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A Look at the Worst Lying Environment Until Now: We Don't Want to Go Back There

by John Aquino on 02/04/19

I've written on this blog about the current climate of untruth that has permeated much of today. Never say it can't be worse. But for people who were brought up to believe that an individual's word was his or her bond and that you don't do business with or elect people to office if you cannot trust them, it's a pretty bad time. Journalism, one of my three professions, has been disparaged by the president and others. This has weakened its mission, which is to distinguish true from false.

The worst time up to now might have been the 1950s, despite its Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet reputation. That was the McCarthy era, named after Senator Joseph McCarthy, when people were falsely accused of being communists, both by political opportunists like McCarthy, and by their neighbors out of self-serving false patriotism. It affected most industries. People lost their reputations and their jobs, and some were permanently broken or committed suicide out of shame. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been lionized a decade before for his work on nuclear fusion, lost his security clearance in 1954 due to false rumors that he had spied for the Soviet Union that were spread by those who were envious of his accomplishments and fearful of his influence. Going to school in Washington, D.C., I had friends whose fathers worked in government or in industries with government contracts and who suddenly disappeared from class because their parents had to leave town. I questioned my Mom and Dad about it, and I remember once my father asked around and came home and gave me a lecture on the terrible consequences of spreading rumors. It was clearly based on what he had learned about the fate of one of the fathers.

The industry most visibly affected by McCarthyism was arguably that of people who made movies. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings investigating the Hollywood film industry as to the extent of any communist influence. A blacklist was developed, and those on it, or rumored to be on it, became unemployable. Ten Hollywood film writers, known as the Hollywood Ten, refused to comply with the committee's demand that they provide names of people who might be communists, and they were jailed for contempt of Congress. And, importantly for the subject of lying, the Hollywood studios made movies that were written by blacklisted writers but  credited them to someone else. Some of the names were ficitious, others were actual people known as fronts. Some fronts were friends of the filmmakers or people who worked on the film in other capacities. But there was also groups of blacklisted writers who worked in a factory-like environment for a front. The blacklist was finally broken in 1960 when actor-producer Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger gave writer Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, on-screen credit for his work on Spartacus for Douglas and Exodus for Preminger.

As evidence of this lying about credits, between 1980 and 2000 the Writers Guild of America restored 95 credits to blacklisted writers. Other credits have been changed by the guild since.

Those unfamiliar with the era can view the 1976 documentary Hollywood on Trial ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ-dKru9RWM ).The use of fronts was dramatized in two films. One was Trumbo (2015), which was based on Trumbo's experience. He went to prison and, when he was released, organized a network of writers who wrote under assumed names or who agreed to give credit to others. The film is buoyed by the enthusiastic performances of Bryan Cranston as Trumbo and Diane Lane as his wife Cleo and is largely true. It clearly conveys the complicity in the lie about credit by those who made films. Trumbo's script for The Brave One  won an Academy Award for best story, and at the 1957 awards ceremony the absence of "Richard Rich," the name credited for the script, was explained by the presenter as being due to Rich's wife having a baby. There was no baby, wife, or Rich. Everybody knew about the lie and the charade and went along with it. Trumbo is a flawed film, marred by its inaccurate portrayal of some individuals, such as Edward G. Robinson, and, by cardboard composite characters. It skirts some issues. For example, it paints The Brave One as a deeply personal project for Trumbo but doesn't mention that the producers had to settle an infringement suit that alleged Trumbo had stolen the story. And for all of its focus on human and inhuman actions, Trumbo doesn't delve as deeply as it could and should into the sordidness of the environment and the despair and suicides.

The second film is The Front (1976). It has an original script by Walter Bernstein that is fictitious but inspired by true stories. Bernstein, director Martin Ritt, and cast members Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, and Joshua Shelley had all been blacklisted. The film tells the story of a front, Howard Prince, who, although he is not a writer, fronts for a group of those blacklisted. Although Woody Allen playing Prince and Mostel as Hecky Brown were primarily comic actors, the film accurately presents the duplicitous depth of fronts in particular and the blacklist in general and their consequences. Hecky Brown's suicide after he becomes unemployable is based on the story of Philip Loeb, a friend of Mostel's who played the father on the television show The Goldbergs and was driven to take his own life after being blacklisted.

The example of a single writer ably conveys the lies that sprang from the blacklist. Philip Yordan was an efficient playwright and screenwriter. He seemed to work best when he adapted existing material. He won Academy Award nominations for Dillinger (1945), based on the career of gangster John Dillinger, and Detective Story (1951), co-written with Robert Wyler and based on the play by Sidney Kingsley. Yordan's play Anna Lucasta was inspired by Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. When he was unable to find a producer for his story about a Polish-America woman, Yordan brought the play to the American Negro Theatre Company, where it was adapted by playwright Abram Hill for an all-black cast, ran for two years, and the author credit was for Yordan only. Yordan continued having problems with credit. In 1949, he wrote three-quarters of House of Strangers, based on Jerome Weidman's novel, and was fired by producer Sol Siegel who didn't like his work. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz rewrote the script (the dialogue does have a Mankiewicz-like snap), but the Writers Guild of America ruled that Yordan be given sole credit for the story and co-credit for the screenplay. Mankiewicz refused to share credit for a screenplay that he claimed he had basically written and so took no credit. House of Strangers wasn't a success, but it was remade and reconceived into a western in 1954 titled Broken Lance. The screenplay was written by Richard Murphy, but Yordan received a story credit because of his story credit for House of Strangers and won the Academy Award for best story for Broken Lance. Given what happened to him next, it seems oddly appropriate that he won his only Academy Award for a film that he had nothing to do with and that was based on a story for which his contribution is a matter of dispute.

With the blacklist, Yordan took on even more screenplays. But he had a plan. It is reported that, living in Europe, he had blacklisted writers working in cubicles in his basement. Concerning his work as a front, Yordan said later that he was just helping these writers out. In his deal with the writers, he took the writing credit and half of the writing fee.

Yordan's credits that were either ultimately eliminated, changed to that of a co-writer, or otherwise disputed include 17 films written over 15 years:  Man Crazy (1953), Naked Jungle (1954), Johnny Guitar (1954), The Last Frontier (1955), Men in War (1957), Gun Glory (1957), God's Little Acre (1958), Murder by Contract (1958), Day of the Outlaw (1959), Studs Lonigan (1960), King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1962), Invasion of the Triffids (1963), Circus World (1964), The Battle of the Bulge (1965), and Custer of the West (1968). It is possible that there are more that just haven't come to light. A producer who worked with Yordan said he was a good screenwriter who let greed overshadow his talent. The industry knew about and disliked what he had done. After Yordan died in 2003, his name and image were not included in the "In Memoriam" segment at the Academy Awards ceremony, even though he was an Academy Award winner.

In the 1950s and early 60s, writer credits in films could not be trusted. There was a spider's web of lies spread throughout the industry. There were other webs in other industries when false accusations about individuals were made. And it all started in Congress. Those of us who have experienced a world where lying was condoned don't want to go back there.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino


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