Thursday, December 14, 2017

Mankind Was My Business - A Christmas Carol (1951) and Scrooge (1935)

John Krakowski, Chicopee, Mass., 1911, photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, Library of Congress

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a novella written in six weeks in 1843 whose power to entertain has lasted over a century and a half.  It has received several film treatments; today we have a look at Scrooge (1935), and A Christmas Carol (1951), but Dickens always invites us to look beyond the tale on the page—or the screen. There is a rich background to our experience with this story, a tale that instructs as much as it entertains.

One year I attended a local community theatre production of A Christmas Carol, which I will always remember for a charming blooper at the very end of the show.  The little boy who played Tiny Tim was lifted onto the shoulders of the man playing his father, Bob Cratchit, and he was to jubilantly shout the last line of the show: “God bless us, everyone!”  He literally stopped the show—by forgetting his line.  The other members of the cast, all dressed in some semblance of Victorian London, as much they could with a limited budget, huddled around with frozen, expectant grins, waiting for him to end the show.  Nothing.  The boy just calmly observed the audience, daydreaming with a pleasant smile from the advantage of his perch.  “Bob Cratchit” grew nervous, and perhaps a little tired, as the boy got heavier with each moment.

Crickets.  Finally, a handful of people in the audience started to shout out, “God bless us…”

And then the rest of the audience, laughing as we did so, finished the sentence, “EVERYONE!”   Then, of course, the little boy remembered he had forgotten to say something, so he quickly blurted it out, “Godblessuseveryone!”  In any other play, the audience probably would have thought that the play ended with silence, and begun to file out after some applause.  This was one of the few plays in existence where every member of the audience KNEW the last line, and we weren’t going anywhere until we heard it.  That we supplied it ourselves made for a lovely, interactive sort of theatre.

I’ve always felt that A Christmas Carol was a very interactive piece of literature.  It does not render us as passive readers or a passive theatre or film audience.  We are intimately involved because we must ponder every nuance of Scrooge’s experiences and wonder at the enormity of the lessons he is learning, and sometimes even wonder if he is actually learning them.  It has been said that author Charles Dickens is the father of the modern Christmas because of this book and its impact, and that may be so in a world where tales of Bethlehem and the Messiah seem diminished in nearly two centuries of an industrialized world where commercialism is the new religion.  I would imagine that there are many homes where the Crèche has been replaced by a ceramic village meant to evoke a largely fictional Victorian Good Old Days where the only thing held sacred is sentimentality.

Despite Tiny Tim’s blessing on us, there is really very little sentimentality in AChristmas Carol, however; it is one of the few modern Christmas tales whose message is redemption—that same powerful point of the First Christmas.  Instead of a biblical setting, we have a claustrophobic brick and mortar jungle during the early years of the Industrial Revolution.

The story has always been a favorite of mine; my twin brother and I read it aloud to each other for years, often making some of the characters sound like Yosemite Sam or Sylvester.  We were cartoon junkies at an early age.  One of my earliest memories is watching Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), with Jim Backus, of course, as Mr. Magoo; the wonderful Paul Frees supplying several voices; Royal Dano as Marley’s Ghost; and in an interesting bit of casting, Jack Cassidy as Bob Cratchit.  As delightful as this musical cartoon version is, the segment where young Ebenezer is singing about his loneliness in the boys’ school, “I’m All Alone in the World,” destroys me.  Perched on a stool in an empty classroom, trying to draw a hand on the chalkboard to pretend to grasp it—all I can think of are the playground outcasts, those with difficulty being accepted, the shy, the physically or mentally challenged, the different, those who are not approached and find it hard to approach others.  How many autistic children mourn their childhoods as being people to avoid, “A hand for a hand was planned in the world, why can’t my fingers reach?  Millions of grains of sand in the world, why such a lonely beach?”  I’ve been watching it for fifty years; it still brings tears.

This is the power of Dickens’ masterful tale, and his exquisite telling of it.  Even in a Mr. Magoo cartoon, it is not sentimental.  But neither is it so cynical that we are given a villain to despise and destroy.  It would be so easy to have Scrooge vanquished and let everyone live happily ever after, but Dickens doesn’t do that.  He shows us a sad boy who became a greedy man, and then allows him to be redeemed.

But the path to redemption is not easy.

Speaking of cartoons, I also recall watching the 1971 animated version (which you can watch on YouTube here) that is the scariest and most bleak telling of the story I have ever seen.  It haunted us as kids.  Ebenezer Scrooge is voiced by Alastair Sim.

Which brings us to the 1951 film, A Christmas Carol. Sim played Scrooge here as well, in a British-produced film that was the standard for a generation.  Movies would not revisit the story again until 1970 and the musical Scrooge.  Sim pastes a continual sneer across his face as an expression of Scrooge’s distaste for others and his sarcasm for his kindly nephew; to the many poverty-stricken renters who owe him money and whom he evicts; to his longsuffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, whom he berates for using more coal to bank the fire in their chilly office.  He even humiliates Bob by suggesting he is a fool for celebrating Christmas on the meager salary he pays him.

At the end of the movie, however, when Scrooge embraces the meaning of Christmas and the idea of charity to others, he erupts into hearty giggles, laughing at himself for trying to suppress them, which, more than other actors who have played the role, lets us see that Scrooge all along has had a sense of irony, a latent sense of humor.  Who but a man with a sense of humor could knock out, “There’s more of gravy than of grave in you,” to Marley’s Ghost.

The movie also presents us a textbook telling of the ills of capitalism, the end game of which we’re witnessing today, which seems to indicate that AChristmas Carol is in some ways as prescient as Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work.  When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to Fezziwig’s, the company where he was apprenticed as a young man, he witnesses a venture capitalist of the day trying to get Mr. Fezziwig to invest in a new scheme where machine manufacturing takes the place of humans.  Fezziwig is a bit of a Luddite, perhaps, because he will not change his business to the new model.  “There’s more to life than money,” he replies.

The venture capitalist makes an impression on young Scrooge, and he and his partner Marley will buy out Fezziwig’s.  When one of the young clerks anxiously asks Scrooge if he will be retaining him under the new management, Scrooge replies that yes, he can keep his job—for four shillings instead of the five Fezziwig had been paying him.  And so it goes.  Even today, we know the pattern.  Scrooge learns, “control the cashbox and you control the world.”  How many in the current Republican-held Congress and White House would agree?

Dwight mill gate, Chicopee, Mass., photo by J.T. Lynch

Looking back, I suspect another reason I was always so taken with this story as a child is because it seemed real and true to me, its setting and circumstances was something that was familiar to me and with which I could identify. I grew up in a New England factory town.  Enormous manufacturing bastions of soot-stained red brick were the backdrop of my childhood, and since some of them, as well as some commercial buildings in town, date from the early 1840s when A Christmas Carol was written, you can easily, on a cold, grey, foggy December evening, imagine yourself back in the days of Charles Dickens—the scene was, as they say, Dickensian.  Generations of my family worked in these factories.  We had a few farmers, craftsmen, small business owners as well, but it was the factory workers for whom I felt the most affinity.  They seemed to have endured much, and yet enjoyed a zest for life that belied their limited opportunities.  I’ve done factory work as well, and appreciated having the opportunity to know something firsthand of their experience. 

Sophie, Chicopee, Mass., 1911, photo by Lewis Wickes Hine,
Library of Congress
The sociologist and photographer Lewis Wickes Hine, who documented child labor in the early twentieth century, came to my town and shot this photo, now in the Library of Congress, of a girl named Sophie, who tended the bobbins in a cotton textile mill here, in 1911.  The venture capitalists in Boston made a mint off her.  The dreaded poorhouse was just down the street for those—perhaps like Tiny Tim—who would never have the strength to work 13-hour days at the mill.

Much of those nineteenth century and early twentieth century industries in my town closed during the Great Depression, though some factories closed because the corporations moved their operations to the South, where there were no unions and they could pay their employees much less.  The union to which my father belonged in his 40-year factory job fought—over many, many strikes—to grant him the peace of mind in my parents’ old age they would not have otherwise had:  A modest monthly pension and decent health insurance.  They had little else at the end of their lives, but they had that.  These came from the union’s bulldog efforts; the corporation would never have been so generous otherwise.  That was a lesson from my childhood, and one that I take into my reading of A Christmas Carol.

But even Scrooge knew the importance of an employer’s benevolence, when he comes to the defense of his employer Fezziwig when the Ghost of Christmas Past chides him for his praise of a simple Christmas party at work:

“He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.”

Mr. Dickens came to New England on his first American book tour and was taken to Lowell, Massachusetts—a planned industrial city that was the model for my own town—and marveled at how the English-born Industrial Revolution exploded with a new American vigor.  He also came to my area to give readings from A Christmas Carol.  See my New England Travels blog next Tuesday the 19th for more on Dickens’ trip through New England.

Because Dickens had been sent to a workhouse as a young man to pay off his father’s debt, some of the most poignant and politically charged passages of A Christmas Carol are borne of his firsthand knowledge of getting squashed in the cogs of the Industrial Revolution.

In A Christmas Carol, those pesky “snowflake” social do-gooders come to Scrooge asking for a donation to their fund for the poor:

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?"
"Plenty of prisons..."
"And the union workhouses." demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
"Both very busy, sir..."
"Those who are badly off must go there."
"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Soon, Marley’s Ghost will chastise him for his soul-destroying greed, and warns him not to fall into the same otherworld of everlasting torment that Marley has earned:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

In Scrooge (1935), another British-produced film, we have Seymour Hicks in the title role, who had a long history of playing the character.  He’d been Scrooge on stage since the late 1800s, so we have an authentic bit of theatre history in this actor who’d practically originated the role on stage.  This movie also, quite interestingly, is filmed in a simplistic theatrical manner, with some scenes almost like the tableau of nineteenth century theatre, or reminiscent of silent film techniques.  The ghosts who visit him are mere shadows, we have no actors playing them, and Mr. Hicks remains center stage for most of the film—though look for a brief scene with Shakespearean actor and future father of Samantha Stevens on television’s Bewitched, Maurice Evans, in the role of a poor fellow whom Scrooge evicts.

Scrooge is more nervous in this interpretation, more eccentric and less evil than in Alastair Sim’s crusty characterization.

When Cratchit’s poor, struggling family toast Scrooge as “the founder of the feast” we are reminded that the under classes acknowledge that there are masters and there are servants—especially in the then rather rigid caste system of British society.  Particularly touching is the scene where a large banquet is held by some wealthy folk and they toast the Queen, singing “God Save the Queen.”

The camera pans back to the dark, cold, alley where a mob of poor—children and adults—wait for scraps.  They immediately stand to attention and sing the anthem as well, just as reverently and as proudly.  They are not seeking revolution.  Perhaps they cannot even imagine equity.

What these two films omit is the searing message Dickens puts in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Present confronts Scrooge with his own arrogant assumption that the wealthy are more important than the poor. It is a lesson that the greedy need to learn over and over again.  For some, like a stupid man who would install gold toilets in his gaudy home, the lesson is too difficult to learn.

This scene was played out, however, in the excellent 1984 television version starring George C. Scott.  The Ghost refers not only to the rapacious Scrooge, but those who prop up their own power by dismissing the humanity of others:

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us… Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child."

There is a suggestion of revolution, perhaps, as well, when the ghost shows him two child specters:

"This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."

That is probably the most important, most profound passage in the book.

Scrooge’s conversion is the crux of the story that really links the Modern Christmas with the Biblical One.  Dickens approached the Christian idea of salvation and loss of salvation through his world of the Industrial Revolution, and deftly merges Scrooge’s redemption—a greedy guy who has a change of heart for the sake of his fellow man, and a guy who recognizes his sins and tries to atone for them for his own sake.  The story becomes appealing for both those who are religious and those who are not.  It reaches us on all levels.  His salvation is based largely on his newfound empathy, for that is what leads to his atonement, perhaps equally if not more than his fear of eternal retribution for his behavior.  The arrogant don’t fear hell—they feel they are omnipotent, and those lacking in empathy cannot imagine the distress of others. 

But Dickens gives us a Scrooge who can change—for most of us, a herculean task. A villain who becomes a hero.  Alastair Sim and Seymour Hicks marvel that they made it to Christmas Day and a new, clean slate is before them.  Because of Scrooge's change of heart, maybe Bob Cratchit and his kids can soldier on through the Industrial Revolution a little easier.

God bless us.  Everyone.

photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, Library of Congress

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Aviatrix - Part 2 - Wings and the Woman, and Flight for Freedom

The devil-may-care aviatrix of the 1920s and 1930s became a serious and somehow less fancy free figure in the 1940s. Wartime was not the arena for setting records, but in another sense the aviatrix seemed to have had her wings clipped in this new era where the great flyers were aces, and were in uniform, and were men. Though women pilots did help in terms of ferrying planes and pulling targets, they were not allowed in the combat air forces of the Army or Navy. The line was drawn between the genders in aviation that did not exist in the earlier decades of flight.

We continue our series on the aviatrix with two films from the 1940s: Wings and the Woman (1942), and Flight for Freedom (1943). They both illustrate a more self-conscious female pilot than in the first two films we discussed in last week’s post: Tail Spin,and Women in the Wind, both from1939. The wartime aviatrix was back to fighting the battle of the sexes.

Wings of the Woman was a British film (released in the U.K. as They Flew Alone) about the real-life Amy Johnson, who was a heroine in a British Empire that marveled over her skill and daring, and followed her exploits over their empire on which the sun, at least at that time, never set. She was the first woman to fly solo to Australia from London, and also the first to fly to Cape Town, South Africa.

Anna Neagle plays Amy Johnson in a really luminous performance. The film begins when Amy rebels as a teenager at her school uniform, particularly over the nineteenth century straw boater which she and the other girls must wear. She stomps on hers and manages to switch the rest of the class to the more modern straw Panama hat. It is from this incident that the introductory narration remarks: “And to all the Amy Johnsons of today, who have fought and won the battle of the straw hat - who have driven through centuries of convention - who have abandoned the slogan 'safety first' in their fight for freedom from fear - from want - from persecution - we dedicate this film.”

The film lauds her independence and her drive. As a young woman she attains college degrees, applies herself in different office jobs, but it is not until she begins her hobby of learning to fly where she feels the most satisfaction and the greatest sense of purpose for her intelligence and her energy. In the 1930s her exploits captivated the British public and she became famous. In close-ups of her perched in the cockpit the film becomes an intimate examination of not only her motives but of the great sense of freedom she feels while she is flying. One particular scene, where after several hours of exhaustion and despair, she finally sights her goal of reaching northern Australia, the relief and ecstasy on her face are more eloquent than any explanations of why would a young woman want to put herself through such a dangerous test.

The film explores in a more introspective way a woman’s need to excel and to feel the freedom of pursuing her own dreams, as well as the unusual freedom of just being alone. (Indeed, in the two films we discussed last week from 1939, there was a camaraderie in a community of female flyers; but in the two wartime films in this post, the ladies are truly solo, without the support of other women.) In the first two films that we discussed last week, which were more lighthearted and less introspective, we do not examine the women’s motives for being pilots. This may result in a less satisfying story; however there is, ironically, a greater sense of freedom and self command displayed in those earlier two movies by the women who never needed to be examined for their motives, never needed to explain why they were doing what they were doing, and never needed validation. They were just pilots, and that was jake with the men around them. In a sense, it was not a story about men and women; there were only pilots and non-pilots.

But the two movies we discuss today drag us back into the dismal realm of the battle of the sexes. Wings of the Woman handles it a bit more deftly. Anna Neagle meets Robert Newton, who plays the real-life husband of Amy Johnson, Jim Mollison. Like her, he is a headline-grabbing pioneer aviator who likewise has great success in long-distance flying records. They seem to be made for each other, equally understanding of each other’s work and each other’s need to fly. However, Mollison is a bit of a playboy, charming, unreliable, and Amy is not so much jealous as she is independent to the degree of being able to jettison Mollison from her life like so much overweight cargo. In an interesting scene, when she catches him in a dalliance, instead of bawling him out like a fishwife, she determines to set a new world record beating his old one, just because she can. Because Mollison is a flyer, he is far more chastised than if she had hit them with a frying pan. Eventually, however, they both realize it is not working, and they divorce. Amy Johnson never takes her married name, at least not in this movie, and in real life Amy Johnson did revert back to her maiden name after her divorce legally.

At one point, they decide to pursue a record together and they fly a plane from London to New York, where the headwinds are much more difficult to fly against going from east to west, but just before they reach their destination, the plane runs out of gas. It’s an eerie scene when we no longer hear the motor running and Mollison, whose turn it is at the controls, must fly the plane like a glider as they search the ground below for some place to land. They do crash, and though both are injured, they both survive the incident, which happened in Stratford, Connecticut. They are eventually brought to New York and receive a tickertape parade.

The years go by, and when war comes, Amy decides to volunteer for the Air Transport Auxiliary. The women are not allowed to fly planes in combat, but they are allowed to ferry planes across the Channel to Europe and to other spots on the globe where they are needed. Jim Mollison has volunteered as well for this duty, and in the movie Amy and Jim meet one last time, both in uniform, and shake hands, ruefully musing at their paths in life and how they have come to this same mission. As she goes to her plane, he watches her enter and she takes one last look back. It is a foreshadowing, and even if we did not know the true story of Amy Johnson, we kind of know what’s going to happen next.

Over the Channel, Amy’s plane goes down, and we see her parachute into the dark, cold waters below. The real-life event happened January 5, 1941. Amy’s body was never recovered. She was 37 years old. The movie ends, poignantly, with a shot of the interior of the plane with its open door from which Amy has jumped. On the floor of the plane lies her military cap. This is a nod to her war of the straw boater at the beginning of the film. It is a new hat, a uniform hat, signifying honor, purpose, and dignity, and service to King and Country. But like her balking at wearing the straw boater—there is no individuality allowed in a military uniform.

Our final movie, Flight for Freedom, was released the year after, in 1943. There are some similarities to Wings of the Woman: this film, though the character is fictional, is purportedly based loosely on the final flight of America’s most famous aviatrix, Amelia Earhart; this film also features a romance with a male pilot; and this film also ends with the mysterious loss of the flyer over the ocean in a wartime world where her skills are useful, but she is still fighting the battle of the sexes.

Rosalind Russell plays the fictional Tonie Carter, who learns to fly under the tutelage of Herbert Marshall. He is a designer of aircraft in the early 1930s with dreams of establishing his own company. Fred MacMurray is a hotshot pilot, a brash playboy with no use for women flyers. He remarks, “Women ought to stick to what they were made for.” He is especially disdainful of women pilots because they steal headlines and he thinks the only reason they fly is to get their names in the paper. “I just don’t like women who try to be men.”

Eventually, they do begin a romance, on-again/off-again, because they are hardly ever in the same spot at once, but it is an unsatisfying if typical movie scenario:  We don’t really know why Rosalind Russell is attracted to Fred MacMurray; he’s really quite rude and obnoxious. I suppose the writers have thrown in her slavish attraction to a “man’s man” merely to prove that, despite the grease and dirt on her mechanic’s coveralls, she still a “real” woman.

Another person who at first disparages her is the restaurant owner of the private club where all the pilots hang out.  He is played by Eduardo Cianelli, though eventually he comes around when she becomes famous and he deeply admires her, welcoming her into the boys’ only club and giving her a small brass hook on his wall with a plaque with her name on it to hang her hat just like all the guys have.

But Roz is human and makes mistakes – not just about Fred MacMurray. In a flight from New York to Los Angeles she tries to fly very high above stormy weather to pick up some speed but in this era of unpressurized cabins, the high altitude makes her drowsy and she nearly crashes. Eventually, she makes the trip from L.A. to New York in 12 hours of straight flying and breaks a record. A lady reporter yells, “You got a boyfriend? What’s his name?” Of all the films we’ve discussed on the aviatrix, this one unfortunately is rife with sexism and it’s a shame to see Rosalind Russell play the poor sap, when we have seen her as the magnificent Hildy Johnson only a few years earlier. But it’s wartime now and the men are heroes, and the women are not supposed to compete.

The climax of the movie comes as Roz attempts to break a new flying record of circumnavigating the globe at the equator. On her first attempt when she lands in Honolulu for refueling, she receives a telegram from the Navy Department asking her to return as quickly as possible to Washington, D.C., because – well, it’s a secret. In the same way she never questions her undeserved devotion for Fred MacMurray, she never questions the order of the Navy Department.  She crashes her plane on purpose so that she doesn’t have to continue her record-breaking flight, and heads for D.C. Here she is told that the government wants her to try her flight around the world again, but to fly in the other direction toward the east so that the Pacific islands are the last leg of her journey. When she reaches a particular area of Japanese mandate islands, they want her to ditch her plane. She will land on an island where they have already stored food and provisions for her and, in time, a Navy ship will pick her up and bring her home. The reason for this is they want to attach cameras to her plane and film the Japanese mandate islands because they want to know where they are building airstrips. We have not yet entered the war at this point, but war is coming and the United States wants military intelligence without breaking any rules, tipping their hand, or ruffling any feathers. Roz agrees.

Just before this, Herbert Marshall, her longtime mentor and plane designer, has proposed marriage. His proposal is so sweet and awkward and we (or me, at least) rejoice at his being the better partner and a far more interesting man with whom to spend her life than the self-involved, if handsome, Fred MacMurray. Because she is on the outs with Fred, she accepts Herbert, but she tells him she must do her flight around the world first, and when she comes home, she will marry him.

The opening credits of the movie are placed over a vast map of the Pacific. When Roz meets the Navy officer who gives her instructions on her mission, they stand in a briefing room on which on one wall there is likewise a huge map of the Pacific. It is a good illustration because it dwarfs the people in the scene and it shows not merely how large a  body of water that is, but how little we know about it. Most of our armed forces, once we got into the war, were island hopping all across the Pacific somewhat blindly: many of those islands were really uncharted.

At this point, the movie intersects, or at least flirts with, the real-life ending of Amelia Earhart, possibly the most famous aviatrix of the 1930s. Her final flight in 1937 was an intention to circumnavigate the globe. She was lost and the mystery surrounding that event continues today, reviving the story in theories, controversies, and suspicions of conspiracies. One theory holds that she was captured by the Japanese army. Only this year that idea was floated again, and again dismissed. Possibly that theory was put forth first by this movie, Flight for Freedom, in which Rosalind Russell lands in New Guinea preparing for her final leg of her trip. She is to meet a navigator who will help her with the crucial filming and gathering intelligence over the Japanese mandate islands before they are to ditch the plane and hide out on that pinpoint in the Pacific until the Navy can retrieve them and the film. In a striking scene, again, a foreshadowing like in the last flight of Wings and Woman, Roz takes off from D.C., and Herbert Marshall bids her goodbye at the hangar.  We do not see her take off; instead, we have a view of Marshall standing alone, intently watching us as we pull away from him, leaving him smaller and smaller.  We hear the plane engine, but it is our view of his aloneness that foreshadows he is losing her forever.

She flies to the Pacific and meets her contact in a Polynesian wayside inn. The palm trees sway and the moon shines over the exotic island.

It’s Fred MacMurray.

They renew their passion for each other, and she forgets all about Herbert. Their postwar plans have Fred continuing to fly all over the world, but Roz will stay home with the kids.  But going back to the hotel desk to get her key from the sinister Japanese desk clerk, he tells her with snide confidence that he knows who she is, who Fred MacMurray is, what their mission is, and they will never succeed. They know all about the plans.

Roz goes back to Fred, but instead of telling him straight out that the jig is up, she asks him what he would do if he was flying alone and he knew the mission had been compromised, if there was no hope for his survival. He says cavalierly, and quite hypothetically, he thinks, that he would just keep flying until the plane ran out of gas.

She decides to do that. She takes off in the plane alone, sparing Fred’s life, and flies off into the vast sky over the Pacific Ocean. In a reprise of the early scene where she had tried to break a record and flew too high, making herself drowsy and nearly crashing, she decides that she will take this comfortable way out and she aims the plane straight for the heavens. The higher she goes, the less oxygen she has and she begins to fall asleep.

In these two movies, in which both our heroines meet their ends crashing their planes into the ocean, we know that their self-sacrifice is a common self-flagellation element to the wartime propaganda films. The women become symbols more than people, although we get to know Amy Johnson’s motives a little bit better than we do the fictional Tonie Carter. In the first two movies, Tail Spin and Women of the Wind, those women flyers faced sudden death in crashes pursuing records and shrugged it off with a kind of pragmatism that was almost heartless; the wartime films seek to demonstrate that their deaths are not without meaning, and that sacrifice is noble, and required—including, for Roz, the sacrifice of a career when the war is over.

These two women seem to have a yoke on their shoulders that the early 1930s aviatrix did not. Life has become very complicated, and not just because the planes have become more complicated.


Have a look at the career of real-life aviatrix Maude Tait, a record-breaking flyer who beat Amelia Earhart’s record, a lady from my hometown – over at my New England Travels blog.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Aviatrix Part 1 - Tail Spin and Women in the Wind

The word aviatrix seems almost an anachronism; a word representing the adventure of pioneer women who embraced technology and danger and achieved celebrity in a brief era where, despite the feminine noun, opportunity to achieve celebrity in daring feats was gender-free. Today and next week’s post, we will soar with these women in four different movies: Tail Spin and Women in the Wind, both from 1939; and Wings and the Woman (1942), and Flight for Freedom (1943).

In the British film Wings and the Woman, about the adventures of real-life aviatrix Amy Johnson, two businessmen investing in her venture to fly from Britain to Australia marvel at the dangers of her flight and the triumph of her success when she lands in Darwin.

“A young girl is doing something extremely courageous and thrilling. It’s more than that. She’s driving a coach and four, or an airplane, which is even quicker – through centuries of convention and custom.”

“Yes, in a few short hours she’s broken a great gap in the fence that’s been surrounding our young women for generations. And now the young devils will come pouring through it after her. I can’t quite see the end.”

“There isn’t any end to it. What that young woman has done is the sort of thing that goes on forever.”

There is a growing sentiment these days to de-gender terms that have always been gender-specific: modern actresses calling themselves actors in apparent defiance to be labeled feminine, government bodies doing away with “councilwoman,” “alderwoman,” etc. Personally, I find this new disgust for feminine nouns an affectation, for there is nothing humiliating or demeaning in a feminine reference. A negative connotation comes in the use of the word; not of the word itself. Exalt the feminine; do not diminish it in a gender-neutral mask. Aviatrix is a feminine noun with panache and a noble heritage.

But the ladies of the films we’re covering over the next two weeks are also called “girl pilots.” This might well cause as much chagrin as smiles, but there was a need back in the day to mark the distinction—and we should remember that these ladies were revolutionaries. What should be remarkable to us is that these adventurous aeronautic exploits should include women, and society was captivated but not surprised. In some respects, Hollywood provided more gender focus on women and their stories than it does today.

The first two films we cover in today’s post:  Tail Spin and Women in the Wind beautifully capture the esprit de corps of the aviatrix in an era of wood biplanes, open cockpits, and air races.  Though these movies are rather like formulaic B-movies with simplistic plots, they are still a vigorous and spirited view of some devil-may-care women – and completely accepted by the men in their sphere.

Both stories were taken from books, the memoir of an aviatrix, and a novel. Tail Spin was first released in February 1939, starring Alice Faye as Trixie, the spunky lead who is a hatcheck girl from Los Angeles living a double life as an amateur aviatrix. She ditches work so that she and her pal Joan Davis, who plays a comic relief sidekick mechanic, “Babe,” can enter a cross-country race for prize money. Alice supports her mom, played by Mary Gordon, and her younger brother, so she needs the dough and the trip from Los Angeles to the celebrated Cleveland Air Races is just the ticket. At Cleveland there are additional races to enter, which involve speed and skill racing a course around pylons. One noted real-life aviatrix who competed in these races was Amelia Earhart.

At one point, Babe has to enter a contest jumping from the plane Alice is flying to earn more dough.  Though she is sickened by the prospect, Babe parachutes neatly onto the target—something only a devoted sidekick would do.  

“Babe” was a popular nickname for men or women, speaking of gender-neutral. Jane Wyman plays “Alabama,” and Kane Richmond plays “Tex,” more androgynous nicknames. Wally Vernon is Chick, and Edward Norris is “Speed.” You can tell how fun a movie is going to be by how many nicknames there are among the characters.

(It reminds me of the time my parents years ago were ordering flowers for the funeral of a boyhood pal of my father, but they had to scour the phone book to find out the man’s real first name. He had been known by his nickname since he was a little kid. Everybody in the Great Depression had a nickname, or you were nobody. Possibly some kids even had “Nobody” for nickname. You just had to have one. My parents and their friends had forgotten this man’s real first name.)

Nancy Kelly is another aviatrix, married to Edward Norris (or Speed.)

Oh, and Charles Farrell is “Bud.” Not the best nickname, I grant you, but all the good ones were taken.

Constance Bennett gets the flashy role as the chic and ferocious rival of Alice Faye. She is a spoiled rich girl – her father is played by the wonderful Harry Davenport. She has the whitest, flashiest flying jumpsuit and the best plane. Flying attracts all incomes and classes of society, and the clouds are a level playing field.

Everything in this movie is “swell,” except when it isn’t swell. Jane Wyman crashes here in the daring and quite stupid attempt to intimidate Constance Bennett on a trial run. She’ll be okay, though. Anybody who can land on her head in a plane crash and still give a whispered pep talk from the stretcher is a trouper.  It’s Nancy Kelly who buys the farm – in a tragic series of scenes where we see her husband, Speed, crash; the other ladies comfort her, including Constance Bennett, who proves she’s a mensch after all. But Nancy’s will to live is gone, and she takes a swan dive in her plane, the wind blowing through her hair in a horrific and yet beautiful shot, and she grieves, but seems relieved to let the air and the moisture from the atmosphere smack her in the face as her last sensations of her earthly life.

The aerial photography and simulations of flight through rear-screen projection in this movie is really quite good, the dramatic aerial flying in the movie was choreographed by Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz.  Some of it is actual footage from the Cleveland Air Races – including some of the crash scenes. There is an element of fatalism in many Depression-era movies that is ironically surprising to those of us today though our view generally is that we live in a much more brutal era.

Alice gets in trouble, too.  First, her plane is sabotaged, and then next in her showdown race with Constant Bennett, but Bennett lets her win and in turn, Alice let’s Constance have her fiancé back – Tex, whom she had been romancing for a lark.

Alice sings “Are You in the Mood for Mischief,” in a moonlight tryst with Tex. It’s not a musical, but it’s Alice Faye. She has to sing.

The most interesting aspect about this movie is that the women are not demeaned or diminished by their male counterparts. Flying is not presented as being part of a male world and they are not shown as underdogs in a battle of the sexes. They have nothing to prove. They are already achievers because they have entered this rare world of daring explorers of a new frontier. Actually, the male roles are secondary in the story. Though we might be amused noting there is a separate hangar for the ladies’ planes.

The men get a bigger part in the story of Women in the Wind, released a few months later in April 1939, but the focus is still on the ladies. Kay Francis is the aviatrix here – or the girl pilot if you must – trying to win the Los Angeles to Cleveland air race for the prize money so she may pay for her brother’s operation.  Played by Charles Anthony Hughes, he had been a pilot, too, but now he lies in Victor Jory’s hospital. Doc Jory encourages Kay to use her flying skills to get the dough.

Eve Arden, Hollywood’s most beloved wisecracking sidekick, plays “Kit,” another pilot and Kay’s pal. She is the one with the crash this time – but she’s okay.  In the hospital with her head beautifully bandaged, she’s still wearing makeup and her beautifully manicured nails didn’t even chip.

William Gargan plays the lead male role, a conceited playboy pilot who’s all in the news for breaking the world record. His name is “Ace.” You didn’t think we were going to get away from a movie about pilots without at least one Ace, did you?

His comic sidekick – every hero has to have one – is “Stuffy,” played by Maxie Rosenbloom, whose real-life nickname was “Slapsie-Maxie,” I’m sure you’ll recall, from his boxing days.

Kay charms and tricks William Gargan into lending her his world record-breaking plane for the big race. He’s a pompous jerk but a nice guy at heart who just needs to be taken down a peg. This is accomplished more by his harridan ex-wife, played by Sheila Bromley, than by Kay. We last saw William Gargan in Swell Guy (1947) with Ann Blyth, in a much-reduced supporting role as the dopey elder brother of the star, Sonny Tufts. However, being able to turn to character roles saved and prolonged many acting careers. Unfortunately, Kay Francis, who may or may not have relished dopey minor roles in the future, was facing the inevitable descent of her stardom and the end of her film career in only a few more years. This was her last film for Warner Bros., with which she had a long contractual feud. She resented being pushed out of the stable and resisted it for as long as she could. She may or may not have relished this unchallenging role.

Her nemesis in this movie is Sheila Bromley, Ace’s ex-wife, who is a wicked conniver, but who also turns out to be a mensch in the end. We see among the aviatrix club there is above all a unity and mutual respect for each other, the women for the other women, the women for the men, and the men for the women.

These ladies in their silk scarves and leather flying helmets carry themselves with the confidence, a sense of humor, a playful camaraderie, and resilience at the hard knocks in life – including literal unhappy landings – that brought us through the Depression and made us look up, not only to the sky when a single biplane crossed over our towns, but to look up to and admire the women who flew.

Come back next Thursday for a look at two more films, made in wartime, about the exploits of two more lady fliers: Wings and the Woman with Anna Neagle and Robert Newton, and Flight for Freedom with Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray.

Meanwhile, next Tuesday on my New England Travels blog, I'll be discussing one such real-life aviatrix who competed in the Cleveland Air Races, a girl pilot from my hometown -- Maude Tait.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving - and a SALE!

If watching this movie is part of your Thanksgiving tradition, you might just be an old movie buff.  Wishing all our American readers a Happy Thanksgiving.

As long as I have you on the phone, I'll take this opportunity to mention as well that for the next several days, through Monday, November 27th, the eBook version of my book on the career of Ann Blyth -- Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. will be available at Amazon for half price. Because black Friday and cyber Monday are Thanksgiving traditions, too.  I guess.

Amazon has also included my book in its new "X-Ray" function which will allow for descriptions and explanations of names, places, and events by holding down on a highlighted word, to enhance your reading experience. In case you didn't know what the Copacabana was.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hollywood Fights Back - A Radio Protest

Hollywood Fights Back was a radio program broadcast in two parts in the autumn of 1947. Some 50 Hollywood stars, writers, directors, as well as some journalists, and some members of the government, appeared in open defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was then launching a twenty-year nightmare on the entertainment industry known as the Blacklist. Its repercussions were felt for a generation, and it has lessons which echo our troubled times today.  This is our entry into the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Banned and Blacklisted blogathon.

The group behind radio broadcasts, the Committee for the First Amendment, was formed in Ira Gershwin’s house as a response by alarmed members of the Hollywood community about the persecution by Congress of those they regarded as communists or as sympathizers of communists in Hollywood.

The program is startling, particularly the first episode which was aired on October 26, 1947, just as a group of their members and fellow actors were flying to Washington on a chartered plane to observe the proceedings by HUAC against the so-called Hollywood Ten, a group of writers who were to be skewered by the congressional committee headed by J. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ). Charles Boyer a led off the program in his resonant voice announcing their fourteen compatriots were carrying on, in person, “the fight for our rights as American citizens.”

Judy Garland, in a voice easily recognizable for her soft, girlish sweetness, sounds like her innocent but spunky characters in the Andy Hardy series or as Dorothy tugging at our heartstrings: “It’s always been your right to see and read anything you want to.  But now it’s getting kind of complicated.”  She says that Hollywood is hopping mad about being accused of being communists and that HUAC is about to strangle not only their creativity, but their freedom.  “I’ve never been a member of any political organization, but I’ve been following this investigation and I don’t like it.”  Her voice rises, impassioned, “It’s something again to say we are not good Americans. We resent that!”

Hollywood Fights Back: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Lucille Ball

Gene Kelly follows noting that The Best Years of Our Lives (1946 – covered in this previous post, part 1 of 4) the film that won seven Academy Awards and is arguably one of the best if not the best film ever made in Hollywood, remarks “I understand that supporters of the Un-American Committee didn’t like this film. Did you like it?  Were you subverted by it? Did it make you un-American?”

The Best Years of Our Lives would be mentioned more than once in Hollywood Fights Back, and some of its stars, including Fredric March, Myrna Loy, and Dana Andrews, would take part in the broadcasts. One of the reasons the film is used in their argument, one of the reasons it met with disfavor by the HUAC is because of the famous scene where Homer, played by Harold Russell is told by Ray Teal that we fought on the wrong side in World War II and should have supported the Nazis. Homer of course becomes upset and in the physical altercation that occurs, Dana Andrews punches the Nazi in the face.  We discussed this scene not too long ago in this previous post. Depictions of extreme right-wing politics were not to be seen as negative, let alone traitorous.

How quaint, considering extreme right-wing treason is considered somehow righteous today.

There was another reason HUAC disliked this movie, and it is because Fredric March’s banker boss, Ray Collins, is portrayed as stuffed shirt who cares more about business than he does about helping returning veterans. The movies often portrayed wealthy men of business as stuffed shirts, sometimes even corrupt, and apparently then as now, the very wealthy, very conservative in our country feel that such depiction is suspicious and threatening, meriting punishment. To HUAC, it was regarded as subversive.

The blacklist – and later Senator Joe McCarthy’s hearings – was not just about politics of communist infiltration to overthrow the government. That alone would make the whole seamy affair seem patriotic and righteous. But it was never about that, because we were never under threat by communist infiltration and overthrow of the government. The politics was about conservative versus liberal, and the wealthy elite versus everyone the wealthy elite felt was a threat to their personal prosperity: liberal views which they felt led to higher corporate taxes and trade unions, and enemies of all stripes including the various racial and religious minorities some would invariably despise.

HUAC had been around since the late 1930s under Martin Dies, Jr. (D-Texas). It kept its eyes on actors who supported liberal causes like James Cagney (who would a few years later perform in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), in part to reaffirm before the public and the studios that he was patriotic), Katharine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, and Fredric March.  Most did not suffer a threat to their careers, except for Lionel Stander, who was one of the earliest victims of what became known as the blacklist and it would be many years before he worked in film again.  Dies’ committee came under strong rebuke by the American public when it also claimed to have caught Shirley Temple in its net of possible communists.  She was ten years old.

But the politics was always deeply entwined with money. Walt Disney took revenge on his staff who took part in the cartoonists’ and animators’ strike in 1941 by publicly accusing many of them of being involved in communist activities, and he felt the strike was a communist activity that was personally meant against him.

During the Depression most people were terrified of the wolf at their door, but for the very well off and the very conservative, they viewed the wolf at their door as the liberals who under the successful four-term President Franklin Delano Roosevelt were able to invoke sweeping changes in our society that brought out reforms in economics, the stock market, banking, unions, and in social causes.

But 1947 was a different climate.  When Hollywood Strikes Back was aired while the fourteen compatriots went to Washington to observe and to protest HUAC, it was then under J. Parnell Thomas. He had begun his career as a stockbroker, later going into politics and he served seven terms in the House of Representatives as a Republican from New Jersey. He was one such who despised Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. One of his pet hates was the Federal Theater Project which brought work to thousands of actors, writers, directors and other theatre professionals during those starving years, and also brought new life and important new works into American theatre. Parnell declared that the plays were nothing but propaganda for communism or for the New Deal, which he felt was the same thing.

Money and political ideology were joined by the third member of this unholy triumvirate, prejudice. One of Parnell’s complaints was that the Federal Theater Project frequently featured plays referring to racial discrimination. Indeed, when HUAC was originally formed in the late ‘30s, it was responsible for investigating both left-wing and right-wing political groups, but calls for leaders of the Ku Klux Klan to be investigated were refuted by the then chairman Dies because he supported the Klan and spoke at Klan rallies. Other members of HUAC, including John S. Wood (D-Georgia) and John Rankin (D-Mississippi), an avowed anti-semite, also supported the Klan. Mr. Wood defended the Klan by arguing that “the threats and intimidation of the Klan are an old American custom.” They decided not to pursue any investigation against the Ku Klux Klan, as John Rankin agreed, “The KKK is an old American institution.”

Donald Trump, as has been widely reported, agrees.  We sometimes think we are always facing new problems, but they are usually very old problems in new wrappings.

After World War II, but long before the Russians obtained the Bomb, a shift was occurring led mainly by politicians and which would then sweep across the entertainment world, business and industry. The real shift on its axis began in November 1946 when after the election, the Republican Party gained control of Congress for the first time in fourteen years. HUAC, which had waned during the war years when the Russians were our allies, was shifted to the forefront and became once again a pet project of a party which now had the power to pull the strings. In May 1940, J. Parnell Thomas went to Hollywood to meet with studio execs about the problem of infiltrating communist ideals into movies principally through the Screenwriters Guild. The screenwriters’ Guild. Yes, this was about labor unions, not about invasion by the Russians.  We have much more to fear about Russian infiltration today than we ever did in 1946.

Now the focus of the committee would be about the film industry.

Jack Warner was the first person to testify before HUAC in September 1947. He wasn’t subpoenaed—he volunteered. He had spoken to the committee earlier that spring, in closed-door sessions, and had admitted to John Huston that he had named the names of “a few” people he “thought might be communists.” In a recollection by Warner’s son, Jack Warner panicked at the lights and the questions and spit out any names he could think of.  Power is always intimidating, even for a man like Warner who garnered plenty of power himself and enjoying wielding it.

That same month, back at Ira Gershwin’s house, a group of actors with astounding pluck, admirable idealism, and perhaps forgivable naïveté, formed the Committee for the First Amendment to support the ten screenwriters, known afterward as the Hollywood Ten, who were to be subjected to questioning in Washington, D.C., by HUAC. Myrna Loy, John Huston, William Wyler, and screenwriter Philip Dunne founded the group.

Other members included Jane Wyatt, Edward G. Robinson, Henry Fonda, Dorothy Dandridge, Melvyn Douglas, Lena Horne, Marsha Hunt, Burgess Meredith, Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, Evelyn Keyes, John Garfield, Burt Lancaster, Ira Gershwin, June Havoc, Gene Kelly, Groucho Marx, Billy Wilder, Paul Henreid, and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Many of them would later suffer for it.

On October 27, fourteen of the committee flew to Washington, D.C., to attend and protest the hearings. The day before, on October 26th, the first one half-hour episode of Hollywood Fights Back aired, and some members who flew to Washington had pre-recorded their contributions to the program. Howard Hughes, who was a conservative and actually supported HUAC, provided them a chartered plane at a discount. Although we may smile at Mr. Hughes’ business sense over his ideology, but this only underlines the real purpose of the actors going to Hollywood: no one saw themselves as defenders of communism, only of free speech. They were going in support of the First Amendment, as their committee name said.

The program was a stirring performance, as one actor after another tag-teamed on a tightly written theme of freedom of speech. The program was written by Norman Corwin, one of the finest writers during the Golden Age of Radio. It was he who wrote the program We Hold These Truths after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which we discussed in this previous post. Please see my post on my blog on New England history and culture, New England Travels, for more on the career of Norman Corwin, whom I’m pleased to say once wrote for my local newspaper, the Springfield (Mass) Republican.

The script is a marvel of simple messages and riveting urgency. There is no sense of preaching, rather it is like a college pep rally of hope and promise, a call to defeat to the bad guy, of the wonderful feeling of doing right and doing well. It is biting, angry, sarcastic, and exuberant.  Though their remarks are scripted and not off the cuff, is a rare treat to hear these stars as themselves for what they truly think.  In an era where the stars were kept at a mysterious distance from us, this was an unaccustomed intimacy.

Lauren Bacall mentions the new movie Crossfire (1947), “the American people awarded it four stars. The committee gave the men who made it three subpoenas.” Here she’s a tough-talking dame. Judy Garland sweetly implored us; Bacall’s taking no prisoners.

Joseph Cotten speaks, and Peter Lorre, June Havoc, and John Huston, who notes that in nine years of its existence HUAC had come up with only one piece of legislation, which was ruled down by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional.

Danny Kaye quotes FDR in a speech from 1938 “most fair-minded Americans will hope that the committee will abandon the practice of merely providing a forum to those who for political purpose or otherwise seek headlines which they could not otherwise obtain.”

Marsha Hunt affirmed, “The committee uses methods that undermine the democratic process. By ruining reputations by publicity, inference and innuendo.”

Cornell Wilde and Melvyn Douglas speak and Richard Conte notes that among those who support HUAC are Nazi sympathizers and the KKK. Evelyn Keyes speaks and Burt Lancaster, Paul Henreid and William Holden. Robert Ryan speaks; and Florence Eldridge; and Myrna Loy, who notes that our First Amendment rights were first put into play by Jefferson, Madison, and Benjamin Franklin.

Robert Young notes that the methods used by the committee, refusing to let their victims testify, go back through the centuries: calls before tribunals included Galileo, Joan of Arc, the Salem witch hunt victims, and Roger Williams.

Lucille Ball recites Article 1 from the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It’s so important, she repeats it.

Van Heflin speaks, and Henry Morgan and Keenan Wynn reenact some of the circus dialogue at the hearing.

Hollywood Fights Back: Fredric March, Paulette Goddard,
Edward G. Robinson, and Audie Murphy

Other speakers include John Beal, Edward G. Robinson, Paulette Goddard, Fredric March, Artie Shaw and Vincent Price. Humphrey Bogart wants to know if democracy is so brittle that it can be subjugated by a look, or a line or a gesture. And notes that people’s beliefs are nobody’s business but their own.

William Wyler again refers to his masterful film, The Best Years of Our Lives:  “I’m convinced today that I wouldn’t be able to make The Best Years of Our Lives as it was made a year ago.” At the very end of the broadcast Judy Garland comes back and exhorts us to write our Congressman and to send it “airmail special.”

It was an inspirational beginning to the fight, a fight which continues today. Unfortunately, their battle was soon lost in a climate which no longer allowed for a difference of opinion.

“This has nothing to do with communism. It’s none of my business who’s a communist and who isn’t,” Bogart said in a statement in advance of the journey. “The reason I am flying to Washington is because I am an outraged and angry citizen who feels that my civil liberties are being taken away from me and that the Bill of Rights is being abused and who feels that nobody in this country has any right to kick around the Constitution of the United States, not even the Un-American Activities Committee.”

But the protest folded like a house of cards. This was due principally to two things: one, the fact that many of the Hollywood Ten either were or were formerly members of the Communist Party, seemed to taint the First Amendment Committee’s reputation. Lost in the message that it didn’t matter who was communist and who wasn’t because there wasn’t any plot to overthrow the government, was the overwhelming urge for the despotic to gain control, gain followers, and for those followers to throw all reason and integrity to the wind in their attempts to find a scapegoat to ensure their own safe harbor. This is a fight as old as man himself, and despite what we always like to think of as our sophistication and our basic human decency, when we turn into a mob we lose our humanity and our sense of right and wrong, and even a nation of laws can become a nation of wild impulse given the right circumstances.

John Huston noted of the circus in Washington, D.C., “It was a sorry performance. You felt your skin crawl and your stomach turn. I despaired of what was being done to the ten, but I also disapproved of their response. They lost a chance to defend the most important principle.” He also did not want to be associated with them, because it was getting dangerous. He would eventually take off for Ireland.

When the tide began to turn against them, the actors were clearly overwhelmed but no one was more vocal than Humphrey Bogart, who felt that he had been betrayed and embarrassed by the fact that the people who they were defending were actually communists. He even went so far in order to save his own reputation and his own career to write an article for Photoplay magazine in March 1948 affirming that he was not a communist. The tough guy panicked and caved.

Excerpts from Bogie's Photoplay article March 1948

But others caved worse. Another member of their group, Sterling Hayden, found himself in the hot seat when it was revealed he was for a brief time a member of the Communist party. His activity consisted of supporting a union of motion picture painters to take over some other film industry unions, and that union was controlled by members of the Communist party. Hayden’s interest in the party likely began during his service in World War II. He had been a member of the Marine Corps and later served as an Office of Strategic Services agent, which involved parachuting into Croatia and helping the Yugoslav partisans who were fighting the fascists. They were our allies.  The OSS was a forerunner of the CIA. He was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry and received a commendation from Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia. The partisans our government was directing him to support were communist; their courage and their work against fascism led him to take on their ideals. Though his participation in the Communist party back in Hollywood was apparently neither deep nor long-lasting, it nevertheless branded him for the rest of his life. But something else branded him even worse when he was called before HUAC when he confessed his communist ties and he named names, selling out friends and colleagues. It was an act which humiliated him and for which he felt guilt for the rest of his life, confessing his own self-loathing in his autobiography.

But because he played along, his career went on. Others who refused to cooperate with the committee on principle were put on a blacklist.

Before that happened, the second episode of Hollywood Fights Back aired a week after the first episode, on November 2, 1947. It is a less tightly written show, a less effusive and optimistic show perhaps because the seeds of doubt and fear and a sense of defeat had already crept in. Fredric March and Myrna Loy spoke again, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. reported that newspapers were supporting their efforts, echoed by Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, Anne Revere, Lon McCallister, Burt Lancaster, Danny Kaye, Evelyn Keyes, Paul Henreid, and June Havoc. Groucho Marx and Keenan Wynn acted out dialogue demonstrating how a nicely a “friendly” witness was treated and how rudely an “unfriendly” witness was treated. Humphrey Bogart said “We sat in the courtroom and saw it happening. We said to ourselves it couldn’t happen here.”

John Huston, Marsha Hunt, Peter Lorre, and Burl Ives spoke, Geraldine Brooks and Jane Wyatt spoke, and Vanessa Brown. Playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart spoke and Hart referred to his work on the screenplay for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and wondered if more such future bold scripts about religious discrimination would be allowed. We discussed Gentleman’s Agreement in these two previous posts here and here.

Composer Richard Rogers wondered, “Are we Americans trading our soapbox for the hooded sheet?”

Leonard Bernstein and Bennett Cerf spoke, and author Thomas Mann, an immigrant from Germany noted “an alleged state of emergency, that’s how it started in Germany. What followed was fascism, and what followed fascism was war.”

Sound familiar?

Dana Andrews spoke, “The committee recessed because they think they got what they were after – blacklist, people fired from their jobs, and a blanket of fear smothering free speech.” Dorothy McGuire and Gregory Peck spoke, and Richard Conte urged us to write to Washington. The show ended on a less inspiring note, with a greater sense of dread.

Bogart and some others began to distance themselves from the tainted ones, saying they had been duped. John Garfield and Edward G. Robinson agreed, but Bogart escaped the blacklist and Garfield and Robinson did not. Garfield would not even escape with his life, as when he was subpoenaed by the committee in 1951 and refused to name names, he was blacklisted, hounded, and died of a heart attack the following year. He was not a member of the Communist party. What started as the HUAC Hollywood investigation later melted into “McCarthyism” as Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) saw what a hit the witch hunt was, what a forum for publicity, and decided to parlay the smear tactics as the fastest and surest branding to success.

Sound familiar?

The Hollywood Ten, November 1947 about to be fingerprinted after being cited for contempt of Congress. Front row: Herbert Biberman, attorneys Martin Popper and Robert W. Kenny, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole. Middle row: Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz. Back row: Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott.

The Hollywood Ten, those writers who were called to testify and answer questions refused to testify, so they were all cited for contempt of Congress. Many of them served prison terms, for contempt of Congress—not for being communists because, of course, being communist is not against the law. Belonging to a political party other than the Democratic Party or the Republican Party is not unconstitutional, a very simple fact that the meanest and most moronic among our society cannot understand or accept. The actual crime is in the overthrow of government, like the people today who hoard weapons so that they may fight their government and yet nothing is done to them because they have the powerful backing of the NRA that has deep pockets and has bought off many politicians. It is also like accepting support, monetary and otherwise, from a foreign government to win a presidential election in return for favors.

Then as now, most of the ideological fight is not about ideology; it is about money and prejudice and power.

In 1950, a fascist publication called Red Channels began to out people in the entertainment field accused of being communists or being sympathizers. Most of them named, over 150, found themselves blacklisted. The first among these was actress Jean Muir. But many others later felt the ax of the blacklist because of this publication, including Lena Horne, Marsha Hunt, Anne Revere, Hazel Scott, Artie Shaw, José Ferrer, Orson Welles, and Aline MacMahon. It would be many years before some of them were able to work again and by then their careers were effectively over. They could never gain the momentum back, never gain that part of their lives, their most creative years, or the income they would have earned.

J. Parnell Thomas, the stockbroker turned ultraconservative crusader and seeker of fame and headlines in the spotlights of his hearing room, also had a sorry end.  For several years he had been defrauding the Congress by claiming to hire several people whom he did not hire but he put them on the payroll for a kickback of their salary. He was investigated by a grand jury, and like those victims he had persecuted only a few years before, refused to cooperate and answer questions, claiming his Fifth Amendment rights—for which he had found them in contempt. He was indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government, fined, and given a prison sentence of 18 months, however he only served nine months. He was sent to the same prison where, being nothing if not ironic, two of the people who he had persecuted as part of the Hollywood Ten were also serving terms: Lester Cole and Ring Lardner, Jr. Thomas, of course, was forced to resign from the House of Representatives and his later attempts at politics and business failed. He died in 1970.

Hollywood Fights Back: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire,
Danny Kaye, Fredric March.

Hollywood Fights Back was a small but very important experiment in the long war against civil liberties in the mid-twentieth century. We may recall the blacklist, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, Joe McCarthy, and all the hearings and all the ringing of, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” But that idealistic group of Hollywood actors and writers and other people interested in something so simple, so basic as the First Amendment should have equal importance, and perhaps even reverence, in our memories of that era.

Sixty years later, in September 2007, Hollywood Fights Back was re-created in a performance for ABC radio. Modern stars were going to take the parts read by those long ago Hollywood stars, including James Whitmore, Larry Gelbart, Cameron Manheim, Chris Trumbo (the son of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo one of the original Hollywood Ten) and many more. But one person was there to re-create what she said herself: Marsha Hunt was on hand to read her own lines from the broadcast of 60 years earlier. 

It is now been 70 years since the original broadcast of Hollywood Fights Back, and Marsha Hunt, still with us, has recently celebrated her 100th birthday. She is the subject of Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity (2015), a documentary on those times. Those times? Our times.

Listen yourself on YouTube to the two episodes of Hollywood Fights Back, here the first episode from October 26, 1947, and here the second episode from November 2, 1947.

This post is part of the Banned and Blacklisted blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Read other terrific blogs in the blogathon here.

Related Products