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IMPENITENT RETROSPECTIVE : A 'Sticky' Situation for One of the Hollywood Ten

October 18, 1987|RING LARDNER JR.

Does our criminal-justice system promote genuine repentance? Not when the crime is contempt of Congress and the offender finds a congressman convicted of thievery among his fellow prisoners.

That is what happened to five of the Hollywood 10 who appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities 40 years ago this month and then served one-year prison terms after the Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal.

Lester Cole and I shared our incarceration at the Federal Correctional Institution, Danbury, Conn., with the very man who had asked us the questions that led to our conviction: J. Parnell Thomas (R-N.J.), chairman of HUAC. Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson and Adrian Scott, at their home-away-from-home in Ashland, Ky., also had a committee chairman to consort with: Andrew May (D.-Ky.) of the House Military Affairs Committee. Thomas' offense was petty theft--padding his payroll and taking kickbacks. May operated on a grander scale, accepting a $53,000 bribe during World War II to steer weapons contracts to his benefactors.

All 12 of us, the 10 in the movie business and the two in Congress, were eligible for parole, but only the latter pair were granted it, reducing Thomas' 18 months and May's two years to nine months in both cases. We served our full terms except for the automatic 60 days for good behavior.

If you see anything inequitable in this, you simply don't understand the principles of criminal rehabilitation. The main question for any parole board is, "What are the chances of this offender repeating his crime?" It stood to reason that Thomas and May would never be able to defraud the government again since neither of them stood the faintest chance of being elected dogcatcher. We, on the other hand, had not only found new reason for contempt of Congress but had never shown the slightest sign of repentance for our original transgression. (Edward Dmytryk, now the only survivor of the group besides myself, made his amends too late for parole consideration.)

Our circumstances, Eddie's excepted, did not improve much when we emerged from involuntary seclusion. We had been blacklisted, of course, by fiat of the Motion Picture Producers Assn., a month after our brush with the committee. But most of us had found under-the-table work during our 2 1/2 years in the courts, the only drawbacks being loss of credit and salary discounts ranging up to 90%. Two things were different about the situation on our return to Hollywood in the spring of 1951. There were new hearings going on in Washington and later in Los Angeles in which the penitent established the depth of their remorse by naming other sinners, resulting eventually in the extension of the blacklist to some 300 men and women. And there was such a state of panic--an atmosphere of real terror that is hard to conceive today--that the kind of half-secret working arrangements we had made before were unthinkable.

In my case, the total blacklist period lasted 15 years, until Otto Preminger announced in 1962 that he had hired me to adapt a book he had bought. Even then, the Americanism Committee of the American Legion wrote him a letter demanding that he replace me with a writer who met their standards of patriotism. Otto replied that he recognized the legion's right to picket the picture when it was released and hoped the organization would recognize his to engage the writer of his choosing.

What about my attitude toward these events today? Have the intervening decades produced any remorse, or even regret, about taking a stand that transformed me from a successful screenwriter with a new five-year contract starting at $2,000 a week, an Oscar on my mantel and a new house with a tennis court to an unemployed ex-convict blacklisted in the business I had worked in since the age of 20?

It still seems to me, as it did then, that the alternative was more distasteful than any of the possible consequences of defying the committee by not responding to inquiries about our political beliefs and associations. The reasons for doing this were quite simple. If you answered no to the question "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?," you were failing to challenge the committee's right to ask it and furthering the idea that every non-Communist should so declare himself and thus expose the real miscreants. Also, it would be clear to everyone, including yourself, that you had done so in order to hold on to your job. If your answer was yes, as it would have been in my case, you would then be asked to name all the other members you could think of, causing them to be blacklisted and perhaps imprisoned. If you refused to do so, you would face certain conviction for contempt because you would have waived any right-to-privacy defense by answering about yourself.

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