Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley: Review of Larry Ceplair's The Marxist and the Movies: A Biography of Paul Jarrico (The University Press of Kentucky, 2007)

Apr 11, 2008 8:25 pm

Ron Briley: Review of Larry Ceplair's The Marxist and the Movies: A Biography of Paul Jarrico (The University Press of Kentucky, 2007)

The career of blacklisted screenwriter Paul Jarrico raises important questions regarding the powers of the state and entertainment industry to restrict the political expression of artists. Larry Ceplair, professor emeritus of history at Santa Monica College, draws upon Jarrico’s personal papers as well as interviews with associates and family members to place the screenwriter’s life and work within historical and cultural context. The Jarrico biography builds upon Ceplair’s excellent study of Hollywood politics coauthored by Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-60 (1980). While conservative critics of the film industry maintain that Hollywood was a dangerous source of Communist propaganda during 1930s and 1960s and continues to harbor leftist sympathies, Ceplair tends to discount such simplistic narratives. As the career of Jarrico indicates, there were certainly members of the Communist Party working in the film capital, but their influence was limited by the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process as well as the considerable power of more conservative studio heads.

Jarrico was born 12 January 1915 as Israel Shapiro in Los Angeles, California. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, and Jarrico’s father, Aaron was an attorney who introduced his son to Zionism as well as socialist and labor causes. Aaron was disappointed when his son as a student at UCLA broke with socialism and joined the Communist Party. Jarrico believed that the Communists offered the best opportunity for combating the growing international threat of fascism during the 1930s.

In 1936, Jarrico married Sylvia Guss, who shared his political passions and followed her husband into political exile after his blacklisting in 1951. Although Jarrico later divorced her in 1966, Sylvia maintained a friendship with her former husband and constituted one of the major sources for Ceplair’s biography. Jarrico was not always loyal to Sylvia during their marriage, but her recollections appear even handed and supportive of Jarrico’s legacy as a writer and activist.

During the late 1930s, Jarrico struggled to establish himself as a screenwriter, working for Columbia Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, and Universal Pictures. Producer Dore Schary, known for his liberal politics, was an early booster of Jarrico’s work, but as a Hollywood producer he would later embrace the blacklist. Jarrico was an active member of the Communist Party in Hollywood, but his screenwriting credits and projects were hardly political tracts. The screenwriter focused primarily upon mass entertainment romantic comedies. In 1941, he earned an Academy Award nomination for Tom, Dick and Harry. The film, featuring Ginger Rogers and George Murphy, members of the anticommunist Hollywood political community, told the story of a young woman choosing a husband among three suitors. As Ceplair notes, leftist screenwriters were unable to dominate the production process and had to be content with introducing more sympathetic treatments of black Americans, women, and the working class.

One exception to the generally apolitical films written by Jarrico was the 1944 MGM production Song of Russia, which he coauthored with Richard Collins. The film tells the story of an American musical conductor who falls in love with a Soviet woman (Susan Peters) during the Second World War. Song of Russia essentially celebrates the contribution of the Soviet people to the struggle against fascism; however, as the Cold War emerged during the late 1940s, the film was denounced as Communist propaganda before Congressional investigators.

When the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was invited to Hollywood in 1947, Jarrico was not among the prominent leftists subpoenaed by the Congressmen. Nevertheless, Jarrico was a strong supporter of the Hollywood screenwriters, such as John Howard Lawson, Dalton Trumbo, and Ring Lardner, Jr., who refused to cooperate with HUAC. Referred to as the Hollywood Ten, Jarrico’s colleagues were imprisoned for contempt of Congress and blacklisted by Hollywood producers. Jarrico, meanwhile, continued to work in Hollywood, earning a writing credit for Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948). He also served as chairman of the film division of the Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions, working for the development of progressive themes in post war cinema. Jarrico’s advocacy for the Hollywood Ten was evidenced by his fund raising for the blacklisted cultural workers and production of the documentary film, The Hollywood Ten (1950).

Jarrico's political activities were noted by those on the right, and in 1951 he was summoned before HUAC. The screenwriter denounced HUAC and the blacklist, refused to discuss the political activities of his associates, and invoked the Fifth Amendment when he was questioned about his membership in the Communist Party. Jarrico was quite critical of his former colleague, Richard Collins for cooperating with HUAC. A caustic Jarrico commented that Collins asserted his independence by “standing on his own two knees.”

While Jarrico was able to avoid prison, his Hollywood career was effectively over following his HUAC appearance. Although he continued to write under the pseudonym “Peter Achilles,” work was not forthcoming. The impact of the backlist upon Jarrico’s career is evident in the following passage from Ceplair, “Jarrico had earned thirteen Academy credits between 1937 and 1949. He would not receive another credit until 1969. He had earned $28,500 on average per year in the decade prior to the blacklist (1941-51), he would earn $14,000 total between 1952 and 1957” (160).

Unable to work in the film capital, Jarrico along with blacklisted director Herbert Biberman and writer Michael Wilson formed the Independent Production Corporation to make films outside of the Hollywood system. For their first project, the filmmakers selected a strike conducted by Mexican-American members of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. Salt of the Earth (1953) was filmed on location in Silver City, New Mexico and featured participants in the strike portraying themselves. Wilson’s script was also notable for its focus upon the contributions of women to the struggle for better working and living conditions. While the film today is heralded as a major work of political art, in the 1950s the government and Hollywood film industry conspired to limit the distribution of the film. Ceplair acknowledges the progressive nature of Salt, writing, “The film’s particular claim on posterity is the Marxist vision that Jarrico, Wilson, and Biberman brought to the project. The values that informed their political lives gave an aesthetic coherence to the story of Mexican American miners and their families that had been missing from all subsequent movies, about working people” (157).

Frustrated with his prospects in the United States, Jarrico immigrated to Paris in 1958. While involved with several European film projects, Jarrico was never able to achieve the financial success of his fellow blacklisted writer in exile, Michael Wilson. Although he remained a committed Marxist, Jarrico became more critical of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party in the United States following the revelations of Khrushchev regarding the crimes of Stalin and the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. Jarrico asserted that Communists needed to better practice democracy and political debate in their struggle for a more equitable division of the world’s resources.

With the collapse of the blacklist in the late 1960s, Jarrico returned to Hollywood in 1975. He was, however, generally unsuccessful in resurrecting his writing career as producers found his scripts to be somewhat dated for film audiences in the 1980s. Ceplair argues that in his later years, Jarrico made a significant contribution to the film industry with his labors to assure that blacklisted writers received the screen creditswhich they were due. For example, Jarrico played an essential role in restoring the credits denied blacklisted writers Albert Maltz, John Howard Lawson, and Marguerite Roberts for The Robe (1953), Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), and Ivanhoe (1952), respectively. Jarrico’s work in addressing the injustices of the blacklist was cut short on 28 October 1997 when he perished in a car accident.

While Jarrico was perhaps not a writer of the first magnitude, Ceplair’s fine biography sheds important light on the blacklist and politics of the film community. Jarrico was a member of the Communist Party who did what he could to further his political cause as a cultural worker laboring within the capitalist enclave of Hollywood. But as Ceplair documents, leftist screenwriters were hardly able to control the final product of their labors during the studio era. And the power of conservative interests in the film community was certainly evident in the HUAC hearings and subsequent industrial blacklist. Ceplair’s cautionary tale of Paul Jarrico might give pause to those who continue to perceive the diverse, capitalistic institution of Hollywood as a monolithic leftist political entity.

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George E. Rennar - 4/13/2008

The review says that the Communists were unable to take over Hollywood. Did they try? If so, how? Why did they fail?