Wednesday, March 23, 2016

"Trumbo" Misses the "Marc" (But That's Okay)

We have the right to be wrong.” Dalton Trumbo

The Red Scare – McCarthyism – was not only a part of Vito Marcantonio's life and times. It ended his political career.


This darkest of chapters in American history has been brought to life with director Jay Roach's major theatrical release, "Trumbo."

Roach told the University of California Television show “Script to Screen,” that he was moved by screenwriter and author Dalton Trumbo's letters from prison to family, friends and enemies alike, and as a child, was taken with “Spartacus,” which the blacklisted scribe scripted under a pseudonym.

The director called it, “Possibly the most subversive commercial film ever made.”

Screenwriter John McNamara absorbed, first-hand stories of Trumbo sitting in a New York University film class taught by Ian McClellan Hunter.

The latter agreed to put his name on the blacklisted Trumbo's “Roman Holiday,” and picked up an Oscar for his willingness to sit with those who plot and conspire.

The other teachers to the class were Walter Salt (“Midnight Cowboy; “Coming Home”), and Ring Lardner Jr., like Trumbo, one of the “Hollywood Ten.”

When a friend suggested to McNamara that Bruce Cook's biography “Trumbo” was good film fodder, McNamara was dubious. “There's no sex, there's no action and it's period and it's politics and I'm thinking, 'How is that a movie?'”

"Counterpunch" assigned Margot Pepper to review “Trumbo,” figuring the fact she actually knew the subject as a child would provide an interesting, in-close perspective.

The reviewer laments the exclusion of Trumbo's time of exile in Mexico City, registers distaste for the fictional composite writer character, Arlen Hird, and is nonplussed with the sympathetic treatment afforded Edward G. Robinson, who “named names” during the witch hunt.
Dalton Trumbo Under Fire.

Pepper says “Trumbo” is a yarn that develops in a vacuum.

The review suggested that  the film doesn't shy away from saying “communism,” and even deigns to suggest its kinship to kindness and sharing, but, she says, the film evades the why and wherefore of the blacklist in an old “Hollywood sleight of hand” left over from the same dark days.

But in the end, Pepper concludes that the the film is a good thing: “Just as Trumbo broke the blacklist by signing his name to the screenplays for 'Spartacus' and 'Exodus,' it is likely that Roach and McNamara have, with 'Trumbo,' broken the blacklist against Hollywood movies sympathetic to the spirit of communism.”

A First Amendment absolutist, Rep. Vito Marcantonio defended the rights of communists to assemble, fulminate, organize and publish throughout the McCarthy era. It did not advance his career.

Marc was ensconced in Congress as the Hollywood Ten issue rose (sunk?) to prominence in 1947. He came to their defense in a most public way.

Roach, who has an uncommon director's empathy for screen scripters, said the writers in Hollywood “were the first ones thrown under the bus to make the studios look more All-American.”

The writers, McNamara suggested, never had a chance as “Washington was the hammer and Hollywood the willing anvil. Each needed the other to extract maximum punishment.”

The House voted 240 to 15 when citing Trumbo for contempt of Congress with like tallies ensuing for the other scribes suspected of writing Marx and Lenin into the commercial projections of the Hollywood Dream Machine.

  
Dalton Trumbo
So they were not completely alone.

  A Nov. 25, 1947 “New York Times,” article covering the contempt citation proceedings quotes Marcantonio “American Laborite of New York” attacking the House UnAmerican Activities Committee process as “unconstitutional.”

Along with those who felt Alva Bessie should have been represented, or that a more forceful role needed to be carved out for Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis), we might ask Where's Marc in film?

Staging a moment of support from a staunch congressional advocate might have spread another layer of nuance over the filmic tragedy.

But McNamara was adapting a specific book about Trumbo and his times, not the entire history of man and era.

As such, McNamara has done the adapter's job of distilling persons, currents, opposing views relationships public and personal, in a superior fashion; opting for the rule which says biopics are better when they avoid tackling an entire life, and focus instead on one important chapter into which swatches of the past or future can be pulled with a little expository dialogue.

He had but 127 airy pages, or so, to work with and, as in all adaptation projects, not everything "made the cut."

“Trumbo,” is a political movie and Roach/McNamara took a bold leap in getting a story about an accused communist casted, financed, and filmed.

As reward they came in for no small amount of criticism. Stories that recount crucial political history are somewhat battlegrounds over content and direction, battlegrounds over whose history gets told.

Those clashes are especially contentious when a good number of people from the era are still alive and walking about.

The director/writer team's triumph is not that their final draft satisfied all viewpoints on the matter at hand, but that they raised the subject at all, so that distinct interpretations might inform new discussion on a recently moribund topic.

Monument (Wo)Men

There are only five monuments to women in New York City and the Vito Marcantonio Forum's (VMF) LuLu LoLo has been doing something about it.

For months, dressed as Joan of Arc-stepped-down-from-her-pedestal at Riverside Park and 93rd St., LuLu has walked the streets of Gotham soliciting nominees to increase the number of monuments dedicated to members of Simone de Beauvoir's “Second Sex.”

LuLu LoLo's point is simple: The five female statues/monuments pale by comparison to the 175 honoring men in New York City.

There are eight monuments dedicated to bears. Yes, bears.

According to LuLu (aka, Lois Evans) the other four public monuments to women include Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Golda Meir and Gertrude Stein. A fountain in Bryant Park is dedicated to Josephine Shaw Lowell, an early consumer advocate.

Among the nominees offered up by the voice of the streets during her campaign are Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Grace Lee Boggs, Margaret Sanger, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Leontyne Price, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Clara Lemlich, Rachel Carson, Shirley Chisolm, Bella Abzug and Dorothy Day.

Some of those names may be unknown to readers, but if there had been statues erected recognizing their achievements, we might know what those achievements were and the names themselves might carry a greater resonance.

Of Her "Times.”

LuLu's efforts were magnified by an article in the Nov. 16, 2015 “New York Times” under the headline, A Street Level Search for Women to Put on a Manhattan Pedestal,” written by David Gonzalez.

She told newspaper, “There are many memorials that depict women allegorically, representing beauty or sacrifice. Most of the models for those were Audrey Munson, who was beautiful, in the movies even, but wound up in an insane asylum. She was the model for so many. She's the Spirit of Commerce on the Manhattan Bridge.”

LuLu LoLo at Pete Pascale Place.
LuLu LoLo is the daughter of Peter Pascale, of Pete Pascale Place in East Harlem, a social worker and associate of Rep. Vito Marcantonio.

She put in a good word for the radical legislator during a recent interview with Audrey Gray on the “Municipal Arts Society” podcast, telling listeners of “The wonderful, controversial congressman Vito Marcantonio, who was a mentor to my father...I wish he was here today, because he always voted his conscience, and he was a man of the people who helped anyone who came to see him.”

Marcantonio Women.

Rep. Vito Marcantonio had very little say over what kind of statues they put up around New York, but if suggestions had been his to make there might be more than the five currently dedicated to women.

In Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politican,” Gerald Meyer writes that, “Marcantonio broke sharply with the mores of his community, by working and socializing with a large number of women associates. He had a very close political, personal and perhaps sexual relationship with Anna Damon, the Executive Director of the International Labor Defense and an important figure in the Communist Party.

“Lillian Landau supervised his political apparatus, which included more women than men, provided valued counsel and may have written some of his speeches.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation's file on Marc pegs Landau, as “an old time Communist Party member, who was placed with V.M. by the Communist Party.”

In "Living the Revolution," (link) her study of Italian women's radical culture in late -19th Century to mid-20th Century New York, scholar Jennifer Guglielmo highlights the work of Esta Pingaro, an important force in the Harlem Legislative Conference, chaired by Marcantonio throughout its six-year existence.
Women for Marc!

Pingaro worked together with Helen Vasquez, a native puertorriqueña and driving force in Harlem's Communist Party. These women collaborated, in turn, with Fausta Mercado, another native Puerto Rican and Marcantonio ally whose activism focused on education.

Of course, there was Marc's wife, Miriam Sanders, whose career was dedicated to settlement work and other forms of local, civic action.

The radical congressman might have nominated Annette Rubinstein, a blacklisted school principal, American Labor Party candidate, and literary critic.

Without her efforts in editing a collection of his speeches and writings, “I Vote My Conscience,”(link) the gap between Marcantonio's accomplishments and his anonymity would be that much wider.

Breaking Through: Where's Marc in the Media?

Vito Marcantonio continues to reassume his place in the American historical narrative as media outlets take a new interest in radical congressman's work and image.

“Politico,” a nationally distributed online product, recently wrote Marcantonio into a “this day in history” piece.

That day was Dec. 31, 1946. The headline read: “House Panel Upholds Rep. Vito Marcantonio's right to take his seat.”

The article, written by Andrew Glass, introduces Marcantonio to an unaware political readership and focuses on the House Campaign Expenditure Investigating Committee's decision “not to challenge his right to take his seat in the new Congress.”

Opponents were out to deny Marcantonio's hard-fought victory in a year when Republicans had swept the nation, but failed to unseat the American left's national spokesman. The Election Day beating death of a Republican ward-heeler in Marcantonio's district gave them the brush they needed to tar him.

Thereafter, his seat was less secured, his reputation tarnished by purported links to mobsters.

Marcantonio held on for one more election before defeat in 1950.

“Politico” highlighted the intensifying Cold War between the U.S., as a reason for his defeat, but avoids mention of his collaboration with communists.

Marc Drops Buy to Lend Red Friend a Hand.
The Random Radical,” series at Yahoo's “Flickr” was less demure, running a photo of Marcantonio arriving to testify for Communist Party official Eugene Dennis on June 25, 1947.

The uncredited piece discusses Marc's engagement with communists, the American Labor Party and Henry Wallace's Progressive Party, as well as his pioneering work on civil rights at the federal level.

“As one of the most left-wing members ever to serve in Congress, he was never popular with his colleagues,” the article reads. “After his vote to oppose U.S. entry into the Korean War, they painted a target on his back.”

A letter written by New York City “power broker” Robert Moses to Marc's wife Miriam Sanders upon his death, expresses the mixture of personal warmth and political coldness that more likely typified Marcantonio's relationship to his colleagues:

“Mary and I were both very fond of Marc and so were our girls.” wrote Moses in a letter dated Aug. 23, 1954. “We all agreed that he was one of the kindest people we had ever met and, while his philosophy was quite beyond us, we shall miss him.”

(The epistle resides with the “Marcantonio Papers” collection housed at the New York Public Library's main branch on 42nd St.)

In any case, the writer is correct about the target on Marc's back. The piece takes note of the tri-party coalition it took to defeat him in 1950.
Marc stood for Puerto Rican independence.

The piece closes with mention of Marcantonio's intention to run again for Congress on the Good Neighbor Party line when he was struck down by a heart attack, thereby finishing up the rare, detailed thumbprint sketch of the Congressman's forgotten legacy.

And finally, Rick Snyder at “Down with Tyranny” recently composed a post introducing the blog's readers to Marcantonio, simultaneously weaving his politics into the 2016 presidential campaign and present-day argot into the East Harlemite's story.

When Bernie was Growing Up Congress had an Amazing Congressman, A Democratic Socialist from Harlem Named Vito Marcantonio,” notes that Marc was a “champion of Puerto Rican independence, of immigrants and of civil rights for blacks long before that became a thing.”

Taking a hack at Marco Rubio, the blog noted that, in spite of handily winning the Republican primary in Puerto Rico, the callow senator from Florida will never be the kind of friend Puerto Rico had in Marcantonio.

“Rubio is anything but a champion of Puerto Ricans. The last member of Congress who really was, was a Democratic Socialist from Harlem named Vito Marcantonio, one of the most fascinating leftists in the history [of that institution],” wrote Snyder.

That Marcantonio, who died over 60 years ago, was the last congressional friend Puerto Rico had is not good news for the island.

“Down with Tyranny” continues: “My grandfather told me about him when I was a little boy and said he was the best politician in America. He was betrayed by the Democrats when they teamed up with the GOP to run a joint candidate. His kind of principled independence made the rest of them look like the crooked self-serves most of them were.”

After a not-inconsiderable review of Marc's career, “Down With Tyranny,” closes with a further comparison of Marcantonio to Sen. Bernie Sanders (D?), closing with a recent “Seattle Times,” endorsement of the Vermont legislator which, Snyder said, “described him in terms reminiscent of Marcantonio.”

These outlets represent both mainstream packages and niche projects reaching different audiences with varying levels of interest.

Foot-Stompin' Marc.
Gerald Meyer, co-chair, Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF) noted that the piece embeds "Vito Marcantonio: A Synopsis of a Large Life," which was produced by member VMF member David Giglio.

The post, he observed, made considerable use of “I Vote My Conscience: The Speeches, Debates, and Writings of Vito Marcantonio,” edited by Annette T. Rubinstein.

“The Vito Marcantonio Forum is breaking through the wall of silence,” said Meyer in light of the recent coverage on the radical congressman. “Our work is bearing fruit.”

The VMF will do a presentation of author Nelson Denis' “War on All Puerto Ricans,” April 6 at the Mulberry Street Public Library, 10 Jersey Street, New York City, 5 p.m.
 
The event will be moderated by poet Gil Fagiani ("A Blanquito en El Barrio,” “Logos,” “Stone Walls) and feature actor Roberto Ragone performing dramatic readings from the text.

At the Union Hall

There are no nervous smiles among the working men at strike headquarters on the waterfront. There is a familiarity in this meeting. Congressman and union know what each other are about and are talking strategy. Maybe it is the 1945 strike Thomas McGrath wrote about in his novel "This Coffin Has No Handles." That's the story of honest communists trying to overthrow a union's gangster leadership. We can have no doubt as to which side Marc took in that faceoff. Is he with the National Maritime Union? Seafarers Union? Maybe it was International Longshoremen and Warehousemen's Union. The documentation is weak, but the image's suggestion strong: If Democrats spent more time down at the union halls it might look less like they were benefitting from the help of "special interests" and more like they were helping working folks.

Book Report: "This Coffin Has No Handles" by Thomas McGrath



Thomas McGrath.
With a title like "This Coffin Has No Handles: A Novel" you can't help but know what you're in for.

Thomas McGrath's depiction of working class, west side Manhattan in the days immediately after World War II is told in a noir style not uncommon to mid-century American literature.

Its tone is tense and grim, the prose dense, the plot thin.

There is a labor action going on -- the 1945 longshoreman's strike -- but the real conflict takes place inside McGrath's scattershot collection of characters. None of whom are particularly happy, settled, or comfortable in their own skins.

It is a rare book that understands or properly depicts the crosscurrents of lethargy and hyperactivity that characterize an industrial strike (one provokes authority and then takes a metaphorical seat on their ass), but "This Coffin Has No Handles" is one of them.

McGrath's tome is passport to a time when American cities were home to factory workers and wharf rats. Where people lived stacked atop one another in crowded warrens shot-through with the smell of someone else's cooking and a soundtrack of baby's crying and married couples fighting.

McGrath's characters are desperate, caught in dead-end alleyways with thugs, "metal gleaming in their hands," blocking the escape route.

Blackie Carmody must choose between joining the rackets in order to pay for his mother's cancer treatment, or take the work-a-day job he knows will make the woman happy while sealing her fate.

McGrath's cast is led by one Joe Hunter, a card-carrying Communist Party member just back from a turn in the European theater with the U.S. Army.

The other characters revolve around him in greater and lesser arcs, although sometimes the author follows a different tortured soul on their individual rounds for a bit.

There is a crooked union leader. There are rank-and-file strikers, each standing in for the various degrees of commitment typically found in such industrial battles. There is misbegotten hitman and a teenage girl growing up too quick.

Tremendous, if petty, violence and racketeering abound. There is a grim, philosophical striving from some of the players in this tale and directionless ennui from others.

The Communists are the good guys, incorruptible, committed, diligent as an army of ants in their well-organized and underfunded effort to secure worldwide justice for the working stiff through countless shop-floor scuffles.

The positive portrayal landed McGrath before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, where an unhelpful turn as witness cost him his job as professor at Los Angeles State University.

The point being, you have to understand where the poet was coming from.

In "Manhattan '45" Janet Morris opens with ebullient soldiers returning triumphant from World War II to a New York City at the height of its power and prestige.

Her New York shimmers with possibility and prosperity, McGrath's "iron city" is a decidedly darker place:

"Black cliffs rising into the dark sky to the south were expensive hotels. They were hung with ladders of light and were crowned with the aureole of luminous mist. To Hunter they looked as if they were enormous chunks of black ice, rotted loose from the bottom of some great ice island, rising slowly from the depths of a cold midnight sea hung with chains of freezing phosphorescent light."

McGrath, who died in 1990, was a fine writer and the book maintains a nice tension that succeeds in pulling one through the thicket of ruminations that, at times, veer off into authorial exposition.

This is especially true at the end where this poet's sharp and complex mind draws a portfolio's-worth of conclusions from the strike's outcome.

For the Big Apple buff, students of unionism, and scholars of the American city, this "political noir" serves of plenty of good "Red" meat.