Blacklisted: The Film Lover’s Guide to the Hollywood Blacklist
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed parts of Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner’s Blacklisted: The Film Lover’s Guide to the Hollywood Blacklist, I am nonetheless quite puzzled as to the book’s intended audience and intended use. Much of the information contained in Blacklisted is wonderful, but its format and a few factual errors limit its potential a great deal.
Buhle and Wagner are rapidly becoming among the most prolific historians of the American left. Between September 2003 and January 2004, they published three separate books on the blacklist, and in many respects Blacklisted is a companion volume to their other two recent books, Radical Hollywood and Hide in Plain Sight. Unlike the other two books, which are basically straight narrative histories with an unusually poignant story to tell, Blacklisted is not a historical narrative at all. In fact, in their introduction, Buhle and Wagner describe Blacklisted as “a highly selective version of Halliwell’s or Maltin’s film guides” [p. xii]. By this, they mean that Blacklisted has adopted the format of a film guide: an alphabetical list of films made by blacklisted writers, directors, or actors. After each film title, the authors devote only a few sentences to describing the film, providing a few critical and historical remarks about the film itself or the blacklisted creators of the film.
However, the book contains astounding information. If the reader is willing to read the entire book from cover to cover, he or she will quickly find that blacklisted artists worked on a wide range of highly diverse projects. There is no doubt that some of the blacklisted artists’ achievements will come as a surprise even to those who consider themselves relatively knowledgeable about the history of American cinema. Blacklisted screenwriters and other artists, this book informs its readers, worked on an impressively wide range of films, including Bedtime for Bonzo, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, Mysterious Island, Lassie Come Home, Frankenstein, Zulu, The Raven, and Born Free. Additionally, the book reminds us, the all-too-often forgotten Bowery Boys series was largely a product of the collaborative efforts of numerous left-wing screenwriters who were later blacklisted.
The little-known relationship of films like these to the blacklist—which is essentially the point of this book—made Blacklisted well worth the time it took to read. In addition, the brief reviews are often highly valuable, providing insightful political comments on many of these films. Blacklisted points out, for instance, that the Errol Flynn swashbuckler The Sea Hawk (1940), which I have always enjoyed but never viewed as a particularly political film, was in part a depiction of “the Second World War projected backward several centuries” [p.195]. The film, which ostensibly depicts the struggle between England and Spain over the New World has, Blacklisted informs us, an “unmistakable” political message about the political situation in 1940. The privateer played by Errol Flynn “must flatter and bribe his queen into spending the necessary government funds to match the military buildup of the powers of darkness […]. The queen, deceived by […] some treacherous figures around her, foolishly believes negotiations will palliate the evil ones” [p. 195], just as did some pro-Fascists in America at the time. That is a fascinating and no doubt accurate claim about the film’s politics.
None of this praise is to say that this book is flawless. Despite its value, there are some serious blemishes to be found in Blacklisted. Among the most serious is the book’s rather unwieldy format. I tried to imagine, as I was reading it, how exactly Buhle and Wagner intended the readers to use such a text. The authors surely don’t expect anyone who watches films for pleasure to look up the title of every film they watch in Blacklisted to see what its connection is to the historical narrative they provide in their other texts. In fact, doing so might well prove a disappointment: as the authors acknowledge, blacklisted artists never represented more than a small minority of film artists, so most films would probably not be included in Blacklisted. Additionally, the book includes only entries listed under film titles, with only a very few scattered cross-references. No entries exist for blacklisted screenwriters or other artists, limiting the book’s value much more. Even a simple index of artists, such as might be found in many other film guides, would have solved this problem admirably, and given an even greater sense of the ways in which the blacklist affected the lives and careers of different individuals. But the creators of Blacklisted decided, for whatever reason, not to take this rather obvious and yet all-important step. This may be because Buhle and Wagner expect that the readers of this book will be familiar with their numerous other texts on this subject, but it nonetheless limits the value of Blacklisted as a complete work. Consequently if one is interested in what films a particular blacklisted film artist worked on, the only way to find this out is to read through the entire book.
Equally disappointing were the numerous factual errors contained in the book. I am no expert on the history of film or screenwriters, but even I could pick out a few errors, important omissions, and stretched interpretations. The book, for instance, incorrectly states that playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman was at one time married to director Alfred Santell [p. 30]. It then ignores Hellman’s actual marriage to the progressive (although never particularly radical) playwright Arthur Kober, who helped Hellman write the screenplay to The Little Foxes [p. 129]. It is a surprising and worrisome error considering the talent of these historians as well as the number of books on Hellman’s life. It should also be noted that the authors greatly oversimplify Hellman’s attempt to integrate the terror of the Jim Crow south into The Little Foxes; Buhle and Wagner never mention the subtle yet powerful references to racism in the original play that, perhaps for fear of offending southern white viewers, were largely cut in the film version. Instead they simply state that race was never Hellman’s “forte” [p. 129]. The authors also have an odd view of screenwriter and novelist Nathanael West, calling him an “oddball Marxist fantasist” [p. 106]. While surely West was an oddball in his way (the term is not an analytical one and therefore difficult to challenge), and some of his works could be called fantasies of sorts, it would be difficult to present a coherent argument that West was a Marxist. West had a strong social conscience, and was close friends with Marxists like Dashiell Hammett and Mike Gold, but evidence for West’s own Marxist thought is slim indeed.
Some of the other careless errors are even more surprising. The authors incorrectly state that the novel that was the basis for the Nero Wolfe film Meet Nero Wolfe (1935) was later than that for the film version of The League of Frightened Men (1937), although five minutes online could have allowed them to correct this error. As with the error regarding Hellman, the minor factual error is combined with an odd omission of potentially interesting information: the author of the Nero Wolfe novels, Rex Stout, was so furious with the performance of Lionel Standish, the actor who was later to be blacklisted, that Stout refused to allow any further films based on his work. Finally, Buhle and Wagner’s inclusion of German-born composer Kurt Weill as a blacklisted film artist [p. 120] is somewhat puzzling, considering that Weill wrote four major Broadway shows in the three years between 1947 and his death in 1950, and had long since lost interest in working in Hollywood.
errors and minor omissions do not negate the value of Blacklisted.
It is certainly worth glancing through, and to the “film lovers”
who are the book’s acknowledged audience, it may be a highly
valuable text. Certainly if a particular film seems to have a political
message, it may be worth looking it up in Blacklisted.
And reading the book cover to cover was a pleasant enough experience.
There is no question that this is a valuable contribution to the
scholarship; however, had the book contained an index and had the
factual errors been corrected, its value would have been far greater.