How Anti-Communist Witch-Hunts Drove US Filmmakers To London

By Stuart Black Last edited 36 months ago
How Anti-Communist Witch-Hunts Drove US Filmmakers To London
Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston in Trumbo.

This week, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston stars in Trumbo, a sizzling biopic about the screenwriter who won an Oscar in 1957 despite being put on a blacklist of communist sympathisers. The witch-hunts of that era may well be Hollywood’s most shameful episode, but they also proved an unexpected boon for London’s film industry. The capital took in a huge number of exiled filmmakers who would go on to give us a cultural kick in the pants: from the great British epic to the rebuilding of Shakespeare’s Globe. Here we take a look at some of the other filmmakers who lived here — many under constant surveillance — yet refused to give up the fight for what they believed in.

Joseph Losey

The Servant — one of Losey's collaborations with Harold Pinter.

Helen Mirren, who co-stars in Trumbo, said recently that Losey’s arrival on these shores was one of the best things to come out of Senator Joe McCarthy’s crackdown in Hollywood. “We benefited in Europe from the brilliance of those directors. I was dying to work with Joe Losey, who was the preeminent art film director working in Britain.”

Losey settled in London in 1953 having been rumbled as a red when he turned down the opportunity to direct I Married A Communist, a script that was being used to out so-called Un-American filmmakers. Losey hightailed it over here and promptly reinvented his career with a series of very fine arthouse movies, several of which channelled the acute paranoia that continued to creep around him — even in the London fog.

For his first film here — a jazz-tinged thriller called The Sleeping Tiger — he had to use the pseudonym Victor Hanbury and at one point needed to be smuggled out of the studio in the boot of Dirk Bogarde’s car to avoid other stars who might snitch on him. Losey was also fired a few years later from a trashy Hammer horror flick after American actor Dean Jagger found out his back-story and refused to work with him.

Despite these setbacks, Losey persevered and went on to make a trilogy of classics with Hackney’s finest Harold Pinter, namely The Servant (1963), Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971).

Sam Wanamaker

Shakespeare's Globe. Photo by Theunis Viljoen LRPS.

It’s hard to believe now that before being built in 1997, the Bankside replica of Shakespeare’s Globe was considered by many Londoners to be a hare-brained folly. Perhaps it makes sense that it took someone like Wanamaker, who understood what taking risks meant, to see that it might just lead to something special being built.

Having escaped the clutches of the numbskull American authorities, Wanamaker arrived here in 1949 hoping to find a culture that valued its artists a little better. He was dismayed however when he discovered that the only remnant of William Shakespeare’s original theatre was a broken plaque on a tumbledown brewery. The actor spent years championing the idea of a replica, pouring his own money into a project that is now recognised as one of the best theatrical experiences in the world.

Aside from this contribution to London life, Wanamaker remained a prolific actor, with his first film here, Give Us This Day, involving fellow blacklistees, director Edward Dmytryk and writer Ben Barzman. He later appeared in the classic thriller The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, as well as Guilty By Suspicion, a film all about McCarthy’s misguided witch-hunts.

Superlative screenwriters

Alec Guinness in The Bridge On The River Kwai.

It’s hard to imagine that scribes who’d worked on iconic movies such as High Noon and It’s A Wonderful Life could have been cut loose in the red scare; but they were. Luckily, some got a second chance in London. David Lean’s best work, for example, came out of the brains of exiles Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. They worked on Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge On The River Kwai and it’s interesting to reassess these films with their experiences in mind. Both feature men far from home, trying to stand up for what they believe in against implacable forces and enormous odds. We may think of them as quintessentially English but really they are codas to the torments these Americans went through — and who, even on British soil, were forced to write anonymously.

Other great writers worth a mention include Donald Ogden Stewart, who'd once penned The Philadelphia Story. He arrived in London in 1951, though he never quite recaptured the scintillating form he’d had in Hollywood. He also helped Lean (with his love story Summertime), but his work tailed off and latterly he ended up writing Plays Of The Week on ITV.

Anne Edwards was another emigre who fared less well, finding London a curiously dark and melancholy city in contrast to California. The "dozen curious versions" of English spoken here proved problematic when she handed in an early draft of her script A Question of Adultery, and not long after that her screenwriting dried up. Her description of the city she arrived into in 1952, still wracked with grief after the death of George VI, shows how alien she felt: “London was almost entirely draped in black, whole buildings covered burka fashion with only their window-eyes exposed... Something deep inside me was fighting its way out for air."

Saturday night swashbucklers

You can probably blame/thank producer Hannah Weinstein for Aidan Turner’s chest in Poldark. She basically invented the idea of amped-up Saturday night costume rompery. Having fled to London in 1952, Weinstein set up her own production company Sapphire Films directly using funds from the Hollywood branch of the Communist Party USA. She then secretly hired blacklisted American writers to reinvent a set of mouldy old English heroes from history in a new wave of sassy swashbucklers for ITV.

Robin Hood appealed for obvious reasons and Weinstein’s fresh approach — all swooshing blades, sarcasm and heaving bosoms — meant her version was a huge hit, both here and back in the States (which must have been a sweet victory). Among the show’s writers were dyed-in-the-wool commie outlaws Waldo Salt, Ian McLellan Hunter and Ring Lardner Jr (who was one of the Hollywood 10). They would have fun changing their pseudonyms each week to bamboozle the lunks in the syndication offices.

Besides Robin Hood, Weinstein made similarly rip-roaring ITV shows out of William Tell and Sir Lancelot in the 50s and 60s, plus Sword Of Freedom (see clip above) and The Buccaneers. She also produced Colonel March of Scotland Yard, a detective show in which Boris Karloff investigated bizarre crimes in the capital.

London noir

One of the greatest crime thrillers made in the capital, Night And The City, came courtesy of blacklisted director Jules Dassin. This breathless 1950 tale of scams in Soho and hoodlums in Hammersmith is a hugely atmospheric evocation of the post-war capital. Filmed largely on location and full of idiosyncratic local detail — the dive bars, the wrestling, the house-boats on the Thames — it is a rare, rich and intoxicating treat. What makes the film really memorable though is the strain of pure pessimism that runs through it. As double-dealing anti-hero Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) gets sucked into the vortex, his corny hopes of redemption are roundly ignored by the Londoners around him, leaving his furious efforts throughout the film feeling strangely, poignantly pointless. Dassin’s grim tone suits both the dirty town the film's set in and the dark times he himself was living through. See this one on the big screen if you can.

The return of Chaplin

Chaplin in the London-set Limelight, 1952.

Despite the grand career of south London export Charlie Chaplin, even he was not immune from being subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had long been a supporter of leftist causes, participating in war-time campaigns to help the Soviet Union and also protesting the Hollywood trials themselves as an infringement of civil liberties. As his star power dwindled and a sex scandal rocked his reputation, it was an easy win for one of McCarthy’s acolytes John E. Rankin to take aim at Chaplin, saying to Congress in 1947: "[His] very life in Hollywood is detrimental to the moral fabric of America... He should be deported and gotten rid of at once.”

Chaplin left the US to hold the world premiere of his autobiographical Limelight in London, inwardly knowing that he would not be coming back. And sure enough, the day after he sailed away, his re-entry permit was revoked. If he wanted to return to America, Chaplin would have to undergo a grilling about his political views, which would almost certainly result in rejection. He stayed away from the States until finally in 1972 the suckers realised the extent of their idiocy and invited him back to collect an honorary Academy Award.

Trumbo is released in cinemas on 5 February.

Last Updated 08 February 2016

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