Tuesday, June 17, 2014

DVR Diary: WOMAN ON PIER 13 (I Married a Communist, 1949)

It's hard to imagine many Hollywood movies more reflexively reviled than this Howard Hughes agit-noir from his recently-acquired RKO studio. According to legend, Hughes tried to make participation in the project a test of loyalty for studio talent -- loyalty to himself, I suppose, as much as to the American Way of Life. In general, overtly anti-communist movies get a tougher rap from critics than the overtly anti-Nazi films of a few years earlier. This is because the anti-commie movies are perceived to target not a fighting wartime aggressor but an underdog dissident faction. Regardless of recent histories demonstrating the complicity of American communists in espionage and crimes against international communists, most people's image of an American communist, if they have one at all, is not of a terrorist gangster actively pursuing the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Posterity has deemed the anti-red rhetoric of the scare years disproportionate to the actual threat. As a result, films like I Married a Communist are dismissed as absurdities if not offenses against truth. The fact that the film's title was changed quite quickly to the almost-pointless Woman on Pier 13 suggests that movie audiences during the actual Red Scare may have felt the same way. But rather than debate whether the film was fair to the actual Reds I want to pay attention to what the screenplay (credited to Robert Hardy Andrews and Charles Grayson) actually says and how it may belie our expectations.

I Married a Communist is a bit of a cheat title. It should have been I Married an Ex-Communist, because the object of the title, Brad Collins (Robert Ryan), quit the party in disgust more than a decade before the story starts. Since his street-fighting days as a labor agitator, Brad has risen, with the help of a name change, from stevedore to shipping executive. He's successful and just married to Nan (Laraine Day), the I of the title, when the trouble starts. Just when he thought he was out, the Reds pull him back in. Christine Norman, an ex-flame (Janis Carter) has the dirt on his Commie past, and so does the Party boss Vanning (Thomas Gomez). Since the revelations will ruin his career, and his role in a strike killing may condemn him to the electric chair, Brad must submit to blackmail. The simple part is the 40% of his salary he has to kick back to the Party. But then it gets interesting.

Brad's company is negotiating a new contract with the union. This being a Hollywood picture, the union honcho Jim Travers (Richard Rober) is a former flame of Nan's. But he's a good guy -- the most positive male character in the entire picture. He's not going to start a strike on his own; he believes in negotiation and compromise. But the Party wants Brad to precipitate the strike -- it presumably serves some international strategic purpose, since it will tie up the San Francisco docks -- by taking an intransigent stand against the union, against compromise. Here are two things worth noting. First, the right-wing propaganda of 65 years ago is different from the right-wing propaganda of today in some significant ways. Most notably, and maybe most surprisingly given Hughes's agendas, his anti-communist movie is not hostile to organized labor. In fact, as I suggested, Jim the union leader is the nearest thing to a hero after Nan herself. Meanwhile, the script seems to be telling us that employers who refuse compromise with unions are doing the Commies' work for them. Robert Stevenson directed this film at the cusp of the "Treaty of Detroit" era when management and labor agreed to share the wealth to an unprecedented extent in return for peace on the shop floor and the elimination of communist influence. 1949 was not a period of economic decline for which unions could serve as a scapegoat as they do now. Some observers might expect anti-communism in the McCarthy era -- the Senator from Wisconsin made his big splash into celebrity a year later -- to be synonymous with hostility to organized labor, but on this evidence it simply wasn't so.

While Brad reluctantly carries on his insincere negotiations, Christine jealously turns her seductive attentions to Nan's younger brother Don (John Agar), whom Brad had given a job before the trouble started. She gradually transforms Brad into a radical union agitator who shouts Jim down when the moderate leader pleads for moderation. This process apparently took longer in an earlier cut of the film, since Brad's radicalization and its role in provoking the strike is shown as part of a lengthy montage of snippets of scenes that clearly had important dialogue in them, while ominous music plays. Left intact is Brad's first introduction to communism at one of Christine's parties. This scene is as ideological as the movie gets. It tells us what the writers (if not Hughes) thought communism stood for. What it stands for, apparently, is "the scientific management of society," as one well-fed intellectual asserts. Nothing here about the proletariat or property or capitalism. An initially skeptical Brad senses that this is a form of elitism and tells his interlocutor that "I prefer democracy." So another thing missing that we in 2014 might expect in an overtly anti-communist propaganda movie is a defense of capitalism. Nothing here about "free enterprise," nor even about "freedom." The opposite of communism is "democracy." Communism, then, appears to be a political system above all, characterized by the rule of an elite justified by an appeal to science. This is actually a fair hit against Bolshevism or Leninism and the concept of necessary, incontestable leadership by a vanguard party who would do the dictating during Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat." Sixty-five years later you may be more likely to hear someone say that democracy and capitalism contradict each other, with capitalism getting the better of the argument. 1949 was a different world.

Where the 1949 film gets most outrageous is in its portrayal of blatant gangster tactics by American communists. Some were certainly involved in the sort of labor-dispute street fighting Brad took part in as a young man, but I Married a Communist goes beyond that. Communists are shown murdering a suspected informant, in part as a way to intimidate Brad. The victim is tied up and dumped off a pier as he begs for mercy. Brad, being Robert Ryan, is unimpressed by the attempt to scare him. Later, the Communists begin to devour their own. When Don begins to get wise to how he's been manipulated, Vanning orders a hit on him. The local Reds farm out much of such work to a carny who runs a shooting-gallery concession on the pier. Eschewing the obvious, the hit man kills Don by running him over with a car. Later still, Christine threatens to turn on Vanning, but he dumps her out a high window. The film's conflicts are ultimately resolved by gunplay, Brad killing Vanning while suffering a mortal wound so he can give Nan back to Jim, from whom he took her. In history, you often hear of "purges" among the American communists, but these weren't the sort of purges you had in countries where communists controlled the state and enforced their own laws. American communists who got purged usually formed their own splinter parties, even more futile than the original party. Mine wasn't the most thorough Google search, but I found nothing indicating that American communists killed each other on American soil to enforce party discipline or to punish informants. Actual labor unions seem more likely to have done such things. American communists seem to have been more "community organizers" in the pejorative sense than men of action or the sort of hard cases who carried out revolutions elsewhere. In Russia, Stalin robbed banks and Lenin condoned it. The category error of American anti-communism was to assume that America's communists were the same sort of people, that to be a communist was to be a criminal at heart. That feeling still persists, and so I Married a Communist will not seem quite as alien or surprising in its overall attitude as I'm suggesting here -- and I must also admit that a non-violent finish would have made a weak film only more dull. But my main point remains: to be against communism doesn't mean automatically that you'll also be against other things, or for other things still. An anti-communist movie of 1949 isn't necessarily a right-wing movie by today's standards -- and it's not really a good movie by any standard. But it's very interesting as a historical document and a great example of what movies can tell us about the culture they were made in and how it differs from our own.

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