The Guardian

The Guardian November 17, 1999


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Abraham Polonsky dies

One of the most notorious victims of the McCarthyist witch-hunt in 
Hollywood in the 1950s died at the end of last month. Abraham Polonsky, 
screenwriter, novelist and filmdirector, died on October 26 at his Beverly 
Hills home after suffering a massive heart attack. He was 88.

Educated at Columbia Law School, Polonsky taught at City College of New 
York, and wrote essays, radio scripts and several novels.

An ardent anti-fascist, he was called up to serve in the Office of 
Strategic Services (OSS, the forerunner of the CIA), during WW2.

Shortly before leaving for Europe and work behind enemy lines, he signed a 
contract with Paramount as a screenwriter.

When he returned from the War, Paramount put him to work on a piece of 
espionage hokum called Golden Earrings. Ray Milland played a spy 
whose anti-Nazi activities are aided by Marlene Dietrich's gypsy.

Polonsky's script probably reflected his knowledge of authentic espionage 
activities, and authenticity was hardly what Paramount was striving for. 
The studio brought in two other scriptwriters.

None of Polonsky's script survived the studio rewrites (although, in the 
perverse way of Hollywood, his name is still on the credits  as one of 
the film's three writers).

The film was a flop and Polonsky and Paramount parted company.

His next film was for producer Bob Robertson: an expose of the "fight game" 
starring left-wing actors John Garfield and Lili Palmer, and directed by 
Robert Rossen. The film was excellent and Polonsky's script was much 
admired.

Robertson and Garfield then persuaded Polonsky to not only write but also 
direct his next film, again starring Garfield, a drama of the corrosive 
evil of gangsterdom, Force of Evil. Highly acclaimed in Europe, 
Force of Evil was dismissed by US critics as "just another gangster 
pic" and then written off as the work of "Reds".

Polonsky made Force of Evil in 1948. He did not direct another film 
or see his name on screen crits until 1968.

After completing Force of Evil he went to Europe to write a novel. 
He returned in 1950 to direct a film for Twentieth Century-Fox.

Instead he was called to appear before the House Un-American Activities 
Committee (HUAC) and asked the notorious question about whether he was or 
had ever been a member of the Communist Party.

He refused to answer, and similarly refused to "name names" of other 
Hollywood creative people who were or had been members of the Party. He was 
blacklisted by the industry.

For two decades he was forced to continue his creative output "behind the 
scenes", without credit.

The film industry would not allow him to direct or to have his name 
recognised, but they were not averse to availing themselves of his talent: 
he earned a reasonable income writing TV scripts and doctoring other 
people's screenplays.

Only with the collapse of the blacklist in 1968 could he see his name on 
the script for Madigan and the next year resume directing with the 
socially conscious drama Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, starring 
Robert Blake.

The Los Angeles Times noted in its obituary that "his film credits 
numbered a scant nine, but Polonsky remained highly respected in Hollywood 
for his work as well as for his refusal to testify" before HUAC.

When, shortly before the Academy Awards earlier this year, the Academy of 
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it would give its "lifetime 
achievement" Oscar to director Elia Kazan, a "co-operative witness" before 
HUAC who willingly turned on his former left-wing friends and named names, 
reporters asked Polonsky for his reaction. He told them: "I'll be watching, 
hoping someone shoots him."

* * *
Carnegie the philanthropist A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Andrew Carnegie in a Worth Watching item, describing him briefly as an "industrialist". This year is the centenary of Carnegie's destruction of what was then the largest union in the United States, the American Steelworkers' Union. Carnegie, who started out in railroads, then went into building iron bridges for railroads, and from there into steel production. He was extremely successful, acquiring a controlling interest in many large steel plants. By 1899, when he consolidated his interests in the Carnegie Steel Company, he controlled about 25 percent of iron and steel production in the US. Carnegie Steel was the first billion-dollar US corporation. Also in 1899, he set about smashing the union at his most advanced plant, in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a solidly working-class, union city. Carnegie, who would make his name in later years as a "great philanthropist", locked the workers out. The workers retaliated by taking over the plant and repelling the Pinkerton thugs that Carnegie hired to recapture it. Faced with the workers' determined resistance, Carnegie got his pals in the state legislature to send in the National Guard. The steelworkers were crushed, their union smashed. Union militants were blacklisted, evicted, harassed and beaten up. Under cover of what amounted to a reign of terror, Carnegie was free to institute 12-hour work days in appalling conditions. With the arrogance of power, the company freely boasted that this was the basis for their subsequent enormous profits. Carnegie himself, with the arrogance of wealth, declared that no one needed more than $50,000 a year! Anything over that they should give away to "benevolent causes". These causes did not include the employees who actually earned the money for them. A professed pacifist, he nevertheless had no qualms about taking on a highly profitable contract to supply steel for US naval vessels. In 1901 he sold his company to the United States Steel Corp for $250 million and retired.He then big-noted himself by giving away his surplus wealth to endow libraries and concert halls and arts trusts bearing his name, proving once again that a philanthropist is merely someone who gives away what he should be giving back.

Back to index page