Bertolt Brecht, Charles Laughton, Dalton Trumbo, Georg Eisler, Hanns Eisler, HUAC, Jeans Simmons, John Ireland, Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick, Tony Curtis, West Hollywood
Artists, writers and musicians always create good communities.
New York City has Greenwich Village. México City has Coyoacán. New Orleans and Hà Nội have their French Quarters, though with wildly different characteristics. Paris has the Left Bank, enough said. San Francisco has North Beach, a Beat Generation epicenter. Shanghai has the French Concession, home to Sun Yat Sen, Zhou Enlai and the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party.
And Los Angeles has West Hollywood, when I grew up a heady juxtaposition of the Sunset Strip with Igor Stravinsky and Aldous Huxley, side by side with the glamor of movie stars and their all nighters at Chasen’s, where my mom worked as a waitress.
I’m putting the pieces of my West Hollywood childhood puzzle together. I keep having a lot of family clues from that time surfacing in my adult memory. All those grown up clues have one common denominator. Each mathematical fraction of memory points to the House Un-American Activities Committee, known as HUAC.
It’s taken me sixty four years to comprehend how HUAC shaped my own experiences.
My mom was a waitress at 20th Century Fox, as were her sisters Lorraine and Phyllis, my lovable aunts. Louise, Lorraine and Phyllis were quite a trio, that’s for sure. They left Minnesota during the Great Depression for Los Angeles and never looked back. All three landed great service jobs in Hollywood. My mom worked the tables of screenwriters and actors and my Aunt Lorraine shared her station (Marilyn Monroe always asked for her). My Aunt Phyllis would serve composers and musicians, editors, set designers and more.
Piece by jigsaw puzzle piece I’ll do the best I can to put my memories together. I’ve constructed a composite narrative to tell this story. I hope you enjoy the post!
I’ll start by sharing a recent experience that, in modern parlance, triggered my memory.
Starring Bryan Cranston and Helen Mirren, I was a mess of a human being when my wife Jan and I saw the 2015 bio-pic Trumbo. It was lucky she was with me or somebody would have probably called the paramedics. There was no way around it, when the film was over I needed a lot of time to calm down. Lucky for us the interminable length of modern era end credits provided me respite to find my composure. If you know me, trust me, you’ve never seen me like this. Jan wisely took the wheel and drove us home.
As an adult, I’ve naturally come full circle from my “once upon a time in Hollywood” childhood. After a thirty year successful new music career directing Southwest Chamber Music and the Los Angeles International New Music Festival in Los Angeles, Jan and I are involved in a rewarding Second Act. Out of the embers of the Vietnam War, an American arson fire ignited in tandem by the blind post war ambitions of France and incendiary Red Scare of HUAC, we are building a new 21st century chapter between the United States and Việt Nam with our long term commitment to the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.
So I was hit hard watching Trumbo, which finally connected all the jigsaw pieces of my life puzzle. That my Uncle Vic, the gay uncle every straight man should have, had a favorite all time movie to watch with me. It was The Brave One (we listened together to the soundtrack of Victor Young all the time). Trumbo wrote the film under pseudonym but nevertheless won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. That John Ireland, an Academy Award Nominee as Jack Burden in All the King’s Men and Crixus in Spartacus, was our next door neighbor on Rugby Drive. In my memory he was just handing out Halloween candy to me as kid. That my mom would take me to see Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks, a HUAC betrayal story if ever there was one disguised as a Western with cowboys and horses. That Georg Eisler, the son and nephew of HUAC’s two prime targets, would become a veritable uncle to me when I studied in Vienna in the late 1970s. At lunch at my parents’ restaurant in Los Angeles, Georg and his wife Alice would reconcile his father’s HUAC experience, one of the great memories Jan and I have from a long friendship. That Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, two leading voices in opposition to HUAC, requested my mom to be their only server at their private wedding reception at Chasen’s. And that, ominously, Roy Marcus Cohn, the rabid Red Scare media architect of McCarthyism and the mentor of Donald Trump, still casts a shadow over every fire-hose media day in our twenty four hour news cycle.
Seeing Trumbo, the coup de grâce causing my tears was knowing that my mom had asked Dalton Trumbo where I should go to high school. Because watching Trumbo as an adult I understood just whose advice she had sought. She could easily have asked other screen writing legends like Joseph Mankiewicz or Nunnally Johnson. Christopher Isherwood was always in the Fox commissary. But she didn’t ask them.
She asked Dalton Trumbo. The man who broke the blacklist with his screenplay for Spartacus told my mom that the Jesuits at Loyola High School, still going strong at 1901 Venice Boulevard, would offer the finest education in Los Angeles. I still thank the Jesuits and their lay teachers for shaping me into the adult I’ve become. In particular their guiding my interests in world history and languages provided me with skill sets I’m still using with my work in Việt Nam. It seems true that your mother is always right. Thank you mom, for of all people asking and listening to Dalton Trumbo.
Look closely at the above photo. Do you recognize the man behind Trumbo puffing on a cigar? It’s Bertolt Brecht.
Brecht emigrated to Los Angeles from Sweden in the 1940s. Though always a fish out of water in California, he had best friends here in director Fritz Lang and composer Hanns Eisler. His one screenplay for Hollywood, Hangmen Also Die!, was based on the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand man and an architect of the Holocaust. The creative trio of Lang, Brecht and Eisler would influence many American filmmakers, and Eisler’s score was nominated for an Academy Award.
Hanns Eisler’s brother Gerhart was the prime target of the HUAC Red Scare investigations. Hanns was put in the same boat by Richard Nixon, and in a betrayal of Biblical proportions the Eisler’s snitch was their own sister, Ruth Fischer. Gerhart was a communist, no doubt about it. For one potent example, between 1929 to 1931 Gerhart was sent by Moscow as a liaison to the fledgling Chinese Communist Party in the French Concession District of Shanghai, working closely with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.
But Hanns was not a communist, which of course made no difference to HUAC. Leonard Bernstein lead his defense, with vigorous help from Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, which of course also made no difference to HUAC.
Hanns Eisler, a student in Vienna of Arnold Schoenberg, lived in Malibu and was a two-time Academy Award Nominee. And I now need to fast forward my story from my early childhood in West Hollywood to my young 20s as a student in Vienna. As I’ve mentioned, it was Hanns Eisler’s son Georg, a revered Austrian artist who studied with Oskar Kokoschka, who became a second uncle to me when I studied in Vienna from 1977-78. My regular visits to his artist studio in the Third District of Vienna were formative experiences. He would often talk to me, for a long afternoon over my first espressos, about the role of the artist in society. As I now look back I can see Georg’s influence on my entire career, advice that has crystallized into our Second Act commitment to the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble in Việt Nam.
Georg Eisler and his wife Alice became life long friends, and Jan and I miss them tremendously. We still treasure our coffees and lunches, both in Vienna and Los Angeles. Eisler’s gravelly and ironic voice was a one of a one. With authoritative and biting logic, his natural syntax was of a character in a Brecht play. Upon his death in 1998 we framed his hand drawn Christmas card sketches to us, keeping their spirit as a daily influence.
In the context of this blog post, I’d be remiss in not mentioning the Los Angeles premiere of the American version, a post Hiroshima and Nagasaki version, of Brecht’s Galileo. With music by Hanns Eisler, and I might add with my teacher and Schoenberg assistant Leonard Stein playing piano in the orchestra, the premiere of Galileo at the Coronet Theatre on July 30, 1947 was directed by Joseph Losey, another target of HUAC. This revised Brecht play creates the bridge passage my story needs to tie all of these memories and influences together. The role of Galileo for this American version was a bespoke project by Brecht for Charles Laughton.
From her days at Chasen’s my mom remembered Laughton’s portly personality and fantastic voice with real affection. And if you know your films, you can see where this is headed.
I’ve only now understood the cryptic reasons there was such urgency one Saturday afternoon when I was only six or seven. I loved going to the movies, there was never a doubt about that. But the film on that day seemed very different, and I can still clearly recall that feeling. Sitting in the balcony of the Pantages Theater, one of the great old school Hollywood movie palaces, it was my Uncle Vic and his lifelong partner Ernest Crimble who took me to see Spartacus.
As far as I knew, we were going to see John Ireland, our next door neighbor!
Academy Award Nominated actor John Ireland, Jack Burden in All the King’s Men and Crixus in Spartacus, was under contract to 20th Century Fox, so as our next door neighbor he knew my mom, I’m sure. Ireland was six feet one inch tall, and as I filter over the last sixty four years, I still clearly remember getting Halloween candy one night from our giant neighbor. Ireland’s house had a decidedly Japanese machiya feel, a memory that always surfaces when I have been in Japan. And, hmmmm, he was the first victim of the HUAC hearings to successfully sue for damages.
How I wish I knew the grown-up conversations my parents and uncle had with him!
Spartacus of course takes me back to Dalton Trumbo. His screenplay from the novel by Howard Fast, written in prison after Fast’s conviction by HUAC, was filmed under pseudonym. Once the production wrapped producer Edward Lewis and Douglas decided to break the blacklist by giving Trumbo and Fast screen credit. And if ever there was a story to confront HUAC and McCarthyism, Spartacus was that story. What Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was to theater Spartacus was to film. Once President-elect Kennedy crossed anti-Communist picket lines to see the movie, the impact of the film was guaranteed.
Stanley Kubrick would later disown Spartacus from his filmography. The epic was the last film he would direct where he did not retain complete control over every detail. Cinema historians are now in agreement, however, that Spartacus allowed Kubrick to make the rest of his now legendary movies. A young pain in the ass to everybody, he took on numerous taboos in Spartacus that the Hollywood studio systems were avoiding.
The director of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb said he wanted to film Spartacus like an epic Marty, the charming 1955 Academy Award winner with Ernest Borgnine as a shy working class butcher. Intimate focus dominates his character development, with innovative camera angles for the gladiator fights, a cast of true thousands for the battle scenes, but edited with many individual or small group shots humanizing Spartacus’ slave army, all still have impact. If you know Kubrick’s Marty concept, Spartacus becomes a much different experience. The graphic violence (Douglas hacks off an arm), nudity (Simmons as Varinia swimming in a pond), homosexuality (oysters and snails in a Roman bath scene between Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier), race relations (Woody Strode and Douglas in combat), corrupt politics (Laughton’s suicide scene is sadly lost), most of these numerous scenes of course never made it past the 1960s censor. That a cast including Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, Charles Laughton and Jean Simmons agreed to film these scenes remains astounding even in 2019.
And though Kubrick groused about Trumbo’s script, he was keenly aware of the volatile potential of backlash, and the contrasting publicity bonanza, from breaking HUAC and the Hollywood Blacklist. No studio had yet confronted the injustice of so many imprisoned and ruined filmmakers. Years after the shoot, a 2015 4K digital restoration includes many scenes (or short edits, particularly of violence) absent from the first release. After convincing by Stephen Spielberg, Kubrick did agree to consult on the first 1991 restoration, including the rerecording of the lost sound of perhaps the first openly gay scene in a major film. Olivier had passed away before the restoration, but his widow Joan Plowright suggested that Anthony Hopkins impersonate his voice with a still active Tony Curtis, a flawless solution for a scene truly ahead of its time.
“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?”
Dalton Trumbo’s exorcism of HUAC has become the most iconic scene in Spartacus. In the aftermath of a devastating defeat, the slave army is told its collective lives will be spared if they identify the body or living person of Spartacus. The first line of “I’m Spartacus!” goes to Tony Curtis. His real name was Bernard Schwartz and indeed most of HUAC’s targets were Jewish, gay, or both. Kubrick’s Marty-like concept for Spartacus then takes over, as he cuts to random members of prisoners shouting “I’m Spartacus!” For maximum effect, a football stadium crowd was recorded shouting the line, creating one of cinema’s unforgettable great moments.
“I leave this country not without bitterness and infuriation. I could well understand it when in 1933 the Hitler bandits put a price on my head and drove me out. They were the evil of the period: I was proud at being driven out. But I feel heartbroken over being driven out of this beautiful country in this ridiculous way.” Statement of Hanns Eisler upon leaving the United States because of HUAC, 1948.
In writing this post, I’ve let my memory float back to my West Hollywood childhood and forward into my early 20s and 30s. I’ve come to understand that the clues about HUAC from my childhood were not meant by my mom or my uncle for me to see or understand. I was simply too young, and these experiences were certainly not linear. I see clearly now, after years of work in Việt Nam, that HUAC and its Red Scare had a lot to do animating the commitment of five U.S. administrations to the arson fire that became the Vietnam War.
As I write this post on November 22, 2019, I am also struck by The Bizarro HUAC we are now experiencing. After all of this time since HUAC and the Hollywood Blacklist, could it be that HUAC is in a preposterous retrograde?
Six jury convictions of the President’s inner circle have been obtained out of the Mueller Investigation. The Ukraine Impeachment Hearings produced numerous and compelling fact witnesses. All this week, patriotic Foreign Service members have had to, incredulously to me, tell elected members of our Congress to stop repeating Kremlin talking points from Putin’s Moscow.
Where this goes is anyone’s guess. Is debating the time of day just around the corner?
History helps me understand that what is happening now has happened before, though one needs to adjust for our current circumstance. I’m grateful to my mom for turning to Dalton Trumbo for advice shaping one of the most consequential decisions parents face. High school education creates your life foundation. When she talked with me about her turning to Trumbo when I was a teenager, I truly didn’t know what she knew. I didn’t see all the clues, though they were all around me. But I see them now.
After all, Crixus was not just in Spartacus. He was our next door neighbor!
Best, best, best,
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