The Hollywood Blacklist in Exile

August 15, 2014

Stories of the Hollywood blacklist of the 1940s and ’50s are, by now, well known. Many books, articles and documentaries exist about the lives of actors, screenwriters and directors who the studios deemed unemployable because of their association — real or alleged — with the Communist Party. Also familiar are the stories of many who “named names” to Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee — such as Ronald Reagan, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, who provided names of people they believed were Communists and, in return, were allowed to continue working for the studios. Equally familiar is the fate of those who refused to testify, some of whom — including Dalton Trumbo and Ring Lardner Jr. — went to jail for contempt of Congress.

There is, however, another chapter in this tale, as showcased in “Hollywood Exiles in Europe,” UCLA’s Film & Television Archive’s film series at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, showing through Aug. 17. The series features films by Jules Dassin, John Berry, Ed Dmytryk, Ben and Norma Barzman, Joseph Losey, Cy Endfield and Donald Ogden Stewart. All were writers and directors who went to Europe and continued to work under their own names, advancing their careers sometimes to the point they were considered European artists. (Dmytryk returned from exile in 1950 and after naming names was allowed to resume his Hollywood career.) The series is co-curated by Rebecca Prime, whose “Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture” (Rutgers University Press, 2014) tells the previously untold tale of the lives and influence of these filmmakers.

As Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, points out on his blog, many of the exiles succeeded by bringing film noir to European-made films and making moral tales for morally ambiguous times. Like generations of immigrants and exiles the world over, not all adapted successfully or in the same manner. The series showcases the divergent reactions as experienced by three Jewish exiles to Europe: director and writer Jules Dassin, and screenwriters Ben and Norma Barzman.

Julius “Jules” Dassin was born in Middletown, Conn., in 1911. He grew up in Harlem, N.Y. and joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, but left in 1939 after Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler. Dassin was a successful director of Hollywood films including “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1941), “The Canterville Ghost” (1944), “The Naked City” (1948) and “Thieves’ Highway”(1949). But in 1950, during the production of “Night and the City,” Dassin was blacklisted. He moved to France, and it would be five years before he produced another film, “Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes” — also known as “Rififi” — which he directed and co-wrote, adapting the story from a French novel.

“Rififi” is remarkable in part for its nearly 30-minute heist scene, filmed with no dialogue or music. It has been described as the ur-heist film, and if you’ve ever watched a film where someone drops down from the ceiling to evade a security system and purloin a treasure, you’ve seen the influence of “Rififi” — Dassin himself borrowed the scene nine years later for his action-comedy heist film, “Topkapi.”

At the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, Dassin won the Best Director award for “Rififi.” Cannes was also where he met Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress who he would make world famous in “Never On Sunday” (1960) and who he married in 1966; they remained married until Mercouri’s death in 1994. Following her death, Dassin ran the Melina Mercouri Foundation, which lobbied the British Museum to return the classical Greek sculptures known as the Elgin Marbles and helped establish the Acropolis Museum with casts of the Marbles. Until his death in 2008, Dassin remained closely identified with Greece and Greek politics, to the point where many assumed Dassin was Greek. One could say Dassin embraced exile, assimilated and, professionally, never looked back.

By contrast, Ben Barzman never acclimated to Europe. Barzman was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1910 and was a journalist and novelist before coming to Hollywood. Following the Great Depression, he joined the Communist Party. In 1942, while attending a fundraiser at screenwriter and director Robert Rossen’s home, he met his future wife, Norma, who was also a journalist-turned-screenwriter. She, too, joined the Communist Party. Ben Barzman gained acclaim with “The Boy with the Green Hair” in 1948. However, the following year, he and Norma left for Europe after Marilyn Monroe tipped them off that a policeman was parked at the end of their street monitoring their comings and goings, and Groucho Marx warned them they were about to be added to the blacklist.

The Barzmans spent time in Paris and then settled in the south of France. Ben Barzman continued to write screenplays but constantly felt the stress of exile. He was at times despondent, and often suspicious that U.S. agents were spying on him and his wife. At the time, many thought he was paranoid but many years later, Ben Barzman discovered that indeed FBI agents in the U.S. Embassy had been tracking them.

In 1960, he reinvented himself with great success as a science fiction writer, most notably with the novel “Out of This World” (also known as “Echo X”). During his exile, Barzman wrote commercial European costume dramas such as “El Cid” (1961) for Sophia Loren (for which he was initially uncredited). However, Barzman finally was able to channel his political passion into an uncredited rewrite of Costa-Gavras’ political thriller “Z” (1969).

In the 1970s, the Barzmans returned to the U.S., and Ben Barzman died in 1989 in Santa Monica. Exile had deprived his screenwriting career of its momentum and hobbled him emotionally.
Finally, there is Norma Barzman, who at 93, continues to thrive. She appeared at the Hammer on July 25 to kick off the film series. The UCLA Film & Television Archive will host a reception on Sept. 15 to honor Barzman’s 94th birthday, featuring a screening of “The Locket,” the 1946 film for which she wrote the screenplay.

Norma Barzman found exile to be, in Hemingway’s phrase, “a moveable feast.” She befriended Picasso, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret and blacklisted artists such as Zero Mostel, Endfield and Losey. It was all oxygen to her, even as the same events seemed to dispirit her husband. In 2003, she published a memoir, “The Red and the Blacklist: The Intimate Memoir of a Hollywood Expatriate” (Nation Books), which captures her optimism and enthusiasm.

Too often the Hollywood blacklist stands for repression and betrayal. “Hollywood Exiles in Europe” deepens our understanding of the varied personal and professional responses of affected artists. The artists in this series chose to create new lives elsewhere, a theme that has been oft repeated in Jewish history. Like the story of so many other exiles, some, like Dassin, assimilated and furthered their art; some, like Ben Barzman, could not; and some, like Norma Barzman, while not adopting their host countries, continued to thrive — for she was, as Plutarch said of Socrates, “not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”

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