Hail, Caesar!

This is a first for this website as a review and commentary about a movie. The main characters of the movie are Josh Brolin (the “Hollywood Fixer”) and George Clooney as Baird Whitlock (the intellectually-shallow movie star). (Clooney does an excellent job of portraying an actor who speaks lines with passion while not really understanding what the lines might mean.) Other characters in the Joel and Ethan Coen production include Channing Tatum and Scarlet Johnansson. The movie is mostly a spoof of 1950s Hollywood productions, including one that mimics an Ester Williams movie titled Million Dollar Mermaid. Another is a song and dance movie that has strong homosexual innuendo featuring Tatum as one of several sailors. All of that was moderately interesting, but my main interest was in the theme that many Hollywood writers were Communists.

The main story of the movie is that Whitlock, who is playing Caesar, is kidnapped by Hollywood writers who call themselves a “Study Group” and “The Future.” The script of the movie explains that Whitlock is allowed to mingle with his kidnappers. There is a bit of foreshadowing when one of the kidnappers calls his dog Engels (Friedrick Engels collaborated with Karl Marx). As Whitlock is being served finger sandwiches and photographed for the group’s newsletter he has to listen to a character spouting difficult to understand economic theory. A spokesperson then explains to Whitlock that the movie studio “.  .  .is a pure instrument of Capitalism.” “And so Baird Whitlock found himself in the hands of Communists.” Whitlock is told, “.  .  .until quite recently our study group had a narrow focus. We concentrated on getting Communist content into motion pictures.” There is a scene where someone is sorting what must have been Party membership cards signed by Gus Hall, a leader of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).

The House Un-American Activities Committee (which included Representative Richard Nixon) held highly publicized hearings searching for Communists in Hollywood in the late 1940s. A frequent assessment by the entertainment industry and news media in the years to follow charged that many actors and writers had their reputations unfairly smeared and their work blackballed because of accusations that they were Communists. The movie suggests the Coen brothers believe the accusations had a factual basis. The movie even includes a night scene where Tatum is rowed by his comrades to a rendezvous with a Soviet submarine. Tatum jumps aboard the sub as one of his mates calls out, “Comrade, We salute you! You are going to Moscow to become a Soviet Man and help forge the future. We stay behind, continuing in our disguise as capitalist handmaidens.”

My wife and I watched the movie on cable and agreed that we were pleased we hadn’t paid to see it when it was in theatres. Watching the movie was less entertaining than reading the script and thinking about what I wanted to write.

No One Wants to Look Like a Nazi

Today’s expression isn’t verbal, it’s a gesture. I ran across this in a Smithsonianmag piece:

“[America’s salute to the flag originally required you to] raise your right hand, flip your palm down, point it toward the flag in a salute and recite the words. These instructions might seem unthinkable today for obvious reasons—they’re reminiscent of rows of Nazis saluting their Fuhrer. But believe it or not, they date from the beginning of the Pledge itself.

The stiff-armed salute came from the 1890s along with the words to the US Pledge as part of an effort to heal the wounds of the Civil War with a shared ritual in schools, and to assimilate immigrant children. But when Nazi’s adopted the same gesture, in 1942 Americans dumped their 50-year tradition (along with other symbols ruined by Nazis.) The US Flag Code was adopted because every American needed instruction in the new salute, though it can’t be enforced as a law.

The Pledge, by the way, was originally

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands—one nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.” Francis Bellamy reportedly wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in two hours.

Congress added words including “under God” in 1954 to distinguish the United States from “godless Communism.” So both the words and gesture of the Pledge were modified in response to America’s enemies. I could accept going back to the original words, but I must admit my skin crawls at the original gesture.

Engineering Communism

engineering-communismThe subtitle of the book by Steven R. Usdin is, “How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley.” I’ve always been interested in why Americans spied for the Soviet Union, and this book tells me at least two of them eagerly spied and believed in Communism to their deaths. The book tells how Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, members of the Rosenberg spy ring, provided technical details of radar, antiaircraft aiming devices, and the proximity fuse to the Soviets during World War II. The KGB, a Russian abbreviation for “Committee for State Security,” helped them escape when the spy ring began to crumble. The KGB then helped them overcome Soviet bureaucracy to build electronics industry with new identities. Barr became Joseph Berg and Sarant became Phillip Staros. Their story is extraordinary because the two led happy and productive lives behind the Iron Curtain while most defectors “…were despised and distrusted by their Soviet counterparts…and quite a few drank themselves to death.” Neither ever admitted their espionage activities. Barr did readily acknowledge that he felt greater loyalty to the USSR than to the United States “…because the Soviet Union was the only nation on earth trying to build the communist utopia he fervently believed in…” Neither Barr nor Sarant ever indicated any remorse that the secrets they passed to the Soviets were used against American pilots and soldiers in Korea and Vietnam.

Barr and Sarant learned engineering at the City College of New York (CCNY). The two were among the half of the 100 engineering students who were communists. Their informal cell, which was led by Julius Rosenberg, included Barr, Sarant, Morton Sobell, Max Elichter, Bill Danziger, and Bill Perl, and all would eventually spy for the Soviet Union. Sobell, Elichter, and Danziger landed jobs the Navy Bureau of Ordnance. Barr started at the Civil Aeronautics Authority and had to hide his Communist affiliation because the Hatch Act barred government employment to anyone belonging to certain organizations, including CPUSA. Barr did distribute literature encouraging fellow employees to join the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians (FAECT). The KGB used FAECT and other similar organizations to recruit agents. By 1940 Lieutenant General Pavel Fitin, head of Soviet foreign intelligence, commanded a covert force in the United States that exceeded the number of FBI agents.

Barr worked at Fort Monmouth and eventually went to work for Western Electric, where he worked on perfecting the Norden bombsight. He was allowed to carry classified documents to his home to “work overtime”

The book mentions that the FBI finally began to wake up to the Soviet espionage threat “…around the time of the Soviet victory over the Nazis at the epic battle of Stalingrad…” The FBI ballooned to 4,380 agents, and many of them were working on surveillance of suspected Soviet activities. Continue reading

Stalin’s Barber

stalins-barberThis is an excellent book by Paul M. Levitt, but it is not the easiest book to read. The author is a professor of English at the University of Colorado, and I think he distracts from a great story to discuss literary figures. That might be a positive to those who are interested in Russian writers and poets. On the positive side, the book provides insight into a brutal time in the Soviet Union when millions of people were dying in the “Great Terror.” Describing the experiences of a barber who is sufficiently skilled to shave and trim Stalin is an interesting way to frame the historical fiction. There is the undercurrent of mystery as the barber realizes that he is barbering Stalin and body doubles. He works hard at attempting to identify the real Stalin by engaging him in reminiscences about his life experiences. That’s a clever way for the author to work information about Stalin into the narrative.

The book begins as the barber decides he and his wife have to leave the desolation of Albania and make their way to the Soviet Union where the rumors say life will be better. They are on a train that travels through Moldovia and then the Ukraine. There are women and children showing obvious signs of starvation holding their hands out begging for food. One woman beseeches him to take her emaciated son. A soldier declares the child is as good as dead and throws the boy “…off the train as carelessly as one would dispose of a cigarette.” That startling episode and vivid descriptions of “death trains” should be a warning that this book, which I’m convinced accurately portrays a brutal time, can be difficult to read. The prosecutor of the “show trials” proudly declared that “…confession of the accused is the queen of evidence…” in describing confessions extracted by torture. One passage in the back half of the book that “…the proliferation of labor camps and denunciations had turned the country into an asylum inhabited by cowed citizens too terrified to speak their minds or ask innocently, “Can you tell me why my husband was arrested?” (I suppose there could be some consolation that many of the worst officials who were the head of the Soviet secret police at one point or another as millions were dying in the “Great Terror,” to include Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov, and Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, were all executed.)

One son of the barber’s wife is a Soviet secret police official and a homosexual who is interestingly described as dispelling his homoerotic feelings by studying “…his signed photograph of Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, who had taken the revolutionary code word ‘Stalin,’ which combined the Russian word stal (steel) with Lenin…” He is also called “Vozhd,” “Supreme Leader,” “Soso,” “Koba,” and “the Boss,” among other names. The son inadvertently alerts the barber and his wife that their apartment is bugged. They take to going to a park when they wanted to talk about sensitive matters and notice the park is always filled with people even in freezing weather.

The barber, in Russian tradition, has various names, but settles on “Razan.” There are numerous descriptions of his skill as a barber. The trimming of hair and beard is described as being done in the “Turkish manner.” However, the feature that seems to gain Razan widespread admiration is his ability to use alcohol and a match to singe hair from the ears without burning the ears. This is described many times. Razan is declared to be “an artist” when he perform this little ceremony on Stalin (or the body double) during his audition. Perhaps to test Razan, Stalin tells a joke about himself. He says that he told his driver he knew the driver has told jokes about him and that are impertinent. “I am after all the Great Leader, Teacher, and Friend of the people.” The driver replies, “No, I haven’t told that joke yet.” Razan is given permission to laugh, laughs too loud, and then explains he wasn’t laughing at the joke but “…at the artful way you told it.”

Another joke is that an old man was at a May Day parade holding a placard that read “Thank you Comrade Stalin, for my very happy childhood.” A policeman tells him everyone can see Stalin hadn’t been born when the man was a child. The man replied, “That’s precisely why I’m grateful!” And another is that a dozen workers from the Urals were visiting Stalin, and when they left Stalin found his pipe was missing. He ordered the workers held and questioned, and then found his pipe. He ordered the workers released, but was told, “But Comrade Stalin, they’ve all confessed.” There is a hint of the fear that pervaded all the jokes. Telling a joke about Stalin would undoubtedly result in torture and execution or banishment to starve working in the Gulag. Continue reading

The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower

great fearThis book by David Caute is extremely long (697 pages including the appendices) and tedious (I skimmed much of it). I disagreed with most of what I read. The dustcover includes the statements that the book is about “…perhaps the greatest crisis that America has ever suffered in terms of her liberal and democratic values. Here is the first comprehensive history of the fearsome anti-Communist purges that affected almost every area of American life in the age of Truman and Eisenhower.” The author expresses skepticism or outright disbelief about numerous cases where people were accused and tried on charges they had spied for the Soviets. The book was written in 1978 before the Venona Project and the information in the Soviet archives became available and proved the extent of the Soviet espionage networks.

I won’t disagree that the lives of many innocent people were impacted. The book begins “…in the high summer of the great fear, (when) the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee warned that ‘the threat to civil liberties in the United States today is the most serious in the history of our country’. Federal, state, and municipal employees were worried that some youthful participation in a now-forbidden organization would come to the attention of the loyalty boards that had been formed because of the fear of communism. The fear reached to people in the military, civil servants, film stars, industrial workers, lawyers, teachers, writers, trade unions, and people serving in or running for public office.” The author admits that what he called “…the purge of the Truman-Eisenhower era…” never “…reached the frontiers of fascism.”

Perhaps the most ill-informed and startling part of the book is in the first page of chapter 3. “There is no documentation in the public record of a direct connection between the American Communist Party and espionage during the entire postwar period…”    Continue reading

Castro!: An Impact Biography

castroI recently posted a commentary about President Obama’s initiative to normalize relations with Cuba. I noticed this small book by Don E. Beyer at the library and I’m glad I checked it out.  The book quickly gets to the point of explaining Fidel’s origins and how he became the face of revolution in Cuba. The first sentences of the book are, “Fidel Castro is a man at odds with the world. He likes to say he came into it under conditions natural for a guerrilla fighter. He was born on August 13, 1926, as an explosive storm swept over the mountains of the Oriented Province, the wild land that has long served as an incubator of revolution in Cuba.”

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born illegitimate, one of seven children from two mothers. His father, Angel Castro, and his mother, Lina Ruz Gonzalez, were not married until several years after Fidel’s birth.  Fidel’s combative nature was displayed frequently in childhood. He was described as rebellious and combative. His brother Raul described him as dominating every situation. “He challenged the biggest and strongest ones, and when he was beaten, he started it all over again the next day. He would never quit.” As a student he displayed a photographic memory. “In later years, Fidel’s prodigious memory enabled him to give the impression of knowledge and competence where it did not exist.” Spanish Jesuit teachers taught him to admire Spanish Fascists such as Francisco Franco. He later admired Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. “He was described as walking around his school with a copy of Mein Kampf under his arm.”

Fidel began to move into revolutionary politics when he went to Havana in 1945 to study law. He admired the stories of Jose Marti who had become a Cuban independence martyr in 1895 when he was killed fighting with a revolutionary army. Castro “…saw himself as Marti’s spiritual heir.” Continue reading