From La Crosse to Reality: The Blacklist's Impact on Joseph Losey
Although the film director Joseph Losey fled the United States in 1952 to avoid discussing left-leaning friends like Dalton Trumbo and Berthold Brecht with the House Un-American Activities Committee, as he reminisced about his life in later years, he loved to brag about his privileged beginnings.
Born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, on January 14, 1909, Losey hovered over his impressive paternal relatives when chatting about his past. He claimed that he talked about them more than the farmers populating his maternal line because they had best documented their lineage, but he also seemed to enjoy boasting of his ties to people like the Eastons. Here's his description of their house: "To give you an idea of how that family lived: I suppose there were thirty-five or forty rooms in the house, and a separate servants' house and there were seven to ten servants always." According to Losey, his family enjoyed high social status in a place with demanding standards; the citizens of La Crosse prided themselves "on being listed among the twelve gourmet centers of the world" (Ciment 6). The musical elite gathered at his aunt's home. As best Losey can recall, her guests included Joseph Levine, Percy Granger, Heifitz and Rachmaninov. His aunts spoke multiple languages and when Losey was twelve, "I used to have to go and have dinner alone with Aunt Mer and read Racine and Corneille aloud after dinner. In French" (Ciment 9). One suspects that when Losey identifies a tendency to exaggeration as a principal fault, it helps explain this glittering rendition of his childhood. But he probably speaks with complete honesty when he says, "I went to public school and loathed it. I was a terrible spoilt brat. Didn't like the way the kids smelled, I didn't want to have anything to do with them" (Ciment 14).
Privilege paved Losey's path to the blacklist. When Losey was 16, his father died from a burst appendix. A trust Losey inherited after his godfather committed suicide financed Losey's Dartmouth education. After collecting his undergraduate degree there, he headed for Harvard where he joined a group that included Sydney Howard, Philip Barry, Robert Sherwood, and Brooks Atkinson at the 17 Workshop. He left Harvard for New York in the middle of the Depression, but managed to make ends meet by writing for The New York Times, Theatre Magazine, and The Saturday Review of Literature.
After a few months, Losey decided he'd rather participate in theatre than write about it, so he became an assistant stage manager for Grand Hotel. Following that job, he went to Europe and became assistant stage manager for Payment Deferred starring Charles Laughton. Losey then served as the stage manager for Laughton's next play, Fatal Alibi. In 1932, when he was 23 years old, Losey directed the play Little Ol' Boy starring Burgess Meredith. Shortly thereafter, he staged Bride for the Unicorn with an original score by his friend Virgil Thompson, and then helped revise and stage Sinclair Lewis' play Jayhawker. But all this was not enough for him. As Losey puts it: "Disillusioned . . . at the ripe age of 25, I borrowed $500 which was enough to buy a round-trip, third-class ticket to Europe and I sailed in steerage on the Ile de France" (Ciment 36).
Losey traveled to Russia where he met people involved in Russian theatre and went on a speaking tour of the Ukraine. His wife-to-be, Elizabeth Hawes, joined him and staged the first fashion show ever in Russia. After Russian authorities disliked a piece he wrote on the Russian circus for Variety, Losey had to head home.
Back in the United States, Losey became involved with the Theatre Union, the Federal Theatre, The Political Cabaret, and Lunch-hour follies. In 1938, he directed Sun-up and Sun-down, a play about child labor. After that, he directed a series of educational films for the Rockefeller foundation. So, the work Losey did after returning from Russia had a heavy social orientation, but seemed far from anti-American.
After the Second World War broke out, he began working for Russian War Relief and kept working there doing things like staging pageants as it merged with other allied war-relief organizations until they all became United War Relief. He eventually volunteered to head a camera combat unit in the Air Corps. While waiting to be called up, he did radio shows that attracted the attention of Louis B. Mayer who offered Losey a Hollywood contract. Losey found the money irresistible, but a few months after he arrived in California, the infantry drafted him. He eventually wound up on Long Island making propaganda films with the likes of Frank Capra.
After the war, Losey headed back to Hollywood where he attended Marxist study groups, he says, in a desperate attempt to find some kind of intellectual life and associated with a number of talented left-wing people like Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, and Berthold Brecht. Dore Schary asked him to make The Boy with Green Hair with Adrian Scott. That project stalled with Scott's subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Losey responded by organizing a protest meeting at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and by accompanying a nervous Berthold Brecht when the House Un-American Activities Committee called him to Washington. Brecht thanked Losey for his support by sending him an opium pipe with a note saying, "You should relax" (Ciment 71).
Eventually, production began once more for The Boy with Green Hair. Losey saw it as a film about the danger of prejudice and complains that Howard Hughes' determination that the film argue for peace has left it with a permanently blurred focus. Losey liked the idea of setting a film about prejudice in a small town since his years in La Crosse taught him "that the most prejudiced, the most bigoted, the most racist, are always the people from the small towns" (Ciment 84). But when talking about his film The Lawless, Losey issues a softer judgment on small towns: "He was the kind of person you find in every small town—absolutely incorruptible and capable of sacrificing what he has for what he believes" (Ciment 96).
And, indeed, The Boy with Green Hair finally seems to express faith that human beings will believe, say, and do the right thing, if reminded. Losey himself describes it as a " "‘message' picture . . . made by a man—me—and other men or women who thought we could find answers or thought we knew the answers" (Ciment 97). About the time of The Servant, fifteen years later, Losey guesses, his interest turned to "making pictures of provocation: that is, opening up the mind so people have to examine situations and attitudes and come to their own conclusions" (Ciment 97). Certainly, the events of his life between these two films would nudge any reasonable human being towards humility and cynicism.
The Boy with Green Hair appeared in 1948. Losey spent much of the four years between its appearance and his flight to Great Britain attempting to keep his movie career in motion while the House Un-American Activities Committee made a siege on Hollywood.
The fact that he kept fighting instead of anticipating or preparing for his exile suggests that until the blacklist demonstrated its power, Losey did, as he claims, believe in a just, rational universe: "I and a whole generation were brought up in the belief that given your background, given your morality, given your character, given your belief in God, you couldn't help but be positive, and if you had enough of these fellows around the world would be Okay. Neither I nor anybody in their right senses any longer believes this" (Ciment 204). Even in the late seventies, Losey remained convinced that if only one very powerful person had taken a stand against the blacklist, it would have crumbled. Losey also considered his Communist activity in Hollywood nonexistent; it "only involved a lot of meaningless so-called Marxist classes which were a bore and which never had any practical result either in terms of the films . . . or anything else" (Ciment 108-109).
After giving up his fight, Losey fled to London with only a few hundred dollars, so he supported himself by making documentaries and ads. In 1954, he began directing films under pseudonyms; in 1957, he began directing films under his own name that were heavily shaped by others. Not until he directed Eve in 1962 did Losey feel he'd done a film truly his own; And Eve, he complained, was butchered in the cutting room. So, in fact, The Servant was the first genuine Losey movie made after the blacklist. It reveals that Losey's view of human nature has radically changed since The Boy with Green Hair. In The Servant, an empty, ineffectual English aristocrat slowly becomes dominated by his servant. In this film, human emotions range from arrogance to malice. No incorruptible adults or hopeful children reside in this world. In the moral universe of The Servant, people manipulate and destroy each other for the fun of it; the primary victim evades our sympathy since he seems too overwhelmed by lassitude to protest, let alone resist. It does not require much imagination to understand how Losey arrived at this world view after an eleven-year creative hiatus thanks to the blacklist.
In the world of The Servant, one can trust only oneself, a philosophy that Losey identifies as central to his post-blacklist life: "My conception is that you can only live by a personal ethic . . . you can't say, "I am a Communist' or "I am a Socialist' or ‘I am Anti-French or Anti-Russian.' You have to make it each time: ‘I am for this and against that now.' That's the only way. And it's the least comfortable because you do it alone" (Ciment 86).
Relying on oneself rather than on isms produces a complicated, even convoluted world view, like that in The Servant. During the days when he attended Marxist study groups, and, again, when he recalls his life for the tape recorder, Losey falls into a romantic view of the workers. He told Michel Ciment somewhere between 1976 and 1979, "The people who can arrive at a truth, quickly and directly, tend to be really working class . . . or real aristocracy" (181). But the only period during his adult life when he may actually have had contact with and been able to imagine himself part of the lower classes was during his blacklist days in England. His characterization of the servant as malignant suggests that Losey's romantic confidence in the proletariat gave way under the pressure of real life, but reasserted itself once he had achieved a comfortable enough distance from the lower classes to view them with aesthetic detachment and to forget that he didn't like the way they smelled.
Since the servant achieves easy control over his master, Losey also suggests in this film that the aristocracy lacks substance. The master's idealistic plans to build apartments in Brazil for the suffering masses of Asia Minor makes him seem only ridiculous. Only the master's girlfriend attempts to resist the servant's machinations and, eventually, she capitulates as well. So, in the world of The Servant, manipulation reigns supreme. Human relationships consist of a series of sick games that lead both the victor and the victim into dissolution. In The Servant, human nature rests beyond salvation.
The difficulties of the blacklist years seem clearly to have brought Losey into touch with reality, allowing him to achieve an awareness of human limits and evil that probably lay beyond his grasp when his life went well. How could he not trust in human nature when so many readily acknowledged and rewarded his talent and insight?
In retrospect, Losey thought the terror of his exile in England did him enormous good. For the first time in his life, he was unknown and on his own. His situation created anxiety so intense that he would periodically collapse on street curbs and struggle for breath. He reports that he learned, at long last, how failure felt and what it meant to be an outsider or a pariah. This perspective complicated his films and his life for the better.
Indeed, Losey declared that the blacklist saved his life: "Without it I would have three Cadillacs, two swimming pools and millions of dollars and I'd be dead. . . . It was terrifying, it was disgusting, but you can get trapped by money and complacency. A good shaking up never did anyone any harm" (Apple 802-3).
The blacklist may also have saved his films. As Tom Milne puts it: Retrospectively . . . it becomes clear that Losey was going through a process of evolution, adapting his style to a new, more probing, much warier realization of the complexity of people and problems" (Milne 9). Most critics would agree that The Servant and the complicated films that follow far surpass in quality the work that Losey produced when he believed that life was predictable, people were fair, and he had the answers—a faith undoubtedly engendered by the same sense of innate privilege that makes the British aristocrat an easy victim in The Servant.
Apple, R.W. Jr. "Joseph Losey, Film Director." New York Times Biographical Service 15 (January–June 1984): 802–803.
Caute, David. Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life. London: Faber, 1994.
Ciment, Michel. Conversations with Losey. London: Metheun, 1985.
DeRham, Edith. Joseph Losey: A Bridge of Sighs. London: Deutsch, 1991.
Hirsch, Foster. Joseph Losey. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
Milne, Tom. Losey on Losey. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1968.
Apple, R.W. Jr. "Joseph Losey, Film Director." New York Times Biographical Service 15 (January-June 1984): 802-803.
Ciment, Michel. Conversations with Losey. London: Metheun, 1985.
Milne, Tom. Losey on Losey. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1968.
© Nancy Bunge
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