Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hollywood on Trial (1976)

          Arguably the best examination of the Hollywood blacklist yet captured on film, this solidly made documentary features interviews with many key figures who survived that awful episode. Clearly explaining why the changing attitudes of a post-WWWII America, film-industry labor disputes, and opportunistic lawmakers collided in the purging of communists and other left-wingers from the film industry, Hollywood on Trial gives heroes a venue for recalling their shining moments and lets villains cement their ignoble legacies. Tremendous archive footage takes viewers back to the tense days of Congressional hearings in which movie stars and studio executives stupidly claimed that commies were trying to take over the picture business; this same footage shows the famed Hollywood Ten, the first professionals banned from employment for political reasons, derailing their own defense by condescending to their persecutors. And then, in contemporary interviews, most of the Ten reveal the wisdom gained through the passage of time, while still issuing righteous fire.
          Given his oversized personality, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo provides some of the more memorable moments, his pithy parade of polysyllables amply displaying why under-educated executives perceived him as uppity back in the day. It’s riveting to watch the great man in twilight, knowing that he and his colleagues went to jail on matters of principle before finally undermining the blacklist in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Yet the most poignant footage is probably that of director Edward Dmytryk, the lone member of the Hollywood Ten to recant his original testimony and “name names” as a prerequisite for returning to work. Watching his face as Dmytryk tries to defend his indefensible actions is simultaneously edifying and excruciating; one sees glimmers of ambivalence, indignation, regret, and shame.
          It’s also infuriating to see archive footage of right-wingers like Walt Disney, Joseph McCarthy, and Richard Nixon, since it’s impossible to discern which of them believed he was addressing a genuine social threat and which knew he was simply union-busting. The venerable actor/director John Huston provides narration for the piece, which has the simplistic visuals of a ’70s TV special but more than enough historical significance to generate consistent interest.

Hollywood on Trial: GROOVY

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