More Hollywood Commies

Lester Cole

Today, three more members of the Hollywood Ten.

Lester Cole, born Cohn, was the son of a Marxist garment-union organizer in New York. After gaining some success as a Broadway playwright, he was summoned to Hollywood in 1932. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, he churned out dozens of scripts, including Charlie Chan mysteries and B-movie thrillers, first for Paramount and later for MGM.

When he wasn’t writing motion pictures, he was playing a major role in Hollywood politics.With John Howard Lawson and Samuel Ornitz, both of whom would also be members of the Hollywood Ten (and whom we looked at yesterday), he co-founded the first Tinseltown union, the Screen Writers Guild. Over the years, he would expend a lot of energy seeking to heighten the Guild’s political profile, urging its members, as Allan Ryskind puts it in Hollywood Traitors, “to back Soviet foreign policy, support domestic Red causes, promote Communist penetration of unions, hire radical lawyers, subsidize left-wing groups, and engage in massive protests to stir up strife rather than to resolve labor problems.”

In 1934, Cole joined the Communist Party, which he would never leave. He was also a leader of the Civil Rights Congress and a member of the executive board of the League of American Writers – both of them Soviet front groups. In 1945, when the CSU – a Soviet-backed Hollywood workers union that was engaged in a struggle with the IA, an anti-Communist union – went on strike against the Warner Brothers studio, a range of Soviet front groups supported the CSU, as did the Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker. Cole, for his part, met with the board of the Screen Writers Guild, urging that it condemn Warners and that it warn that striking workers would not return to work at the studio until a satisfactory settlement had been reached. Then came the Blacklist, after which Cole spent some years in the cold; eventually he wrote the successful 1966 film Born Free, and later taught film writing in San Francisco.

Edward Dmytryk

On to Edward Dmytryk, the Canadian-born son of working-class Ukrainian immigrants who moved to Los Angeles when he was young. He began his Hollywood career in his teens, as a studio messenger boy; by age 31 he was a full-fledged film director. He went on to make some of the great films noirs of the Forties. In 1944, the same year that RKO released Murder, My Sweet, a thriller based on a Raymond Chandler novel, Dmytryk joined the Communist Party. Yet he was never as much of a fanatic as some of the other Hollywood Ten. For instance, he removed pro-Communist agitprop from his 1945 movie Cornered, arguing that the screenwriter, John Wexley, had written “long speeches, propaganda” that “went to extremes in following the party line on the nose.” Dmytryk knew that such dialogue simply didn’t work on any level – it ruined the effectiveness of the drama and it didn’t convince anybody of anything – but as a result of his action he was subjected to vicious criticism at several Communist meetings. Leading the charge against him was Lawson, who would soon be a fellow member of the Hollywood Ten; siding with Dmytryk was Albert Maltz, who, as we’ve seen, had had his own run-ins with Party purists.

Robert Adrian Scott

As a result of the conflict over the script of Cornered, Dmytryk began (as he put it) to “drift away” from Communism. Then came the House Un-American Activities Committee, and jail. While behind bars, he came to feel that he’d been used by his Party comrades, and in 1950 officially broke with Communism – the only member of the Hollywood Ten ever to do so. The next year he again appeared before HUAC, this time providing the names of no fewer than 26 fellow Party members. His career restored to him, Dmytryk went on to write and direct a number of major films, including The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Carpetbaggers (1964).

Robert Adrian Scott (1911–1972), perhaps the least-known of the Hollywood Ten, can be mentioned here as a sort of footnote to Dmytryk: a middle-class kid from New Jersey, his main accomplishment in Hollywood was producing several films (including Murder My Sweet and Crossfire) directed by Dmytryk, who told HUAC that Scott had pressured him to put Communist propaganda in his movies. After the Blacklist, he worked in TV, dying in 1973.  

Alvin Bessie, Stalinist soldier

Dalton Trumbo and wife

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.

Alvah Bessie

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.”

George Orwell

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.

Albert Maltz

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.