Advertisement
 

Cornered Rats and Personal Betrayals

Fifty years ago today, the House Un-American Activities Committee began a series of hearings into communist influence in the movie industry that led to the Hollywood blacklist. Sunday's Calendar detailed the origins of Hollywood's Red Scare. In today's installment, survivors reminisce about their personal experiences.

October 20, 1997|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Abraham Polonsky was living in France in 1950, writing a novel, when he got a call from a friend who was staying in his house in Los Angeles. An investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee had been by, trying to serve him with a subpoena.

Since the first HUAC hearings in October 1947, through which a group of writers and directors known as the Hollywood 10 had been found in contempt of Congress and eventually sent to prison, the movie industry had been in the grip of anti-communist hysteria. Polonsky knew his time had come.

A longtime communist, Polonsky had emerged in the late 1940s as one of Hollywood's most gifted young writer-directors. In 1947, he wrote "Body and Soul," the acclaimed John Garfield boxing drama. The next year he directed Garfield in "Force of Evil," a thriller about the numbers racket that critic Andrew Sarris would later call "one of the great films of modern American cinema."

Polonsky had made no secret of his communist affiliations. He'd been friendly with many of the Hollywood 10 and considered the party "the best club to belong to in Hollywood, because all the smart guys were in it."

He knew that if he refused to cooperate with Congress, he would be blacklisted and perhaps sent to jail. But he also considered himself a patriot. In World War II, he'd served overseas in the Office of Strategic Services as a liaison with the French underground.

The subpoena forced his hand. "My wife thought I should stay in Europe," recalls Polonsky, who at 86 has a caustic wit and socially conscious ideals. "But I was romantic about it. I said, 'It's wrong, nobody's going to chase me out of my country.' So I came back."

Polonsky bursts into raspy laughter. "I was so romantic I brought a Jaguar back with me."

On April 25, 1951, he went before HUAC and refused to answer its queries, taking the 5th Amendment. Only once did Polonsky offer a response, when asked for the names of the men he'd worked with in the OSS. Polonsky replied: "It's none of your business."

Before he was pressed for an answer, a man in a dark suit hurried up to the dais and whispered in HUAC Chairman John Wood's ear.

"He told them to stop right away," Polonsky says. "The guy in the suit was an intelligence operative, and even he knew I shouldn't answer that question. All those guys I'd been with in the OSS were now in the CIA."

On April 12, 1951, two weeks before Polonsky went before Congress, he was named as a communist by two friends, actor Sterling Hayden and writer Richard Collins. A well-known screenwriter and longtime party member, Collins gave the names of 26 alleged communists, including his friend and writing partner, Paul Jarrico. The two men had been under contract at MGM, where they'd written films like "Thousands Cheer," a star-studded Army base musical, and "Song of Russia," a tribute to the Russian war effort that was attacked by HUAC as communist propaganda.

"All the studios made movies like that," says Jarrico, now 82. "We were writing under orders of the Office of Wartime Propaganda. Louis B. Mayer never let anything he thought was Russian propaganda into his movies. We even had to take out the word 'community,' because he felt it sounded too much like 'communism.' "

Jarrico says he asked Collins not to give names to HUAC, but to no avail: "It turns out he'd been talking to the FBI long before he went before the committee. Once he testified, it was the end of our friendship. It was a very personal betrayal. He wasn't just cooperative with the committee, he was eager to cooperate."

Many of the people who cooperated with HUAC, including Collins, Hayden, Lee J. Cobb and Abe Burrows, had something else in common--their lawyer, Martin Gang. Founder of the influential entertainment law firm Gang, Tyre, Ramer and Brown, he specialized in representing people who gave names as well as outspoken liberals, such as Burt Lancaster and John Houseman, who sought to avoid being called to testify.

Instead of defying the committee, Gang counseled his clients to come clean, often publicizing their cooperative efforts so they could be cleared from blacklists and return to work. (Now 96, Gang was unavailable for interviews.)

When David Raksin, a prominent film composer who'd been a party member in the late 1930s, was subpoenaed by HUAC, he went to Gang for advice.

"He said, 'If you don't talk, those bastards will put you in jail,' " says Raksin, now 85. "Gang told me, 'Don't hide anything; they know all about you.'

"It was a scary experience, testifying before the committee. It was a hot day, and we were in this big room full of lights and cameras. I'd been unable to sleep at night; I felt like a cornered rat."

With Gang at his side, Raksin gave the names of a dozen suspected communists. He says they were people who were dead or had already been named by others.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|