Back Lot: Growing Up with the Movies, by Maurice Rapf. (Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1999). Cloth, $39.50. 211pp. ISBN 0-8108-3583-5
Maurice Rapf was a communist. He also forced movie theaters to let him in for free, because his dad, Harry Rapf, one of the founders of MGM, was a big shot in Hollywood. He worked amicably for Walt Disney, one of Hollywood’s most notable right-wingers, and wrote the script for Song of the South, Disney’s Uncle Remus picture, which was denounced by the NAACP for perpetrating racial stereotypes. After he left Disney, Rapf was excused from testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee because he had the mumps. All in all, a typical Hollywood career.
Rapf tells his story in an engaging little memoir, Back Lot. In the late Twenties and early Thirties, the Rapfs were Hollywood royalty. Harry Rapf produced dozens of MGM’s biggest hits until 1933, when a heart attack sidelined him. He came back to MGM and remained there until the late Forties, but never regained the power that he once had.
As a teenager, Maurice Rapf hung out with Budd Schulberg, author of the classic Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run? In 1934, at the age of 20, Rapf paid a visit to the Soviet Union, stopping off in Berlin on the way home, a bold choice for a young Jew. What he saw there convinced him that communism was the only way of defeating Hitler, and he was an active party member throughout the Thirties and into the Forties.
Rapf provides a lot of interesting detail about party life in Hollywood and isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions. Unfortunately, his answers aren’t so impressive. Here’s the way he tells it:
“How, one might ask, did I rationalize the Moscow purge trials of 1937? (I believed the Trotskyites were plotting with the Nazis to undermine the socialist experiment.) How did I accept the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 which led to the Nazi invasion of Poland and the start of World War II? (I had a hard time with this but became convinced that Stalin was just buying time to prepare for the Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union, which, in fact, was what Churchill and his European allies had wanted all along.)”To this day, I don’t know the correct answer to these questions.”
Well, I do, and so could Mr. Rapf if he wanted to. Communism has meant death for tens of millions of people in the twentieth century, and deprivation, oppression, and suffering for well over a billion. Rapf’s argument that anti-communism was worse than communism is painfully false.
On a lighter note, Rapf paints an affectionate picture of Walt Disney as a laid-back, modest perfectionist. When Rapf told him that he was one of the three biggest names in Hollywood (along with Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin), Walt said “No. Mickey Mouse maybe. Not Disney.” The two liked to argue politics, and Disney attributed his life-long Republicanism to an incident in his youth, claiming that a gang of young Democrats out on a spree had pulled down his pants and coated his balls with hot tar. (Apparently, conservatives can’t take a joke.)