“I was never blacklisted,” says Del Reisman, a former Writers Guild of America president who began working for TV shortly after World War II. He tells me this to let me know that, for the record, he speaks on behalf of a group he himself hasn’t suffered with. But the comment has an unintended historical matter-of-factness about it, the way one might say, “I never learned to golf” or “I never got the mumps.” He makes it sound as if blacklisted writers were not so much criminals as victims of some mysterious disease — a disease, like polio, that could capriciously strike anyone and whose existence never entered into polite conversation.
Reisman serves on the guild’s Blacklist Credits Committee, a tiny group of writers and researchers including guild credits administrator Cathy Reed and former guild president George Kirgo, who have engaged in the laborious detective work of determining which films were written or co-written by banned writers during the blacklist’s approximately 15 years, and to make sure these authors receive proper credit. Now nearly completed, the undertaking began in 1996 with the late (and once blacklisted) writer Paul Jarrico on the original committee, lending his Alexandrian library of documents to the task; it has so far “rehabilitated” 88 films with 99 credits. The credits are corrected not only in the guild’s records but also in the files of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Even the studios have cooperated by agreeing to change the credit rolls on re-releases and on videotapes and DVDs of films in their libraries.
“Columbia agreed to change the Lawrence of Arabia writing credits from the original ‘Robert Bolt’ to ‘Michael Wilson and Robert Bolt,’” says Reisman. “It was a big thing to do because it’s such a beautiful opening and the credits float by. They spent some money changing it.”
Reisman’s committee decided early on to strictly adhere to certain principles in their investigations. Members had to be unanimously, 100 percent certain of a film’s provenance; they would also make no “qualitative judgments” about the films under consideration — no matter how low-budget or critically forgotten a movie might have been, it would still rate an investigation. Finally, there was the matter of proof.
“We couldn’t rely on people’s memories — too many years had passed,” Reisman says. “We needed some evidence that something had happened — a deal memo, some correspondence, something from a producer who said, ‘I need you for such and such, let’s talk about it.’”
Not every writer was happy to see the record corrected. Some have begged to have their names left off embarrassing work; other times the committee meets reluctance from a deceased writer’s surviving family members who don’t wish to exhume the past. Reisman has sympathy for these writers and their families, but he and his colleagues press on for the sake of historical accuracy.
Perhaps truth becomes more important when you’ve lived through an era of secrecy. “It was like a cloud hovered over the town,” Reisman recalls of McCarthyism’s heyday. “We talked about a blacklist, but there was no list; there were many lists. One network had a combination of lists, another network had a combination of different lists. Some people could work for one network but not another.
“I worked as a writer and story editor for live television, but nobody said to me, ‘Hey, some of these people are now blacklisted.’ There was no announcement, so you had to kind of put it together.”
How one put things together in 1950s Hollywood involved a combination of Orwellian doublethink and good old show-biz intuition.
“In 1954, I read a wonderful script,” Reisman remembers. “So I went down the hall of my network and said to a producer, ‘Have you ever heard of this writer?’ Because I hadn’t. This producer said, ‘Close the door. That’s so-and-so,’ and he named a well-known writer who was blacklisted who’d used a pen name. Another time I got a memo that said, ‘The following writers are not available.’ And there was a list of 10 or 12 people on one column, and on the opposite column there’d be a note of explanation, such as, ‘Tied up until September 8 at MGM,’ ‘Working in Europe.’ All very professional-sounding. After a while I realized this was an amended list of people not to go near.”
It’s easy to look back on the years Lillian Hellman called the “scoundrel time” with condescension for the compliant, but it’s worth asking ourselves, in our own scoundrel time of the USA PATRIOT Act, if we are willing to stand up, like movie heroes, for our current rights instead of speculating on what we might have done during the Cold War. Reisman, after all, strenuously protested his network’s orders to sign a loyalty oath, but relented rather than be fired. I myself remember repeating a loyalty oath when I became a U.S. citizen as an adolescent.
Every generation has its blacklist, though not all are as ruthless as the Red Scare’s. Some merely prevent a few people from boarding airplanes, or result from others’ library reading habits. But the end is always the same: a cloud of fear, a disease like polio crippling the way we speak and the way we write. And, if we’re lucky, a future that will credit those who refused to disappear.