Long live the Reds? The unlucky legacy of the Hollywood blacklist

Too often these days we hear the tireless phrase “They just don’t make ’em like they used to” when it comes to the movies.

Film historian David Spaner blames the blacklist.

In his new book, “Shoot It! Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film,” Spaner makes the case that the corporate values underpinning Hollywood’s political perfidy in the 1950s are to blame for a sustained assault on creative freedom — and perhaps, freedom in general — in the movie business.

Spaner argues that the studios’ willingness to enforce a creative exodus among the industry’s lefty best and brightest indeed left it irrevocably impoverished. 

“The blacklist had a huge effect on the quality of Hollywood filmmaking for decades, and Hollywood filmmaking has never entirely recovered,” he said recently over lunch at Nate ’n Al of Beverly Hills.

On any old weekend, a visit to the multiplex makes a convincing case that Spaner might be right. Almost everything the studios generate is commercialized and homogenized for a global audience. Movies are mostly either a remake (“Total Recall”), a franchise (“Batman,” “Twilight” “Harry Potter”) or a formulaic genre film that is so hackneyed and unoriginal it is as unwatchable as “The Watch.”

Films with a distinct sense of the local culture are becoming increasingly rare — think Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” — and, because art is ever beholden to box office, filmmakers who actually innovate like Allen and the Texas-born Wes Anderson now prefer to work in Europe.

Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer has acknowledged corporate Hollywood’s shame: “We make a lot of shitty movies,” he confessed to a Savannah Film Festival audience last November. “Every one of them breaks my heart.”

Meyer is frank about Hollywood’s fidelity to fortune. “It’s great to win awards and make films that you’re proud of,” he told the Guardian. “But your first obligation is to make money and then worry about being proud of what you do.”

The nonagenarian Norma Barzman would puke. The New York-born author and screenwriter is a self-described Commie who was blacklisted along with her husband, Ben Barzman, during the Red Scare. What was supposed to be a two-week vacation in Paris turned into a 30-year exile for the couple after they received a call from a friend warning, “Don’t come back. Don’t come back under any circumstances,” Barzman recalled.

Barzman was proud of her politics, which she had inherited from her father, a well-to-do textile importer who supported progressive causes.

“It permeated every part of my life,” she said. “What I wrote, the way I lived, my marriage, the way I brought up my children. Everything I did was political. I wanted to make a better world and I really believed one could.”

But in those days, that universal (and especially Jewish) value had Hollywood Jews deeply divided over the means to achieve it.

“A lot of people know that the Hollywood studio system was largely invented by Jews but not so many people know that the resistance to the Hollywood studio system was also largely invented by Jews,” Spaner said of the radical Hollywood left. “To me the Hollywood blacklist of the ’40s and ’50s was Jew-on-Jew violence.”

Spaner writes: “[The House Un-American Activities Committee’s] witch-hunters were bothered that so much studio talent was so New York, so intellectual, so smart-alecky, so left-wing … so Jewish — un-American” —and who HUAC spokesman John Rankin plainly called “enemies of Christianity” — “the frightened, essentially conservative studio heads, who were almost entirely Jewish, were at pains to distance themselves from their left-wing Jewish employees, and to prove they were first and foremost American, [so] they enforced the blacklist.”

After all, it was those leftist Jewish artists from New York who helped establish the guilds and labor unions that went toe-to-toe with the studios in order to enact fair industry practices. “The moguls stayed quiet during the organizing,” Barzman recalled. “The blacklist was Hollywood’s revenge.”

But if the moguls’ aim was to weaken the unions, they failed; and if sacrificing creativity was the means, how stupidly self-negating. What the blacklist era did accomplish, however, was institutionalizing self-interest at the expense of creative risk-taking and banishing radical politics that might tie Hollywood pictures to distinct social ideals.

Today Hollywood “liberalism” is mostly idle politics, Spaner said. “Before the blacklist, the activism of the ’30s and ’40s was an activism that had an actual critique of the capitalist system. That was driven out. So the activism that exists now is not an overall critique, it’s more around specific issues and specific candidates and a lot of it tends to involve fundraising by big-name, fairly liberal Hollywood stars.”

But Barzman has no regrets. During the seven years the U.S. government rescinded her passport, she took her seven kids to the south of France where they lived next door to Picasso, who became a friend. Her husband, whose U.S. citizenship was denaturalized, made a slew of movies all over Europe, and anonymously penned the script for “El Cid.”

After living the good life, I asked her why they returned to Los Angeles in the late ’70s. “My husband had the idea in his head he wanted to make it big in Hollywood,” she said wistfully.

Even after the business had broken his heart, he responded with love.