Interlude: The Blacklist
Shortly after The Asphalt Jungle, you were blacklisted, am I right?
I was blacklisted about 1952. I had been hired by Stanley Kramer. That happened because we had a common agent. I was working on two films [for him] at the time. One was an early version of High Noon, and the other was The Wild One . I had done a very rough, tentative version of High Noon, from the novel [actually, a short story, "The Tin Star," by John W. Cunningham], and a complete version of The Wild One .
Then Kramer called me into his office. He said, "I'm sorry, I have to fire you. . . ." Well, so many people had already been fired that I didn't really need any further explanation. But I took my name off The Wild One because I saw a version of it that I disliked very much. It was partly mine and partly not. That's always a very difficult thing, to assign the degree of responsibility [for a script]. I like to think that when a writer goes to heaven, he's going to go to this huge file room, where they can look up his name and tell him precisely what his credits are. No crap!
You seem to be relatively good-natured about the blacklist .
(Pause .) There were very unfair things done, but you can't be bitter about it. My view of the blacklist is that the FBI had people in every left-wing organization, often in prominent positions, and that they had complete lists [of leftists] all along. Their Hollywood campaign was not a malevolent and personal one. The general idea was to deny the Left funds, since the Hollywood people made a great deal of money.
The screenwriter John Bright told me at one point that the Hollywood branch of the Communist Party poured more money into the party than any other branch, except for the D.C. section. I would have figured that it would be the New York branch, not the D.C. one .
(Laughs .) That might be so. Well, the salaries here are far greater than any intellectual would make even if he was an editor in a publishing house.
So, you don't feel the blacklist was an attempt by the right wing to end any progressive influence of the content of motion pictures?
I don't think so, because there's nothing to influence. That was just a put-up job. In what way could you say that Intruder in the Dust was a left-wing film? Only in the sense that it is about a black man, unjustly accused, who is nearly lynched. That was a pretext. The whole thing really came down to money.
Wasn't it also a power struggle—in the unions and over who would produce the films?
There might be some aspects of that, but I think the number of people who were on the Left in Hollywood was rather small, smaller than the percentage among New York intellectuals. And they were not governed by the same influences. In New York there was a whole ferment of political discussion, and other left-wing groups outside of Communist groups, the Partisan Review and so on. I think the left-wingers here, like myself, were transplanted, in alien territory. In a way, the left-wing activity was a sop to the conscience.
Did you meet the writer-producer Philip Yordan before the blacklist?
Never met him before. One of the great characters of the world.
Were you in dire financial straits at the time you became associated with him?
We had some money in the bank and we had just bought this house for $19,500 at 4 1/2 percent, so it was not all that great of a burden. But we did need money, and a friend of mine named Irving Lerner, who was an editor and a director, was hired by this guy [Philip Yordan] to do a film: Man Crazy  and—there was another one—Murder by Contract . Irving was a very wonderful editor but a terrible director. He just didn't know where to put the camera. (Laughs .)
You knew Irving Lerner through the documentary movement?
Oh sure. He was in Frontier Films. Yordan wanted a writer, so Irving recommended me, and, of course I could be gotten very cheaply then. I must have done—I really can't tell you how many—somewhere between six and ten scripts for Yordan [during the fifties].
That's where everything becomes vague in the filmography, because some films that I never did have been credited to me. In fact, a friend of mine sent me a notice from a Spanish newspaper last year that said, "Ben Maddow, hombre misterioso." And it stated as bold fact that I had actually written all of the Huston films [during this period]! (Laughs .)
Was Philip Yordan doing much writing on these films?
Philip Yordan has never written more than a sentence in his life. He's incapable of writing.
You're kidding .
Of course not. Look, I was intimate with him for several years. He always used somebody else, from the beginnings of his career. I could tell you a lot about Philip Yordan.
Please do .
Oh, it's a fascinating story. All right. In Chicago, where he is from, Yordan was a lawyer and an entrepreneur who marketed liquid soap. When the war started, Yordan was posted to the airfield in Ontario [California], but he used to spend Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles he wandered around saying to himself, "Jesus, I gotta work out here, but what can I do? I don't have any craft . . . maybe I ought to become a writer!"
So he walked into the Ivar Street Library and asked, "How do I learn to become a screenwriter?" The librarian said, "Well, have you ever written a play?" "No." "Have you ever been to see one?" "No." "Well," she said, "you should take a great play and study it and follow its rules and that will help you a lot." So she gave him this play, and he went home to look at it and then he wrote a screenplay from it, copying it scene by scene, only changing the heroine from this girl who comes back to her New England town, into this B-girl that he knew from a Chicago bar whom he was tremendously in love with.
Anna Christie —that was the play—which is why it [Yordan's version] is called Anna Lucasta . He once showed me a picture of this B-girl—a rather pretty, heavy-set girl. She didn't like L.A. She loved Chicago. She wouldn't move out here. The only person he ever expressed any tenderness for.
Anyway, he had this play—
He wrote it?
He copied it, really, changing it to Chicago dialect. That was probably the most laborious thing he ever did in his life.
Now then, he had a friend [writer-producer Sidney Harmon] who had had a smash success with Men in White . This friend said, "I'll show this play to my agent." Nothing happened for months on end. Then Yordan got a call from the agent, saying there was a black group uptown who was willing to pay ten dollars a night for [a production of] it. The agent said, "Take it!" The group put it on, it was a smash hit, and he was set.
Only, he couldn't write! He always hired other people to do the writing. I was not the only person; there were other people. . . .
What about House of Strangers  for Joseph Mankiewicz, what about Detective Story  for William Wyler, what about Yordan's Oscar for Broken Lance ?
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he could write a word or two, or a sentence or two.
House of Strangers, about a man and his son who had a banking empire, did win an Academy Award for story. But Yordan's secretary, whose name
I've completely forgotten—she was a lady who had one crippled leg who I sort of inherited from Yordan—told me that the story was actually written by the producer of that film [Mankiewicz]. He sent it as a long memo to Phil. She typed it. The story for Broken Lance —Yordan got the Oscar for the story, incidentally [and not the script]—also came from the story for House of Strangers .
When you first met Yordan, what was his rationalization of what he was going to do, putting his name on the screenplay instead of yours?
Oh, it was "I want you to write and, of course, you can't use your own name because you're in trouble, but I'll pay you 50 percent . . . after all, on your best day, you could never make one tenth of what I make." It was true! But I was never sure of what percentage it actually was.
So although he would be credited as writer, he would actually be behind the scenes, functioning like a producer?
Well, you know Ben Hecht used to do the same thing. Hecht had a stable [of writers] down at the beach who would write for him. He would write the original two pages or so in Hechtian style, and since he had an enormous reputation, he would get a lot of money for it. Then they would sit down and do the screenplay in Hechtian style. Maybe Hecht would add a few flourishes, but he made a lot of money that way. That was all very well known here.
Were there other people in the Yordan stable besides yourself?
Oh, yes. But I think that during this period, I must have done all of the things Yordan did. He was always buying books; he had a dozen [properties] going at any one time. He would stack the books up in rows and he would sell [them to the studio on the basis of] the photo [the cover photo]. He would show the book covers to the producers. "This is what I own," he would say.
Did he have any politics?
None whatever. Only: Yordan. But he did keep saying to me, "I feel ashamed because you are really a fine cabinetmaker . . ." He had some guilt.
He had pitiful eyesight and a horrible home life and was married and divorced a number of times. God!
Did he have good ideas as a producer?
Occasionally. And if you gave him a good idea, he'd steal it from himself later on. There's an idea in Men in War  in which the platoon commander is killed, they strap him into this jeep, and they drive him around as though he is alive just to keep up the morale. Well, Yordan used exactly the same idea in some film about Spain, El Cid , where the guy is strapped into the saddle.
That brings me around to a really great story about Yordan. Somewhere along the line he said to me, "I'm sure we could sell a Western—there's always a market for one. Have you got an idea for a Western?" This was a Thursday and I said, "Well, no, but I'll think about it." He said, "Well, let's talk about it on Monday." So I came back with an idea for him on
Monday and he said, "Fine." He didn't really want to listen to it too much; he just said, "Do it. And get the screenplay done as fast as possible. I'd like to have it done in three weeks."
I actually wrote the screenplay in about three and a half weeks, and when I brought it back, he sort of cursorily looked at it to see how many pages it was. It was 134 pages, so that was okay. He changed the names of the characters because he carried with him a little book that said things like "James means 'noble,' " right?
He said, "Now, we have to go to work." I said, "What work?"—expecting him to talk about revisions. He said, "Now come with me." He sat in the study and he made the following phone calls. He called Simon and Schuster and said that he had just sold a screenplay of a Western to Warner Brothers and were they interested in the book from which it was taken? Well yes, they would be interested. Then, he called the script department at Warner Brothers and told them he had sold a book to Simon and Schuster and would they be interested in the screenplay? He'd send it right over, which he did.
He sat there and worried for about three quarters of an hour. Then he said, "This is really very shaky, I've got to make this certain . . ." He called up a minor executive at Warner Brothers and said, "I know you owe $14,000 in Vegas. I will pay that sum for you and get you out of this trouble. All I want you to do is the following. I have sent a script over to Jack Warner. It has a blue cover and is called Man of the West . Get to it before he does, in the morning, pick it up, and return it at four o'clock and say, 'I picked this script up by mistake, instead of mine, and I started reading the first page and I couldn't put it down.' That's all I want you to do."
Well, he had to pay the $14,000, but so what? Because the screenplay was sold. Now he called Simon and Schuster and told them he was going to send them the book manuscript right away because the film was going to be made. So I had to sit down and write the novel, which I did.
That was Man of the West?
The novel that is supposed to have been written by Philip Yordan?
Exactly. It was published in Collier's in three sections. We split everything fifty-fifty, although I don't know that for sure because I never saw any contracts. Also, I happened to be in England several years later, and there was a Penguin edition of Man of the West with a picture of Philip Yordan [on the dust jacket], and he had never told me he had sold it to them. We happened to have the same accountant, who was very upset by this fact, so we settled for some small sum. . . .
Did you ever meet the directors of these various films? Nicholas Ray?
Never saw him.
No. Well, I might have met him once.
Not to my memory.
I have interviewed Philip Yordan. I also spoke with Bernie Gordon and Milton Sperling, who at one time or another collaborated with Yordan. Gordon and Arnaud D'Usseau, both blacklistees, ghosted for Yordan in the 1960s. And Sperling acted as a producer for him at various times, whether or not Yordan was actually writing the script —
Did I ever tell you my Milton Sperling story? My agent called me and said, Do you want to work for Milton Sperling? I knew who he was. I went up to his house. This was his idea. He wanted me to look at the last five winners of Best Picture of the Year, take the best scenes out of each of them, and recombine them into another film. (Laughs .)
I turned it down. Who knows? It might have been great!
Yordan has me stumped on one thing. He was frank about some things, evasive about others, but on one matter he wouldn't budge—that was Johnny Guitar. He insists he wrote Johnny Guitar.
Well, I looked at some of the film over at my daughter's house [recently], and frankly I can't remember [working on] it. As far as the underground list is concerned, that's very doubtful. I don't care, you know, one way or another.
When you looked at it, it didn't ring any bells?
No. but if I looked at any of the others, I probably wouldn't recall them either. I don't think, for any of these movies, that I ever saw anything beyond a rough cut. And if you work on something for six to eight weeks—and this was thirty-five years ago—you forget.
You sent me in the mail a list of films that you had written, including those which you scripted under the table in the fifties, and Johnny Guitar is on that list. What has made you claim it as a credit, up till now?
All I can say is I can't tell you if I wrote it or not. This filmography [I mentioned earlier] in which I'm credited with things I never did comes from France. A number of films are listed that I was supposed to have done for Philip Yordan. Perhaps I thought their information was accurate. It probably corresponded with some of the things I remembered, and since I think Johnny Guitar was on the list, that may have been how it was lodged in my memory. The French are very big on B films. Their idea of an American literary hero was Edgar Allan Poe.
Were you constrained at all in the writing of these films by the fact they were so impersonal to you?
Yes, but I didn't think they were that different from what other people were doing. I didn't feel as though I was being punished in some way. Punishment was that I couldn't use my name. Some of the films were probably pretty bad, because I didn't give a damn [about the subject matter], but I tried at least to be ingenious.
These scripts were, in relationship to myself, pretty much with the proviso of a lemma of mathematics. A lemma is a consequence of or a footnote to a theorem. (Laughs .)
Did you feel particularly proprietary about any of them?
Maybe God's Little Acre , which I don't think was [based on] the greatest book about the South ever written because, after all, I do admire Faulkner, who was a far more profound writer [than Erskine Caldwell]. But there was some truth to Caldwell.
How did you end up feeling about Yordan?
Oh, we never quarreled or anything like that.
But you had a love/hate relationship with him?
No, but I was simply astonished about what went on in his house. You'd be working during the day, you'd stop there for lunch, you'd be sitting at the table, and his wife would bring some food in and say, "I poisoned it. I hope you die." To show his contempt, he would get up and take a leak with the door wide open. (Laughs .)
I never had a fight with him or anything, no. You couldn't fight the guy. In many ways he was very sweet. He was only doing what to him was a business. But something happened, I can't remember precisely what, and then he went to Spain.
You were grateful for the work?
It saved my life. But I also had a terrible psychological complex [about it]. In fact, I was close to a breakdown. At that point, I went into analysis. I didn't know it at the time, I didn't make the connection, which became very obvious, but it was an abdication of oneself. Because here were your ideas, which are very close to you, closer to you than you think as a writer—you don't think that they're a part of yourself, but they are. Here was part of your personality, not attached to your name—up there on the screen.
Were you writing poetry as any kind of release?
Yeah. I don't know how much. There were long periods when I didn't write.
So, you were undergoing analysis, you were writing all these things under a pseudonym, you were undergoing writer's block under your own identity. Did this result in some kind of personal catharsis?
I think analysis helped me a great deal. I had been having nightmares, night after night. I'd awake in terror. Of course, you invent these terrors yourself, but that makes it even more frightening. I don't know whether this all might not have happened independently of Yordan [and the blacklist]. It seemed to be attached to the whole question of damage to your self-image.
Incidentally, I did a couple of films under Frontier Films which also had other names put on them. Like Erskine Caldwell was given credit for one of my narrations [People of the Cumberland, 1937]. Because they felt his name meant a lot, which it probably did. I just wonder whether this assault on the ego didn't also tie into that.
Did the culmination of your analysis and coming out of the blacklist, did they dovetail?
More or less.
Well, the whole thing was falling apart, the blacklist, and as I understand it by implication from my agent, though I have no proof of it, the William Morris Agency was very anxious for me to make more money for them. So the agency paid [Donald] Jackson [a Republican congressman from California], who was then a representative on one of the committees, to erase my name from the lists.
Paid him off?
Paid him off, yeah. He died maybe three or four years after this happened, and there is no way of proving it at all. After that, bit by bit, I went back [to work], though I don't think that the films that I did [after that] were particularly interesting, actually. I didn't start at the same point; I had to start lower down. By this time I had been forgotten [in the industry], really.
You never got any explanation of why you were able to go back to work. Someone just said, "Okay, you can go back to work . . .?"
I believe I got some call from one of their attorneys [to start the process], but it took a long time [to go through], about a year and a half. I don't know whether that supposed payment did the trick, or whether there was actually a lapse in the whole system of the blacklist. Such arrangements were being made all over the place. Other people went back.
You never talked to Jackson .
I went to see Representative Jackson in Santa Monica. I signed some sort of statement. I can't remember what was in it. I never took a copy of it.
Walter Bernstein tells me that when he was in Hollywood in the late fifties, you told him you were working with Kazan at that point, after having cooperated with the committee .[*]
I did work with Kazan on a film which I refused credit on because the final script had no resemblance to what I had been doing. Wild River  it was called.
Walter said he had breakfast with you and you told him you had named some names for the committee .
I don't recall any such conversation.
Did you not name any names?
Well, it might have been in the statement, but I don't recall.
He said you told him not to worry, they were all dead people except for Leo Hurwitz .
(Laughs .) Really! Well, his memory must be a lot better than mine.
You don't consider yourself a cooperative witness?
Well, I did cooperate. Obviously. I signed a statement.
But you insist you don't remember what the statement said. What was that meeting like? Was Jackson trying to extract some information from you?
Oh no. He was already rather ill, and he wanted to get it over with. It was formally an Executive Session, or something like that.
Didn't working with Kazan give you a kind of twinge?
Oh no. I thought it was a fascinating experience. Actually, most of the time I worked with Kazan, I was doing research in the South and he wasn't even around. But I did have several conferences with him and finally did a script on the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] question, which I was very interested in, having gone through that same period myself. Maybe my script was no good. I don't remember. Kazan told me he wanted somebody who had more experience organizing the material. There was a prolific amount of fascinating material.
I think he was right, incidentally. One of the things I've struggled with all of my life is organization. I didn't want any credit on the final script because it was so obviously the work of another man and superior writer, Paul Osborn.[*] A very good technician.
But you knew Kazan had cooperated fully with HUAC .
Oh, sure. Although I never read his testimony, so I wouldn't know. . . .
How did Kazan come to you?
We had the same agent.
He didn't know you?
I had some sort of reputation. I had never met Kazan before.
But you had spent so many years on the blacklist. And you had not been working publicly, using your own name in films, for quite some time. Wasn't it terribly convenient that Kazan would come to you at this point?
Well, I think probably he would have not hired me if I had not signed it [the HUAC statement]. Obviously! But it didn't make any difference to me that it was Kazan. I always regarded Kazan as a very, very talented man. A complex man, of course.
I never had the measured feeling that a lot of these people had, people like Alvah Bessie and Albert Maltz.[**] I regarded myself as caught between two
sets of ideologues. I don't regard myself as having done something wrong [by cooperating]. Conscience had nothing to do with it. (Laughs .)
It was like saying, here's a flag and here's a flag, now which flag are you going to salute? And if you don't believe in flags . . . there you are! (Laughs .)
But when you signed a statement for Jackson, weren't you, in effect, saluting one of those flags?
Well, that's true. But it was a question of whether I would support my family or not. And since I didn't owe allegiance to either of these ideologies, it didn't matter to me. I thought they were equally foolish.
Did you not feel an affinity with the other Hollywood leftists?
I suppose I did. But I never became friendly with them.
Did you not consider yourself a leftist?
Yeah, sure. But never in a conventional sense. Because there's much of Marx that I always felt was just silly. The anthropological parts of Engels are just ridiculous, and people took them very, very seriously. Any theory, when matched up with life, doesn't begin to deal with complexity. And I'm interested in complexity.
I disagreed with a lot of the policies of the party and said so.[*] What's unfair about the blacklist is that it is a question of terminology. Because actually the Communist Party here was [more like] left socialists, not even that, compared with European standards. It's hopeless to think the Communist Party [in the United States] could overthrow anything here. I mean, what did they have, 20,000 members? Of which, I'm sure, 1,000 were FBI men! (Laughs .)
It's hard to understand why you signed something so late in the game, because the blacklist was almost over and you had stuck it out for the better part of a decade .
Well, it wasn't [over], obviously. (Laughs .) I don't recall the person who told me this, or why, but [union leader] Harry Bridges told someone, who passed it on to me secondhand or thirdhand, "Tell Maddow the strike is over!" I thought that was a very interesting statement.
Did you ever have cause to regret signing that statement before the committee?
No. I don't think so.
Was it the cause for any personal anguish or broken friendships?
Oh, there were a number of broken friendships. Leo Hurwitz never talked to me again. I don't know if that was a loss or not, to tell you the truth. (Laughs .)
Actually, Leo Hurwitz is a very interesting person of great intellectual capacity, but, at least at the time I knew him, a very rigid character. I was sorry for the loss of his friendship, but it's just one of those things.
Once you had cooperated and the blacklist ended, at least for you, did that stigma continue to affect your career?
Only in the sense that when I was back in harness, so to speak, I might have done films that I wouldn't have done otherwise, had I not been blacklisted. Had I not been blacklisted, I would have become better known and would have commanded a higher price, and therefore could have been more selective. It [the blacklist] hurt the momentum of my career, if you want to think of it as a career in screenplay-writing, which I never did.