Half of this memoir is about getting into trouble and the other half is about trying to get out of trouble. The “trouble” is the period of the infamous and destructive Hollywood blacklist that, after half a century, still incites passionate debate.
It seems incredible now, but in the 1940s and 1950s, a hurricane of fear, suspicion and retribution swept this country as congressional committees hauled citizens into hearings and demanded that they account for their political beliefs. If you had joined the Communist Party or other “leftist” groups, you were considered a danger to America--unless you “confessed,” informed on others and signed a loyalty oath.
Dalton Trumbo, a famous blacklisted screenwriter, said: “We were all victims.” Yet Albert Maltz, another blacklisted writer, strongly disagreed. Those who named names and went on with their careers, he said, could not be equated with individuals who had defied the House Un-American Activities Committee or Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee and had lost their careers. The fiery debate continues to this day.
Like many others, film director Edward Dmytryk was claimed by its amber. He was the only member of the Hollywood Ten--a group of prominent entertainment personalities that also included Trumbo and Maltz--who recanted his original testimony before HUAC to clear his name. Was he a victim or simply an opportunist? In his new book, “Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten,” Dmytryk offers the reasons for his choices. Yet they wind up sounding more like excuses.
Indeed, one looks in vain for more insight, for less of a focus on communism--now so discredited--and for a deeper analysis of his actions. The author wants to explain himself, yet his accounting is turgid with justification and finger-pointing.
“Odd Man Out” is Dmytryk’s second book about himself. The first, “It’s a Hell of a Life but Not a Bad Living,” published in 1978, detailed his work as a successful Academy Award-nominated film director whose works included “Murder, My Sweet,” “Crossfire,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “The Young Lions” and others. In his latest book, Dmytryk uses a breezy style to describe the Hollywood film community of the 1940s and its political context.
He became involved with the left, he said, because he “was against fascism on humanitarian rather than political grounds. . . .” At that time, many politically progressive activities were organized by the Communist Party of America because neither “the Democrats nor the Republicans were taking any organized action. . . .” In 1944, he joined the Communist Party and eventually met the men later known as the Hollywood Ten. In 1945, he says, he was kicked out of the Communist Party over disagreements about his film, “Cornered.”
Two years later, as Dmytryk’s career was taking off, Congress cited the Hollywood Ten with contempt for refusing to answer HUAC’s questions about their membership in various organizations. The 10 fervently believed that Congress had no right to question their affiliations or beliefs, and Dmytryk is at his best rendering an eyewitness account of their testimony. The witnesses were cited for contempt and eventually went to jail.
Step by step, Dmytryk takes us through his incarceration in a federal prison where, he says, “two months of undisturbed thinking showed me the light. . . .” The Communist Party, he said, had used the Hollywood Ten as propaganda, and "[If] I were going to be a martyr, I wanted the privilege of choosing my martyrdom. . . .”
But Dmytryk couldn’t save himself just by telling HUAC that he’d made a mistake. He had to name names. Of this step he says: “I had no doubts, no second thoughts; these were all behind me.” Dmytryk adds that “confused liberals” might have allowed “a seditious party to destroy one’s country. . . . The presumption that there is an immutable, unwritten law against informing is sheer nonsense.”
The value of a memoir is to learn more about a person’s reactions to momentous choices or events. Was it really this easy for Dmytryk to inform? We get some sense of the price he paid when the author describes his resulting social ostracism: Dmytryk was not allowed to contribute publicly to the campaigns of Adlai Stevenson or John F. Kennedy; blacklisted artists balked at serving on panels with him; his daughter was refused admission to a private school because two mothers declined to let their children attend classes with his child. He lost one film job because a studio executive was a “liberal”; he lost another because Jack Warner wouldn’t have an ex-Communist on the lot.
Those who did not inform, of course, had it much worse. They lost their careers and reputations; many had to leave the country, and their families have suffered. Dmytryk concedes that he is bitter, yet he doesn’t blame the studios or HUAC. “In my saga,” he summarizes, “the scoundrels were . . . fellows of the liberal chic, the hypocrites who rated snitching a higher crime than treason. . . .”
But treason is a loaded word. None of the Hollywood Ten was passing atomic secrets. No one in Hollywood was tried or convicted for acts of disloyalty to America. Memoirs of this time can trap us in old despairs and old betrayals; they can also educate those who were not there to see such events for themselves. Unfortunately, Dmytryk’s memoir does not help us understand the larger picture, or even himself.