Sunday, August 21, 2011

THE FRONT (1976)

“They’re selling the Cold War, Howard. And they use the Blacklist for anyone who isn’t buying.”

“I have here in my hand a list of 205,” said Joseph McCarthy, the Junior Senator from Wisconcin. “A list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” The day was Lincoln Day, February 9, 1950. Senator McCarthy was speaking to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, WV. “The State Department is infested with Communists.”

By the end of the year, McCarthy had America convinced that there was a Communist under every bed. Every neighbor, even family members, could be covert Communist agents working to subvert the American way of life. Even if they’d done nothing more than marched in a Pro-Union parade or attended a single Socialist meeting as early as 1920, they were suspect. Commies wanted nothing more than to take down Capitalism, the Free Market, America. FDR’s “New Deal”, which helped get America’s poor and unemployed back on its feet, was the insidious plot that started it all, straight out of Karl Marx’s handbook.

And anyone who disagreed with the above was also, clearly, a Communist. That was why we had to hold the ideals of Soviet Russia, of Red China, with deep contempt. And there was no worse an agent of those countries and their twisted policies than Hollywood. Motion Pictures and television were battling each other for dominance in the ‘50s. And do you know why? It had nothing to do with entertainment. It had nothing to do with the new technology’s captivation of the American family. The two mediums were fighting each other to the top in order to establish the best position to pervert American minds. Hollywood was rife with Commies, Dupes, Sympathisers and Pinkos. Just look at all those Unions! What need did actors have of Unions except to subvert the American Free Market? The Reds were slipping their subliminal message into otherwise normal, decent motion pictures and television shows. These treasonous men and women had to be rooted out. They had to be stopped!

It was time to move forward with the greatest tool in the United States arsenal, the Dies Act of 1938, better-known as the House Un-American Committee or HUAC. It was time that Americans stand up and turn in anyone they might think was a Red, before Congress and they eyes of God. It had been effective in the past. In October 1947, the Committee had successfully subpoenaed hundreds of professionals in the entertainment industry and nailed many with the “$64 Dollar Question”: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States.”

Being a member was not illegal. Not then, not before, not now. Still, the first victims, the ones who saw real jail time for “Contempt of Congress” by exercising their First Amendment rights and not answering such a question, came to be known as The Hollywood Ten and included such luminaries as Ring Lardner, Jr., Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole and Edward Dmytyrk. Playright and screenwriter Berthold Brecht escaped prosecution by “naming names” of other former members of the Party. A few months after their conviction, Dmytyrk apologized as well, named names and saw his career recover. The rest remained silent and served the full year of their term, only to find every door slammed shut upon their release. The studios took HUAC seriously, refused to hire anyone “unfit”, though not officially. Officially, there was no blacklist. Congress had no right to tell anyone who they could or could not hire. But they could make suggestions. They could “suggest” that it might not be, for instance, in RKO’s best interest for Floyd Odium to remain the owner of the studio. It would be in better hands if Howard Hughes, industrialist and engineer, took over.

This continued throughout the ‘50s. Some professionals like Elia Kazan and Lee J. Cobb stepped right up, eager to co-operate with HUAC and named names like auctioneers. Kazan would even make a pro-snitching film, On the Waterfront (co-starring Cobb), which raked in the Academy Awards. Even those who initially stood up to the Committee, particularly Humphrey Bogart, who had formed of the Committee for the First Amendment with John Huston and Lauren Bacall, saw his own career and standing jeopardized and felt compelled to announce publically that he was in no way a Communist sympathizer in an article for Photoplay Magazine. Walt Disney, certainly no Union man, had already cofounded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), a political action group cofounded by Walt Disney, that declared prerogatives for a “real” American movie: "Don't smear the free-enterprise system ... Don't smear industrialists ... Don't smear wealth ... Don't smear the profit motive ... Don't deify the 'common man' ... Don't glorify the collective".

Screenwriters held the only ace when it came to the blacklist. While the studios saw through attempts to simply apply pseudonyms to their scripts, they found it useful to employ “fronts”—men and women, ostensibly (and preferably) non-writers who had no political blackmarks to their names, who could submit scripts for the blacklisted under their own identities. This allowed the writers to do what they did to make a living, namely writing. It wasn’t a safe solution—J. Edgar Hoover’s had FBI agents around every corner—but it was all they had.

In 1976, former blacklisted director Martin Ritt and writer Walter Bernstein sculpted a movie around this very scenario and called it, logically, The Front. A young Woody Allen plays Howard Prince, part-time bookie, part time diner cashier, full-time loser and deadbeat, is approached by his friend, a blacklisted writer named Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy, never better), to apply his clean name to Alfred’s scripts. Howard would get a commission of 10%— “I’d be paying an agent that anyway,” says Miller—to turn in the scripts and pose as the real writer to directors and producers. Out of the goodness of his heart and the emptiness of his wallet, Howard shows his loyalty to Miller and agrees.

Miller had previously worked for a weekly dramatic television series called Grand Central, narrated by famous funnyman Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel, blacklisted 1951). Producer Phil Susssman (Herschel Bernardi, blacklisted 1952) is happy to have good scripts pouring in again. Idealistic script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci) falls in love with Howard through his scripts, believing him to be the real author of such touching, dramatic, substantive stories. Howard takes advantage of her mistaken feelings, hoping to find an angle that will allow him to keep Miller’s secret and still have Florence. He does this, mostly, by avoiding any conversation regarding his process or his work. Which leads him into dangerous waters whenever a rush script-change is required. He can’t write, so what the hell is he supposed to do when Sussman has him virtually locked in an office?

Through Miller’s work, Howard’s star begins to rise, hobnobbing with industry stars, finally able to afford to pay back those he owes. He finds that being a famous writer really suits him. So he takes on a couple more “clients”, fronting for other blacklisted writers. Before long, he’s giving them notes. “I can’t turn this one in. I just didn’t feel it was ready. Hey, it’s my name going on these scripts. They’re expecting my best work.” With evasion his best defense, Howard’s greed starts to get to him further, wanting to front for even more. “I want good guys, Alfie. Just being blacklisted isn’t enough.”

Inevitably, the dishonesty catches up to him. Hecky Brown comes under investigation by the film’s version of the Grim Reaper, Mr. Hennessey of the “Freedom Information Services”. Even though he writes what he is “suggested” to write, to apologize for his activities in the Party—“there was this girl—with a big ass.”—he still winds up on the blacklist and Sussman is forced to let him go. “They’re taking the part in a new direction,” says Sussman. “Besides, you’re too big for the show. You should have your own show. Call me in a couple of weeks. We’ll, uh, we’ll have dinner and talk about it. I, uh, I already have something in mind that’d be great for you.”

Devastated by Hecky’s firing and Sussman’s caving in to what she sees as immoral government demands, she quits and asks Howard to help her publish a pamphlet speaking out against the blacklist. When Howard refuses, advising her to return to Sussman and beg for her job back, he shows his true colors and breaks her heart.

During their split, he accompanies Hecky to the Hamptons, where a former venue has agreed to hire him for a lounge show. Howard doesn’t realize that Hecky has been instructed to find out more about Howard for a chance to have his name removed from the list. “They” want to know who Howard’s friends are, where he goes, what he does in his personal life. 

“So,” Hecky says in the car along the way. “Where’d you go last weekend?”

“Oh, you know. Out. Here and there.”

“What do you do in your personal life?”

“You know, the usual.”

“The usual,” sighs Hecky. “I used to love the usual.”

But even these low-payng gigs aren’t what they used to be. The hotel manager and former friend stiffs Hecky for half of what he was offered and the comedian responds violently. “You’ll never work in this town again, you Commie sonofabitch!” Hecky hears as he’s dragged off of the manager and through the back door. The word has gotten around already that he was blacklisted. And being on the blacklist must mean that you’re a Communist, otherwise, why would you be on the blacklist? Not that there is a blacklist.

“All it takes is one man to stand up to these bastards,” Miller tells Howard. “One man to say that he’s not putting up with this. It’s illegal what they’re doing. It’s wrong.”

Eventually, HUAC comes for Howard. But all he has to do is play ball, read a prepared statement, and apologize for any wrongdoing. Then he’s in the clear. The night before his informal hearing, tragedy strikes, and Howard decides that maybe evasion isn’t enough of a tactic. He might not be that “one man” of Miller’s, but he’s all they had.

As subtle as HUAC itself, The Front is bitterly hilarious and really nails home the despair Congress left in its midst with its Red Scare. Like every domestic hysteria, HUAC was merely keeping the engine running with its campfire stories of the invisible enemy. It was something for the “little” people to focus on while corporate rights and interests were maintained and increased. It would justify the Korean War and give the military something to do. WWII was so last-decade. Screaming “Commie” would get the people to fall in line, vote for whoever would make them “feel safe”, namely those who served the best interest of Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, etc. Those already in power. Before long, even those in power bought their own bullshit, because that’s what always happens.

Communists (terrorists, gay marriage, abortion, Al Qaida, whoever, whatever) will destroy our Great Nation. When the “little people” are fighting amongst themselves, they forget all about revolution.

While Woody Allen is fine as Howard—he gets the most satisfying and cheer-worthy line in the movie—it’s Zero Mostel who steals the movie. Hecky’s story mirrors that of comedian Philip Loeb, who committed suicide after losing his career to the blacklist and Mostel’s performance is bombastic and devastating.

Officially, the blacklist came to an end in 1960, when Otto Preminger announced publically that he’d hired Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay for Exodus. Small victories over the years—Hitchcock’s hiring of Norman Lloyd as associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents; Betty Hutton’s insistence of Jerry Fielding for musical director on her own self-titled CBS show—had chipped away at Congresses non-existent life-killer throughout the late ‘50s. But HUAC still had piles of bodies in its wake. Lee J. Cobb and Sterling Hayden were haunted until their deaths at their betrayal of friends and co-workers, while Kazan insisted until his death that he did the right thing and even won an honorary Academy Award for his overappreciated body of work.

But Miller had it right. It did only take one man to stand up, and then others followed. In real life, the “one man” could be considered to be Edward R. Murrow, the respected journalist who called HUAC on the carpet with an episode of his show See It Now titled "A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy". But the “one man” may also have been John Henry Faulk, the host of a CBS radio comedy show, fired for his left leanings. He turned around and sued CBS for wrongful termination. While the case dragged on for years, it kept HUAC’s unconstitutional activity in the public eye. In 1962, Faulk won his suit and the decision meant that those behind the blacklist were legally liable for all professional and financial damages to those they had harmed. Suddenly, the “real Americans” were the ones crying, that they’d been “duped” by Congress. But there was little mercy for the “Congressional Sympathizers.”

Thirteen years of government running roughshod over the country before the people had had enough. Before allowing it to happen again, with the Viet Nam War. And again with Iran/Contra Scandal. And again. And again.

Who will be our “one man” today? Matt Damon? Right now, he’s all we have.

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