Anyone who doesn't understand that the 1950s-era blacklist was one of the most self-destructive chapters in Hollywood history need look no further than the career of writer-director Abraham Polonsky, who died of a heart attack at his Beverly Hills home Tuesday at age 88.
Polonsky already had brought two classics to the screen, 1947's "Body and Soul" (as writer) and 1948's "Force of Evil" (as co-writer and director) when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.
An OSS volunteer during World War II who had fought with the French resistance behind enemy lines, Polonsky refused to say whether he was a member of the Communist Party (which he was), and he certainly refused to name any names, which was what HUAC was really after.
Because of that stand, Polonsky found himself on the blacklist, an unofficial roster of possible and known Communist sympathizers who would be denied work in Hollywood for the next decade, and in some cases, even longer. Polonsky's name did not appear on a single U.S. film from 1951 to 1968.
Who knows how many wonderful films Polonsky could have been responsible for during that time period? As his first post-blacklist film as writer-director, 1969's "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here," clearly shows, Polonsky's filmmaking skills didn't leave him during the period. This tale of a Paiute Indian (Robert Blake) running from the law (in the form of local sheriff Robert Redford) after killing his father-in-law in self-defense (Katharine Ross plays his white bride) shows a man with a firm grip of narrative and, undoubtedly, a lot of stories left to tell.
But, at age 59, Polonsky's best years were behind him. He worked on two more films, directing 1971's "Romance of a Horse Thief" and penning 1979's "Avalanche Express." He also did a lot of television work, including the landmark CBS show "You Are There."
He also wrote the original screenplay for the 1991 film "Guilty By Suspicion," with Robert De Niro as a blacklisted director. But he so objected to changes made in his script that he took his name off the finished film.
"He was a wonderful man," screenwriter Walter Bernstein ("The Front") said of his old friend. "He was morally impregnable. He fought for what he believed in. He had lots of chances to sell out and he never did. When I was blacklisted, I was a kid and just getting started. But Abe was about to embark on a big career, and it was cut out from under him."
Unrepentant to the end, Polonsky was one of the key organizers behind last year's protest of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's decision to give an honorary Oscar to director Elia Kazan, who not only named names before HUAC but took out a full-page ad in the New York Times urging others in the filmmaking community to follow suit.
"If the U.S. government wants to give him the Benedict Arnold award, it's OK with me. That's all he deserves," an unforgiving Polonsky told The Sun. And the day of the Academy Awards, there was Polonsky, standing outside the Dorothy Chandler pavilion in Los Angeles, looking jaunty in blue jacket and white beret, arguing for the apology he felt he and all the other blacklist victims deserved.
"You know a fellow named Dante?" Polonsky asked an impromptu assemblage of journalists. "According to him, the people in the last circle of hell sit on ice, not fire. Down there, you have the head of the Communist Party, and you have Judas. Kazan has a place all picked out for himself."
"He was a staunch radical," fellow protest organizer and blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon said. "He never gave up his principles. He was the smartest and warmest human being I've ever known."
Incredibly bad zombies
Now here's a real treat for Halloween
Tomorrow and Sunday nights at the Charles, the classic (and yes, this definitely stretches that adjective to the breaking point) 1963 horror flick from director Ray Dennis Steckler, "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies," comes to the big screen. This saga of a carnival show brimming with some really ugly dudes and tepid rock bands stars Cash Flagg and Atlas King, and is required for anyone wanting to know what truly bad cinema is all about -- it practically defines the term "so bad, it's good."
And if you're wondering what a guy looks like who could direct something like this, keep an eye on lead Cash Flagg, really a pseudonym for Steckler.
"The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies" is playing on a double bill with "The Thrill Killers," another bit of inspiration from Steckler featuring many of the same actors.
"Creatures" is scheduled for 9: 20 p.m. Saturday and 7: 10 p.m. Sunday at the Charles, 1711 N. Charles St. "The Thrill Killers" can be savored beginning at 11: 15 p.m. tomorrow and 9: 20 p.m. Sunday.
Comedy at the Charles