Elia Kazan, American Hero

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Ben and Norma Barzman were Hollywood screenwriters and unapologetic members of the Communist Party.  As such, they became victims of the Hollywood blacklist and lived and worked in exile in Europe, mainly in France, from the late 1940s to the late 1970s.  The following passage is from Norma’s 2003 book, The Red and the Blacklist: The Intimate Memoir of a Hollywood Expatriate (p. 442):

In March 1999, ten years after Ben’s death, the Writers Guild restored screenplay credit to Ben for El Cid and solo original screenplay credit (“Written By”) to me for Luxury Girls.  At the same moment, the Academy announced their intention to bestow an honorary Oscar on Elia Kazan.  Along with Abe Polonsky, Bernie Gordon, Jean Butler, Bobbie Lees, and the other surviving blacklistees and their offspring, I was goosed into action.  I’d been comparatively quiet, attending blacklist retrospectives, promoting Tender Comrades at bookstores and universities.  But I was energized once again.  I collected money for ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, picketed outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with my grandson, Matthew, Daniel’s son; spoke on radio and TV.  A big demonstration greeted Oscar-goers, most of whom did not stand or applaud Kazan.

And what was it about belatedly honoring perhaps the greatest director the American motion picture industry has ever seen that had Ms. Barzman so exercised?  Here, by way of explanation, is how The New York Times began its March 22, 1999, article entitled “Amid Protests, Elia Kazan Receives His Oscar:”

Elia Kazan said ''thank you'' tonight at the Academy Awards, and then walked off stage slowly to sustained applause.

It was, in some ways, a bittersweet finale to the controversy over the honorary Oscar for the 89-year-old filmmaker, a controversy dating back to 1952 when Kazan, the director of ''On the Waterfront'' and other classics, named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communist influences in Hollywood.

After an all-too-sketchy summary of Kazan’s many accomplishments, The Times gave Kazan’s detractors the last word with this conclusion:

But critics of the award to Mr. Kazan said that the director should not be forgiven for the decision he made in 1952. A full-page ad in Daily Variety, signed by some members of the entertainment world as well as lawyers and academics, said that Mr. Kazan ''validated the blacklisting of thousands'' and that ''his action did enormous damage to the motion picture industry.''

Only a handful of the hundreds of signatories were well known, among them the actors Sean Penn, Ed Asner and Theodore Bikel. 

CNN, in its coverage before the event, even went so far as to publicize the Kazan attackers by printing the Hollywood Reporter ad in its entirety:

"There is the story in our history of a man who was proclaimed a hero of the American Revolution. In one of the battles against the British he suffered a mutilating leg wound. Sadly, after the revolution he became a traitor. It was ruled that for treason he be hanged. But before they hanged him, the leg that was wounded was amputated so that the better part of him be not dishonored.

"Elia Kazan too was a traitor. Some of those betrayed were his close friends. Their lives and futures were destroyed. He became ally and accomplice to an infamous committee which shamed his country. There is no way for the films of Kazan to be amputated from the rest of him. Yet, if there were any decency left in him he should have refused the award so as not to once again sow discord and bitterness among those whose lives and devotion are given to cinema." Signed, Jules Dassin.

Not to be outdone, in 2003 PBS had this to say about Kazan and his Congressional testimony:

One of Kazan’s defenders is Arthur Miller, much to the disappointment of many on the left. Miller is one of the heroes of the McCarthy Era. He defied the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1956, and refused, unlike Kazan, to name those whom he knew to be “fellow travelers.” For this he was held in contempt of Congress, fined, and sentenced to jail time.

Miller, who struggled at the time so mightily with his personal moral failing, emerged as the exemplar of courage in face of the Red scare. He has even taken on an aura of saintliness over the years. Kazan occupies the other end of the spectrum: a man defined almost entirely by his decision to name names. For many, Kazan’s brilliant career-all that he contributed to the theater, to film, to letters-will be tainted by a single decision he was forced to make some fifty years ago.

The Continuing Communism Whitewash

What in the world is going on here?  At the time that Kazan gave his testimony, we only knew a small part of the evils of Soviet Communism under Joseph Stalin.  Nikita Khrushchev had not yet made his famous speech on the cult of personality and its horrible consequences.  The Soviet historian Roy Medvedev hadn’t published his exposé of Stalin entitled Let History Judge.  Most importantly, The Gulag Archipelago and the other great writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn were still in the distant future.  On the American political scene, the revelations of a number of former Communists had been published in the form of a book entitled The God That Failed three years before, in which the insidiousness of the Communist Party in the United States was put on full display.  Former Communist spies Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers had given their Congressional testimony, and one of the people Chambers accused of being a Soviet spy, Alger Hiss, had been convicted of perjury, but there were still a lot of people who believed that he, Lauchlin Currie, Owen Lattimore, and other high level Communists and Communist sympathizers were just victims of a witch hunt.  Allen Weinstein, previously a Hiss defender, had not yet written Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, showing to the satisfaction of almost everyone in the history community how right Chambers was about Hiss and the Communist infiltration of the government.

One would think that in 1999, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet empire, Kazan would be the vindicated one and all those long-time promoters of the Soviet Union like Norma Barzman and her friend Polonsky—who, demonstrating his unreconstructed Stalinist tendencies was quoted as saying on the eve of Kazan’s award, “I’ll be watching, hoping someone shoots him. It would no doubt be a thrill in an otherwise dull evening.”—would be the ones slinking away with their tails between their legs.  Rather, it is the contrary, and they are given reinforcement by our national opinion-molding mainstream.  They are now the unvarnished heroes, while Kazan, politically at least, is the villain.

Consider the shallow and contradictory attacks they make on the man.  He “validated the blacklisting of thousands,” they say.  They don’t say that he supported the blacklisting, which he certainly did not, as he showed with his professional assistance of the pro-Communist Zero Mostel:

It was not until 1950 that Mostel again acted in movies, for a role in the Oscar winning film Panic in the Streets, at the request of its director, Elia Kazan. Kazan describes his attitude and feelings during that period, where, according to biographer Arthur Sainer, "MGM blacklisted Zero Mostel way before the days of the blacklist.”

Each director has a favorite in his cast, . . . my favorite this time was Zero Mostel—but not to bully. I thought him an extraordinary artist and a delightful companion, one of the funniest and most original men I'd ever met. . . I constantly sought his company. . . He was one of the three people whom I rescued from the "industry's" blacklist. . . For a long time, Zero had not been able to get work in films, but I got him in my film.

Perhaps by choosing the word “validated” they mean that he confirmed that there were, indeed, members of the Communist Party, which he, himself had been for a short time, working in the entertainment industry in key positions.  He named eight former associates who were also Communists.  One of them, the playwright Clifford Odets, he noted, had left the Party the same time as he did.  All of them, as it happens, were already known by the committee to be Communists.  PBS is simply wrong, then, to call them “fellow travelers,” suggesting that they were just sympathizers with some of the things that the Communists purported to stand for and it is doubly wrong to put the expression in quotes, which implies that it might just be someone else’s characterization of them.  Kazan’s critics can’t have it both ways.  He either validated the hunt for genuine Communist Party members in show business or he did not.

Who Was the Traitor?

Jules Dassin’s use of the word “traitor” to describe him is also quite interesting.  The most common understanding of “traitor” is “one who commits treason,” that is, one who betrays his country.  Could one find a better word to describe those who remained loyal to the American Communist Party throughout the Stalin period than “traitor?”  As Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley has put it so succinctly in his very revealing book Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s, “…the essence of American Communism was loyalty to Stalin.” (p. 287)  Anyone who was a member of the party for any length of time could see that that was the case, but one hardly had to be a party member to see it.  Just watching how quickly the Communists turned from being the biggest opponents of American involvement in the war in Europe to being the biggest proponents when Hitler turned on his Soviet allies should have been education enough.  In the national loyalty sense of the term, then, the word “traitor” comes a lot closer to describing the people Kazan fingered, with the exception of Odets, who had ended his membership in the Party.

Dassin must mean, then, that Kazan was a traitor in the sense that he betrayed either his cause or his friends and associates.  Since he had long since parted company with the “cause” of the American Communist Party, the charge boils down to his ratting out some of his former comrades, who, unbeknownst to him, had already been effectively ratted out.  For that, the sweeping conclusion is reached that by that deed this great contributor to the film-making art somehow did “enormous damage to the motion picture industry.”

It really is hard to take people seriously who speak in such absurd hyperbole.  Clearly there can be no connection between his confirmation of the Communist Party membership of those few individuals and any damage to the quality of movie making in America.  Maybe it’s somehow just the principle of the thing that they’re talking about.  But when it comes to the question of the principles involved, there is no better authority than Kazan himself.  Here, in the full text of an advertisement he purchased in The New York Times on April 12, 1952:    

In the past weeks intolerable rumors about my political position have been circulating in New York and Hollywood. I want to make my stand clear:

I believe that Communist activities confront the people of this country with an unprecedented and exceptionally tough problem. That is, how to protect ourselves from a dangerous and alien conspiracy and still keep the free, open, healthy way of life that gives us self-respect.

I believe that the American people can solve this problem wisely only if they have the facts about Communism. All the facts.

Now I believe that any American who is in possession of such facts has the obligation to make them known, either to the public or to the appropriate Government agency.

Whatever hysteria exists — and there is some, particularly in Hollywood — is inflamed by mystery, suspicion and secrecy. Hard and exact facts will cool it.

The facts I have are sixteen years out of date, but they supply a small piece of background to the graver picture of communism today.

I have placed these facts before the House Committee on Un-American Activities without reserve and I now place them before the public and before my co-workers in motion pictures and in the theatre.

Seventeen and a half years ago I was a twenty-four-year old stage manager and bit actor, making $40 a week, when I worked.

At that time nearly all of us felt menaced by two things: The depression and the ever growing power of Hitler. The streets were full of unemployed and shaken men. I was taken in by the Hard Times version of what might be called the Communists’ advertising or recruiting technique. They claimed to have a cure for depressions and a cure for Naziism and Fascism.

I joined the Communist Party late in the summer of 1934. I got out a year and a half later.

I have no spy stories to tell, because I saw no spies. Nor did I understand, at that time, any opposition between American and Russian national interest. It was not even clear to me in 1936, that the American Communist Party was abjectly taking its orders from the Kremlin.

What I learned was the minimum that anyone must learn who puts his head into the noose of party “discipline.” The Communists automatically violated the daily practices of democracy to which I was accustomed. They attempted to control thought and to suppress personal opinion. They tried to dictate personal conduct. They habitually distorted and disregarded and violated the truth. All this was crudely opposite of their claims of “democracy” and “the scientific approach.”

To be a member of the Communist Party is to have a taste of the police state. It is a diluted taste but it is bitter and unforgettable. It is diluted because you can walk out.

I got out in the spring of 1936.

The question will be asked why I did not tell this story sooner. I was held back, primarily, by concern for the reputations and employment of people who may, like myself, have left the party many years ago.

I was held back by a piece of specious reasoning which has silenced many liberals. It goes like this: “You may hate the Communists, but you must not attack or expose them, because if you do you are attacking the right to hold unpopular opinions and you are joining the people who attack civil liberties.”

I have thought soberly about this. It is, simply, a lie.

Secrecy serves the Communists. At the other pole, it serves those who are interested in silencing liberal voices. The employment of a lot of good liberals is threatened because they have allowed themselves to become associated with or silenced by the Communists.

Liberals must speak out.

I think it is useful that certain of us had this kind of experience with the Communists, for if we had not we should not know them so well. Today, when all the world fears war and they scream peace, we know how much their professions are worth. We know tomorrow they will have a new slogan.

Firsthand experience of dictatorship and thought control left me with an abiding hatred of these. It left me with an abiding hatred of Communist philosophy and methods and the conviction that these must be resisted always.

It also left me with the passionate conviction that we must never let the Communists get away with the pretense that they stand for the very things which they kill in their own countries.

I am talking about free speech, a free press, the rights of property, the rights of labor, racial equality and, above all, individual rights. I value these things. I take them seriously. I value peace, too, when it is not bought at the price of fundamental decencies.

I believe these things must be fought for wherever they are not fully honored and protected whenever they are threatened.

The motion pictures I have made and the plays I have chosen to direct represent my convictions.

I expect to continue to make the same kinds of pictures and to direct the same kinds of plays.

For anyone who might still believe that Kazan’s attackers hold the moral high ground, I suggest that they just go back and read his statement again, perhaps a little more carefully the second time through.  Who can honestly take issue with a single line in it?  If that doesn’t work, then watch this powerful scene in the Kazan-directed On the Waterfront.  It is hardly noble or admirable, Kazan is telling us, to protect the secrets of murderous, power-lusting thugs in the name of loyalty to one’s associates.  And when it comes to murderousness and power lust, the mobsters who controlled the New York docks in the movie were very small timers compared to the controllers of those he informed on for HUAC.  As he wrote in his autobiography, “On the Waterfront was my own story.  Every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go **** themselves. (Elia Kazan: A Life, p. 529; quoted in Billingsley, p. 244).

The political climate has changed now so drastically, it is very hard for most Americans to appreciate how powerful and insidious the American Communist Party was in the Red Decade of the 1930s and well into the 1940s.  In his statement Kazan says, “I have no spy stories to tell, because I saw no spies,” but the main reason for that is that spies had no reason to infiltrate his line of work, but subversives certainly did. 

“Of all the arts, the cinema is the most important,” is the quote from Vladimir Lenin that Billingsley uses to lead off his Part I.  Consonant with that dictum, burrowing into Hollywood and taking it over was as important to Stalin’s Communist Party as controlling the docks was to the mob in On the Waterfront.  And it was very successful.  Contrary to the popular notion we might have now that one was taking great risks for his ideals to be a Communist, at the height of the party’s influence, it was actually a career advantage in Hollywood:

For the cinema revolutionaries, wrote Eugene Lyons, Communism was “an intoxicated state of mind, a glow of inner virtue, and a sort of comradeship in super-charity,” a way for the wealthy to posture as proletarian wage slaves.  On the other hand, the Party triumphalist mind-set, the notion that they automatically write better screenplays and belonged to the victorious army of the future, led some to use ideology as a substitute for talent or even effort.  According to Louis Berg, longtime Hollywood journalist Max Youngstein of Universal circulated a memo informing all personnel that being a Communist was no longer sufficient reason to be employed there, and that doing a bit of work would also be required.

Former Communist screenwriter Roy Huggins says that there were a number of “awful writers” who wouldn’t have worked without their politics.  For this type of person, Huggins said, becoming a member of the Communist Party “was just another way of being Sammy Glick,” the hero of Budd Schulberg’s novel, What Makes Sammy Run? (Billingsley, pp. 58-59)

Misplaced Indignation

When it comes to the Hollywood blacklist, nothing could be clearer than that no finger of blame should be pointed in the direction of the great director, Elia Kazan.  Contrary to a popular belief that is perpetuated by people who are at odds with the truth, the blacklist had nothing to do with the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy.  The blacklist was begun by the major studio heads in 1947.  That was the year Senator McCarthy took office.  He exhibited no public interest in the Communist subversion issue until he made his famous speech in 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia, about Communists in the State Department.  Throughout his investigations, his entire focus and that of his committee staff was on Communists in the federal government.  He never had anything to do with Communists in Hollywood.  Inquiries into that subject originated with the House Un-American Activities Committee.  HUAC was formed in 1938, and its original concern was with Nazi subversion.  Under Chairman Martin Dies, Democrat of Texas, it could not help discovering, though, that Communist subversion was a far bigger problem.

As Billingsley in his book makes abundantly clear, HUAC’s interest in Communist infiltration of Hollywood was hardly an idle one.  There was ample reason for their interest.  The Hollywood blacklist began with the denial of film industry employment to the members of the industry, known popularly as the Hollywood Ten, who refused to cooperate with the committee in October of 1947. 

It is wrong to point the finger of blame at HUAC, though.  Perhaps it is a novel idea these days that the United States Congress should show public concern over the subversion of American institutions by a foreign country, whether the subversion be of the government or the opinion-molding industry, but that is precisely what the HUAC inquiries were about.  HUAC was not responsible for the Hollywood blacklist, though.  That was entirely the work of the heads of the major studios, who had a vise-like grip on employment in Hollywood at that time. Seeing how the molders of public opinion have come to characterize everything concerning Communists and Hollywood as just the manifestation of paranoia by grandstanding politicians, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Hollywood moguls’ blacklist was nothing but a ploy.

Like the Soviets, who airbrushed Trotsky and other foes of Stalin out of official photographs, the Hollywood Party replaced fact with legend.  The Communist Party and its involvement with Hollywood was simply left out.  The story only begins when the Committee, a group of black-hatted inquisitors, rides into town tarring anything that moves with a red brush, persecuting noble idealists, censoring artists, and launching the “dark epoch” of the blacklist, part of the “McCarthy era.”  That template, plus the appealing plot of [Dalton] Trumbo, [Michael] Wilson, and others who duped the studios by working through fronts, simply overrode the long and complicated story of the Communist Party’s cultural offensive, the front groups, and the studio labor conflicts.

As for “the industry,” it was not up to admitting that it had played the role of what Lenin called “useful idiots,” duped and bilked by militant Communists.  Though it was the industry, not the government, that blacklisted writers and performers, the blacklist legend allowed the studios to pose as victims themselves, a cover-up too intoxicating to pass up. (Billingsley, pp. 272-273)

Had the movie moguls been really sincere in their newfound anti-Communism we would have seen them producing at least an occasional movie that reveals the truth about the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and afterward.  More than half a century has passed and we have not yet seen anything out of Hollywood that might counteract the impression they left with 1940s movies like Mission to Moscow, Song of Russia, and The North Star.  That has certainly not been for lack of good potential dramatic material.  Solzhenitsyn alone, we know, has stories galore, but there have been lots of others like Eugenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind or the sad stories of Americans in the Soviet Union like Thomas Sgovio, Victor Herman,* or Robert Robinson, whom we mention in our recent review of The ForsakenWhile Hollywood never seems to tire of movies that vilify the Nazis and, more recently, the Arabs and the Muslims, it is yet to produce anything about the Soviet bloc that begins to compare to the French movie, Est-Ouest (East-West), or the German movie, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others).

Rather, Hollywood still seems to prefer to romanticize Communism with movies like The Way We Were and Reds and to save its greatest opprobrium for those who called attention to the Communist subversion and infiltration problem.  The most recent example of the latter that comes to mind is George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck

This negative focus upon the Hollywood blacklist in the one instance and upon Senator Joe McCarthy in the other suggests that what we are seeing in action here in both cases is nothing less than the thirteenth of the Seventeen Techniques for Truth Suppression.  Our opinion molders have successfully changed the subject by creating a distraction.  So now, just as the story of Hollywood subversion by Communists begins with HUAC, the story that M. Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein recount with their new book Stalin’s Secret Agents: The Subversion of Roosevelt’s Government, as far as the dominant creators of national opinion are concerned, begins with Senator McCarthy’s presumed overly vigorous inquiries into that highly successful subversion.

There is ample reason to feel a sense of indignation at this whole sorry episode of American history.  If it must be directed at one particular American, it should be at the person responsible for consciously allowing Stalin’s subversion to go as far as it did.  Our previous writings have amply demonstrated who that person is.  His profile can be found on the dime, and he is currently being worshipfully portrayed by Asner in a one-man show.


 *CBS did air a rather poorly done movie version of Herman’s tragic but inspiring epic, Coming out of the Ice, in 1982.

David Martin

March 19, 2013


See also “Hollywood Wars” by Charles A. Burris.




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