Victims of the Hollywood blacklist Gale Sondergaard and Lester Cole met their public at the 1976 SFIFF screening of Hollywood on Trial.
Photo: Blacklisted actress Gale Sondergaard and screenwriter Lester Cole discuss McCarthy-era Hollywood at the 1976 San Francisco International Film Festival.
By Miguel Pendás
Several years ago the Festival established an occasional series, The Unvanquished, to honor filmmakers who continued to make their art after suffering repression. Among those honored as Unvanquished are Abraham Polonsky, Karen Morley and John Berry, who were victims of the Hollywood blacklist. Paul Carpita and Paul Meyer were the victims of similar trends in Europe.
The Festival’s commitment to freedom in the arts, however, is nothing new. It goes back to our beginnings. Even though the Festival began in the late years of the 1950s red scare, we have never been afraid of controversy or knuckled under to the thought police.
In those early days, even though the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had ended its infamous hearings, the redbaiting mentality still existed, and the notorious Attorney General’s List of "suspicious" organizations was still very much alive. Yet, in its first few years, the Festival showed over a dozen films from Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Poland, and the flow of films from those countries has never abated.
The blacklist was Tinseltown’s version of McCarthyite hysteria. Lives and careers were ruined by flag-waving "patriots" in the name of freedom. It’s been called Hollywood’s darkest hour. Lillian Hellman had a good name for it: Scoundrel Time, after Samuel Johnson’s oft-quoted dictum, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," no doubt.
Back in 1959, when the blacklist was still on, Festival founder Irving "Bud" Levin brought screenwriter Alvah Bessie on as staff publicist. Bessie was a member of the courageous group dubbed the Hollywood Ten, directors and screenwriters who refused to cooperate with HUAC’s witch-hunt and went to prison as a result. The situation in the office must have been interesting, because at the same time that Bessie was writing Festival press releases, another Hollywood Ten victim, director Edward Dmytryk, was serving on the Golden Gate Awards jury. The thing about Dmytryk is that he later recanted and sang like a canary to HUAC. One of the names he named was Alvah Bessie.
"When Levin went through the motions of introducing the two men," wrote Paine Knickerbocker in the 1976 Festival catalogue, "Bessie looked at Dmytryk coldly and without a word left the room."
The blacklist got busted in 1960 when producer Otto Preminger gave blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo a credit on Spartacus. By 1976, movies like The Way We Were, Marathon Man and The Front portrayed victims of McCarthyism favorably. Once-shunned victims became Hollywood heroes.
At the 1976 Festival, the documentary Hollywood on Trial told how more than 200 actors, writers, directors and technicians in the film business—in most cases denounced by their colleagues—lost their jobs and suffered continued unemployment because of the blacklist. The film "has an all-star cast," wrote George Williams sardonically in the Sacramento Bee. "Robert Taylor is an oafish informer, Gary Cooper a mincing chatterbox, and Ronald Reagan is a gloating, Salem-vintage witch-hunter." To the cast of prominent villains he added Adolphe Menjou, Elia Kazan, the Warner brothers and Louis B. Mayer.
The enthusiastic audience of over 1,000 at the sold-out Palace of Fine Arts theater was treated to two surprise guests at the end of the show: blacklisted screenwriter Lester Cole (one of the Hollywood Ten) and blacklisted actress Gale Sondergaard (who had been married to Albert Biberman, also one of the Hollywood Ten). They joined in a panel discussion with director David Helpern Jr. and screenwriter Arnie Reisman.
Cole recounted one of those great, once-in-a-lifetime anecdotes. He said that J. Parnell Thomas, the self-righteous chairman of HUAC who was responsible for railroading so many people to career oblivion, was later tried and convicted of defrauding the government. The twist: He was sentenced to the Danbury, Connecticut federal prison where Cole and Ring Lardner Jr. already were incarcerated for refusing to tell Thomas’s committee about their political beliefs. Imagine how awkward. What would they say if they had run into Thomas in the prison cafeteria? How about some crow for lunch, Mister Chairman?