Nov. 25, 2011

Fun, Fun, Fun When the Guy Goes Away

by Hal Sirowitz

That's a strange question to ask
a woman at a bar, she said. "Are
you having fun?" If I wanted
to have fun I wouldn't have come here.
This is a lot of work. I have
to decide which guy, out of
all the jerks here, has the potential
of becoming my future husband.
I mostly just have looks to go on,
since the conversation is usually
minimal—like the one we're having now.

"Fun, Fun, Fun When the Guy Goes Away" by Hal Sirowitz, from Before, During & After. © Soft Skull Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1952, Agatha Christie's (books by this author) murder-mystery play The Mousetrap opened in London's West End. You could still see it there tonight, if you had the £16-60 required for a ticket, as you could have any day, save Sundays, since its opening night 59 years ago. The longest-running show of any kind in the world, The Mousetrap opened at the Ambassadors Theatre, where its run of almost 22 years was already a record-breaking one when it moved — without interruption to its performance schedule — to the St. Martin's Theatre next door. It has since found its way into the Guinness Book of World Records in other ways, too, like the actor who performed the same role 4,575 times, and the actress who worked as an understudy for 15 years.

Agatha Christie originally wrote the story of The Mousetrap — a classic whodunit where strangers are assembled in a guest house, a murderer is on the loose, and they all suspect each other — as a 30-minute radio show called Three Blind Mice. She did so at the special request of her most important fan, Queen Mary, for a 1947 BBC program honoring Her Majesty's 80th birthday. Shortly after Three Blind Mice's broadcast, Christie turned it into a short story and then a play, changing its name because another of the same already existed. The Mousetrap alluded to the play that Shakespeare's Hamlet stages to catch out his murderous uncle.

But Christie's play, written by the "Queen of Crime," after all, retained its royal roots; the year the play premiered, 1952, was also the year of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, and since then they have shared their Silver, Ruby, and Golden jubilees. The queen attended the play's 50th Anniversary Royal Gala Performance in 2002, as did the actor who originated the part of the detective: Lord Richard Attenborough. He was a young, relatively unknown actor when he began in The Mousetrap; the role helped launch his career, for which he was knighted and became British nobility.

He never thought the play — whose program bill in that first season urged audience members to refrain from smoking during the performance and advertised washing machines to avoid the "break-back trap" of laundry — would find such longevity when it opened. "We didn't think it was very good," he admitted to the Daily Mail. Apparently, Christie herself had had her doubts, assuring Attenborough that it would enjoy a "little run," while predicting to its producer that it would last all of eight months.

On this day in 1947, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America announced an official blacklist of the Hollywood Ten, a group of nine screenwriters and one director. Often conflated with the Senate subcommittee headed by Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, the blacklist was in fact a concession to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, whose investigation of Communism in the movies began a month before McCarthy even took office, and three years before he came to any kind of national attention. Although government officials like McCarthy would eventually accuse everyone from clergymen to public school teachers of harboring Communists, the hunt began in Hollywood, centered on writers, and was helped along by the movie executives who on this day agreed to punish anyone the HUAC saw fit.

The American Communist Party had swelled in ranks during the height of the Great Depression, when its campaigns for the rights of the poor attracted members who hadn't yet heard of the atrocities committed by Stalin's Communist regime. It was especially popular among young artists and within Hollywood's progressive climate. By the end of World War II, however, reports of brutal repression in Soviet-controlled states began to reach America, where the increasingly conservative political atmosphere considered Communism a threat. HUAC, the committee charged by the House of Representatives to investigate anyone having Communist or Fascist ties, announced that they would look into allegations that Communists were secretly planting propaganda in U.S. films. They released a list of 43 witnesses they intended to subpoena. Nineteen of those named announced that they would not testify if called.

The hearings began in October of 1947, when several movie professionals, including Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, testified that indeed, the Communist influence was real and dangerous. Of the 19 people who'd promised to refuse participation, only 11 were actually summoned. One of them, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht who'd written a single Hollywood screenplay, worried that withholding his cooperation could detain him in the States. He answered the Committee's questions — truthfully stating that he'd never been a member of the Communist Party, and carefully skirting other questions about his political beliefs — and left for Europe the very next day.

The remaining 10, now known as the Hollywood Ten, made good on their promise. Although being affiliated with the Communist Party was perfectly legal — and they had all been at one time, or still were — they resented the implication that this made them "un-American." Fearing persecution and standing on the principle that such an investigation was itself un-American, each declined to answer the Committee's questions, citing their First Amendment rights and some protesting the committee's activities as unconstitutional. On November 24, the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt of Congress. All would serve time in prison.

That same day, a convention of almost 50 high-level film executives met in one of the most luxuriously appointed suites of the Waldorf-Astoria, many of them having rushed from the West Coast to attend the meeting. The following day, on November 25, the group publicly announced their intention to blacklist the Hollywood Ten, vowing to refuse them work until they had declared under oath that they were not Communists, and declaring that they would likewise refuse work — or fire — anyone else who was known to be a Communist.

The fact that this announcement came after a two-day session suggested that there may have been some original dissenters within a group that included the head of every major studio, but ultimately they presented a united front. They worried about their writers generating so much bad publicity, and they didn't appreciate the suggestion that — in an almost assembly-line studio system that relied heavily on them to approve every script and every casting choice — a writer could have the power to subvert their authority and sneak in hidden messages. Their press release, forever after called The Waldorf Statement, did acknowledge the inherent problems with their policy, saying, "There is the danger of hurting innocent people. There is the risk of creating an atmosphere of fear. Creative work at its best cannot be carried on in an atmosphere of fear. We will guard against this danger, this risk, this fear." They did not suggest how they would guard against it, however.

Indeed, although HUAC had failed to find any evidence of Communist messages in the movies or coercion within the industry, the prospect of being associated with anything or anyone tainted by Communism inspired a growing hysteria, and a growing blacklist. When the committee began another round of hearings in 1951 — urging everyone called in to "name names" of suspected Party members — hundreds of screenwriters, actors, directors, producers, composers, musicians, animators, and scene designers ceased to get work even if they weren't officially blacklisted or even accused of anything. The mere mention of their name in the HUAC proceedings was enough to scare off film execs.

Although screenwriters were originally the primary target of HUAC's investigation and comprised a majority of the blacklist, they fared perhaps better than other artists. Unlike actors and directors, many screenwriters were able to change their name, or write under the name of a friend who wasn't on the list. In fact, Dalton Trumbo, one of the original Hollywood Ten, won the Best Screenplay Oscar for the 1956 film The Brave One under the name "Robert Rich." Trumbo had served a year in a Kentucky prison, moved to Mexico with his family for two years, and then quietly returned to Los Angeles to resume working under a pseudonym. When the press couldn't find "Robert Rich" after his Oscar win and discovered the real writer was on the blacklist, the resulting scandal helped to finally soften the stranglehold of the list. In 1960, Trumbo received credits for both Exodus and Spartacus, the first time his name had appeared on-screen in more than a decade.

It's the birthday of children's author and illustrator P.D. Eastman (books by this author), born Philip Dey "Phil" Eastman in Amherst (1909). Eastman is best known by children and parents for his books within the Dr. Seuss imprint "Beginning Books," like Go, Dog. Go! (1961) and Are You My Mother? (1960). These books came toward the end of a long career in animation that included helping create and write for the character Mr. Magoo. But it was the work he did while serving in World War II that most influenced the eventual course of his writing.

Eastman was inducted into the Army in 1943, where, because of his work experience at Walt Disney and Warner Brothers Studios, he was assigned to the Signal Corp's First Motion Picture Unit, headed by the legendary film director Frank Capra. Eastman served in an animation unit with Munro Leaf, whose children's book The Story of Ferdinand (1936) about a bull who preferred smelling flowers to bullfighting, had been made into an Oscar-winning Disney film. They were led by Ted Geisel, an advertising cartoonist whose contract had allowed him little leeway in other creative pursuits. He'd turned, like Leaf, to writing kids' books. And before joining the war effort, he'd published four volumes to modest success.

Capra had created the concept for an animated series aimed at educating young — and sometimes illiterate — enlisted men; Eastman, Leaf, and Geisel wrote episodes for the short films that were then by produced by Warner Brothers. The series was called "Private Snafu," and centered on a dimwitted soldier whose name was an acronym for a military phrase familiar — and amusing — to the audience, which the opening narrator announced as "Situation Normal: All ... All Fouled Up!" Snafu taught by negative example, leaking secrets that allow the enemy to torpedo him in one film, failing to properly camouflage himself and getting bombed in another. The cartoons — complete with scantily clad women and minor cursing — were often soldiers' favorite offering of the biweekly newsreel.

After the war, Eastman continued to work as a writer and storyboard artist for animated productions and TV commercials. More than a decade had passed when Ted Geisel, now internationally famous as Dr. Seuss, asked his former subordinate Eastman to write a children's book for his brand-new children's imprint, Beginner Books. The books were all modeled after the recent and massive success of Cat in the Hat (1957), with a limited vocabulary but an entertaining subject matter to hold children's interest. They were, minus the risqué content, not unlike their wartime collaboration.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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