- Abraham Lincoln Polonsky’s America
Quietly recognized for decades as a most uniquely cerebral and artistic victim of the Hollywood Blacklist and also one of its notable survivors (thanks mostly to his 1969 film, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here), Abraham Polonsky has emerged lately as a celebrity. In 1995, famed director Martin Scorsese re-released Force of Evil (1948) with a three-minute on-camera personal introduction. This John Garfield vehicle about crime and capitalism was, Scorsese tells viewers, a central influence on his career, and the banishment of Polonsky for more than two decades can only be regarded as “one of the great losses to American films and world cinema.” Interviewed by National Public Radio hosts, featured in an award-winning American Movie Channel documentary on the Blacklist, and quoted regularly in the Los Angeles Times, Polonsky has perhaps achieved the artistic stature that he properly earned almost a half-century ago. But his significance as a cultural figure remains to be measured. 1
The books under review here only begin to do justice to Polonsky’s odyssey within twentieth-century popular life. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants in New York, attending City College and later Columbia Law School, Polonsky became a lawyer. Entirely through chance, he was asked to improve a law-related radio script for “The Goldbergs,” starring the firm’s client, Jewish comedienne Gertrude Berg. After a visit with Berg to Hollywood, he quit law to teach English and to write for the high-end of radio dramas, including Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater on the Air. [End Page 874]
From there, writer Polonsky might have simply gone directly to Hollywood, as did many other radio writers. But domestic and world politics added useful complications. He spent three precious years as newspaper editor and educational director for a Congress of Industrial Organizations regional affiliate in Westchester County, New York, and then another two years in the Office of Strategic Services, doing intelligence work for the Allied cause (and seeking to aid European partisans behind Nazi lines, an effort that Washington frequently resisted). Like so many others of his age and background, he was by now thoroughly politicized. He had earlier joined the Communist Party, although remaining suspicious of its leadership and resentful at its ham-fisted efforts to provide aesthetic guidelines.
Polonsky came back to Hollywood on the strength of an adventure novel serialized in American Magazine. There he found a most remarkable situation. The studio system had begun to break down of its own weight, the enormous popularity of films and the impending legal decisions that would force motion picture firms to abandon ownership of theater chains. If theater managers could make their own decisions and independent production companies could provide audience-pleasing features, an “art cinema” envisioned for decades might actually take flight.
Only a very few film-makers, like the idiosyncratic director Edgar G. Ulmer (best known for the horror feature, The Black Cat, the classic Yiddish feature, Green Fields, and the noir, Detour) had so far taken the plunge. Now a baker’s dozen would-be auteurs, including Edward G. Robinson, struggled to make art outside the majors and their well-known limitations. After Polonsky abandoned Paramount, where rewriting made a mess of his antifascist and pro-Gypsy script for the Dietrich vehicle Golden Earrings (1947), he jumped at the chance to go with a new, small company (Roberts Productions) premised on the box office power of leading man John Garfield.
Destined to be known in some film circles as “Odets of the Screen,” Polonsky swiftly became heir in some sense to the work of Garfield and the class-ethnic themes of the famed 1930s social dramatist. A triumphant figure of the stage, Clifford Odets had articulated the soaring imaginations and gnawing fears of the blue-collar family, using an artistically stylized dialogue to produce...