Defending the defensible

By Steven Martinovich
web posted March 1999

I usually apply myself only to modern political events, but these days I'm compelled to defend a man who nearly five decades ago performed one of the bravest feats in Hollywood history. He told the truth.

In 1952 director Elia Kazan appeared in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and was asked to name Hollywood Communists, which he did. Actually, to be truthful to history, Kazan merely confirmed the membership of some of his peers since the HUAC already knew who they were.

Though venerated for such movies as On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, Gentleman's Agreement and East of Eden, Kazan has been a virtual pariah in Hollywood since giving his testimony. Those who he confirmed as present or past members of the Communist party had their careers destroyed, with some never able to regain their stature in Hollywood. The blame was squarely laid on his feet, not only for those careers, but for assisting in what many thought was an undemocratic purge of Hollywood undesirables.

Sleeping dogs were allowed to lie until recently when former Academy of Motion Picture Arts president Karl Malden made an impassioned and ultimately successful plea to the Academy's Board of Directors that his old friend be awarded with an honorary Oscar for his body of work. On March 21, the 89-year old Kazan will walk across the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to receive his Oscar and what happens during that moment is a subject of debate.

Some of his generation promise to protest Kazan's honour while others will sit quietly in the audience, refusing to applaud a man they feel was part of a jihad against their tight-knit society. Still others are willing to allow Kazan his moment in the sun as long as his speech includes an apology for his actions in front of the HUAC. His New York-based attorney Floria V. Lasky says he won't do this.

And nor should he.

A lot of noise had been made about Kazan's motives, whether they were to protect himself against being blacklisted or whether he became a zealot in the fight against Communism, but little has been said about the men and women who were blacklisted for their political beliefs.

Many of these people gave their support to Joseph Stalin, a man responsible for the murder of tens of millions of his fellow countrymen and who made Adolph Hitler look good by comparison. If calls for apologies will rule the day, then why haven't they apologized for that? Many of these people were also responsible for making movies in the 1930s and 40s which glorified life in the Soviet Union while mass starvation, genocidal campaigns and political purges were occurring. Why aren't they apologizing for that?

"What Hollywood Red has ever apologized for supporting Joseph Stalin?" asked one anonymous award-winning screenwriter during the Writer's Guild awards on February 20.

Can anyone name one?

These people consider informing to be one of worst crimes possible, yet why did they never once condemn the use of informers in the Soviet Union? Communist states, including Cuba today, have relied on an extensive web of informers to turn up undesirable elements. Unlike those in Hollywood who had their careers destroyed, those informed on in the Soviet Union had their souls and lives destroyed through brutal torture and labour camps. Why have they never renounced their support for a murderous system which placed nearly a third of the world's population under brutal political and economic slavery? A system which is directly responsible for the murder of over one hundred million human beings during this century, murder which continues unabated in China and Cuba.

The fact of the matter is that the free world faced off with an enemy which openly declared the logical course of history meant that democracy would be crushed by a people's revolution, a revolution which would have only continued with mass murder. The Soviet Union was attempting to penetrate its agents into America's mainstream -- be it government or art -- in an attempt to destabilize the nation. Faced with a hostile enemy bent on its destruction, I think it was only rational that rooting out potentially dangerous elements be undertaken by America's government.

I might add that I'm not defending some of the Communist hunters and they went about their "investigations". The father of a former high school teacher of mine was one of those blacklisted during the purges of Hollywood. He lost a good career in Hollywood as an actor (one of his movies was 1935's Hands Across the Table starring the delicious Carole Lombard), director and writer and was forced to return to Canada to toil in relative cinematic obscurity. Good people were destroyed during those purges and there was a tremendous human cost which continues to hurt many people today.

That said, Hollywood Communists did gloss over the evils of the Soviet Union and they and their compatriots presented a polite image of Communist brutality in a number of movies including 1943's Song of Russia, which featured America's national anthem dissolving into a Russian mob, with the sickle and hammer on a red flag very prominent above their heads. No intended imagery in that, right?

The Communist Party dominated political activity in Hollywood during the 1930s, when it was, as writer Budd Schulberg noted, "the only game in town." Groups like the Motion Picture Democratic Committee and the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League were used by Hollywood Communists to extend their influence and propogandize a favourable view of the Soviet Union by contrasting it against Nazi Germany.

Thank you very much. I really like to hear that. And I want to thank the Academy for its courage, generosity, and I want say that I've been a member of the Academy on and off for I don't know how many hears. So I'm pleased to say what's best about them, they're damn good to work with. I also want to thank Marty [Scorsese]...Marty? Where are you? Thank you. And Bobby. Bobby DeNiro. Thank you all very much. I think I can just slip away.

- Kazan's acceptance speech

Hollywood Communists also used its power to blacklist non-Communist writers. In a 1997 Investors Business Daily piece, K.L. Billingsley states that Reds would target non-Communist writers by spreading rumours about them. Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten of blacklisted writers, bragged once of the party's success in preventing "untrue or reactionary" works, such as Arthur Koestler's The Yogi and the Commissar, from reaching the screen.

And for a group that has since railed against the Hollywood hearings as an attack on the rights of writers, people like the Hollywood Ten never once spoke out as thousands of writers and actors were sent to the gulags for works deemed to be offensive to the worker's paradise.

Elia Kazan's testimony in 1952 was the right thing to do at the time because he wasn't an informer, but a witness to the influence of Communism in Hollywood, and if people like Lucille Ball, Lee J. Cobb and Schulberg were able to be friendly witnesses in front of HUAC without suffering the same level of bile, then I think Kazan should receive no worse for "outing" Stalinist playwrite Clifford Odets.

Some pretty deep wounds are being reopened with Kazan's award, but perhaps this will serve to get the real message out about Hollywood's tacit support of Communism. And maybe they'll take the opportunity to apologize to Kazan and the rest of America for their willing roles as propagandists and fellow travellers of murderous thugs.

I doubt, however, that speech will ever be made.

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Steve Martinovich is a journalist and the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right. He can be reached at

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