"I have always worn my political heart on my sleeve," says Phillip Dunne in the preface to his memoir of 35 years as a Hollywood screenwriter, producer, director and sometime political activist. Movies and poltitics, the two central concerns of Dunne's life are inexticably bound, although not in the most obvious way.
That is, Dunne did not write overtly political movies. A liberal born and bred, young Philip found himself in Hollywood in 1930 with a job as a reader at Fox Studios. Several bumpy years later, he was a staff writer for Darryl F. Zanuck's newly formed Twentieth Century-Fox, where he worked until 1962, when that studio's dwindling fortunes pushed Dunne into a brief career as an independent writer-producer. But as a staff writer for over 25 years at one of Hollywood's major studios, Dunne did not select his material; it was assigned to him.
Dunne's writng credits include "The Count of Monte Cristo," "Stanley and Livingstone," "Johnny Apollo." The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." "The Agony and the Ectasy," and the two he is most proud of "How Green Was My Valley" and "Pinky." As a director, he was less successful, beginning in 1955 with "Prince of Players" (Richard Burton as Edwin Booth), and moving through "Ten North Frederick," "Blue Denim" and a memorable collaboration with Cliffored Odets and Elvis Presley on "Wild in the Country." The eclectricism of such a list is not only a reflection of Dunne's talent but, more important, of the studio system that nurtured it. The screenwriter in Hollywood's Goldern Age rarely wrote from his original ideas; as Dunne says, he and his fellow writers were "royally paid victims . . . of the system."
Politics enters during those dark days of the witch hunts and blacklists, the years, Dunne says, when "we desecrated our democracy, made national heroes of petty tyrants and snitches." Dunne was then and is now no idologu; indeed, he recounts with amusement the time his young daughter told him of his instant deification by her classmates, who mistakenly thought he had been on the blacklist. His involvement with the convoluted politics of those times arose simply out of his principles of civil libertarianism. For his seemingly aloof attitued, he was vilified by both the right and the left. The way Dunne describes it, that stance sounds like the only sane one in Hollywood during those deranged days.
Dunne's book is constructed more or less like a three-act play. In Act One, we have the young writer coming to Hollywood, working his way into the good graces of such legends as Zanuck and John Ford, and meeting and marrying a lively young actress named Amanda Duff. In Act Two, the storm clouds to the inquistions and blacklists move in. In Act Three, the clouds part briefly, as the veteran writer becomes a producer and director, although with less succes and happiness than in Act One.
The hero of this drama is not Philip Dunne, but Darryl Zanuck, is both in the flesh and as a symbol of the rise and fall of the studio system. Dunne and Zanuck may have differed politically, but the studio head was always respectful of his liberal employe's beliefs. For example, Dunne once asked Zanucks's permission to skip an important script conference to fly to Washington as a character witness for beleaguered screewriter Dalaton Trumbo. "If you've got to go, you've got to go," said Zanuck, who himself honored the blacklist.
Moreover, claims Dunne, Zanuck took an active role in developing scripts without unduly hampering his writers. He was hardly the autocratic studio boss that is the stuff of many a novel about Hollywood. Once, Zanuck was conducting one of his famous story conferences: "And now, and now her love turns to hate." The room falls silent. One of his assistants finally speaks up: "Why Mr. Zanuck? Why does her love turn to hate? Another silence. Zanuck leaves the room. The group hears a toilet flushing and then in strides Zanuck, swinging the polo mallet he always carried. He stops, points the mallet at the callaborator and says, "All right, her love doesn't turn to hate."
Dunne discribes Zanuck as a strong personality who wasn't afraid to take creative chances. Act three of Dunne's drama is tinged with so much sadness because of his own belated move up in the Fox hierarchy. The studio was beset on the one hand by the growing popularity of television and on the other by the spineless leadership that succeeded Zanuck upon his retirement in 1956. The villian in Act Three is Buddy Adler, Zanuck's immediate successor, whose meddling on a number of Dunne projects assured their doom both critically and at the box office. Adler pared down Dunne's budget on "Ten North Frederick," forcing him to shoot in black and white on cheap studio sets. Dunne was able to salvage good performances from his leads, Gary Cooper and Suzy Parker, but the damage had been done. The public, expecting a lavish treatment of the John O' Hara novel got almost a "B" version instead.
Tales of tampering on movies are legion, and the stuff of many a Hollywood memoir. What sets "Take Two" apart -- and above -- is its Act Two, Dunne's account of the "blackest period in our history." It is by no means a definitive or objective account. But if it serves Philip Dunne well, it also serves us well. Dunne's major involvement during this time was in the founding of a group called The Committee for the First Amendment, largely made up of movie people such as William Wyler and Humphrey Bogart who attempted, with little success, to stem the tide of repression that swept from Washington to Hollywood. In a chapter entitled "The Un-Americans," Dunne offers a detailed explanation of the committee's purpose and a defense against many of the accusations it has incurred over the years. It's an utterly evenhanded analysis of the period's contending factions, and it includes this musing:
"I sometimes wonder if what I watched [in the committee hearings] was anything more than a sham battle, for nobody on the stand or on the dais seemed to have the slightest conception of what Justice Holmes really meant: that freedom is not one's own right to be right, but someone's else's right to be wrong."
Philip Dunne is and was then a classical liberal, as Anthony Lewis says in his forward, a "figure [that] seems almost naive today." His political sympathies were certainly closer to those of the famed Hollywood Ten, but he is not reluctant to point out that many of them botched their own cases by attempting to answer the ridiculous and unconstitutional charges of the congressional inquisitors.
Dunne's political "naivete," idealism, liberalism -- call it what you will and Dunne provides a long list of names he's been called over the years, ranging from Communist to "crypto-fascist") -- is what informs and enlightens his story. The Hollywood moviemaking tales are told with great spirit and literacy (it is so refreshing to read a well-written book on Hollywood). Even his quarrels with the auteur theory (which places the central creative responsibility for a film on the director) are stimulating, although I don't agree with Dunne's objections. But it is the political spirit of this book that, finally, endows it with a magic that seemed to elude Dunne in many of his filmmaking efforts.
Dunne has few apologies for his career but several regrets. It is most revealing that the major regret in his life is that he did not quit Twentieth Century-Fox after his friend and colleague Ring Lardner Jr. was fired (the first of the Hollywood Ten to lose his job). That after 30 years Philip Dunne still keenly feels the anguish of that moment says something more important about the man than anything his films could ever reflect.