BOOK REVIEW: 'Hollywood Exiles in Europe'

A new book offers a rare look into the lives of the blacklist victims who escaped to Europe.

With its potent cocktail of Cold War political chicanery, farcical judicial horse-trading and all out betrayal, the Hollywood blacklist has long fascinated American film historians. The majority have tended–not least in the case of Victor Navasky’s excellent 2003 exposé Naming Names–to have a domestic focus. Rebecca Prime’s Hollywood Exiles in Europe is a compelling addition because she has chosen to broaden the picture by addressing the lives and work of the blacklisted Hollywood filmmakers who sought exile in Europe.

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No mere armchair historian, Prime’s travels have led her to Paris, London and Rome - the European capitals which accommodated most of the Hollywood exiles during the period she explores which runs from 1947-1964. These included American directors like Jules Dassin and John Berry in Paris, Joseph Losey and Cy Endfield in London and screenwriters like Dalton Trumbo in Rome. While most of these names are familiar to film fans there are others whose careers were utterly derailed by exile such as director Bernard Vorhaus who have fallen off the radar.

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Prime has interviewed family members (all of the exiled filmmakers are now dead) about their memories of living abroad and accessed a number of important archival collections which have only been made available in the last few years, such as the records of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) – which was created in 1938 to investigate individuals and organizations suspected of having Communist ties. She has also done a sterling job of tracking down the exiles’ European films, many of which are only available in poor quality copies.

Prime is more interested in examining the impact the blacklist had on the lives of Hollywood’s Left-wing community than the circumstances surrounding its instigation and imposition which has been covered in depth elsewhere. Losey for one painted a particularly gloomy picture: “I know of suicides, deaths from heart attacks, talented writers who had to get jobs as waiters or in shops… Marriages were destroyed, children destroyed… but the most serious thing was that the right of American people to say what they thought with freedom (….) was destroyed.”

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What is made clear is how hard it was for relatively successful directors like Dassin and Losey to resurrect their careers and get a foothold in Paris and London. Dassin did this in the end quite brilliantly, first in London by making Night and the City(1950) and then in Paris with Rififi (1955). The film noir genre was one Dassin and the American exiles in general excelled at; in many ways it was the perfect reflection of their parlous existence.

They made films “populated by outsiders and outcasts and (which) are shot through with themes of informing and betrayal”, writes Prime, who likens Night and the City’s theme of treachery “with the disregard for friendship and abandonment of moral principle that HUAC investigation instigated in Hollywood.”

In Britain, France and Italy, the US government’s network of informants kept tabs on the blacklisted. Losey recalled how John Barrymore Jr., the young actor he had directed in 1951's The Big Night, visited him in London not long after he had fled from the United States and was struggling to get started. “Barrymore had money to burn, and Losey was happy to help him spend it in London’s bars and clubs,” writes Prime. “Years later, Barrymore confessed to Losey that his trip had been at the behest of the FBI.”

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On another occasion Prime recounts how Losey had to be smuggled out of Surrey’s Nettlefold Studios in the trunk of star Dirk Bogarde’s car to escape the notice of Ginger Rogers, whose mother Lela was a notorious red-baiter.

Some of the European exiles stuck steadfastly to their guns refusing to compromise their political beliefs in any shape or form. This was the case with the screenwriter Michael Wilson, a committed Marxist, whose career actually flourished in Europe because he was willing to work anonymously on independently-produced Oscar-winning films like Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Unlike Carl Foreman his co-screen-writer on The Bridge on the River Kwai who signed a “clearance” agreement with Columbia Pictures renouncing his communist ties Wilson refused a similar offer from an independent American producer. “I clung to the old-fashioned notion that no committee had a right to know my political beliefs or associations as the price of my right to work,” he said.

Indeed there was no hint of forgiveness in the air when the European exiles encountered those who had turned informer. When Dassin bumped into writer/director Robert Rossen (The Hustler) in Paris, Rossen who had testified before HUAC in 1953 offered to shake his hand. Dassin exploded: “You must be kidding. I wouldn’t shake hands with you if my life depended on it.”

Elia Kazan was another whose naming of names in 1952 was hard for many to swallow. When Losey learned that Kazan was in the audience for the Paris premiere of his masterful film The Servant he abandoned the screening. But Prime’s book is far more than just about the settling of scores rather it gives a nuanced portrait of a turbulent time that begs not be repeated.   

Hollywood Exiles in Europe by Rebecca Prime (Rutgers University Press, 280 pages, $27.95), available now.