We’re talking this week about the Hollywood Ten – a group of Hollywood scriptwriters who enjoyed ample rewards for their talents in capitalist America even as they espoused a political system under which the very jobs they thrived at didn’t exist and in which their own stubborn contrarianism would likely have landed them in front of a firing squad. We’ve already devoted a good deal of attention to the most famous of the Ten – Dalton Trumbo, the colorful hero of a 2015 movie starring Bryan Cranston. But the other members of the group, all of whom refused either to answer questions about their political history or, in the phrase of the day, to “name names,” are no less interesting in their own right.
Take Alvah Bessie (1904-85). The son of a successful New York businessman, he attended Columbia University, spent four years as a member of Eugene O’Neill’s acting troupe, the Provincetown Players, then, in 1928, went to Paris to become an expatriate writer like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Returning to the U.S. the next year, he contributed stories and essays to most of the best American magazines of the day.
He did something else, too. He began moving in Communist circles, and in 1936 joined the Party. Two years later, like many other American Communists, he went off to Spain to fight against Franco and for the Republic. At the time, much of the left-wing media in the U.S. and elsewhere presented the struggle as a straightforward clash between fascism and freedom, but as George Orwell famously recorded in his classic Homage to Catalonia, the Republican side was strongly under Kremlin influence and was subjected to a great deal of pressure to toe the Stalinist line and to crush any hint of non-Communist dissent. In Orwell’s view, indeed, the Soviets in Spain oversaw a “reign of terror.”
Like Orwell, Bessie wrote his own account of the Spanish Civil War. His book, entitled Men in Battle, was published in 1939. In it, as the title suggests, he recounts everyday life at the front, in the heat of warfare. Unlike Orwell, however, he doesn’t complain about the Soviets. He was, as they say, a “good soldier.” He belonged to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which was one of the International Brigades that, as Allan H. Ryskind records in his 2015 history Hollywood Traitors, were “a Stalinist creation.” Just to make sure there’s no doubt about the matter, Ryskind spells it out: Bessie “was fighting for the Stalinist wing in the civil war.”
It was during World War II – specifically, in 1943 – that Bessie began writing movies for Warner Brothers, notably Objective, Burma! , for which he received an Oscar nomination. As a big Hollywood name he had access to people at the top of the American Communist Party, including its president, Earl Browder. Ryskind reports a conversation that suggests that Bessie was even a more hard-line Communist than the head of the Party himself. Browder’s – and the Party’s – official position was that the U.S. should undergo a peaceful transition from capitalism to Communism. Bessie rejected this notion: he believed in nothing less than a violent overthrow of the U.S. system.
If Bessie was more of a Communist than Browder, he was also more of a Communist than at least one of his fellow Hollywood Ten members, Albert Maltz (1908-85). In 1946, Maltz, a veteran of the New York theater, a Communist since 1935, and an Oscar nominee for Pride of the Marines (1945), published an article in the Party’s weekly New Masses complaining that the Party was too strict in policing writers, expecting them to cleave strictly to the party line and produce crude propaganda. Among those who savaged Maltz for his dissent was Bessie, who at a Party meeting, according to one witness, “denounced” his fellow screenwriter “with bitter vituperation and venom.” After HUAC and prison, Maltz moved to Mexico, where he resumed writing films, including the Cinemascope spectacle The Robe (1953).
As for Bessie, he didn’t last long at Warners. Two years after going to work for the studio, he was fired. The anodyne account of his career in the Hollywood Reporter says that he was dismissed for supporting striking studio workers – which, of course, makes Bessie sound virtuous and the studio bosses pretty rotten. In fact, there was a struggle underway at the time between two unions, one Kremlin-controlled and one anti-Communist, that sought to represent Hollywood workers, and Bessie was squarely on the side of the Stalinists. Called before HUAC in 1950 and subsequently imprisoned and blacklisted, he quit the Party in the 1950s and wrote about his Blacklist experience in a 1957 novel, The Un-Americans, and a 1965 memoir, Inquisition in Eden.