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Correspondence

June 02, 2002

To the editor:

Richard Schickel, in reviewing "Radical Hollywood" by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner (Book Review, May 12), chooses to use the occasion for a diatribe against the history of communists in Hollywood. Since the issue of the role of dissent in a democratic society is very much on the front burner in our country today, I believe it is important to respond. My qualifications: I was one of the Hollywood communist screenwriters; I was blacklisted because I refused to become an informer for the House Un-American Activities Committee; and I was hounded for more than 26 years by the FBI because, as a communist, I was considered a threat to domestic security (along with more than 300 others from Hollywood).

I agree with Schickel that neither I nor any of the comrades I knew ever managed to sneak even a smidgen of communist propaganda into any of our films. Had we done so, we felt sure that 200% of American studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn and others would blue pencil us right out of a job. Nevertheless, we did manage to slip some goodies into the character of the local community. For example, Jean Lewin, a young woman who was a dear friend of mine and also a member of the Communist Party, was the executive secretary of the Hollywood Canteen, working with Bette Davis, who was the president, and Jules Stein, who was the treasurer. Literally thousands of servicemen bound for war in the Pacific were entertained in a number of shifts of 500 each night for more than three years. In those days there was strict segregation of blacks from whites in the services, and even the Musicians Union had separate black and white locals. But thanks to the efforts of Lewin, a 5-foot, 100-pound communist, there was, after quite a battle with the studio bosses, no discrimination or segregation at the Hollywood Canteen. As a result, hundreds of thousands of men were exposed for the first time to a social occasion where blacks and whites sat together, ate together, danced with whomever they pleased. Was this important? We thought so.

As president of the Readers Guild (later the Story Analysts), I negotiated the first contract for the group with the studios and was active with the Conference of Studio Unions, the only truly independent craft union movement seen in Hollywood to that time. The communists, as has been acknowledged by current leaders of the unions, were responsible for leading the battles that finally organized honest independent unions of writers, directors and actors. The first presidents of the Writers Guild were John Howard Lawson and Lester Cole, both communists.

In my first screenwriting job after having been fired from Paramount when I was named as a "communist sympathizer" during the infamous HUAC hearings in Washington in 1947, I tried to follow the "party line" and get a job, any job at all, for a black actor. I wrote in a taxi driver who was black. This was immediately crossed out by the producer, who also had "line" to follow. He said it would only make problems, exhibiting the film in the South.

Lawson wrote the script for "Sahara," the only World War II film to feature a courageous and heroic black soldier, played by Rex Ingram. He also wrote "Action in the North Atlantic," which was the first and only war film that emphasized the ordinary servicemen, working men, who were under attack by the German submarines, not the usual story focused on the officers. "Crossfire," produced by a communist, Adrian Scott, was the first film to deal with anti-Semitism in the U.S. Army. I could go on with dozens of examples of films good and not so good, including some of mine, where communists wrote or directed or produced films that made an earnest effort to deal with serious social issues, not revolution.

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