Array
(
    [isp] => Amazon.com
    [org] => AWS EC2 (us-east-1)
    [countryCode] => US
    [city] => Ashburn
    [lon] => -77.487396240234
    [regionName] => Virginia
    [status] => success
    [query] => 44.200.174.97
    [region] => VA
    [zip] => 20149
    [lat] => 39.043800354004
    [country] => United States
    [timezone] => America/New_York
    [as] => AS14618 Amazon.com, Inc.
)
        

Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
26 March 1999

Our Dad was no commie

Elia Kazan, who won an Oscar this week, bought his success by ruining the lives of others. They incl

By Amanda & Jonathan Foreman

It is difficult to imagine what our father, the film-maker Carl Foreman, would have made of the honorary Oscar awarded to Elia Kazan this week. The Hollywood director had been a whistle-blower during the McCarthy witch-hunt of the 1950s. Carl Foreman was among those whose careers were damaged during this zealous hunt for reds under the bed.

Kazan’s “Lifetime Achievement” award has revived a painful debate about one of the most shameful periods in American history. The issue of the blacklist remains utterly unresolved in the US. For the past few weeks, right-wingers have been queuing up not only to defend Kazan for doing his “patriotic duty” but to insist that they themselves, faced with the Red Menace and Stalin’s stooges, would have done the same. Liberals, meanwhile, protested against the award in a flurry of newspaper articles (including full-page advertisements in the Hollywood Reporter) and broadcasts.

A sensible person’s guide to the Hollywood blacklist would be prefaced by a statement making it clear that – despite the hyperbole you sometimes hear – it wasn’t the most terrible thing ever to happen in America and it certainly was not the equivalent of the Gulag. But given American traditions of political and artistic freedom, what happened was atrocious and did offer a frightening parallel to repression in Eastern Europe.

Elia Kazan occupies a peculiar place in the history of the blacklist. Because of his prestige – he was at the time the most prominent artist to go before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) – Kazan’s co-operation with Senator Joe McCarthy was a vital endorsement of the committee’s career-destroying activities. The actor Larry Parks literally fell on his knees before the committee and begged not to be forced to testify. He eventually did so in tears, only to find that he was blacklisted anyway. But unlike those who crumpled because they had families to support and couldn’t face the loss of their livelihood, Kazan didn’t have to name names.

As one of the most successful theatre directors in New York, Kazan could easily have returned to Broadway (always untouched by the Red Scare) and waited for things to blow over. Instead, he bought a passport to Hollywood success by ruining the lives of others – ensuring that they were out of the running for the kind of lifetime achievement award he was given on Sunday night. Kazan claimed to have been motivated by political principle rather than base careerism when he named names before the committee. Yet as a former communist he knew as well as anyone that the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who passed through the American Communist Party in the thirties and forties had no contact with Soviet agents and could not in any valid sense be said to be members of a vast conspiracy.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

No one would deny that the officers of the party were Stalinist lapdogs. But it was obvious to everyone, except the sort of primitive for whom “commie” was a mere synonym for evil, that the communists and ex-communists identified by the committee (all of whom were well-known to the zealous agents of J Edgar Hoover’s FBI) represented no threat to the safety of the republic. Yes, the Korean war had just begun and yes, a democratic government had recently fallen to pro-Soviet communists in Czechoslovakia, but there was no reason for even the most paranoid red hunter to assume that movie folk – of all people – were the shock troops of the revolution.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

Kazan certainly knew that the whole HUAC process was a sham. Had he really believed that his revelations could help the government protect ordinary Americans from agents of a foreign power, he would not have taken such care to name only those who had been named before. He knew that hearings before HUAC had nothing to do with getting dangerous subversives out into the open, and everything to do with a ritual of purity designed to humiliate progressives.

Carl Foreman was typical of the 500 or so victims of the Hollywood blacklist. A second world war veteran, he was a second-generation American who had briefly flirted with communism in his youth. In 1951, just after completing his script for High Noon, he was summoned to appear before the committee. He admitted freely to his membership of the Communist Party, but explained that his disillusionment with Stalin’s policies had caused him to leave the party in the forties. Expressing regret for one’s former views was never enough for HUAC, however. True loyalty could only be established by co-operation with the committee – by naming names – even if they had already been named before. For a working-class boy from Chicago, becoming a “rat” was not an option: when pressed to name others whom he knew to be current or former members of the Communist Party, our father, unlike Kazan, refused. He was immediately blacklisted by the studio cartel. For six years, between 1952 and 1958, he could not get any work unless he wrote anonymously or under a pseudonymm – and then for vastly reduced fees.

In 1953, when it looked as if he would never work in movies again, he went into an English exile. He was allowed to stay in England by a Tory government that remained completely untouched by the paranoia that gripped the United States.

When Winston Churchill asked him, in the early sixties, to write a movie based on his autobiography My Early Life, Foreman reminded him that he had been blacklisted in Hollywood. Churchill replied: “Oh, I know all about you. But we don’t like political blacklists in England. And speaking for myself, I don’t care what a man believed in when he was a boy. My concern is whether or not he can do the job.”

The British government’s calmness before the Red Threat continues to mystify American conservatives. Indeed, some point to the Cambridge spy ring as proof that Britain paid dearly for its tolerance.

Although he became extremely fond of his adopted country – he served as governor of the British Film Institute from 1965 to 1971, and was awarded a CBE in 1970 – our father never ceased to consider himself an American, and never gave up his US citizenship. Far from being the treacherous subversive the McCarthyites had cast him as, he was outraged by any unpatriotic sentiment. Indeed, he was appalled by Jane Fonda’s visit to Hanoi during the Vietnam war.

It is just possible that someday someone will write a revisionist history of the McCarthy era, explaining the “good” that came out of the ritual denunciations of communist, ex-communist or “fellow-travelling” artists. Films like Carl Foreman’s Champion or Cyrano de Bergerac will be shown to contain secret radical messages that somehow got past the producers, the studio, the critics . . . and the audience.

Thankfully, this revisionism has not begun. Indeed, despite the noisy cheerleading from the American right, some of the injustices of the McCarthy era are slowly being reversed. In 1984 the Academy recognised the Oscar awarded to the French-speaking Pierre Boulle for “his” screenplay The Bridge on the River Kwai as rightfully belonging to Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. A few months ago, the Writers’ Guild of America unanimously voted to change the writing credits of 23 films made during the blacklist period.

Finally the real writers of An Affair to Remember, Cry, the Beloved Country, and Ivanhoe will have their names restored to their work. (Among the pseudonyms on the list was “Derek Frye”, the writer of the 1957 film The Sleeping Tiger, which was really a partnership between Harold Buchman and Carl Foreman.)

Recognition has come too late for many. But it goes some way to making up for the honorary Oscar awarded to Elia Kazan. He can have his achievements as long as those he stepped on can have theirs, too.