Behind the Screen

Film has become an integral part of American life.brianton_cover
Though the face of the film industry continues to change, it is undeniable that films and television continue to impact lives and culture. With the approach of the 69th Annual DGA awards, it is a time to celebrate some of the best among this year’s productions and, more importantly, the directors behind them. This year’s list of directors includes many first-time nominees, making it clear that the stage has been set for the recognition of new talent.

In addition to celebrating directorial achievements, the DGA (Directors Guild of America) helps to protect the rights of directors and to promote diversity within the film industry. However, in the earlier days of Hollywood, the film industry wasn’t always so welcoming.

One of the most famous (or, more appropriately, infamous) incidents in American film history is the Hollywood blacklist. In this time of directing giants, the looming reality of the Cold War led to an era of paranoia and tension within the film industry as actors and directors alike faced accusations about their connections to communism and communist sympathies. Countless actors and directors lost their careers due to the blacklist, but within the American tradition, there is one incident that stands out among the rest: the 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting.

In Hollywood Divided: the 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist, Kevin Brianton dives into the facts and myths surrounding that famous meeting which would go on to obtain something of a mythic status in the American memory. A large part of its fame, unfortunately, comes from the misinformation surrounding it, but how exactly did this information come to be? And what is the truth of this historical moment which would prove to have a lasting impact on the film industry? Part of this uncertainty can be attributed to ways in which time often obscures memory, but it might also be connected to Mankiewicz’s directing career, which was beginning to decline. As Brianton mentions in his book, in reference to a speech that Mankiewicz gave recounting the events of the SDG meeting, “When Mankiewicz had finished, the Master of Ceremonies, Carl Reiner, joked that Mankiewicz’s speech had the same problem as Cleopatra–it went on for too long. Makiewicz would be sure to enliven his future accounts of the meeting.”

In the following excerpt, Brianton draws on SDG minute records to provide an inside look at one of the many tense (and true) moments of the 1950 meeting:


Daves began, “I did not sign the petition. I wish I had. I am a Republican too, Mr DeMille … I resent beyond belief the things that you said as you summarized the twenty-five men.” Daves said he agreed with Wellman about the basic unfairness of the campaign. When he had received a phone call about recalling Mankiewicz, he told the caller he wanted to hear Mankiewicz’s side of the story. Looking up at the board members sitting on the dais, Daves said,

“All of us here look before us and see seated at this Board of Directors table dear friends, and the men who signed this telegram are some of my very dearest friends in this town. Mabel [Walker Willebrandt] is a very dear friend of mine. I can go right down the list … their kids play with my kids. We are as close as people can be, and I love a lot of people sitting at the table. This has nothing to do with personal acrimony at all, nor toward the men who signed the recall. It merely has to do with the faction and the attack that was made … [in] what I consider a completely undemocratic manner, and one which was so secretive by nature that I was shocked.” Daves said, “The next thing I knew I received a ballot, and it said, ‘This is a ballot to recall Joe Mankiewicz. Sign here – yes.’ There was nothing more. It was not yes and no. I was more deeply shocked.”

Perhaps drawing on his distant legal training at Standford, where he graduated as a lawyer but never had the opportunity to use the degree, Daves then presented damning evidence against DeMille. He said the recall committee deliberately misled the membership by pretending to be acting on behalf of the entire SDG board rather than a committee attempting to recall Mankiewicz. He said, “[Mankiewicz] is not a personal friend of mine. I am fighting for him here, because I feel our rights and our freedom have been violently hit by what has happened.” He discussed the telegram that appeared to be mailed from the board of directors in support of the recall: “It said twelve times, ‘The Board of Directors this,’ and ‘The Board of Directors that.’” Daves called the exercise “an abuse of privilege.”

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  Before the storm, Cecil B. DeMille, Gloria Swanson, and Billy Wilder enjoyed working together on Sunset Boulevard (1950), which was released just before the October 22 SDG meeting. Wilder would become a strident opponent of DeMille over his treatment of Mankiewicz. (Photofest)

Mankiewicz was passed a note saying that some directors were leaving the room to provide updates to the journalists milling around outside the room. Mankiewicz was furious: “Now, good God, gentlemen, can’t we act like adult men? When you go home … tomorrow, remember that America is created on the system of sitting around an old stove in the grocery store and talking things over, and then going in a booth and voting the way you feel. Now we are here to talk. Let’s talk and let’s mind our own business.” Mankiewicz then called on another one of the anti-recall signatories H. C. Potter to speak. Henry Codman Potter was known for films such as The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), Second Chorus (1940) and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). He had studied drama at Yale University, before carving out his career in the cinema. Describing himself as an SDG member older than Mr DeMille and also “an American, as good as Mr DeMille,” Potter demanded an inquiry into the “shameful thing of the recall.” It was another short speech, but it was the first such demand for an investigation of the recall faction, which would grow louder as the meeting progressed.

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The University Press of Kentucky has a dual mission—the publication of books of high scholarly merit in a variety of fields for a largely academic audience and the publication of books about the history and culture of Kentucky, the Ohio Valley region, the Upper South, and Appalachia. The Press is the statewide mandated nonprofit scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, operated as an agency of the University of Kentucky and serving all state institutions of higher learning, plus five private colleges and Kentucky's two major historical societies.

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