The paradoxes of Elia Kazan

Submitted by Anon on 25 November, 2003 - 5:18 Author: Sean Matgamna

Elia Kazan was a great film director. His films were usually on the side of progress and humanity, and, in that sense, he was a man of the left. But his reputation with people on the left, even with liberals, has been blemished by one overwhelming fact: at the height of the 'McCarthyite' anti-communist witch-hunt in the USA, he appeared before the investigating committee as a 'friendly witness' - that is, one who 'named names' of others who had been in or around the US Communist Party at the same time as himself.

He did that to secure the possibility of continuing to work in Hollywood. The alternative for Kazan would have been to let himself be blacklisted and rendered unemployable, as many who refused to 'name names' were.

Some of the most talented writers, directors and producers had their careers smashed when they 'took the Fifth' - the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, which gave them the right to remain silent on the grounds that they might incriminate themselves.

To talk about their own politics and then refuse to name names would have landed them in jail for 'contempt of Congress'. 'The Fifth' protected them from that, but those who opted for it destroyed their careers.

Some of them did not work again under their own names - Abraham Polonsky for example - for 20 years.

The political purging that usually goes under the name of Senator Joseph McCarthy was in fact started by US President Harry Truman. McCarthy jumped on the bandwagon Truman set going.

The US and Russia had been wartime allies in 1941-5. In that time, the US Communist Party grew to be 100,000 strong. In New York, it was a mass movement.

Its influence was enormously greater than its membership. The CP-USA had control of a number of important trade unions.

When US and Russia fell out and the Cold War started, American CPers found themselves behind enemy lines.

The US sympathisers with Stalin's Russia, many of whom had joined the CP during the Russian-US alliance, came to be regarded as agents of a rival power. From 1947 on they were purged from industry.

In the guise of anti-Stalinism, a general right wing offensive against all leftist ideas was launched throughout the USA. The atmosphere came to be such that in the State of Indiana the story of Robin Hood was banned from school books as 'communistic'! In John Ford's film of 1952, 'The Quiet Man', someone sings the well known Irish-Australian song the 'Wild Colonial Boy', with the words 'he robbed the rich to help the poor' replaced by less 'communistic' ones! (Though Ford, who sometimes called himself a 'social democrat', had fought the witch hunters.)

The CP-USA found itself without friends or allies. Its power in the unions was easily smashed. Its influence collapsed very quickly. Why?

It had built its union power by bureaucratic manipulation, and sometimes by allying even with gangsters. In the war, it had advocated and practiced strike-breaking 'for the war effort'.

When US coalminers struck in 1944, the CP-USA advocated that miners be conscripted into the army, put under military discipline and forced to go down the mines at bayonet point!

It was foremost in advocating, for example, that the US Trotskyists be legally repressed. When James P Cannon and many of the leaders of one of the two Trotskyist parties in the USA were tried and jailed, the CP-USA avidly supported the US government against them.

They came to be hated by honest trade unionists, not because they were 'communists' but because they were anything but communists.

When their time came, the ruling class had an easy game of it. Nor did the party instruct its members brought up before one of the Senate investigating committees to behave like revolutionaries, defend their politics, and take the consequences. It instructed them to evade the issue by 'taking the Fifth'.

The investigators went to Hollywood looking for publicity. They got it. At first the Hollywood liberals and leftists - people like Humphrey Bogart and John Houston for example - made a brave show of defiance. Then they collapsed. Ten Hollywood writers and directors were jailed.

A bizarre ritual developed between the investigators and their victims. You could recant your own politics, but if you didn't 'name names', then you weren't 'sincere' and could not be 'cleared' (and allowed to work by the studio bosses). Much 'name naming' was not so much informing - the 'names' were already known to the committee - as 'showing sincerity'. People who showed defiance were broken.

For example, the filmstar Larry Parks was defiant in 1951, and then his career ruined, surrendered and 'named names' in 1953. Too late - he never got his career back.

Some got away with it: Lucille Ball convinced them that she had registered as a CP voter in the mid-30s only to please her grandfather.

Elia Kazan, who had been briefly in the CP-USA in the mid-30s, buckled. Faced with ruin he 'named names'.

He had just made one of the best 'left wing' movie ever to come out of Hollywood, Viva Zapata (1952), about the Mexican revolutionary (played by Marlon Brando). He told them that it was an 'anti-communist' film (plausibly: there is an unsympathetic character in it embodying 'revolutionary doctrinairism').

A lot of careers were destroyed. Yet there is a paradox. Some of those who 'named names' thereafter produced sterile work. Edward Dmytryk for example. This director went to jail as one of the Hollywood Ten. Afterwards he changed his mind, named names, etc., and secured the right to work again. He directed The Caine Mutiny (1955), a stupidly 'conservative' drama in which an officer representing 'irresponsibly critical' 'intellectuals' is pilloried for not backing a crazy ship's captain: he should have 'backed and sustained the man in authority' at all costs. José Ferrer, the actor playing the lawyer who delivers the film's keynote speech, was himself a victim of the witch-hunters, now keen to show 'sincerity'.

But Kazan kept on making 'left-wing' movies that challenged conventions. For example, Splendour in the Grass (1961) hits out powerfully at the then all-pervasive sexual repression. A Face in the Crowd (1957) is a strong polemic against the alliance of media moguls and right-wing pseudo-populist politicians.

The truth is that the CP writers and directors had little direct political influence in the 'studio product' they worked on.

Though there are exceptions. Secret Agent (1946), written by Albert Maltzer who would be jailed in the witch hunt, was a story about an American scientist parachuted into wartime Italy to sabotage work on an atomic bomb. The scientist - Gary Cooper, a pre-war Hollywood crypto-fascist and a future 'friendly witness' for the witch hunters - delivers speeches which reflected immediate post war leftist concerns at the US having an atomic monopoly: 'We,' he tells the audience, are not ready for atomic energy in a world in which millions go to make weapons and not to cure disease. Good stuff.

But for most of them, at their best they promoted liberal values - hostility to racism, for example. That was not a small thing, but it wasn't 'communism' either. And the witch hunt didn't kill that sort of work.

For example, in the mid-50s, CP people made two very influential films, groundbreaking then because Sidney Poitier played a black man who was a much bigger human being than the white men with whom he was linked: 'A Man is 10 Feet Tall' - the one played by Poitier (the film was later given the neutral title 'Edge of the City') - and 'The Defiant Ones'.

The work that Elia Kazan, the namer of names, did is probably what he would have done anyway. He is, and will remain, one of the greatest American film directors of the 20th century.