Thursday, August 24, 2006


Remembering Elia Kazan

Scott Johnson of Powerline links to some excellent commentary on famed (and defamed) Broadway stage and Hollywood film director, Elia Kazan. The occasion of Johnson’s survey of Kazan references was a review by Charlotte Allen in the Weekly Standard, in which Allen reviews last year’s Richard Schickel Biography of Kazan.

I happened to catch a portion of a PBS (!) special on Elia Kazan last night, which seemed to present a far more complex and sympathetic portrait than I would have expected.

I’m not sure why all the sudden interest at this particular time.

I spent many years in the theater, immersed in drama, delving into the pantheon of great dramatic literature, as well as the history behind a fair amount of 20th century staging of then modern works. I developed a keen appreciation of the authors whose works Kazan brought to life so vividly: Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

Kazan’s role in bringing to life many of the 20th century’s great dramatic works – on stage and on film – firmly establishes him as a great among many lesser lights.

On the Waterfront, Death of a Salesman, Gentlemen’s Agreement, All My Sons, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth.

Man, these are credits to be envied.

I’m grateful for another link from Johnson, to an essay on Kazan by Harry Stein in City Journal. What a fantastic read.

It turns out the Hollywood Left has a long and storied history, which in terms of Stalinist apologia and communist sympathies is no new news. But I didn’t know that these fellow travelers first invented the blacklist:

Working slyly to advance these political changes were communist operatives, led by German theater veteran Otto Katz. According to historian Stephen Koch, Moscow had sent Katz to California to organize communist front organizations and radical unions, and he succeeded beyond all expectations. “Columbus discovered America,” Katz would boast, “and I discovered Hollywood.” The growing communist influence in the industry was clearest in the push for radical unionism. For instance, party activists, led by Kazan’s old Group comrade J. Howard Larson, dominated the newly formed Writers Guild.

As party members took up key positions in the studio hierarchy, they began to wield power. As associate producers, story editors, and even agents, they not only saw to it that fellow communists got work but—in a sort of reverse blacklist—made sure that anti-communists didn’t. “There’s no question they looked out for their own,” observes Hollywood writer Burt Prelutsky, a former liberal who has migrated rightward. “Morrie Ryskind had . . . written some great pictures, including A Night at the Opera,” Prelutsky continues, “but he’d broken with the party and become a Republican. For a time he couldn’t get arrested in this town.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who spent his last years as a studio hack, well understood the political climate of that time. “The important thing is you should not argue with them,” he wrote of Hollywood leftists. “Whatever you say they have ways of twisting it into shapes which put you in some lower category of mankind, ‘Fascist,’ ‘Liberal,’ ‘Trotskyist,’ and disparage you both intellectually and personally in the process.”

Well-positioned party members also worked to bar the making of anti-communist films. In a 1946 Worker article, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo noted with satisfaction that prominent anti-communist books of the thirties and forties such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon never made it to the big screen. Nor did any script touching on the Ukraine famine or the Moscow show trials.

Moscow’s ultimate Hollywood goal, Koch explains, was to “Stalinize the glamour culture”—that is, associate in the public mind left-wing views and celebrated entertainers, lending those views respectability. This project could also enable the party to tap “Hollywood’s great guilty wealth as a cash cow.”

This history lends itself to compelling comparison to today’s political climate, and it’s foremost left-right arguments. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is no way to retain moral ground at all, let alone the moral high ground.

We must look past the hate we feel towards one kind of enemy – and see without artifice the true character of those we would make our friends, because they share our hate. There’s surely a lesson there for conservatives.

I doubt liberals and other anti-war types would be quite as receptive to the teaching point.

Stein described the change that happened in Kazan, what turned him to turn on his erstwhile fellow travelers. This, in spite of Kazan remaining a faithful progressive in all things, save the primacy of the USSR in the “international struggle,” and fellow communists’ demand, that he bow down to Stalin and his commands:

No longer sympathetic to the far Left, Kazan not only looked at the Soviet Union differently than they did, but also at the United States, which he no longer saw as a bastion of corruption and exploitation but, despite its flaws, as mankind’s best hope.

Yes, the committee was a nest of vile bullies; and, yes, some who opposed them had shown great courage. But what was getting overlooked—increasingly so as time passed—was the poisonous nature of the ideology that those on the other side were defending. Whatever the career considerations, Kazan’s loathing of communism weighed heavily in his decision to testify. “The ‘horrible, immoral thing’ that I did I did out of my own true self,” he maintained.

The great moral, ideological and even logical weakness of would be socialists and early day progressives in the 30’s and 40’s, was that they refused to reconcile their fervent desires for workers paradise, with the evil that any known examples of such experiments have always produced.

Then, it was blindness towards Stalin, enough that many so called “blacklisted” signed on as his agents. Later, blindness toward a similar figure in Castro, a blindness that remains unhealed. To Yassar Arafat, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient that did more to make peace in our time impossible than anyone in the Middle East.

Some can make comparisons, too, to a recently deposed tyrant in Iraq, and similarly slimy figures in Iran. As long as you don’t have a leftist orthodoxy that you’re unprepared to challenge, with those pesky little things called facts.

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