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Obituaries

Maurice H. Rapf, 88; Blacklisted Screenwriter Had Disney Credits

April 19, 2003|Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writer

Maurice Harry Rapf, a blacklisted screenwriter whose credits before the blacklisting era included Disney's "Song of the South" and "They Gave Him a Gun," starring Spencer Tracy, died Tuesday in Hanover, N.H. Rapf, who was 88, died of natural causes after a brief illness.

A native of New York City, Rapf's roots in Hollywood were deep -- his father was Harry Rapf, a vaudeville agent who became a prominent producer and worked alongside Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer when MGM was launched in the 1920s. Among other things, the elder Rapf was credited with discovering Joan Crawford, and he introduced dog star Rin Tin Tin to America.

"I had three Rin Tin Tin puppies ... though none of them lived," Maurice Rapf told writer Patrick McGilligan in an interview for "Tender Comrades: The Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist" (1997). Rapf said all three puppies died of distemper.

After moving with the family to Hollywood when he was 7, Rapf and his friend, Budd Schulberg, also the son of a producer, used movie studio back lots as playgrounds, including the sets for the 1926 version of "Ben-Hur" and the 1925 World War I film "The Big Parade."

Rapf attended Los Angeles High School and, after a brief stint at Stanford, joined Schulberg at Dartmouth. In 1934, before their senior year, the two spent the summer in the Soviet Union with other students interested in promoting peace. It was this experience that led Rapf and Schulberg to support the Communist Party.

"The thing that most impressed me and probably made me a Communist was that anti-Semitism was illegal in the Soviet Union, and that the Soviets were very anti-Fascist, which the United States was not," Rapf told McGilligan.

This political turn to the left deeply distressed Rapf's father, who made his son face Hollywood's top brass, including Thalberg and Mayer, in an effort to change his mind. Rapf kept on his course.

At the time, Hollywood writers were in turmoil over securing screen credits and payments for writers, and the Communist Party also was active in Hollywood.

Screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., one of the "Hollywood Ten" who went to jail during the blacklisting era and who was a close friend of Rapf, said during a joint interview published in the Writers Guild of America, East's August 1997 On Writing publication that "there were weeks when every night was taken up with either a Communist Party meeting," a session of the Screen Writers Guild committee or some other meeting.

Rapf said: "The party was very demanding of your time. You were involved in a lot of the community anti-Fascist activities, and you ended up writing stuff for them."

Rapf said in the Writers Guild interview that he often used Lardner's line " 'that the prettiest women in Hollywood were all members of the Communist Party.' We used them for recruiting." Rapf also said that in 1937, "there were party meetings about how to revive" the Screen Writers Guild."

Rapf joined the Screen Writers Guild at the behest of Lillian Hellman. "There was a knock at the door, and a lady came in with a big hat and a long cigarette holder," he said in the interview. When she asked him to join the guild, "I said I didn't know a thing about it, but I was always on the side of the workers against the bosses -- sure, I'd join."

That night, he went to a meeting that Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman also attended. He subsequently got involved with guild efforts to gain credits and better pay for writers.

When the blacklist era began, Rapf left the Communist Party "because I was bored," and because he decided that he couldn't be both a movie writer and a party member.

Meanwhile, he had earned credits on a number of films, including "Winter Carnival" (written with Schulberg, who later won an Academy Award for "On the Waterfront"); "Dancing on a Dime"; and "Song of the South," Rapf's first job with Walt Disney. For Disney, Rapf also co-adapted "So Dear to My Heart" and wrote portions of "Cinderella," although he said he didn't get credit on the movie "because of the blacklist."

Rapf left Disney in 1947 over a salary dispute. After being named by several people before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a Communist Party member, he continued to get some TV and uncredited movie work. Then he began writing and producing commercial and industrial movies. "I never went back to Hollywood, and never tried," Rapf said.

In the mid-1960s, Rapf began lecturing on film at Dartmouth and eventually founded the college's film studies program. He also reviewed movies for Life and Family Circle magazines and wrote "Back Lot: Growing Up With the Movies," published in 1999.

Rapf never apologized for his political beliefs. "I never knew anybody in the party -- in all the years I was associated with it, which was a long, long time -- who was seeking anything but humanistic goals," Rapf told McGilligan.

Walter Bernstein, a screenwriter and the author of "Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist," said this week that Rapf, whom he knew as a "lovely man," was "fierce in his politics -- he was always left-wing.

He always preserved that." Rapf lost touch with his close friend Schulberg for 13 years after Schulberg named names (although not Rapf's) before the House committee.

They resumed their friendship when both had sons at Dartmouth.

Rapf is survived by two daughters, a son and four grandchildren.

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