We did the only thing we could

Steve Cohen continues a series about important socialist novels, looking at Ring Lardner Jr and the background to his novel the Ecstasy of Edwin Muir

Ring Lardner Jr. was one of the Hollywood Ten — the ten screenwriters who went to prison for refusing in 1947 to testify before the House of Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC). Today he is best remembered, if at all, for his response to the question as to whether he was or had ever been a member of the Communist Party — “I could answer the question exactly the way you want, but if I did I would hate myself in the morning”.

Though HUAC is forever identified with senator Joe McCarthy, the anti-communist witch hunter, it was never actually chaired by him (his Congressional base was the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations). The main witch hunter on HUAC was Richard Nixon, and the chair was John Parnell Thomas.

According to Lardner’s daughter Kate (in her autobiography Shut up he explained – the memoirs of a blacklisted kid) throughout the hearings Thomas sat on a District of Columbia telephone directory and a red silk cushion in order to appear taller for the TV cameras. Lardner was to meet Thomas again — when they were both prisoners in the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. The HUAC Chair had been brought to trial for putting nonexistent workers on the government payroll and appropriating their salaries for himself.

Whilst in prison Thomas was given the role of custodian of the chicken yard. Lester Cole, another of the Hollywood Ten (who subsequent to the blacklist was to script the hit movie Born Free), greeted the weary, perspiring Thomas with “Still pushing the shit around?”

Lardner spent his year in prison researching for his first novel, The Ecstasy of Edwin Muir, a black, political comedy. Research was necessary as the novel has at its centre an expose of Catholic theology, an expose which sees Edwin Muir shift step by step from a position of liberal, pacifist atheism to becoming a right-wing, warmongering Trappist monk.

The background story within the book was the McCarthyite inquisition — and its sub-categories of racism and anti-semitism (in objecting to his sister marrying a Jew, Edwin’s mother explains “Because he’s Jewish and she isn’t. People ought to leave other kinds of people alone… If we’re going to be tolerant, they have to, too”). This background cleverly interweaves fiction (with one of the characters denouncing his mother as a communist) with fact (such as the Paul Robeson concert at Peekskill where the spectators were viciously assaulted by hundreds of right wing thugs with the encouragement and participation of the local police).

In his 1997 Preface to the book (first printed in 1954) Lardner says how all USA publishers effectively blacklisted the novel (“one editor at a very large firm told me the content made it unacceptable there because it meant their entire textbook division would be boycotted in parochial schools nationwide”). Eventually it was published in the UK by Jonathan Cape, who realised capitalism can cash in on anything and that the possible notoriety of the novel “may be of some publicity value in selling your book”.

Prior to being blacklisted Lardner was probably the best paid screenwriter in Hollywood. His breakthrough had come in 1942 with the script for George Stevens’s Woman Of The Year (1942). This was not so much a “communist” movie (as the McCarthyites would claim) as a proto-feminist one about the love-hate marriage of a sophisticated political columnist and a plain-speaking sports journalist.

It was based on the relationship between the writer Dorothy Parker and Lardner’s father, Ring Lardner Sr, who was himself a famous sports columnist and writer. It was the first and maybe the best of the nine Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films.

The feminist angle was watered down with an ending rewritten by Michael Kanin, in which Hepburn’s character submits to domesticity, by cooking her husband’s breakfast, to keep the man she loves. This was because the producer Louis B. Mayer (of MGM and along with the other movie moguls a staunch supporter of the subsequent blacklist) had objected to Lardner making Spencer Tracy’s character tell Hepburn to “just be yourself”. Nonetheless Lardner (along with Kanin) was given his first Oscar for best original screenplay. Following the blacklist he used it as a doorstop.

During the blacklist Lardner’s main income was derived, writing under a necessary pseudonym, from the emerging television medium. He often wrote the script for The Adventures Of Robin Hood — the famous 1950s series on which the children of the 60s were raised and which starred Richard Greene. The series hired others on the blacklist, and in 1990 there was released the movie Fellow Traveller which very cleverly depicted McCarthyism through the Robin Hood story – with the Sheriff of Nottingham being the McCarthy figure.

With the lifting of the blacklist Lardner eventually and deservedly won another Oscar for the screenplay for MASH. In his own autobiography (appropriately titled I’d Hate Myself In The Morning) he wrote about how in 1997, a half century after HUAC first met to condemn him, there was a ceremony to honour him at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Also honoured were other blacklisted directors, actors and screenwriters — including the screenwriter Paul Jarrico.

Jarrico had been invited to another similar ceremony the following day but half way through the event it was announced that, overcome with both sleep and elation, he had crashed his car and was dead. Lardner though used the party at the Academy to read out in full the prepared speech that Parnell Thomas had fifty years previously prevented him making before HUAC.

Lardner died in 2000 — the last surviving member of the Ten. Since joining up in 1937, he had lived much of the time as a Stalinist. Unlike many others he seems never to have formally quit the Party, but simply let his membership lapse.

He was a member of most of the Party “front organisations” active in Hollywood — the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, the Citizens Committee for the Defence of Mexican-American Youth, the Hollywood Writers Mobilisation Against the War and the board of the Screen Writers Guild. As a member of the latter he allowed himself to be duped by the Party into appearing to become, or indeed actually, becoming, a martyr — not by refusing to name names, but by refusing to see and denounce the reactionary nature of the Party.

However inasmuch as individuals can be understood outside of the Party in which they operated, there is much to be said in Lardner’s favour politically. He picketed the hand that fed him, as when Warner Brothers gates were opened in friendship to the son of Mussolini. And sometimes he stood up to studio moguls against the reactionary junk being readied for the screen, i.e., trying to coax David O. Selznick not to make Gone With the Wind because the book was pro-KKK!

And in the end he was very modest about his own martyrdom in refusing to testify before HUAC, saying “But from time to time I try to suggest that we weren’t as heroic as people make us out to be. It would be more analytically precise... to say we did the only thing we could ... short of behaving like complete shits.”

The Ecstasy of Edwin Muir exposes the shits.