Scott’s Book Reviews

hollywood_exiles_in_europeYou might say that it was a case of the wheel turning all the way around. German and Austrian Jewish filmmakers came to America in droves after Kristallnacht. After the war, America returned the favor as dozens of predominantly Jewish Americans left America because of their actual or presumed leftist sympathies.

There’s a considerable literature on the subject of the Hollywood blacklist, but Rebecca Prime’s Hollywood Exiles in Europe (Rutgers) is something special, despite its clunky title. Using predominantly primary research, Prime focuses on the careers of the blacklistees who bailed out for Europe: Carl Foreman, Joseph Losey, Jules Dassin, Michael Wilson, John Berry, and so forth.

All of these people worked with varying degrees of success, but Prime reveals that it was never easy. On the one hand, they were hemmed in by European producers afraid of giving them credit for their work, which would have precluded the films getting released in the United States. On the other, there was cultural dislocation, and the disdain that Truffaut and Godard, the au courant young critics of the 1950s, had for much of their work.

One or two of the more adaptive talents flourished – Dalton Trumbo’s guerilla fight against the blacklisters and the cowardly Hollywood establishment that enabled them remains a model of asymmetrical intellectual warfare, not to mention being more interesting than most of his screenplays. Jules Dassin had a couple of huge hits – Rififi in France and Never on Sunday in Greece – while Joseph Losey kept his head above water until his collaboration with Harold Pinter in the 1960s made him critically respectable again. Cy Endfield had a small career in America, but eventually flourished in England, culminating in his masterpiece Zulu – ironically a paen to the courage of the English military generally branded as imperialist, fighting as they were for King and Country. (Endfield’s leftist sympathies are most notable in the dignity with which he treats the Zulu warriors.)

Other men floundered. John Berry made the fine noir He Ran All the Way just before leaving America, but he never quite regained his footing in Europe, and when he came back home he was all over the place, directing Claudine as well as The Bad News Bears Go To Japan..

The superb screenwriter Michael Wilson always made a living but got shafted out of credit for Friendly Persuasion, not to mention both The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, either one of which would have been enough to float a career – look at the mileage Robert Towne got out of Chinatown.

Prime’s book is very good on the web of friendships and dependencies that helped keep the blacklistees afloat. Even though the ones that didn’t die young eventually had the considerable satisfaction of regaining their careers and, to an extent, their financial and creative health, there was always an understandable residue of anger that occasionally lurched over into bitterness.

Jules Dassin summed up the core problem in 1971: “I had to pretend, and I still am pretending, that I identify with European culture. I’ve done films in Greece, in France, in Italy, and so on, about subjects of those countries. They’re not mine and I’m being ersatz about it, and I know it…I should be making films about Harlem, about things and places I know. My problem is that of an artist separated from his sources. I’d have been a better film director had I been able to continue to work in the United States.”

Prime’s book will certainly be the definitive work on the European sojourns of those Americans who were temporarily – and shamefully – without a country.

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