The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Hollywood blacklist fables from the Wall Street Journal

April 14, 2009 |  1:30 pm

Whether it's the New Deal (obviously a big failure), global warming (clearly hysteria about practically nothing) or taxing the super-wealthy (always a bad idea), the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages can always be counted on to offer up an especially peculiar assessment of historical events.

Edwarddmytryk Judging from an article that I just discovered titled "He Worked in This Town Again," this ideologically narrow view of the world extends to the fabled Hollywood blacklist. According to the piece by John Meroney, who is finishing a new book about Ronald Reagan's role in Hollywood's political and labor conflicts, it was Reagan who was arguably the first person to break the blacklist by helping filmmaker (and former Communist) Edward Dmytryk get back to work after he served time in prison for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities as a member of the Hollywood Ten.

The WSJ story had a particular resonance for me. The school my son attends, Westland, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, was founded by Hollywood lefties and in its early years was populated by the children of Hollywood Ten filmmakers and "fellow travelers," like Charlie Chaplin, who were either being denied jobs or forced to leave the country.

The latest issue of our school paper chronicled how much these people's lives were upended by the persecution of the day. There's plenty of blame to go around about the events of the late 1940s and early 1950s, whether it's pinned on the Hollywood Communists of the day (who were clearly as much on the wrong side of history then as the the Journal's global warming debunkers are today), the industry's liberals (who chose careerism over principle) or the conservatives, whose obsession with anti-communism fueled a Red Scare hysteria that ruined many people's lives.

The WSJ story seems determined to turn the facts of the matter on their head. Meroney claims that Dmytryk was saved by Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, who encouraged Dmytryk to go public with his opposition to the Communist Party, which Meroney says led to Dmytryk being hired by producers at Monogram Pictures, a low-budget film production company. He writes that "Communists asserted that [Dmytryk] had struck a secret deal while incarcerated, agreeing to 'name names' in exchange for a lucrative studio contract. In truth, there was no deal. The salary he received was a fraction of what he was making at the peak of his career."

In fact, the Communists had nothing to do with Dmytryk agreeing to name names. It was his anti-Communist supporters who got him to do it. And it was a very public humiliation. For all the assistance Reagan may have provided, the real reason Dmytryk was able to work again in Hollywood was simple -- he had to go back before Congress, in public session, and not just recant his Communist views  but testify against all his friends who had been Communists. It was a terrible ordeal, but that how was the ugly system worked. To be free to work again, you had to become an informer, which is why Dmytryk went before Congress in April 1951 and named 26 people as Communists, including six directors and 17 screenwriters, many of them old friends.

Meroney also omits another key part of the story. According to Dmytryk's own published account of his troubles, the person who really put his career back on track in the early 1950s was -- horror of all horrors, in terms of the WSJ's ideological view of the world -- Stanley Kramer, a big fat Hollywood liberal whose films promoted exactly the sort of soft-headed social causes that the WSJ derides to this day. As Dmytryk wrote: "Stanley Kramer, a noted 'chance taker' and progressive filmmaker, approached me with a four-picture deal. Manna from heaven. Maybe after four years of famine, the harvest would be full again." After that, Dmytryk's career was back on track with such films as "The Caine Mutiny," "Raintree County" and "The Young Lions."

You wouldn't know that part of the story from Meroney's blacklist fable in the WSJ, but then again, if all you read was the Journal's editorial page, you wouldn't know that our planet was heating up like toast in the oven either.  

Los Angeles Times photo of Edward Dmytryk