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'Exile' Recalls Dark Days of Hollywood

May 03, 2000|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis reported to the set of "Hellcats of the Navy" in 1956--the only movie in which the future president and first lady appeared together--they did not suspect that their lines had been written for them by a former Communist Party member who had managed to beat the Hollywood blacklist by writing under pseudonyms and using other writers as "fronts" to sell his work.

The screenwriter's real name was Bernard Gordon, and he tells the remarkable tale of how he survived the McCarthy era in "Hollywood Exile or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist" (University of Texas Press, $34.95, 303 pages).

"This was long before Reagan's state or national political triumphs," Gordon recalls, "but at the time, everyone in Hollywood knew he had played a major role in creating and enforcing the blacklist."

Gordon was served with a subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, but he was never called to testify.

"I suppose that almost 50 years later, I am still on call," he cracks in the book. Still, his long career as a screenwriter and a producer, ranging from such cult classics as "The Day of the Triffids" to such big-screen spectacles as "El Cid" and "55 Days at Peking," was haunted by the fact that his name appeared on the blacklist. And his memoir is an unsentimental and unapologetic account of the price he paid for his politics.

Gordon, for example, is not coy about his membership in the Communist Party. He joined while working as a script analyst for the Hollywood studios, and his party unit--"a 'club,' never called a 'cell' "--consisted of six or eight other script readers who met once a week to talk politics rather than plot the overthrow of the government.

The principal responsibility of party members, he insists, was to sell subscriptions to the People's World, the official Communist daily newspaper. And he argues that party membership, especially after the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany, ought to be understood as an expression of the loftiest ideals rather than as a cynical conspiracy.

"Viewed from the perspective of that time, the question for me then became not why join the party but how can a principled, self-respecting person refuse?" he muses out loud. "It was simply a question of which side you were on."

Gordon's book is not a manifesto, and he does not neglect the high jinks that we have come to expect in books about show business. Gina Lollobrigida, for example, refused to submit to an insurance physical for a spaghetti western called "Bad Man's River." "I know these doctors," she complained. "They just want to look up under my skirt!" And the badinage between actor Lee van Cleef and producer Milton Sperling over the mechanics of a semi-nude love scene in the same picture is not printable in a family newspaper.

But Gordon's first and enduring passion is politics, and he brings a certain edginess to "Hollywood Exile" that is not often found in other show business memoirs. He recalls, for instance, how the young woman who would become his wife, Jean Lewin, worked with luminaries such as Bette Davis and Jules Stein in setting up the Hollywood Canteen, a club where servicemen on leave during World War II could mingle with stars and starlets.

But Jean soon found herself in a struggle over an issue of racism: "What was to be done if a black serviceman asked a white girl to dance?" The solution, Gordon explains, was a race-neutral policy:

"Hostesses [were] free to refuse invitations from anyone--too short, too tall, too hairy, too bald, too sweaty or whatever--without reference to race."

"Hollywood Exile" is a colorful and compelling account of a life in Hollywood during its darkest years. At the same time, it is a primer on strategies for survival in the movie industry, no less relevant today than 50 years ago. Above all, it is the heartfelt confession of an unreconstructed radical who has refused to change his colors, then or now, to blend into the landscape.

*

On Feb. 25, 1942, the Japanese launched an air raid on Southern California--or so the panicky residents of wartime Los Angeles believed.

"At 2:25 a.m., the region's anti-aircraft batteries went into full action, guns ablaze, firing into the search-lit skies against incoming enemy aircraft," recalls Arthur Verge, one of the contributors to "The Way We Really Were: The Golden State in the Second Great War," edited by Roger W. Lotchin (University of Illinois Press, $44.95, cloth; $16.95, paper; 245 pages). "While some plane spotters would later claim that they had indeed seen an enemy plane, others blamed jittery nerves and a wayward weather balloon for the spectacular fireworks show that is remembered today in a humorous vein as 'The Battle of Los Angeles.' "

Such moments of humor and nostalgia can be found in the pages of "The Way We Really Were," but the book is a sober--and sobering--study of how World War II shaped and, often enough, distorted the California Dream.

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