried to create progressive films, but not ones filled with Communist thought, but of “honesty and humanism”.

The authors claims at least 1,500 movies were created by “a certified left-winger”. They claim this “is Hollywood’s biggest secret.”

During silent films, directors and leading actors often created the movie plots. When talking films created a role for separate writers, greater attention remained on the actors and directors. There were open debates in the 1920s about the role of film in taking the public attention away from social change.

The world Leftist movement did not initially embrace movies. Some U.S. Communist leaders denounced the mass commercial culture of films. German Social Democrats denounced movies as illusions that took people away from literature. Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein demonstrated how films could be used for propaganda.
Several Leftists and radicals began working in independent film companies. Some Marxists favored propaganda films designed to agitate viewers. Other Leftists found value in creating non-agitating films with mass appeal.

Many of the filmmakers in Russia, Italy, France, and Germany were leftists, and many of their films focused on social movements protecting people from the dangers of growing industrialization and capitalism. American films often wanted audiences to empathize with the poor.

In 1922, Will Hays was hired by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America to establish a censorship office to protect public morals in film. Several conservative organizations, many linked to Protestant churches, objected to this self-censorship as a conspiracy to evade conforming to public values.

In 1934, the Catholic League of Decency called for boycotts of films they found morally offensive which had passed the Hays Code.

Anti-Semitism played a factor in some of the religious attacks, as some within these groups believes that many Jewish people were producing and influencing the scripts of the movies to which they objected.

Several mobster films, such as “Little Caesar” released in 1930 and “The Public Enemy” released in 1931 and written by an “intermittent communist” John Bright, served to discredit capitalists and elected officials. Other leftist screenwriters saw how these scripts could inform the masses. “Taxi!” released in 1932 presented class struggle issues by showing cab drivers seeing the need for unionization. “The Accusing Finger” attempted to sway the public to oppose the death penalty. “Back Door to Heaven” released in 1939 concerned social class struggles from a Christian Socialist viewpoint.

Many films with strong female roles were written with themes exploring Leftist ideas of gender oppression and class oppression.

“Blockade”, an anti-fascist film produced in 1938, upset some studio executives fearing losing revenues from German and Italian audiences that would refuse to show the movie due to the fascist references.

A conservative union that worked with studios to avoid strikes was the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). In 1933 craft unionists within the IATSE went on strike in spite of their disapproving union leadership. Some studios closed briefly yet used strikebreakers to crush the strike. The craft employees were forced to take 20% pay cuts. This created awareness among studio employees of the need for increased unionization. The IATSE went from several hundred members to over 5,000 members. This also helped drive screenwriters to form the Screen Writers Guild. Actors created the Screen Actors Guild which affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. The newspapers owned by William Randolph Heart’s companies warned the public of growing communist infiltration in society.

President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) thought movies were an American entertainment form. Movie studio executives generally supported FDR. FDR’s New Deal policies were generally embraced by Leftists. Movie executives become more wary of FDR when the US Justice Department filmed an anti-trust law suit in 1938 challenging the right of studios to own theater chains. The suit would take a decade before the result would require studios to divest their theaters.

The Stalinist Communists of the 1930s called for the rise of working class intellectuals. Revolutionary Yiddish and Jewish theaters blossomed before radicals accepted the idea of working in films.

The U.S. Communist Party created a documentary film division in 1930, the Working Film and Photo League. It was renamed the Film and Photo Board, was mostly Jewish in membership, and it included Langston Hughes and Erskin Caldwell on its Advisory Board.

A number of Leftist exiles came to America and then gathered collectively, including film directors Fitz Land and Ernst Lubitsch and “soft left” actor Peter Lorre.

Anti-fascism grew in popularity in the U.S. in the late 1930s and in Beverly Hills. The Communist Party became “quite the fashionable organization.” FBI files suggest its membership included Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Olivia de Havilland, Lloyd Bridges, and Danny Kaye. The authors note that most Hollywood Communists were not engaged in the unionizing or electoral activities that involved most other Communist Party locals. Hollywood Communists were generally more sources of fund raising for various Leftist causes. Several Hollywood Communists were active with the Screen Writers Guild.

In 1937, the U.S. Communist Party claimed 40,000 members nationally but about 50 members in Hollywood. These 50 members together raised about $10,000 per month for leftist causes. Ronald Reagan was a participant in some of these causes. There are unsubstantiated rumors that Reagan applied for Communist Party membership but was rejected for not being intellectual enough. It is noted that membership required attendance at meetings. John Wexley notes he was told he would be more useful as a pro-union screenwriter than as an active party member. Hollywood careers often did not provide the time required for Communist Party membership. In Hollywood, the Communist Party lost 80% of its members annually due to lapsed membership.

The Communist Party had no prescription as to what the aesthetics of movies should be. Most Communist Party leaders had little sense of how movies were made. The Communist Party opened several writers school, namely the League of American Writers School (1940-41) and the People’s Educational Center (1943-44). Several thousand studio executives and people seeking studio employment enrolled along with several dozen FBI agents. The authors conclude the Hollywood Left consisted of several small social circles that kept themselves mostly underground.

“The President’s Mystery” released by Republic in 1936 with a screenplay by Lester Cole and Nathaniel West is presented by the authors as the most leftist leaning film that could be accepted by studio executives and the Hays Office. The movie showed a Wall Street lobbyist trying to stop an FDR initiative. The owner of Republic was a supporter of Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1936 election and he delayed the release of the film until after the 1936 elections.

In 1940, the film industry was the 12th largest industry in the U.S. Studio executives battled screenwriters over labor issues with the National Labor Relations Board siding with the writers. The authors note this era created new visions nationally of employees challenging their control by capitalist bosses as well as screenwriters visualizing changes within their own film industry.

Dalton Trumbo was one of the most successful Leftist writers. He joined the Communist Party in 1943. His scripts included stories of lower middle class people challenging an oppressive system. His script for “Kitty Foyle” released in 1940 is considered by some scholars as one of the first “feminist” movies for its portrayal of a middle class woman attempting to enter the white collar world.

The NAACP and liberal 1940 Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie called for better portrayals of African Americans in movies. In 1942, the Federal government’s Office of War Information, seeking to keep a racially divided nation united during wartime, made similar requests. Some subsequent films, often written by Leftist screenwriters, no longer stereotyped African Americans as in previous movies as always being happy, being superstitious, maids who were very talkative, chefs who did humorous things, or comically out of place men acting as gentlemen. Still, many of the these films portrayed African Americans as “good Blacks” and likely only created one more stereotype.

Leftist screenwriters often developed scripts with themes ridiculing capitalism. While conservatives and the FBI noticed this, the authors note these sentiments were found as part of a larger public belief.

It is noted that, over the decades, Leftist writers went from post-World War I pacifists to advocates of entering World War II with the Soviet Union against fascism. These various sentiments are reflected in several films.

After World War II, Leftist screenwriters wrote scripts showing social issues, including the struggles of returning veterans readjusting to society. The authors note that while there were several Leftist screenwriters, there were also conservative and anti-communist liberal studio executives who exerted greater control over film policies.

The U.S. Communist Party perceived tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It dissolved in 1945 and reemerged as the Communist Political Association with a goal of working with liberal and labor alliances.

The Leftist movement was halted and then weakened by FBI actions, HUAC, conservative press attacks, and the rise of many local anti-Communist organizations.

The film noir movies partly reflected the feelings of social isolation and despair that fell upon Hollywood during this period. A studio strike in 1946 was crushed. The failed strike was another major blow to Hollywood Leftists. The rise in censorship in movies further enhanced the desire of film noir movies to convey ambiguous lines that get could past censors yet be recognized by audiences as having sexual connotations or negative thoughts about current society.

In 1948, the Supreme Court rules that studios would have to divest their theater chains. Many studio executives, seeking to regain political favor, offered to assist the FBI in their investigations into Communists in the film industry.

The film industry found itself to be a financially declining industry from 1946 to 1949, which further caused a sense of panic among studio executives.

HUAC sought to root out Communists in the government, labor unions, and the film industry. A new Republican majority in Congress elected in 1946 sought to convince voters that the Democratic Administrations of FDR and Truman had allowed Communists to subvert society. “Dubious evidence” of Communist infiltration into movies was presented to HUAC.

The Taft Hartley Act of 1947 required union officials to sign affidavits stating they were against Communism. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which was never considered to have been influenced much by Communists but were tolerant of Communists, voted out its few Communist office holders. The Screen Writers Guild, who had more Communist office holders than did SAG, followed and they too expelled all Communists from Guild positions. “The Hollywood Reds went out with a flash.”

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hollywood Red by Lester Cole

Lester Cole. Hollywood Red. Palo Alto, Ca.: Ramparts Press, 1981.

This is the autobiography of a writer of 35 movies, one of the founders of the Screenwriters Guild, and a writer whose membership in the Communist Party (a legal entity) led him to be imprisoned for contempt of Congress and to be blacklisted, among a group known as the Hollywood Ten who were all blacklisted screenwriters, by the film industry.

The author was a world socialist who found Stalin cruel. He was Vice President of the Screenwriters Guild in 1947 when author James Cain, a political conservative. Proposed the American Authors’ Authority, which sought that authors should receive payments for each performance of the movies they write. The FBI and the film company executives credited the proposal to “communist” Guild members Ring Lardner. Gordon Kahn, and Lester Cole. James Cain was lead to believe his play had been stolen and Cain denounced others as Communist Party loyalists.

Lester Cole admits to belonging to the Communist Party. He notes that even the FBI documents he obtained decades later show the unnamed FBI informant states that he “never heard Cole teach or advocate the overthrow of the government by force or violence”. Yet the FBI concluded that communists were attempting to overtake the Screen Writers Guild and the FBI saw this, at that time, as a threat to U.S. security. The FBI finally concluded in 1972 that Lester Cole was not a security threat.

The author learned early in his career the cruelties of Hollywood. Cecil B. DeMille verbally offered him a job as a First Assistant Director only to discover there was no job offer when he appeared in DeMille’s office. He learned DeMille was just showing off. An early lesson was learned: only job offers in writing matter. The author found a job at Warner Brothers. He was then hired by Sid Grauman as Assistant Director of shows at Grauman’s new Chinese Theater. Lester Cole notes many Spanish American entertainers were deliberately paid less wages at $20 a week instead of the $35 a week that Caucasian entertainers were paid. When Cole spoke up about this, Grauman stopped speaking to him. Cole quit this job.

Lester Cole wrote some movie reviews. He gained the anger of Howard Hughes for discussing how his film “Hell’s Angels” showed a plane crash where a mechanic on board the plane died.

Cole tells how Howard Hughes secretly hired director William Seiter to direct a sham movie in order to invite Seiter’s wife, Billie Dove, who Hughes lusted after, to meanwhile appear at screen tests for Hughes. Billie Dove suspected the plan and William Seiter got backers to admit Howard Hughes was behind the project.

During the depression, the author read plays for $3 to $6 a day and then wrote an opinion as to the plays’ worthiness to be developed into a movie. The author also wrote plays and was hired to Paramount at $25 a week, with $50 pay increases every six months, for five years, to be a screenwriter.

Lester Cole discovered that studios sometimes assigned multiple writers to the same script without informing the others. Thus, screenwriters discovered script changes and were sharing writing credits with no say in the matters.

In 1933, Fox cut all salaries, including members of the only union in the industry, the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). The IATSE members objected and vote not to accept a wage cut. Since the IATSE had signed contracts, the studios asked writers under contract to take a one half cut in their salaries. Lester Cole and eight other writers, in 1933, formed a screenwriters’ guild to seek better conditions. The group proposed that screenwriters receive royalties, minimum salaries, and have a set of working practices that included protecting one’s pay if another writer is hired, have the Guild determine screenwriting credits, and require the writer to be listed in all ads. The action was denounced in trade papers as actions by Communists. Lester Cole writes that he was unaware that any of the original Guild founders had any connections to the Communist Party at that time, including himself. Over 300 screenwriters gathered at the Writers’ Club building on Cherokee and Sunset Blvd. Initial dues were set at $100. Any screenwriter who accepted the half pay cut would be fined $10,000. Jack Lawson was elected the first Guild President. Lester Cole notes that Lawson was then a political “middle of the roader and a unifier” even though Lawson would three years later, in 1936, join the Communist Party.

Lester Cole was troubled at the disparity between a public demanding the comedies he wrote for them with the rising misery suffered by people living in the emerging Fascist countries. Cole’s career was growing at Republic Studios. Meanwhile, his Guild activities kept him busy. Irving Thalberg claimed MGM, which Thalberg ran, would have to close if the Guild got their way and he claimed he would stop hiring Guild members. The Guild called this bluff and kept its membership together in refusing MGM-type contracts. MGM formed the Screen Playwrights and hailed it as an anti-communist union. The Screen Writers Guild pushed for National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) supervised elections versus the Screen Playwrights. In 1938, a vote was held, but not before the Screen Playwrights sued the Guild for liberl. Guild members were threatened with blacklisting. Dalton Trumbo clams when studio leader Jack Warner fired Trumbo for his Guild work that Warner stated that Trumbo was being blacklisted by all studios. Trumbo claims Warner told him “sure it’s blacklisting. But you can’t prove it since we got no list, we do it by phone.” Lester Cole writes that MGM threatened to blacklist him and others for their Guild work. The Producers Association at first stated they would not accept the NLRB election results. The studios illegally refused to allow voting at the studios. The NLRB threatened to take legal actions should the Producers Association and studios not comply.

Every one of the 773 eligible writers voters. The Guild got 615 votes and the screen Playwrights got 158 votes. Producers denounced the victory as one for a communist-controlled Guild. Lester Cole ridicules this notion, claiming at most that 3% of Guild members were Community Party members.

Lester Cole notes that while was a pro-union Marxist, he never put his political beliefs into the films he wrote. He states that his attitudes were reflected in the attitudes of the characters he created. He notes that screenwriter Jack Lawson was accused up to his death in 1977 of having put socialist views into his screenplays. Lester Cole quotes Ring Lardner as writing that Lawson did not inject his politics into his films, noting “actually he regarded anything of that sort as a puerile approach to the politicization of screenwriting. More revolutionary movies, he said, would come from the interdependence of form and content and the deeper penetration of characters”. Lawson wrote the first theoretical book of screenwriting in 1936, “The Theory and Technique of Playwriting which Lester Cole acknowledges “was a Marxist work of acknowledge scholarship and intellectual perception, and it was widely read in Hollywood.”

Revolutionary films began emerging, according to Lester Cole. He notes producers had no problem making them as they made profits. Cole notes the first revolutionary film as Warner Brothers’ “The Life of Zola” which criticized corrupt power elites. This was followed by such revolutionary films as Columbia’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Mr, Smith Goes to Washington.”

The U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities was created after Republicans gained a political majority in Congress in 1938. Right wing Democratic Rep. Martin Dees was named its first Chairman and he began attacking Hollywood.

The author notes that, in 1940, the Communist Party, which kept its membership secret, found out one of its members, Martin Berkeley, guilty of Party rules for attempting to steal another member’s movie story. The Communist Party, fearing that Berkeley could possibly name up to 20 Communist Party members, decided not to oust him as a member. He would, in 1951, name 153 Communist Party members to government investigators, including about 60 writers.

Lester Cole notes that not all writers joined the Communist Party because they were pro-communism. Some, such as Dalton Trumbo, joined because his friends joined. Cole also notes that some joined for altruistic reasons to make connections in hopes of getting work.

Lester Cole notes that not all Communist had shared views. U.S. Communist Party leader Earl Browder advocated social democracy in a capitalist society, which was in opposition to much Marxist ideology. John Lawson was a supporter of Lawson’s position.

The Guild demanded minimum wages for writers, the right to screen credit arbitration, a 90% Guild shop, and control of material. Writers were upset when multiple screenwriters would be hired to change scripts. The Guild members were divided on the issue of control and recognized it would be the most difficult point for which to advocate.

With the Soviet Union as an ally during World War iI, Hollywood began producing pro-Russian films such as MGM’s “Song of Russia”, Warner Brothers’ “Mission to Moscow” (which Jack Warner filmed at the request of President Roosevelt), and Paramount’s “Hostages”.

The author notes that contract writers were often assigned to films even if they were not suited to write for such films. This was an accounting procedure that put the writers’ salaries on the movies’ budgets instead of the studios’ overhead budget.

Lester Cole notes that Columbia Pictures President Harry Cohn was upset when a script showed Jews resisting Nazis. Cole observed that Cohen thought Jews were mostly passive.

Cole writes about the corrupt history of the IATSE. Movie theater chain owners Barney Balaban and Sam Katx bribed George Browne and Willaim Bioff of the IATSE’s Motion Picture Projetionist Union not to strike. The IATSE constitution stated only the President could authorize a strike. Mobster Al Capone won control of the union and had George
Browne installed as President with Willie Bioff as a top assistant. Balaban and Kaz became major executives at Paramount and MGM and continued the payoffs to Browne and Bioff, who then kicked back part of the bribes to Capone and mobsters Lucky Luciano and Frank Nitto. Nicholas Schenck, President of MGM’s Loew’s Inc. was the bagman. Father George Dunne researched and exposed the corruption. In 1945, the Conference of Studio Unions challenged the IATSE and called for a strike.

Lester Cole wrote the screenplay to “Blood on the Sun” which was created by Jimmy Cagney and his producer brother Bill Cagney for United Artists after they left Warner Brothers. The movie told the public about the Tanaka Memorial document written in 1927 that contained Japan’s plan for world domination. Cole notes the film was changed so the ending agreed with the Heart publications line that a peace could be negotiated with Japan instead of the White House’s push for Japan’s unconditional surrender.

When Lester Cole and others were called to testify before Congress as to whether they were communists, it was decided they wound not answer according to their Constitutional right in the First Amendment of freedom to speak or not to speak. A Committee for the First Amendment was formed by several actors, directors, and writers including Lucille Ball, Bert Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, and Humphrey Bogart.

Rep. J. Parnell Thomas advocated a blacklist of communists in the film industry be created. His political motivation probably was to political hurt the New Dealers (supporters of President Roosevelt’s policies). The question was often asked of witnesses “are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Anyone who replied that it was illegal to ask that question on First Amendment rights was then cited for contempt of Congress, a felony. Rep. Purnell then claimed that communists were infiltrating the film industry, placing communist propaganda into movies, and were helping spies steal atom bomb secrets.

A Gallup Poll found 47% of those surveyed thought those who refused to testify whether they were Communists should be punished, 39% thought they should not be punished, and 14% had no opinion.

Of the screenwriting ten who refused to testify, eight including Lester Cole were sentenced by a Judge to one year imprisonment and fined $1,000 while two who appeared before another Judge were sentenced to six months and fined $500. The ten were blacklisted by the film industry. To keep working, they continued writing, but under pseudonyms. When Jack Warner became correctly suspicious that one of the blacklisted was the author of a screenplay, he blacklisted the author who fronted the script. The FBI investigated the blacklisted members to see that they paid taxes on their pseudonym earnings and discovered they had paid their taxes.

The blacklisted called the Hollywood Ten sued the studios for breach of contract. They took an offered settlement as half had no money left.

Ironically, when Lester Cole went to Federal, J. Parnell Thomas was already there for having taken kickbacks.

After release from prison, Lester Cole did some off Broadway writing and worked as a short order cook and then as an assistant chef.

As for the search for Communists, over 60 informants named Communists. A national worry over communists infiltrating the media and government slowed any gains of the progressive political movement.

Roy Brewer and John Wayne, President of the Motion Picture Alliance, were in charge of who should be blacklisted by the film industry. The Guild shed its name and renamed itself the Writers’ Guild of America. In 1954, the Guild prohibited any writer using a pseudonym from being a member in order to keep Communists from becoming members.

Lester Cole found various writing jobs using a pseudonym in scripts such as ”Born Free” and in overseas films. He taught Film Writing at San Francisco State College.

During the 1950s, Academy Awards were won by four blacklisted writers who were not credited. These were Dalton Trumbo, Michael Wilson, Nedrick Young, and Carl Foreman. In 1970, the Writers Guild repealed its ban on Communists as members. Lester Cole was reinstated as a ember but denied residuals on all but one of the movies he wrote using a pseudonym.

Lester Cole observes the Soviet Union widely distributes many American and foreign films whereas few Soviet films were even shown in the U.S. He also notes there were numerous film studies schools in every major and several minor Soviet republics.

Lester Cole notes the Guild was a weak union. 58% of working members earned less than what the film industry paid electricians, mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, and painters.