Tender Comrades: Interviews with blacklisted Hollywood Reds

"Tender Comrades" (St. Martins, 1997) is a collection of interviews with blacklisted Hollywood directors, actors and writer edited by Paul Buhle and Patrick McGilligan. It will be of tremendous interest to students of American left politics, popular culture and society.

Larry Ceplair conducts the first interview with Norma Barzman, who was not only the wife of blacklisted screenwriter Ben Barzman, but an accomplished writer herself. Ben Barzman, who died in 1989, wrote the screenplay for "The Boy With Green Hair," an example of his best work. This 1948 film captured the mood of disillusionment brought on by the collapse of the US-Soviet WWII friendship and the threat of nuclear war on the horizon.

(He is also responsible for the atrocious "Back to Bataan," a "kill all the gooks" 1945 war movie that starred a Rambo-esque John Wayne. All Communist film-writers produced this type of xenophobic junk during the war years. In doing so, they unwittingly paved the way for the cold war. The military-industrial complex always needs a symbol to rally people's anger around. When a swastika was no longer available, a hammer-and-sickle became a convenient substitute.)

The Barzmans were typical Communist Party recruits from the intelligentsia during the 1930s and 40s. They were Jewish college graduates radicalized by the Great Depression. They met at a Hollywood fund-raiser at Robert Rossen's home in 1942. A year later they were married by "a defrocked rabbi who had been tarred and feathered and run out of Montgomery, Alabama, for defending the Scottsboro Boys and would eventually join the Communist Party and work for SovExport Film."

They were also typical of many Communists in the Browder popular front era in their relaxed attitude toward party membership. Norma Barzman says that she went through a series of new members classes, but found herself more interested in Ernst Fischer's aesthetic theories than the Marxist classics. Mostly, party activity was of the sort that brought the Barzmans together, fundraising parties at the homes of various left-leaning celebrities.

As the witch-hunt gathered momentum, the Barzmans started to think about going into exile. One day Norma Barzman was sitting on her front lawn when a woman with blond hair stopped her convertible in front of the house. She had spotted a cop at the bottom of the hill recording the license plate numbers of visitors the Barzman home. The friendly blond said that her name was Norma also. She was on her way to Judy Garland's party just up the hill. Years later Norma Barzman found out that it was Marilyn Monroe who had warned her.

The Barzmans eventually did flee to Europe and took up residence in Paris, where they became part of an exile community that the French Communist Party lionized. Ben always felt constricted by this milieu that he regarded as a "barrel of herrings." He finally moved the family to the provinces where they tried to integrate themselves with the European film-making industry, especially the politically aware fraction.

As is often the case, the need to put food on the table took priority over political ideals and Ben Barzman cranked out commercial screenplays. One of them was "El Cid," a 1958 costume drama starring Sophia Loren, married to the producer Carlo Ponti. Loren's co-star was the right-wing fanatic Charlton Heston who was always pestering Ben Barzman with questions about the script. "When I spend the night in the barn with Sophia, what happens to my horse? My fans will want to know. It reflects on my image." So Ben Barzman threw in a little business about a stableboy throwing a blanket over the horse and leading it away.

One of Ben Barzman's finest accomplishments was his work on Costa-Gavras's "Z," the quintessential political movie. Norma describes how her husband became involved with the project:

"Ben's work on L'attentat [a movie about the Algerian independence struggle] probably led Constantin Costa-Gravas and Jacque Perrin to send Ben the screenplay for Z. I had read the book and thought it was terrific. Ben and I read the screenplay and thought it was awful. Jacques, who was producing, and Costa came to Mougins. Ben told them what he thought was wrong with it. They asked his advice. Ben came up to the bedroom to ask me what he should tell them. I said that they should just go back to the book, which was wonderful. He told them that. They threw out their screenplay. Ben did an adaptation that followed the documentary nature of the book. Jorge Semprún rewrote and took a sole credit. Nevertheless, Ben helped them make a deal with the Algerians, permitting the movie to be shown there."

The Barzmans were typical Communists of the 1950s and 60s. They didn't really break with the movement politically until 1968 when the French Communists failed to give the student and worker revolt proper leadership. Their son, Jon Barzman, by this time had become an activist in the American Trotskyist movement. I first met Jon up in Boston in 1971 where he had just completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard. As 1960's vintage Trotskyists, our political generation had nothing but contempt for the "Stalinists" who had betrayed revolutions near and far. In Jon's case, as was the case of many "red diaper baby" recruits to the movement, the resentment towards "Stalinists" had a generational aspect as well.

The last time I saw Jon was back in Houston in 1975 when the World Trotskyist movement--all 5,000 members--fought over which group to support in Argentina. Jon defended the Ernest Mandel-led European movement that supported a semi-Trotskyist guerrilla group. The American party supported a group that followed tactics like our own: running candidates, fighting for civil liberties and other reforms, etc.

The Trotskyist movement is all but dead nowadays. Jon seems to have evolved politically, as would any sane person. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he translated the book on the historical role of energy in class societies.

Part of any normal person's evolution would also entail a more nuanced understanding of the role of the Communist Party in American history. It has been all too easy to write it off as a creature of Soviet foreign policy. The reality is that it had much more in common with mass-based movements like the IWW or Eugene Debs's Socialist Party, which were also imperfect.

The Communist Party gave thousands of people a political framework and the social support that made political or artistic contributions possible. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ability of a far-off bureaucracy to influence political or artistic life has virtually disappeared. When a new left is created, as it surely will due to the contradictions of the capitalist system, we should study the past example of red Hollywood, a collection of gifted artists who influenced mass society, just as we would study successful strikes from the 1930s. There will be no better place to turn than Paul Buhle and Patrick McGilligan's "Tender Comrades."

Louis Proyect