Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Who broke the blacklist?

Whether you're interested in the history of the Hollywood blacklist, or just a movie fan, the Atlantic has an article worth reading concerning the question of whether Kirk Douglas overstated his role in breaking the blacklist. (Read here.)

Although I disagree with some of the authors' implications  (that the blacklist was in any way justified by the fact that Stalinists did wield considerable influence within some movie industry unions in the late '30s and '40s; that opposition to the blacklist was knee-jerk liberalism as opposed to a legitimate response to abusive intrusions into individuals' political histories), as well as their clearly false statement that taboo organizations were actually "communist fronts", the conclusion they reach seems incontrovertible: Kirk Douglas, contrary to the myth that he has promoted in his memoirs and in interviews, was not responsible for breaking the blacklist by championing Dalton Trumbo's right to be given credit for his screenwriting.

According to the documentary record and sources such as Trumbo's daughter, the children of Howard Fast (who wrote the novel upon which Spartacus was based) and Edward Lewis (the producer of Spartacus and a Trumbo friend), Otto Preminger deserves primary credit (so to speak) for breaking the blacklist. Preminger, in announcing his intention to produce and direct Exodus, named Trumbo as the film's screenwriter and stated his intention to give Trumbo credit under his real name. That put the ball in Lewis' court. He immediately saw that the time was right and started to push for Trumbo to get credit on Spartacus, which was then in post-production.  According to Lewis, he had to fight Kirk Douglas objections to do this. This version seems plausible in light of the fact that Douglas subsequently hired Trumbo to write Town Without Pity, but objected to letting Trumbo have credit for the film. "I have yielded to Kirk's wishes in this matter," Trumbo wrote to Lewis in a letter in the possession of Trumbo's biographer, Larry Ceplair.

As political tides turned, Douglas set about portraying himself as the hero of the story, undoubtedly a role he felt comfortable playing more in fiction than in fact. He literally cajoled and even threatened Lewis and instructed him and Trumbo's heirs not to contradict Douglas' fictional version of how he broke the blacklist.

None of the individuals interviewed wanted to diminish the fact that Douglas made a bold move when he embraced a communist writer who was persona non grata in studio circles. And Douglas does acknowledge the roles that other people played in getting Trumbo hired on Spartacus. He writes in the new book, "Others, particularly Eddie Lewis and Otto Preminger, deserve great credit, too—they fought for what they knew was right, even when it wasn't popular."
But Lewis, the Trumbos, and the Fasts rejected Douglas's ongoing claim that Douglas was the prime mover who rescued Trumbo and vanquished the blacklist scourge. "That's nonsense," said Rachel Ben-Avi, Howard Fast's daughter. "He didn't break the blacklist."
When we asked Douglas to respond to the objections raised by the other people involved in Spartacus, he replied through a publicist, "What I have to say about this I write in my book."

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