In 1941, the comedy “Tom, Dick and Harry” was released to popular acclaim, and screenwriter Paul Jarrico, received an Academy Award nomination. A decade later, Jarrico could not get a job in Hollywood. An unapologetic Communist, Jarrico was among the scores of creative artists whose careers were disrupted by the McCarthy-era blacklist.
Jarrico tried to fight back, independently producing the 1954 feature “Salt of the Earth.” Working with other blacklisted artists, Jarrico was driving force behind this startling drama, which was inspired by a strike among Mexican-American zinc miners in New Mexico. Alas, political pressures and a hostile media killed the film’s U.S. theatrical release and left Jarrico in financial difficulties. It would not be until decades later that “Salt of the Earth” was recognized as a classic of independent cinema.
Unable to get work in Hollywood outside of anonymous script doctoring duties, Jarrico relocated to Europe, where he hunted for work with various degrees of success. It would not be until the early 1970s that he would be able to resume his Hollywood career, albeit without the level of energy he enjoyed before the blacklist.
Larry Ceplair created a fine biography on Jarrico’s unusual life. “The Marxist and the Movies,” published by University Press of Kentucky, offers a rare insight to Jarrico’s odyssey. Ceplair, a former professor of history at Santa Monica University, spoke with Film Threat about Paul Jarrico’s strange and tumultuous career.
What inspired you to write about Paul Jarrico?
I knew, liked, and admired Jarrico. I also knew that his extensive personal archive would provide a biographer with unprecedented information about Jarrico’s screenwriting and his politics. I thought that his archive would allow me to present a more detailed and complete analysis of the career of a Communist screenwriter than Steven Englund and I had been able to do in our book “Inquisition in Hollywood.”
Finally, Jarrico’s experiences intersected with all of the important left-wing political and cultural cross-currents of United States history during the 20th century.
During his pre-blacklist Hollywood career, Jarrico seemed to work everywhere from MGM to Monogram Pictures. Was he viewed as an A-list screenwriter during this period or as a writer-for-hire?
Jarrico was perceived as a skillful constructionist and script doctor. Though most of his early work was on screwball comedies, he was also considered relatively versatile. His scripts were rewritten on a regular basis, to eliminate his social and political commentary, and, in some cases, to improve the dialogue.
Jarrico moved around as much as he did for two reasons. First, he was quick to anger, and he regularly refused assignments he did not like. Second, he became increasingly restless with the quality of assignments offered him and suffered periodic bouts of ennui about screenwriting. During the 1940s, he was highly paid, but I do not think he was considered an A-list screenwriter.
Did Jarrico genuinely believe that “Salt of the Earth” would receive a normal American theatrical release, given the political climate of the 1950s?
Jarrico genuinely believed that he could find a way past the numerous obstacles posed by the Cold War apparatus against making and distributing “Salt of the Earth.” He maintained an almost surreal optimism. This ability, to see triumph just around the corner, sustained him through many dark years on the blacklist.
To be sure, we can now see that he underestimated the power and determination of the anti-Communists, particularly Roy Brewer, who used his position as International Representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, to block production workers from working on the film, laboratory workers from processing it, and projectionists from showing it.
And Jarrico overestimated the support the movie would receive from the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (whose strike was the inspiraton of “Salt of the Earth”). Jarrico and his partners hoped that the union would mobilize to bring pressure on theater owners to show the movie. The partners did not expect, and did not receive, any assistance from the Communist Party.
How was it that some blacklisted artists, such as Jules Dassin and Carl Foreman, were able to revive their careers when the blacklist began to crumble while someone like Jarrico continually encountered employment problems well into the early 1970s?
Career revival was an arbitrary process. Though blacklisting ceased, the blacklist did not simply disappear, and many blacklisted people found it difficult to resume their careers. They were too old; they had been out of circulation for too long and younger producers did not know their work; they were perceived as hard-core Communists; or they had fought the blacklist too openly. Those who had earned a solid reputation, either in Hollywood before the blacklist or in Europe thereafter, and were not too closely identified with communism or litigation against the blacklist – Foreman, Dassin, Joseph Losey, Sidney Buchman, Dalton Trumbo, Marguerite Roberts, inter alia – were quickly rehired.
But others, such as John Howard Lawson and Lester Cole, were considered too “red.” Jarrico, for his part, was considered too litigious and contentious, he had not written any notable scripts in Europe, and he was stuck in Europe (his wife could not get a visa) at a time when one had to be located in Hollywood to pitch and promote ideas. On the other hand, Michael Wilson, who had been as stalwart a Communist and almost as litigious as Jarrico, was very much in demand, because he was considered a brilliant script writer, and he had written scripts for “Bridge Over the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia” while he was on the blacklist.
Do you believe it is possible for another blacklist to take root in Hollywood again?
Yes, I do. Film producers are an easily frightened group of people. They fear anything that will hurt their product at the box office or get in the way of its export. Given enough pressure, they will just as surely cave into it as they did from 1947-61.
What new projects are you working on?
I have completed an article on the screenwriter Isobel Lennart, which will be published by the Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, in October. And I am currently completing a series of articles on anti-communism and Communist Party cultural debates.