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Blacklisted Recall One of Their Own

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The dwindling list of survivors of Hollywood’s darkest period--the time of the blacklist--gathered Tuesday to remember a colleague who tried to make sure America never forgets about it.

Screenwriter and director Abraham Polonsky, who was 88 when he died Oct. 26, was praised as a person who kept his dignity and a sense of humor about his own banishment from Hollywood after being named in 1951 as a former member of the Communist Party.

Polonsky was one of more than 100 writers shunned by studios and television networks at the start of the Cold War after the congressional House Un-American Activities Committee began hearings into communist influence in the movie industry.

For nearly two decades Polonsky was forced to write screenplays and television scripts using pseudonyms when dealing with studios.

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But the nearly 200 friends who turned out at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills recalled that Polonsky never lost his identity as a man of conscience--and of wit.

The 90-minute memorial was the second for Polonsky, who wrote, directed or did both on nine films, including “Force of Evil,” “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” and “Monsignor.” A previous one was held Nov. 9 at USC.

“As you know, Abe believed in sequels,” explained Writers Guild president George Kirgo. “He deserves another one. Because attention wasn’t paid for a long time to this larger-than-life man.”

Others agreed that the blacklist took its toll on Polonsky, who was nominated for an Oscar for the second film he wrote, 1947’s “Body and Soul.”

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“His career was just starting and very promising. Then the blacklist struck,” recalled screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., whose own early blacklisting in 1947 made him one of the infamous “Hollywood 10.”

Blacklisted writer and director Walter Bernstein recounted how he and Polonsky had joined in a partnership with another banned writer, the late Arnold Manoff, to secretly write scripts for the 1950s CBS series, “You Are There.”

That popular show centered around modern-day newscasters interviewing historical figures.

Bernstein explained that Polonsky, a onetime college English teacher and lawyer, did the heavy lifting.

“We apportioned out the subjects. He took the difficult ones, like Galileo. I took Jesse James,” Bernstein said with a laugh.

Actor Malcolm McDowell related how he had hoped to perform in the film “Mario and the Magician” that Polonsky wrote in the late 1970s and hoped to direct. McDowell read aloud some of the lines from the screenplay.

In recent years Polonsky had lectured to film classes at USC and Cal State Northridge. Judith Marlane, head of Northridge’s Radio-TV-Film Department, said students lined up and filled a campus theater when he came to teach.

“His life and work were seamless progressions,” she said of Polonsky.

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John Schultheiss, a professor of critical cinema studies at Northridge, indicated that Polonsky’s background as an English teacher as a young man made his screenwriting shine.

“The lines he discarded would be the envy of most writers,” said Schultheiss. And many of Polonsky’s lines have been recycled by later writers, Schultheiss added, showing film clips to illustrate his point.

Excerpts from several of Polonsky’s films were shown, as were snippets of an interview filmed by Polonsky several years ago. In the interview, a twinkling-eyed Polonsky told of his philosophy.

“Each film I made or I wrote represents who I am,” he explained. “Every film I make is political. But, then, so is social life.”

That drew applause from the audience, which included blacklisted writers Norma Barzman, Robert Lees, Joan Scott and Bernie Gordon; blacklisted actor John Randolph and actor/director Jeff Corey. Officials of the Writers Guild of America said only about 15 of the estimated 100 blacklisted screenwriters are still alive.

Gordon joined Polonsky earlier this year in protesting the lifetime achievement Oscar awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to director Elia Kazan. They objected to honoring Kazan because he testified and “named names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Gordon, 81, has written a book about his experiences called “Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist.” He said that unlike other blacklist victims, he fared well working in films in Spain during his banishment.

Glancing at Tuesday’s crowd, Gordon tossed out his own line. “When I die, I expect all these people back here,” he quipped.

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