The Dark Ages
More than half a century after the blacklist hit Hollywood, shattering many careers and dispersing much filmland talent to unemployment, exile abroad or even jail, a memorial to its victims has been inaugurated at the University of Southern California. The commemorative sculpture garden, unveiled November 17 outside USCs Fisher Gallery on Exposition Boulevard, focuses on the blacklists first wave of noted targets, the Hollywood 10, one director and nine activist screenwriters close to the Communist Party whose appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) marked the onset of political purges in the film industry. The 10 defied HUACs inquiries into their beliefs and associations -- citing First Amendment protections -- but their stance earned them short terms in prison and longer terms of banishment from Hollywood. Several survived those years and returned to greater renown, such as Dalton Trumbo (with Spartacus and Exodus) and Ring Lardner Jr. (with MASH); most never regained their former status.
The garden, says its designer, New York public artist Jenny Holzer, is a monument to the First Amendment and a memorial to the creative artists and others who became victims of the Cold War. Holzer -- whose syntheses of words and sculpture are on permanent display outside Berlins new Reichstag and inside the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain -- designed a discourse in stone on a circular elevated platform. At its center are 10 low benches of rich russet polished marble, each bearing a quote from one of the Hollywood 10. Comments from critics -- and supporters -- of the Hollywood inquisition are inscribed on granite flagstones of the pathways radiating spokelike from this core.
Critics, whose words appear on gray stones, range from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to Judy Garland, Lucille Ball (All of us agree that the Constitution of the U.S. must be defended! But the way to do this is not by shutting up the man you disagree with . . .) and Frank Sinatra, whose youthful radicalism may surprise those who knew him only in his Reagan-serenading sunset years. While most of the quotes are from the period, some of the most thoughtful look back from a distance: The American screen was deprived of a whole generation of creativity . . . [with] love of peace, freedom of opinion, the inherent equality of all peoples challenged as if they were un-American (Sylvia Jarrico); or look forward, as does Oscar-winning writer Mike Wilson (Bridge on the River Kwai) in warning: I fear that unless you remember this dark epoch and understand it, you may be doomed to replay it . . . I foresee a day coming . . . when a new crisis in belief will grip this republic; when diversity of opinion will be labeled disloyalty.
Blacklist advocacy appears on slabs of (ironically) pink stones in quotes from Nixon, former Screen Actors Guild chief Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover and their Hollywood followers. Actor Adolphe Menjou speculates that subversion could be injected into films by a look, by an inflection, by a change in the voice while Hedda Hopper urges sending those who arent loyal [to] concentration camps, before its too late. The quotes were unearthed for Holzer by Wilsons daughter, Becca, who hopes that blacklistees come through not just as victims, but as fighters for basic American freedoms.
At the dedication ceremony, Eric Tarloff -- son of Oscar winner and blacklistee Frank Tarloff, recently deceased chair of the projects sponsoring committee -- described Hollywood Reds as the least plausible Communists, for whom anything resembling party discipline was beyond imagination. Actor Jeff Corey reinforced the absurdity of HUACs concerns by reading selections from the FBI files on his activities, which included his candidacy for the PTA board at his childs elementary school.
The impulse for the project germinated 11 years ago in the mind of Drew Weinbrenner, then a 23-year-old Trojan taking a history-of-screenwriting class. Discovering the hidden history of the blacklist, its effects on writers and on product, was a dramatic loss of innocence to a kid from Florida, says Weinbrenner, that made him think someones got to do something. From discussions with his faculty adviser, Selma Holo (now the Fisher Gallerys director), and Margaret Mehring, director of the filmic-writing program, the impulse developed into a plan, and then -- with the aid of a 25-person committee of Hollywood progressives, museum curators and academics -- into a campaign, spearheaded by Mehring, screenwriters Frank Tarloff and Paul Jarrico, and blacklist widow Roz Leader. After an international search for a public artist, Holzer was engaged in 1990.
The fund-raising campaign was kicked off with a press conference at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences headlined by Karl Malden and Lardner. While blacklistees and their relatives made up a large proportion of the projects contributors, other major donors included Hugh Hefner, the Streisand Foundation, Jack Nicholson, feminist philanthropist Peg Yorkin, Carl and Rob Reiner, Annette Bening, and Norman Lear. Among more modest givers was one unexpected name, that of screenwriter Nick Kazan, whose father, Elia, named colleagues as party members before HUAC and whose unrepentant stance made him a bete noire to much of Hollywood when given an Oscar for lifetime achievement this year.
USCs history makes it a less than likely site for a shrine to Hollywood radicals. A bastion of conservatism in the 1950s, the campus produced several leading figures of the Nixon administration, including H.R. Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, who learned dirty tricks as campus politicos and whose careers imploded over excesses of zeal in combating dissenters during the Watergate scandal.
One of the founding fathers of USCs film school, Cecil B. De Mille, spearheaded the drive to demand the first filmland loyalty oath as a board member of the Directors Guild, a campaign opposed by Guild president Joseph Mankiewicz with the support of William Wyler, George Stevens and John Ford, among others.
In addition to addressing fundamental issues of freedom of speech, belief and association, the accomplishment of the installation lies in rescuing some of the creative communitys most prominent victims from a historical black hole -- and in dispelling any smug illusions that Americas commitment to intellectual and political freedom has been strong and steady. The projects weakness lies in sustaining another recurrent (if less insidious) illusion -- that Hollywood and its radicals were the central targets and major victims of the McCarthy era. As director Norman Corwin noted in his dedication remarks, There should also be memorials at law schools, at seminaries, at teachers colleges, at laboratories, and at unemployment offices for janitors given pink slips for their political beliefs.
Its a good beginning, and you hope it sparks interest and other people pick up the ball, says gallery director Holo, who just returned from visiting the politically charged Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. In the end its about the First Amendment issues that continue to be with us.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.