Monday, August 02, 2010

Looming in the distance.

"There must be more than one suspect in a town this size," syndicate boss Otto Kruger says to lineman-turned-racketeer Edmond O'Brien at a nighttime meeting in Los Angeles, in 711 Ocean Drive.

How true. On October 21, 1949, as the film was being shot, a short item appeared in the Los Angeles Times about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. He wasn't yet in jail for refusing to name fellow travelers—his contempt-of-Congress charge was awaiting appeal. But, the Times reported, he'd failed to appear in court on another charge: public drunkenness. ("The charge is 'drunk in public place,' Trumbo wrote in a letter. "Some public. Some place.")

That afternoon, California State Senator Jack B. Tenney appeared at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood—the building seen behind Kruger, above—to give a speech to the Americanism Defense League. It had been a trying year for Tenney: He'd had an unsuccessful mayoral campaign in Los Angeles, and in June, shortly after sharing this list of entertainers "within the Stalinist orbit"—

—his anti-Communist stance was deemed so rabid that he was pressured to resign from the Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities.

Carey McWilliams, one of the men named above, saw this as the turning of the tide. "California is now, somewhat ahead of the nation, entering upon the new phase of "controlled" red-baiting," he wrote in The Nation. "The more extreme forms of it have been repudiated, not because they are ugly or unfair, but because the powers that be have discovered that extreme red-baiting caters to a constantly shrinking political market; each succeeding dividend is lower than the one that preceded it."

But McWilliams was too optimistic. By the time the film of the scene above was developed, and edited, and projected on movie screens, Joseph McCarthy had waved around a list of his own. Trumbo had gone to jail. Knickerbocker architect John M. Cooper died in May. The Americanism Defense League kept holding meetings at the hotel.

(Dalton Trumbo heads to prison, 1950)

711 Ocean Drive producer Frank Seltzer made only two more films, 1956's The Boss, and 1958's Terror in a Texas Town; the screenplays of both were credited to Ben L. Perry. In 2000, however, the WGA officially went on record: Ben L. Perry was a front, for Dalton Trumbo.


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