Budd Schulberg, screenwriter who named names, could have been a contender

Hollywood screenwriter Budd Schulberg passed away Wednesday at the age of 95, and the press is filled with obituaries noting his work and commenting on his most famous off-screen moment — as a 'friendly witness' before the House Un-American Activities Committee 'naming names' in the early 1950s.

Although the New York Times obituary and other press coverage that I have looked at briefly is hardly celebratory about Schulberg's HUAC testimony, I have picked up a tribute or two on right-wing 'cultural' websites. They consider Schulberg — like Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando), the protagonist in Schulberg’s most famous screenplay, “On The Waterfront” — a 'hero' rather than a stool pigeon for informing on friends and former comrades, the way Malloy informed on waterfront mobsters who controlled his brother and coworkers.

When I was asked to write this commentary on Budd Schulberg, I thought of friends and comrades who have recently passed away who had lived lives of a great deal of 'use value' for society.

George Fishman, a few years younger than Schulberg, a Communist who was blacklisted as a teacher in Philadelphia during the period that Schulberg was a 'friendly witness,' continued in his commitments to the struggles of labor and the African American people, and eventually beat the blacklist, went back to teaching, went back to school, got his Ph.D. and continued as both an activist and a scholar for the rest of his life, writing important works on the history of the African American freedom struggle among many other topics

I thought also of Dee Garrison, a non-Communist a few decades younger than Schulberg, a military officer's wife who fought to get a higher education, and became a feminist and peace-oriented scholar, teacher and colleague of mine for over 30 years at Rutgers University. She wrote an important biography of left writer Mary Heaton Vorse, and, after she retired, published “Bracing for Armageddon,” a brilliant and disturbing anti-militarist history of the civil defense program after World War II.

George and Dee both passed away very recently. Neither was famous in the commercial and establishment circles that Budd Schulberg was. But their relevant lives and work had great use value for the society and they struggled against different forms of repression and adversity to both develop themselves and contribute to society, unlike Schulberg, who, it seems to me, followed what were really the establishment trends of the various times he lived in: belonging to the CPUSA in the 1930s, aiding and abetting the anti-Communist political persecutors from a Cold War liberal position in the 1950s, attempting to associate himself with some high-profile ant-racist cultural activities in Los Angeles after the Watts riot of 1965, writing for TV and searching always for a part to play for himself — elder statesman, friend of the young and avant garde, a man who in his own mind did everything through his life to preserve and protect intellectual freedom.

Budd Schulberg would hate to be called a conformist but frankly that is the way I see him, even though he did produce a number of powerful screenplays in his long life.

Perhaps the best way to start with Schulberg for the Peoples Weekly World would be with this adage to which there are of course many exceptions: 'class tells.'

Schulberg was the son of Hollywood studio head and a literary agent at a time when the Hollywood business was booming, both in the 1920s and the Depression, and the rich paid even less in taxes then they do today. At a time when there was widespread anti-Semitism in U.S. universities and professional schools, particularly the elite ones, he went to the elite private school, The Deerfield Academy and to Dartmouth, an Ivy League school, in the late 1930s. He also worked there with F. Scott Fitzgerald, the famous novelist and screenwriter whose Hollywood career had collapsed.

Schulberg claimed to have been drawn to the Communist movement because of the poverty that was everywhere in the 1930s at a time when his father was earning $11,000 a week. From my readings, his work with Fitzgerald and writings for the Dartmouth humor magazine wasn’t exactly examples of young Communist activism, although in this period at least a few hundred thousand people were drawn to the CPUSA through its campaigns and influence in trade unions and a wide variety of other areas.

Schulberg later claimed to have broken with the CPUSA because members had tried to 'influence' the content of his novel, “What Makes Sammy Run?” which dealt with a grotesque exploiter, Sammy Glick, who becomes a Hollywood mogul. The Hollywood studio chiefs weren't too sympathetic to the work either. While I don't know specifically what Schulberg meant (there were various conflicts between CPUSA cultural functionaries and artists over work that bred resentments), I do know that there was a lot a criticism of the novel, which was published in 1941, because of fear that the Jewish villain would strengthen classic anti-Semitic stereotypes which were then more dangerous than ever.

The very name Sammy Glick was often used in the postwar period as a label, 'a Sammy Glick,' for an unscrupulous businessman, in ways that as a boy I thought did have an anti-Semitic component.

Schulberg served in the OSS during WWII, compiled materials and actually arrested, according to the sources about him, the most famous Nazi film director, Leni Reifenstahl, who would in some ways have an easier postwar life than some of the victims of the Hollywood blacklist.

After the war, Schulberg wrote a novel, “The Disenchanted”(1950), a fictionalized treatment of his relationship with Fitzgerald.

In 1951, when Richard Collins, a screenwriter, testified before HUAC that Schulberg had been a member of the CPUSA, Schulberg stepped forward as a 'friendly witness,' naming eight Hollywood figures as party members. These included Ring Lardner, Jr. and Herbert Biberman, of the original 'Hollywood Ten' who had already served prison terms for their defense of the First Amendment before HUAC four years earlier. Schulberg's claims concerning these events were, to the end of his life, self-serving. He contended that the Communist Party was itself a threat to intellectual freedom as was HUAC and that his informing on his friends was somehow justifiable because some were no longer his friends and they had not stood by him when he was fighting with other party members over his work.

But possible jail sentences and inevitable blacklisting are not the same thing as political disagreements, even if such disagreements led Schulberg to leave the CPUSA. In 1951, individuals who took a stand based on the First Amendment faced jail and individuals who stood on the Fifth Amendment, invoking the right not to answer questions based on self -incrimination were assured the blacklist.

It should also be understood that Schulberg, like Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan and others in the 1947 hearings, was a 'friendly witness,' a witness on the side of HUAC whom the committee was showcasing in order to expand the political persecutions. Whether Schulberg was motivated by anti-Communist ideology, like his friend and fellow former CPUSA member Elia Kazan, or self-preservation is not really relevant. Schuldberg saved his own skin and harmed others by his testimony, which aided only HUAC, Senator Joe McCarthy, and their many allies and imitators.

Schuldberg then worked with Kazan on “On the Waterfront,” a powerful film about gangster unionism on the docks which many on the left at the time, and today, saw as an allegory on the world of informing and naming names, a brilliant 'highbrow' expression of a theme that permeated cold war films — Communists at home and abroad were part of a criminal conspiracy and informing on them, even if it meant informing on your friends and family, served the higher good (some critics abroad made the point that this was a theme in fascist cinema during World War II particularly).

Schulberg went on to write a great many things, including boxing columns (he had written a boxing novel “The Harder They Fall”) and the screenplay for Kazan's powerful film “A Face In the Crowd” (1957) which expressed both liberal uneasiness and a sense of futility about mass media culture in the 1950s. He founded the Watts Writers House after the Watts riot in 1965 and the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in New York in 1971, both good works, although Frederick Douglass would never have testified against John Brown to save his skin or named the names of abolitionists because they had disagreed with him.

As the wife of one Hollywood blacklist victim said, 'I can perhaps forgive but never forget.' I would say that I can perhaps, given the context, understand but never forget. To paraphrase the famous line from Schulberg's most famous film, Terry Malloy's 'I could a been a contender,' had Schulberg combined learning and activism in the way that George Fishman and Dee Garrison, neither of whom had a fraction of his privileges in their youth, did, he might have been a 'contender' instead of what he ended up being, a footnote in film studies and a 'hero' in the “Springtime for Hitler” of right-wing Hollywood histories, Ronald Radosh's “Red Star Over Hollywood.”

Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.