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.