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Correspondence

June 23, 2002

To the editor:

Richard Schickel, in reviewing "The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties" by Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair (Book Review, June 9), manages somehow to leave out the most obvious, the most pertinent criticism to be leveled at the book: The '50s were the period of the blacklist and the McCarthy era, when more than 300 screenwriters couldn't work anymore in Hollywood, when the climate of fear was so great that the movies made during those years, were, in Schickel's own words "bland and banal."

Schickel's omission was undoubtedly due to his not wanting to admit that the films of the left during the '30s and '40s had been a substantial and humanist contribution to our culture.

Norma Barzman

Beverly Hills

Editor's note: Screenwriters Norma Barzman and her late husband, Ben, left Hollywood for Europe in 1949 because of the blacklist.

*

To the editor:

In his review of "Radical Hollywood" (Book Review, May 12), Richard Schickel recommends that the reader search out "Part of Our Time," by Murray Kempton, which he says contains "the best short summary of Hollywood's communists." I suspect he finds Kempton's summary congenial not for its truth, but because it serves his purpose; it is hardly a flattering portrait Kempton paints of them.

Not long after Kempton's book was published, Dalton Trumbo (one of the Hollywood Ten) wrote to Kempton, chiding him for his inaccurate portrayal of the Hollywood left. Kempton replied with an apology, in which he said, " ... I have come to believe that it is the greatest of crimes to write about a man whose face you have never seen, since writing is related to the subject more than the audience, and a man you have never seen is unlikely to recognize himself in what you say about him, and thus no engagement is possible. The book is full of that, and my only hope is that it taught me something."

Kempton goes on to say that if his book were to be reprinted, "I should make the condition that you [Trumbo] write the introduction." Kempton clearly thinks much less of his summary than Schickel does, and anyone relying on it should be forewarned. (The complete exchange between Trumbo and Kempton--well worth reading--was published on May 5, 1999, in the Nation and is available on the Nation's Web site.)

Schickel goes on to agree with the position that "the communist left--mostly screenwriters--did not appreciably or subversively affect the content of American films during the popular front decade (from the mid-'30s to the mid-'40s)" and proposes that they wrote nothing more subversive than their Democrat and Republican colleagues. Democrats and Republicans, it seems, created films just as subversive as their leftist colleagues. Yet Schickel asserts that the "lives and careers" of many of the Hollywood left were " ... derailed ... by the Hollywood hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the studio blacklist they engendered."

Let's examine that: Having written material substantially no different than their Republican and Democrat colleagues, the Hollywood left caused the blacklist to happen. They brought it on themselves. There was nothing else for the studios to do. The blacklist was the only answer. The left made them do it. What nonsense. If Schickel could get these parts of what appears to be his polemic straight, I would be more likely to entertain the ideas he puts forth in its remainder.

Christopher Trumbo

Beverly Hills

Editor's note: Christopher Trumbo is the son of Dalton Trumbo.

Richard Schickel replies:

I, of course, disagree entirely with Norma Barzman. I think virtually every distinguished "substantive and humanist" film of the '30s and '40s was written or directed by people whose commitment was first to the art (or, if you prefer, the craft) of movies, and only secondarily to an ideology ("Citizen Kane" anyone?). I have no doubt that the majority of the writers and directors responsible for those movies were liberals of some sort. It is, I am always pleased to observe, ever thus in all the arts. But the sad fact is that very few movies of this period that we still attend with pleasure and intellectual profit were created by communists or those aligned to them.

There is not space here to "name names." But I urge interested readers to compare the filmographies of the admitted communists with those of the non- and anti-totalitarian left and see whose pictures have best stood the test of time. Particularly during World War II, they squandered their talents on popular front twaddle. Party hacks as Hollywood hacks. Or vice versa. It is difficult to tell the difference.

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