Hollywood Exiles in Europe
The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture
New Directions in International Studies
New Brunswick (New Jersey): Rutgers University Press, 2014
Paperback. xii+258 p. ISBN 978-0813562612. $27.95
Reviewed by André Kaenel
Université de Lorraine-Nancy 2
There is no shortage of books on Cold War cinema, from the early popular studies by Nora Sayre, Victor Navasky and Peter Biskind to recent additions by Thomas Doherty, Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, Tony Shaw, Reynold Humphries and Jim Hoberman, among a host of others. Last summer, too, Thom Andersen and Noel Burch’s “Red Hollywood,” a documentary companion to their 1994 essay Les Communistes de Hollywood, which had been invisible for years, was released theatrically in the United States in a remastered and re-edited version, and it is now available on DVD.
There is much cause for rejoicing at the bonanza surrounding Cold War film studies. But is there anything new to say about the films of the Hollywood blacklist? The publication of Jeff Smith’s Film Criticism, the Cold War, and the Blacklist : Reading the Hollywood Reds (U. of California Press, 2014), is perhaps a sign that the well of esthetic and ideological readings of an ever-expanding body of films annexed, with various degrees of plausibility, to the politics of the Cold War, might have dried up. When you have said all there is to say about these films, or so it seems, one possible side step is to interrogate the critical history that has brought them to our attention and produced canonical readings of the Cold War “subtexts” of westerns (e.g. High Noon, Johnny Guitar), biblical epics (e.g. The Ten Commandments, The Robe), adventure stories, science fiction and crime movies. That is precisely what Smith’s books does: it eschews the textual approaches that have dominated the field for years and enabled an ever-widening circle of Hollywood films from the late forties to the early sixties to be showcased as more or less veiled comments on (check one) Cold war paranoia or McCarthyite hysteria. By contrast, Smith’s metacritical study asks not what or how these films signified the Cold war, but why they did. He does so by charting the institutional and political structures which helped consolidate allegorical interpretations of films as anti-Communist propaganda or as liberal critiques of collective fear—and in some cases (to wit Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956), as both.
Like Jeff Smith’s book, but in different directions, Rebecca Prime’s ambitious Hollywood Exiles in Europe reorients our focus in two important ways: by keeping textual / allegorical readings at bay and by staying clear of the predominantly US-centered slant of most Cold War film studies. What she ponders instead are three interrelated strands: the transformation of the blacklist under the impact of the films made by the Hollywood exiles; the efforts of the Hollywood exiles to adapt to European national cinemas and tastes; the changes wrought by the blacklisted men and women to European cinema in its relation to the American film industry between 1947 and the early 1960s.
The screenwriters, directors and producers who left the United States in search of jobs in the early 1950s, in the wake of the second wave of HUAC’s investigations, were doubly exiled: by a repressive state apparatus, abetted by the Hollywood establishment, and by film history itself. To be sure, their stories have been told in memoirs, interviews and, indirectly, in the films themselves. But Rebecca Prime has placed these individual stories within the wider history of Hollywood’s leftist diaspora in London and Paris, as well as in Rome and Madrid. She documents the efforts of dozens of men and women to practice their art in often inhospitable socio-cultural, political and professional contexts. In the process, she argues, they played a significant part in the shift from national to transnational cinema that characterized European and American film production in the 1950s.
Her work resorts to social and cultural history as well as to industrial and esthetic analysis: “It emphasizes the ways in which the experiences of the American exiles were mediated through the various political and cultural discourses—particularly those prevalent in contemporary film criticism—shaping the perception of America in Europe” . Specifically, exiled screenwriters like Ben Barzman (who was Canadian), Michael Wilson and Donald Ogden Stewart, directors like John Berry, Joseph Losey, Jules Dassin and Cy Endfield, producers like Carl Foreman, actors like Sam Wanamaker and Betsy Blair, belied the image of an open, democratic society the United States was attempting to project internationally during the Cold War. In turn, they contributed to shifting French and British self-conceptions of national cinemas as they were being redefined in relation both to European co-productions and to American movies shot in Europe. The integration of these American artists in Paris, London and elsewhere was checkered but it was facilitated by friends and sympathizers and by the existence of a community of exiles, even as the professional opportunities often failed to materialize, for reasons which Rebecca Prime details at length.
Beginning with an overview of Hollywood’s radical community before and during World War 2, she shows how friendships were formed or consolidated in cultural experiments like New York’s Group Theater or the New Deal’s Federal Theater. Nurturing a “profound ambivalence” towards Hollywood, many of them had joined the Communist Party during the Great Depression, and found within its ranks a sense of political and moral purpose. For example, the CPUSA taught Hollywood radicals, not all of whom were Communists, how to organize in Popular Front organizations like the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and in support of Spanish Republicans. But conservative studio producers and the collaborative nature of film work typically restrained the expression of progressive ideas even if many of the films by John Berry, Robert Rossen and Jules Dassin were narrated from the vantage point of American society’s underprivileged members (e.g. women, Blacks, workers). Similar political sensibility underwrote most of the post-World War 2 “social problem films”—until HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) came to Hollywood in 1947, and then again in 1951, prompting many of them to expatriate themselves.
Once in Europe, they found themselves under FBI surveillance, their passports confiscated by the US government. Rebecca Prime argues that their plight illuminates European perceptions of the Hollywood blacklist and of McCarthyite America which were shaped by mounting concerns over “imperialism” and by a growing anti-Americanism which peaked with the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953. As a result, their status as “unfriendly” witnesses and as victims of HUAC lent them a certain “cachet”. France’s artisanal film industry landed them employment in co-productions between France and the United States or Great Britain. John Berry’s first film in Europe, It Happened in Paris (1951), written by Ben Barzman, was an early example. Its reception in France was mixed, however, the harbinger of many similar disappointments, and it was not released in the US. By contrast, in Britain, America’s partner in the Cold War, the government also monitored the activities of Joseph Losey and other “subversives” who nevertheless found a large expatriate community which contrasted with the smaller left-wing Paris crowd in which Berry and Dassin gravitated. On top of that, the absence of linguistic barriers in London provided a more welcoming professional environment in film, theater and television.
In the 1950s, American “runaway” productions, shot in Europe for financial reasons, offered further collaborative opportunities. Prime discusses two examples, Christ in Concrete (dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1949) and Jules Dassin’s London noir, Night and the City (1950), which the Times’ critic rejected as “fundamentally American” and “about as British as Sing Sing.” Because the blacklisted could not get credit for their work on movies that depended on the US market, producer Carl Foreman, who was about to direct Bridge on the River Kwai, flew to New York to testify before HUAC and thus clear his name—without naming others. But the film’s screenwriter, Michael Wilson, refused to strike a deal with HUAC to obtain “clearance” and continued to work anonymously. Prime concludes that by the end of the 1950s, the “economics of runaway production, along with the film industry’s shift in orientation toward Europe, were beginning to trump the politics of the blacklist” .
The people on the blacklist were haunted by the experience of persecution. So were their films. Several of their “hybrid” noir thrillers featured motifs and figures of alienation, dispossession and estrangement, and were imbued with a sense of fear and paranoia. This was true of two great films, Night and the City, shot in London by Jules Dassin in 1950, and Du rififi chez les hommes (John Berry, 1955) which French critics lauded as a critique of US capitalism and hypocrisy—despite its French setting and actors. Elements of social critique crept into the British films of Cy Endfield and Joseph Losey. In short, in their dialogue with and transformation of, the crime thriller genre (the British working class spiv film and the French policier), these films were “exemplary transnational texts.” They also signaled both a gradual weakening of the blacklist and the “Europeanization” of figures like Dassin and Losey.
As the popularity of cosmopolitan productions shot in Europe grew by the late 1950s and early 1960s (e.g. Samuel Bronston’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, Sam Spiegel’s Lawrence of Arabia, Carl Foreman’s Guns of Navarone), the Hollywood exiles kept on privileging stories with social relevance, often influenced by Italian neorealism. Berry’s big-budget slave ship drama Tamango (1958) or Je suis un sentimental (1955), one of his noir parodies with Eddie Constantine which fostered an inclusive Rooseveltian view of Americanism, or Losey’s critique of the nuclear arms race in Time Without Pity (1957), testified to their directors’ continued preoccupation with issues of social justice and equality.
In turn, paradoxically, their predilection for low budget crime thrillers would contribute to pigeonholing them as the European art film developed. Their leftist humanism became a liability for most French critics who valorized the apolitical auteur as idiosyncratic stylist. Soon, the ventures of Dassin and Berry into European co-productions alienated them from the many critics and directors who found in their celebration of Hollywood genre cinema a weapon against the French tradition de qualité (aka le cinéma de papa). The French reputation of Berry and Dassin suffered as a result while Losey’s soared in the less strident British cultural context. Truffaut’s scathing critique of Dassin’s Celui qui doit mourir (1957) signaled an unexpected about-face over the auteur status of the feted director of Du Rififi chez les hommes: “When Americans [….] try to ‘rethink’ the world, they lean naturally to the left, and left-wing Americans are the most childish of all.” On the other hand, the “cult” of Losey in Britain and in France owed much to a new generation of British critics, aided by French cinéphiles, who praised his mise en scène. The contrasted critical fates of Dassin, Berry and Losey reveal the profound reliance on the category of genre in European national cinemas. At the same time, for fascinating reasons which Prime explains, the reputation of Dassin in the United States was consolidated with the release of Rififi, while Losey’s lagged behind in his home country.
By the late 1950s, the blacklist had become an embarrassment to the Hollywood industry. Prime argues that the exiles played a role, albeit an indirect one, in its demise. At the same time, sometimes obscure negotiations were taking place between the US government, studio executives, conservative lobbies and the blacklisted themselves. Tensions and professional rivalries also began to roil the exile community and to fracture the loyalty of its members. The tensions were fanned by Cy Endfield’s 1960 testimony before HUAC during which he gave the names of thirty of his friends and fellow exiles. The protests that greeted the Academy’s awarding of an honorary Oscar to Elia Kazan in 1999 testified to the long-lasting effects of political and personal rifts within Hollywood’s film community at large. The following year, under the impetus of Paul Jarrico, the Writers Guild of America would identify over 100 films for which proper credit should be restored to screenwriters who had worked under borrowed names.
Rebecca Prime’s conclusion is that the blacklisted group did not contribute to the Americanization of postwar European film culture but to its globalization:
while their filmmaking, bound as it was by industrial practicalities, may not have constituted a fully oppositional film culture per se, their presence in Europe, box office success, and social consciousness reflected in some of their films challenged America’s image as a haven for freedom of expression .
This nuanced assessment of the contribution of the Hollywood exiles underscores the human, cultural, and political complexities of the phenomenon which her book unpacks. It also points to one of its limitations, at least from an auteur-centered perspective. Cahiers and Positif devotees will find little in Hollywood Exiles in Europe to satisfy their penchant for analyses of mise en scène and visual style. What do the films of the blacklisted, several of which are hard to see, look like? Prime devotes too few of her pages to conveying a sense of these films’ looks and textures, as distinct from their plots, characters and social themes. Are they worth hunting down?
I also missed comments on the extent to which, freed from the constraints of the dream factory, the Hollywood exiles were able to instill in their European films specifically progressive or radical ideas—or whether they sought to. How far did these films, like their American predecessors, succeed in expressing sympathies for minorities, the underdogs, or in articulating radical defenses of social justice? Did the blacklisted exiles produce anything as powerful as Salt of the Earth, Herbert Biberman’s 1954 agitprop “fiction” about a miners’ strike in New Mexico told from the vantage point of the Mexican-American workers, men and especially, women—a film which, like its director, would be blacklisted for years? To raise these questions is not to subscribe to Billy Wilder’s well-known jab at the “unfriendly” Hollywood Ten, men like Biberman who refused to answer HUAC’s questions in the first round of hearings in 1947 and were eventually jailed for contempt of Congress: “Only two of them have talent. The rest are just unfriendly.” It is instead to wonder about the extent to which, under new and often strained political and professional circumstances, the Hollywood exiles still clung to the Communist and progressive ideals they had nurtured through the 1930’s and the War years. Did their ambivalence towards Hollywood, and the secrecy they had to enforce among themselves in order to keep their jobs while working in California, give way, once overseas, to a more open affirmation of their politics, in their everyday life, in their film scripts and in their career choices more generally? Moreover, how did they position themselves, if at all, in the debate that had agitated the Party in the wake of the 1946 Maltz affair? (Screenwriter Albert Maltz, one of the future Hollywood Ten and contributor to the script of Night and the City, was reined in by Party hardliners like John Howard Lawson for daring to make a plea for artistic freedom, against Lawson’s insistence that art be used as a “weapon.” Within weeks, Maltz recanted his views). Prime does includes a tantalizing paragraph  about the shock of Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Joseph Stalin’s crimes and of the Soviet army’s invasion of Hungary, which led some exiles (and many French Communists, with whom they undoubtedly associated, who broke with the PCF) to rethink their Communist allegiances. Regrettably, the impact of these momentous events on the exiled community and their films is not pursued by Prime. On the whole, the politics of the Hollywood exiles appears only in snatches in her book, for example in Ben Barzman’s intriguing rejection of the pessimism of Nouvelle Vague films like À bout de souffle which he found “more dangerous than the most rushed Hollywood Z-movie” .
Still, what Rebecca Prime does offer amply makes up for what she leaves out. Like Jeff Smith’s Film Criticism, the Cold War, and the Blacklist, her book invites us to adopt a wider, transnational understanding of Cold War film culture, as its subtitle indicates. In that ambitious task, Hollywood Exiles in Europe is unquestionably a major contribution to our knowledge of the human (and artistic) cost of blacklisting. For it is also a moving book which brings to life the troubled times and the lived experiences of men and women who paid dearly for their political ideas. Rebecca Prime interviewed several survivors of the blacklist, among whom Norma Barzman and Walter Bernstein, now well into their nineties, and Jules Dassin and Bernard Gordon, who have since passed away.
Cercles © 2015
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.
Please contact us before using any material on this website.