For some reason, which I can’t, to this day, completely understand, I have an obsessive fascination and disgust over one of our darker periods in mid-twentieth century history; the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the resulting Blacklist. Ever since High School after reading 10 Days That Shook the World, and enjoying more times than I care to admit, Warren Beatty’s epic tale of John Reed in Reds, I was intrigued by the domestic Communist movement, but even more, the US government’s horrific attempt to eradicate Civil rights, through censorship and purging of all social and political ideologies beyond Christian defined “patriotism’”, to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Perhaps it’s my artistic leanings, and belief that for pure and honest expression, there should be no such thing as censorship or “acceptable” guidelines. The very nature of our constitution and the reason we severed political and financial ties with England was a basic rift between what we and our founding fathers believed were fundamental human rights.
Whatever is the reason for my interest, that’s for me and my therapist to sort out, but I do believe that there’s no better primer film to help get a cursory understanding of the Hollywood Blacklist and its impact than Martin Ritt’s excellent and disarming dramedy, The Front, recently released on Blu-Ray and DVD from Twilight Time.
While it feels like a Woody Allen film (which may have a lot to do with the fact that his longtime collaborators, Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe produced it) he appears as an actor only. At this point in his career, he had stopped doing other peoples’ work altogether, and almost to a fault, only worked on films he had complete control over. However, director Martin Ritt (Hud, Sounder, Norma Rae) a blacklist survivor himself, brought the script by blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein to Rollins and Joffe, hoping Allen would at least read it; they all believed he was perfect for the role of the schlemeiel who agrees to be a front for a group of blacklisted writers. Unlike other Allen characters, small-time bookie and cashier Howard Prince is almost an illiterate, non-intellectual odds player. The story goes that Allen was so moved by the source material and the plight that affected so many great writers/directors and actors that he jumped at the chance. This was not just a story of the backlist, but a plea for understanding from actors and creatives behind the camera who all suffered firsthand through this time.
In the film, Woody’s character Harold Prince is approached by childhood friend Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) who has been blacklisted and asks Prince if he’ll “front” for him; use his name and appear at studios with script in hand, as Miller. Prince is happy to do his friend a favor, and seems unconcerned about the politics involved – Miller freely admits he is a Communist. When Miller further tells Prince he will give him 10% of his fee, Prince is now extremely motivated.
After the first script is submitted, Network Producer Howard Sussman (Herschel Bernardi – also a blacklist survivor) and idealistic editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci) are desperate to meet this great new “American voice,” and curious how he could write such a mature and well-crafted piece his first time out the gate. Prince is not too good at pretending to be a writer, he’s nervous and agitated at the meeting and more interested in asking Florence out on a date. Several situations play out for good comic affect as Prince does quite the balancing act to try and keep everyone involved ignorant as to his double life.
Simultaneously, we see little snippets of scenes that reveal the shortsightedness of the government and FBI bureaucrats who are so hungry to capture as many “communist sympathizers” they can, that they think nothing of telling studios and networks not to use a certain actor because he may have passed pamphlets out 20 years earlier, or had a friend who was a communist, even if the actor in question had nothing to do with it, his name has been confused with someone else.
Hecky Brown, a borscht belt style comedian (played with ferocious abandon by Zero Mostel – also blacklisted) plays the storyteller-host of an anthology series “Grand Central” where Prince submits scripts. A subplot follows Brown as he is “vetted” by a government Stooge named Francis X. Hennessey who is paid by the studios to do background checks and make “suggestions” to the government as to who should be allowed to work or not. Brown had once paid for a subscription to a “Red” newsletter because he was trying to get a Communist girl in bed. He’s harassed continually by Hennessey to write a heartfelt letter, not only to admit and apologize for his lapse in judgment, but “name” names of other actors and creatives who he saw at any of these Communist functions. All Hecky wants to do is to work; and all Hennesey wants is to humiliate Brown into full disclosure. A pivotal and powerful scene of Brown working at a Catskills resort for mere pennies on the dollar is heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, Prince’s fronting works out so well, and allows him to pay off his bookie debts and start elevating his lifestyle, that he pushes Miller to give him scripts of more blacklisted writers. He claims this is purely out of sympathies for the poor men who can’t make a living, but it’s really because Prince is seeing the financial gain. He’s also struggling to keep his deception from Florence, who has fallen in love with the “writer” over the man.
When The Front was released, it was given an R rating, which today, seems silly. It’s all for the very last line, which in 1976 was a shocker to audiences, and still packs a punch, much in the way Clark Gable’s “Frankly, my dear…” from Gone With the Wind remains one of the most quoted “screw you’s” in Hollywood History.
Kudos go to Ritt’s deft direction, Zero Mostel’s pathos laden performance, as well as Allen for not only taking on a character struggling with his own moral ambiguity, but one who is not given to soapbox sermonizing. In fact, his third act call to action happens so late in the story that it plays much more believably, and less like a celebrity using the trappings of a character to preach his politics.
There are several films about the blacklist that range from subtle (The Hoaxters) to the overwrought and highly melodramatic (Guilty by Suspicion), to pure fantasy (The Majestic) and depending on where your sympathies lie, you will either connect to these stories or only find them to be abstract concepts. The skill of Bernstein’s script allows the viewer to completely humanize the circumstances that led to the destruction of people’s lives. Critics of the time found The Front an oversimplification, but in 1976, we were just coming out from under the shadow of HUAC, and it was still a relevant and recent period. Today, when we see a fringe element questioning whether the Holocaust ever even “happened,” it’s sobering to realize something that happened in the mid-twentieth century may be considered ancient history to those not born during the period of “naming names.” It’s important than to see The Front not only as a good film, but a piece of American History that deserves its place in the sun again.
The Front is just familiar enough a touchstone that it could open up the conversation and allow younger viewers a unique perspective into this time of mistrust, fear and paranoia. Aren’t we finding this political agenda yet again alive and well, splashed across the internet and 24 hour news channels?
If you want to learn even more about HUAC and the impact of the Hollywood Blacklist, definitely check out the documentary Hollywood on Trial, released the same year as The Front.