“Being Marxist in the Groucho rather than Karl sense would have required the Ten to not take themselves or their politics so seriously.”
Groucho Marx, a reluctant petitioner for the Hollywood Ten, once lamented that the 1947 HUAC hearings into Communist influence in Hollywood had not been used as source material for a Marx Brothers’ film. The brothers’ unique brand of surrealist comedy would, he believed, have found an ideal setting in the question-answer format and the perfect set of foils with the career politicians of HUAC.
In a sense, one of the brothers did participate, and there was comedy, but not from him, nor of the intentional kind.
By 1944, however, Ryskind saw a Hollywood producing big-budget defenses of Stalinism: Mission to Moscow (1943) endorsed Vyshinsky’s Trotskyite-Fascist conspiracy thesis promoted during the Soviet Purge Trials; Song of Russia (1944) presented a rosy (and musical) daily life of Kulaks; and although set in America, Watch on the Rhine (1943) endorsed “necessary murders” by having a progressive take a fascist into a garage and execute him.
Ryskind took what he learned from union days and helped organize the Hollywood anti-communist group, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Three years later, this group provided the bulk of friendly testimony before the Committee.
Ryskind’s ability to make comedic targets out of high-society dowagers and opera personnel failed him when testifying about Hollywood Stalinist hypocrisies during the Pact and Grand Alliance period. But the material was really comedy-proof. Not so with the Hollywood Stalinist facing HUAC, who had a golden opportunity to produce laughs. United on a common legal strategy of staying out of jail by pretending to answer committee questions while at the same time refusing to validate Congress’s right to inquire about political affiliations, this potentially surrealist stand, in the hands of anyone else, might have produced laughter from the audience. But save for one quip from Ring Lardner Jr. (“I could answer the question but would hate myself in the morning”), their comments reflected their joyless politics.
Aware of their audience’s powers of focus, which zeroed in on jokes and glittering gowns but not on speeches, communist screenwriters still couldn’t allow themselves to sugar-coat the pill with humor; instead they opted for different flavors, which while bitterer, came more natural to them. Their pill came coated with homicidal anger (“Japs — I just don’t like them” — Dalton Trumbo, Thirty Seconds Over Tokoyo), Grand Alliance patriotism (“All decent Americans are for Tehran,” John Howard Lawson) and antifascist martyrdom (“the stench of the Reichstag fire is in this room,” Dalton Trumbo’s written statement to HUAC). Audiences, in the ’40s as in Shaw’s time, didn’t swallow it.
The Ten should have learned the lessons of Charlie Chaplin. Audiences stayed with his 1940 film The Great Dictator as long as the jokes came, but drifted mentally and some physically when the Tramp gave a humorless and interminable speech at the film’s finale (which, true to form, the CPUSA distributed written copies of, unaccompanied with Chaplin’s genuinely funny jibes at Hitlerism).
But learning from the past was not a noted characteristic of Hollywood Communists. Had they been willing, from the vantage point of World War II scriptwriting, to learn from the past, they would have realized Chaplin got the biggest laughs in England, where the Blitz made audiences realize the coping power of humor. This power could have been learned as well had they been willing to take their ideological blinkers off and see a Soviet Union where their cultural counterparts couldn’t or wouldn’t embrace humor, and those who had to live under and die because of the regime had the choice of a genuine belly laugh at the absurdity of it all, or an insane cackle.