RKO - 1952 PART II by Matthew Dessem

By Yasmina Tawil

A series examining the output of a single studio in a single calendar year.



Paul Jarrico wasn’t the only person going missing in RKO’s credits that spring. March began with the release of Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, an independently produced western starring Marlene Dietrich and Arthur Kennedy. It’s a revenge story in which Kennedy tracks his fiancé’s killer to a criminal hideout run by Dietrich. The villain was played by Lloyd Gough, but you wouldn’t know it from the film’s credits, in which both the character and actor’s names are conspicuously missing. Sterling Hayden had named Gough as a probable party member in the 1951 hearings; Gough had refused to answer questions about it. Lang was under suspicion himself: Edward Dmytryk had named several of his collaborators. Unlike writing credits, however, acting credits weren’t subject to union arbitration, and Gough disappeared from Rancho Notorious’s credits—and from screen acting entirely for more than a decade—without causing any fallout. Gough and Lang weren’t the only people on Rancho Notorious to run into problems: Sylvia Richards, who’d written the film’s story, had a soon-to-be-ex-husband on the blacklist already by this time, and in 1953, gave everyone up, she said, for the sake of her children.

The production had been troubled even beyond HUAC’s rumblings: Dietrich and Lang hated each other. According to Dietrich, this was because Lang was a sadist who was jealous of her admiration for Joseph von Sternberg. According to Lang, the problem was Dietrich’s age. “In the script, I’d described the character she played as ‘an elderly dance hall girl,’” he said in an interview, “and she came on looking younger in each scene.” (Also according to Lang, he and Dietrich had a one-time only late-night tryst in her trailer—Dietrich in a white tuxedo and top hat—before returning to bitter arguments on set the next day, which probably speaks to both his credibility and his imagination. Dietrich called him “the director I despised the most,” in her autobiography.) Lang also battled his producer, Howard Welsch, who wanted the film made on the cheap, insisting on changing the title (Lang wanted to call it The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck, so, advantage Welsch) and then cutting it down to 90 minutes.

Despite the circumstances of its creation, however, Rancho Notorious is a strange and interesting film. Like anything with Dietrich, it has more than a touch of the perverse, and Arthur Kennedy turns his performance around on a dime to keep up with her. The film, shot entirely on the backlot and set in the world of “Westerns” rather than “the West,” is structured like a noir, and has the Technicolor sheen of a musical. There’s very little else like it and there isn’t much on screen as striking as Lang’s fantasy of a white-tuxedoed Dietrich.

By the time Rancho Notorious was released, Lang was wrapping up his next film, Clash By Night, one of the rare Wald-Krasna projects that got a greenlight. On-set political discussions must have been tense: it starred Barbara Stanwyck, an Ayn Rand fan and vocal supporter of HUAC, and Robert Ryan, who was part of the Committee for the First Amendment, the short-lived group formed to support the Hollywood Ten. (The film also featured Marilyn Monroe, who was Marilyn Monroe.) But Clash By Night was an adaptation of a play by none other than Clifford Odets, whose name had come up again and again in the testimony of friendly witnesses in the 1947 sessions. Specifically, he was accused of inserting Communist propaganda into his films, by Hollywood luminaries like Ginger Rogers’ mother. Lang could simply cut Lloyd Gough from the credits on Rancho Notorious, but it was no secret that Odets had written Clash By Night—and as The Las Vegas Story had shown, RKO was not a congenial place to release a film written by anyone on HUAC’s bad side. But Hughes probably wasn’t paying much attention to Clash By Night that month, because his battle with Paul Jarrico had entered its craziest phase.


On March 17, RKO filed a lawsuit against Jarrico—the man they’d fired and denied screen credit—asking the courts to pre-emptively relieve them of any demands for damages Jarrico might make in the future. The move had chutzpah, if nothing else; it also had the effect of taking the question out of the hands of the Screen Writers Guild. And it attracted a lot of publicity, which may have been the point to begin with: the very next day, two members of HUAC released statements congratulating Hughes for taking a stand against Communism. It hadn’t yet been a year since the committee assured Paul Jarrico they had no intention of creating a blacklist; now, Congressman John Wood was applauding Hughes and other producers for “sincerely trying to eliminate men and women of subversive tendencies from the industry.” The lawsuit also played well in Hollywood, at least among a certain type of supporter. Hedda Hopper gave it the lead slot in her column the next day, casting Jarrico as the aggressor:

I applaud the stand of Howard Hughes in his refusing to submit to any more pressure from Paul Jarrico or any other sympathizer of the Communist creed.

I have said for many years, let’s stand up and fight instead of coddling them, let’s clean them out….let’s get rid of every one of them. One rotten apple in the barrel can affect the other apples.

At this point, the Screen Writers Guild could no longer ignore Hughes, and on March 19, they announced that a conciliation committee would meet to determine if Hughes had violated the basic contract between the Guild and the MPAA. In response, Hughes took the nuclear option. On March 27, he released an open letter to the Screen Writers Guild telling them he had no intention of participating in any arbitration or negotiation over Jarrico’s screen credit and essentially daring them to strike:

My determination that I will not yield to Jarrico or anyone else guilty of this conduct is based on principles, belief, and conscience. These are forces which are not subject to arbitration. My conscience cannot be changed by a committee of arbitrators. Any arbitration of this matter would be without meaning, because regardless of what the outcome of the arbitration might be, RKO will not yield to Jarrico’s demands….All I want is a simple answer to a simple question:

Are you going to strike, or aren’t you?

Needless to say, the Screen Writers Guild was thrown into an all-out crisis, not least because Hughes’ grandstanding continued to build a groundswell of public support. The Los Angeles Times gave him the top of the editorial page the next day, praising him for showing “a spirit too seldom exhibited in Hollywood.” That evening, the Guild’s executive board held an emergency meeting to discuss how to respond to a studio head publicly ignoring the collective bargaining agreement. The meeting ran from eight P.M. until one in the morning, and the only thing resolved was that there would be no statement until the next week. Meanwhile, Paul Jarrico filed a counterclaim in the lawsuit, asking RKO for $350,000 in damages. (Hughes responded to this development with yet another press release, asking Jarrico, “Are you, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”)

When the Guild did respond with an open letter on March 30, it was at the pitch Hughes had set:

In reply to your direct question regarding a strike: We grant that such an action at this time might suit your purpose, since it is a well-known fact that production at RKO now is at a standstill. However this question is one for the membership of the Screen Writers Guild to decide. Under no circumstances will a strike be called at your suggestion or for your convenience.

Hughes didn’t even wait until the letter was published before replying. The same newspapers that ran the Guild’s letter had his reply, which began by throwing shade at the way the letter had been published (a little rich coming from the man who’d started the row the same way) and continued with an all-out attempt to isolate Jarrico’s supporters and sow dissent in the Guild’s ranks—including an only barely veiled hint that Hughes had sources inside the union:

This is addressed not to the entire membership of the Screen Writers Guild, but to that segment which met and drafted the letter that was delivered to the press and to RKO on Sunday with such clever strategy in hope it would reach the public before anyone at RKO could have knowledge of it or the opportunity to reply.

Is it true that this “credit panel” was composed of three men and that one of these men voted against Jarrico and two voted for Jarrico? Please give the names of the two who voted for Jarrico.

It wasn’t unprecedented for a studio head to play tough with the unions, but publicly, belligerently daring them to strike was something else. According to Richard Jewell, one of the greatest challenges in writing about this period in RKO’s history was deciphering “what in the world was motivating [Hughes] and causing him to make some of the decisions that he made.” The Screen Writers Guild offered one possibility in their letter: a strike would provide cover for RKO’s inability to get films into production. But this would be hunting ants with a shotgun. It wasn’t all cynical—Jewell believes that, whatever other factors were at play, Howard Hughes’ anti-Communism was sincere. But that wasn’t the whole story.

One key is that by the Hughes era, RKO wasn’t especially profitable. In The RKO Story, Jewell described the studio’s modest profit in 1951 as “one of the major miracles in bookkeeping history,” and 1952 wasn’t shaping up very differently. The second important fact is the larger context—not just of anti-Communist hysteria, but the fact that 1952 was also the height of the Korean War. Howard Hughes owned a movie studio, but he was making much more money from Hughes Aircraft. And he’d had a contentious relationship with Congress in the past, culminating with the 1947 Senate hearings in which he’d been accused of war profiteering. In fact, 1952 was also the year Hughes funded a (successful) primary challenger to Senator Owen Brewster, who’d chaired the Senate Committee that had investigated him. While emphasizing that he couldn’t do more than speculate, Jewell connected these dots: “it’s no big deal for him to make all of these grand gestures, it seems to me, because from a business point of view he’s getting rewarded elsewhere.”

Indeed, the next steps Hughes took seem to confirm he was looking at a bigger picture than filmmaking. By 1952 he already had a reputation as a recluse and was rarely seen in public. Nevertheless, he made his way to Highland and Franklin on the night of April 1, not to meet with anyone in the film or aviation world, but instead to address the members of American Legion Post 43 on the subject of Communism. The Los Angeles Times ran a photo of Hughes shaking hands with a portly Legionnaire, staring at the other man’s hand and looking as though he’d rather be anywhere else.  “If there were only one Communist in Hollywood, that would be one too many,” Hughes told them. This did nothing to get RKO back on track, but it did earn him praise a few days later from the junior senator from California, one Richard M. Nixon. Hughes, Nixon said, had “shown the way for all industry to stamp out subversion and reaffirm the principles of American free enterprise.”


Hughes took even more drastic steps to reaffirm the principles of American free enterprise the very next day, laying off 100 RKO employees across all departments. In his statement, he announced that although none of the employees he was letting go were Communists, the seriousness of the situation made it necessary to reduce staff until a detailed screening process could be put in place.  In Hughes’ telling, RKO’s production slowdown had nothing to do with his micromanaging or indecisiveness. Instead, the problem was Communists, who could be anywhere; he was concerned not only with open Communists, but “the many who are not openly connected with any Red activities but who are stronger Communists than the ones you hear about.” And RKO’s approach to that point had not only missed these secret Communists, but had missed the ones in plain view by not thoroughly screening the source material for every project:

Obviously, there is no point in screening the people employed on a motion picture, only to discover that the script we have purchased innocently enough was written five years ago by someone with a Communist front record, or that the script was based on an original story or book which was written by a Red sympathizer.

Obviously. But despite saying RKO would not compromise on the issue of employing Communists, this didn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule. Hughes announced the new policy on April 5; on April 7, RKO released The Faithful City. This was an English-language film made in Israel, enough of a novelty that the Israeli ambassador to the United States and his wife introduced it at the premiere. But it had been written by Ben and Norma Barzman (though Norma was uncredited) in collaboration with its director, Józef Lejtes. By that time, Ben Barzman had been named as a Communist by four separate people, and he and his wife had long fled the United States, which was why they were available to write an Israeli film to begin with. If anyone noticed Hughes was making an exception, they didn’t write about it at the time.

With production completely shut down and no concrete plans for starting it back up, RKO executives went to the vaults looking for ways to fill their release schedule. Hughes assured the press at the time of the layoffs that the studio had a twenty-film backlog to carry them through until a new, Communist-free production cycle could begin. But as would soon become clear, the problem with backlogs is that they’re backlogs for a reason. The end of April saw the long-delayed release of Josef von Sternberg’s Macao, the film that had inspired Hughes’ long memo about Jane Russell’s breasts. It was shot in 1950, so getting to the screen in 1952 actually represented a quick turnaround for a film Hughes took an interest in. But even without Hughes’ meddling, it would have been a troubled shoot. Von Sternberg was as much of an autocrat as Hughes, as screenwriter Stanley Rubin explains on the film’s DVD commentary track:

He considered himself the pre-eminent genius of the cinema, and boy, I’ll tell you, if ever there was a tough place to get over with that attitude it would have been RKO, 1950.

Rubin, who was looking to move from screenwriting to producing, had managed to get a clause in his contract giving him the right to produce the film. But RKO balked at giving a first-time producer the job of wrangling Mitchum, Russell and von Sternberg, and offered him the opportunity to produce something smaller instead. This turned out to be dodging a bullet, because von Sternberg’s control-freak tendencies didn’t mesh well with the cast or crew, particularly Robert Mitchum, according to Jane Russell:

[Von Sternberg]  said there was to be no eating of anything on the set. And there was not to be any drinking on the set. And it was just ridiculous. And finally, when we had just had enough—I didn’t know it was going to happen, but I was thrilled when I saw it—Mitch had Reba, his secretary bring a big basket on the set, and a robe. He laid the robe out on the set, and he took the basket and put it down beside. And he took out candy bars and cookies and started passing them around to everybody on the set, and they’re all, “Oh, oooooh, ooh, you know,” and then he took out a bottle of vodka or something, and poured it into something and made himself a drink, and sat there. Von Sternberg is going, “Bob. Bob! Oh, oh, Bob, come here! I can’t… this… I have to talk to you!” So Mitch got up and he went over and he said, “Uh huh?” and he said, “Bob, you could be replaced!” And Mitch said, “No. You could be replaced.” And that was the end of that.

Mitchum had it right: von Sternberg was replaced. Nicholas Ray was given the unenviable task of trying to wrest a coherent narrative from von Sternberg’s scraps. It couldn’t be done—although Robert Stevenson and Mel Ferrer would also give it a shot. Russell and Mitchum have some sparks and, it must be said, Hughes’ memos yielded some amazing costumes for Jane Russell. But Macao’s story is a confused hodgepodge of cops and gangsters that never coheres into anything interesting. Worst of all, Gloria Grahame is completely wasted; fresh off a barnburner performance in In A Lonely Place, Hughes (who hadn’t seen it) cast her in a role she didn’t want and gave her nothing to do.


In the meantime, Stanley Rubin, no doubt glad to not have Macao on his plate, took a much smaller budget and produced The Narrow Margin, a nearly-perfect Richard Fleischer noir that opened a few days after Macao.  (The Narrow Margin, like Macao, had been completed in 1950 but was only now being released; Jewell reports that there is a Howard Hughes memo requesting extensive changes, any of which would have destroyed the film—fortunately, none of them were made.) Everything loose and unfocused in Macao has been tightened to within an inch of its life in The Narrow Margin. It’s the platonic ideal of a contained thriller: an LAPD detective must escort a gangster’s wife by train from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify before a grand jury. It’s 71 minutes long and not one is wasted. Charles McGraw is great as the detective, but the standout is Marie Windsor as the gangster’s wife: caustic, venomous, and doomed. The film launched Rubin’s career as a producer, which would stretch all the way to 1990.  In this case, at least, Hughes ignoring a contract turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

If Hughes cast a blind eye on The Faithful City, a foreign acquisition, no such clemency was forthcoming for Fritz Lang’s just-completed Clash By Night, which still had Odets’ name hanging on it like an albatross. More of Paul Jarrico’s work on The Las Vegas Story had survived than was left of Odets’ original play, which had been relocated from Staten Island to a fishing village at Jerry Wald’s suggestion. Since the film was based on his play, Odets couldn’t simply be left out of the credits, but there was a way for writers to clear their names, and in a closed HUAC session on April 24, he took it. But by this point, private betrayals were no longer sufficient: the purge had moved into the stage that Victor Navasky, in his great exploration of the period Naming Names, calls “degradation ceremonies”: public expressions of repentance and shame, accompanied, as proof of sincerity, by the names of others who had not yet participated. The emphasis was on public. On May 19 and 20, shortly before Clash By Night opened, Odets had his degradation ceremony. RKO released it, free of any subversive taint, a week later.

It’s not a bad film and it has some nice rough edges: Robert Ryan’s performance, as the misogynistic small-town projectionist who forms one leg of the film’s triangle, is a particular standout. There’s a heartstopping shot of him leaving a party where Fritz Lang’s direction and Ryan’s performance mesh perfectly. But Paul Douglas can’t hold his own with Ryan or Barbara Stanwyck, and the film’s conclusion is lackluster. It certainly wasn’t worth the price Odets paid for it. Although he’d left the Communist Party in the 1930s, Odets was still an extremely valuable scalp for HUAC to collect. Jules Dassin, in exile in France by then, told Patrick McGilligan how he got the news in Paris when he ran into screenwriter Harry Kurnitz sitting at a café weeping.

I asked him, “Harry, what is it?” Harry was not even a left guy. He was a middle guy but decent… He said, “Clifford, the poet of the working class,” and began to cry. We all did.

Although he didn’t think of himself as a cooperative witness, having named only six people, all either previously named or dead, Odets was ostracized with the other informers. He had the transcript of his testimony bound into a book and fruitlessly tried to get people to read it. His career went on—he still had the screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success ahead of him—but his reputation never recovered, at least in the circles he had used to run in.

Fritz Lang, too, paid a price after Clash By Night, although it wasn’t as steep as he’d later claim. Rather than wait for a subpoena, Lang proactively petitioned the American Legion and other right-wing power brokers with letters pleading his innocence. This worked—he never had to testify and was thus able to recast himself as a hero when the winds shifted.  Biographer Patrick McGilligan found examples of him claiming to have been blacklisted for as long as a year and a half; in fact, it was six months at most. McGilligan writes, “It was crucial, in the retelling, for Lang to have been ‘blacklisted’ for as long as possible, just as it was crucial for him to have fled Nazi Germany as early as possible.” But Harry Cohn, no fan of left-wingers, hired him to direct The Blue Gardenia in October, other studios followed suit, and Lang emerged unscathed.


Between Odets’ private informing and public purging, Jarrico’s suit moved along. On April 15, the Screen Writers Guild cast its lot with him, filing a petition in court to force RKO to submit to the credit arbitration required by the union contract. RKO, which needed a more plausible legal argument than “Howard Hughes won’t compromise,” argued that Jarrico had violated the morals clause of his contract, making everything else void. It wasn’t much of a legal battle: Judge Roy L. Herndon heard arguments on April 23 and ruled the same day that arbitration wasn’t necessary. “The controversy is between the writer and the producer. The rights of the union are not primarily involved,” Harrison said. The union filed an appeal on May 6; on May 15, it was denied. On the 21st, the union membership voted to continue the legal fight, but it was a pretty faint cry of support: 43% wanted to drop the whole thing and let Jarrico fight on his own.

In the meantime, Hughes Aircraft continued work on a new missile guidance system and performed its first tests of the XH-17, a jet-powered transport helicopter.

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