History, Hollywood, Politics

Happy Birthday, Adrian Scott

A birthday shout out today to Adrian Scott, progressive producer, member of the Hollywood Ten, principled American.

A man of both enormous creative vision and great personal integrity, Scott was at the cutting edge of a new political filmmaking in the 1940s, producing a flurry of films addressing fascism, anti-Semitism, class inequities, and the horrors of war. Radicalized in the 1930s by the collapse of capitalism and the rise of European fascism, Scott was part of a generation of young progressive filmmakers who saw movies not merely as entertainment but as an unsurpassed vehicle for raising public consciousness and fueling social change.

In 1944 Scott moved from screenwriting to producing with Murder My Sweet, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s pulp novel Farewell, My Lovely. One of the year’s biggest box office and critical successes, the film’s breakaway success made Scott the hottest producer on the RKO lot and encourage him to address more overtly political themes in his work. Murder My Sweet also marked the beginning of Scott’s long and productive collaboration with screenwriter John Paxton and director Edward Dmytryk, and the films they made together — Murder My Sweet, Cornered (1945), So Well Remembered (1947), Crossfire (1947) — are generally considered the best work of their careers.

Crossfire, a gritty noir depicting the murder of a Jewish vet by a violently bigoted GI, was both Scott’s greatest triumph and his downfall. Inspired by rising anti-Semitic and racist violence along with a frightening uptick in rightwing demagoguery in the wake of the war, Crossfire was Scott’s “cry of alarm,” a warning to good Americans that the United States was not immune to the prejudices and forces that had fueled fascism abroad — it still “could happen here.” Released in the summer of 1947, the film was a GONZO box office and critical success, garnering multiple Oscar nominations including Best Picture.

The film also brought Scott, along with director Edward Dmytryk, to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee — indeed they were among the very first to be targeted by HUAC’s investigation into “subversion in the film industry” in early 1947. In October, they, along with 8 other men, refused to cooperate with the Committee in a widely publicized hearing in Washington. By November, the now infamous Hollywood Ten had been fired from their studio jobs. Three years later, after a long and exhausting legal battle, their early fervent community support slowly leaking away, they all went to federal prison — a fate that shocked and unnerved the Ten, who (perhaps naively) never believed a man could be jailed for his political convictions. Not in America.

Just as the Ten were entering prison, HUAC was returning for a second round of Hollywood investigations — it was a full court press against an already weakened and cowering industry, and this time Hollywood folded like a cheap suit. Some named names; others took the Fifth, or fled to Europe or Mexico in search of work. The Hollywood blacklist took on new and octopus-like dimensions, spreading across the entertainment industry and into education, labor, science, government.

Us vs. Them. Better dead than Red. America, love it or leave it. Deja vu all over again….

Most important to me, though, especially now, was his example of profound personal and political integrity. Like many, he continued to work, not as a producer but as a screenwriter, behind a front, for a fraction of what he had once earned. Scott died in 1971 without ever seeing his name in a screen credit.

“To me, the greatest single tragedy of the blacklist business was that Adrian Scott was cut down in his prime — you don’t have to look much further for the reason why neither Dmytryk nor I were ever again involved in films of this particular sort.”

Screenwriter John Paxton: Murder, My Sweet, Cornered, So Well Remembered, Crossfire

There’s so much more I want to say — about the Popular Front and what it meant to be a Communist in the 1930s and 40s, about the politics of Americanism in that era and its “return of the repressed” legacy for us today, about how much we need these lessons of resistance and solidarity in dark times.

But I really want to get this posted before the sun goes down on Adrian’s birthday. So I’m just going to close here with the (slightly edited) last paragraph of my book, Caught in the Crossfire:

“…the blacklist deprived the film industry of hundreds of creative, committed, courageous artists. Now we can only imagine the kinds of movies Scott and his comrades might have made had they not been banished from the industry they loved and helped to shape. But I believe that the loss of their talents was indeed staggering. Hollywood was a far lesser place without such people as Adrian Scott to fight for films like Crossfire; to demand that Hollywood live up to its responsibilities in creating and reflecting the imagined community of Americans; to hold fast to their convictions and faith in their own radically democratic vision of Americanism to the bitter end. Though he was not a particularly religious man, Scott did have a favorite Biblical verse — 2 Timothy 4:7 — which seems quite appropriate here:

“I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”

Happy birthday, Adrian. Thank you for your example. I’m paying attention. A lot of us are.

Featured image credit: This photo of Adrian (far left) with wife Anne Shirley (lower right) and friends (right to left) Norma Barzman and Jeanne and Bob Lees originally appeared in Norma Barzman’s memoir, The Red and the Blacklist: The Intimate Memoir of a Hollywood Expatriate, and is used with her permission.

For Further Reading

There are a gazillion really terrific books on the Hollywood blacklist, including dozens of top-notch blacklist memoirs (which I will compile another time…) Until then, here are a few histories to get you started.

Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, eds. Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist — interviews with 35 Hollywood blacklistees. STELLAR.

Victor Navasky, Naming Names — THE classic account and still totally worth a read.

Larry Ceplair and Paul Englund, Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960 — an exhaustively researched account if you really want to go down the rabbit hole.

Otto Friedrich, City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s — a sprawling and delightfully dishy overview; fun enough to qualify as a beach read.

Athan Theoharis, Chasing Spies: How the FBI Failed in Counterintelligence But Promoted the Politics of McCarthyism in the Cold War Years — only Chapter 6 deals explicitly with Hollywood but if you want the bigger picture, this is a must-read overview of the FBI’s partisan and often patently illegal role in the anti-communist crusade.

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