Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 20, 2009

Chicanos and Communists in two 1950s films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

For serious scholars of film and politics, as well as amateurs like me, the Turner Classic Movie channel (TCM) is an invaluable resource. While most of the time it is recycling warhorses like “Citizen Kane” that can be rented from Netflix, you will occasionally be able to watch some extraordinary movies that are not available in home video. Last night I chanced across a couple that were part of a series occurring this month titled “Race and Hollywood: Latino Images in Film”.

Last night’s movies were selected and introduced by Chon A. Noriega, professor of cinema and media studies at UCLA and director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. The two that I saw had deep associations with the left, either positive or negative.

“Lawless”, a 1950 movie about anti-Chicano racism in a California town, was directed by Joseph Losey, who was blacklisted shortly afterwards and forced into exile in London. Communists in Hollywood tended to make movies that had only a glancing connection to Marxism, preferring instead to package New Deal populism as mainstream entertainment. Losey took another tack. Despite conforming to Hollywood convention in many ways, “Lawless” is about as hard-hitting an indictment of anti-Latino racism as I have ever seen.

Only 5 years after “Lawless” was made, Hollywood had gone full swing in an anti-Communist direction making it impossible for directors like Joseph Losey to make a living. A product of this period was the 1955 “Trial”, a movie that depicts Communists in the worst possible light. As the title implies, the film is a courtroom drama involving a Chicano youth who is being railroaded for sexually assaulting and then murdering a white classmate. His defense attorney is a well-meaning but inexperienced liberal hired by an experienced but utterly cynical and corrupt lawyer who is in charge of fund-raising through his CP connections.

Both “Lawless” and “Trial” feature race riot and lynch mob scenes that were very much in the recent memory of a 1950s audience. From the Zoot Suit confrontations of the 1940s to the attack on the Paul Robeson concert that Chon A. Noriega described as an inspiration for the scenes in “Lawless”, these movies were describing social reality.

The TCM website has a fairly useful write-up on “Lawless”, including this background information:

Shot on location in Marysville and Grass Valley in late 1949 for a mere $407,000 (Losey once claimed he had but $150,000 to spend, but this is not borne out by studio documentation), The Lawless takes place in a fictional California small town riven, like so many real ones, into two classes: the middle class whites congregate in Santa Maria, a self-proclaimed “Friendly Town.” The local fruit industry depends on low-cost labor, provided in large measure by Mexican immigrants, derisively known as “fruit tramps,” living in a shantytown called Sleepy Hollow. They work long hours for meager pay, are reflexively considered unreliable layabouts and eyed with suspicion by the police. In any ghetto, the hardships of life can wear down people’s civility, and so Sleepy Hollow has its share of problems and violence—which community organizers like intrepid journalist Sunny Garcia (Gail Russell) work to resolve. But when angry young men from across the tracks come to Sleepy Hollow full of anti-Mexican resentment, looking to start a fight, even the noblest of intentions fall short.

Less useful, however, is this attempt to make the anti-racism message of the movie a thing of the past:

For those of us living today in the post-Civil Rights era, when the biracial son of an African father can ascend to the highest office in the free world, it can be all too easy to forget how recent were the struggles that created this world.

Perhaps David Kalat, the TCM essayist, has not been reading a newspaper lately but things have not changed that much based on this report:

NY Times, May 17, 2009
After Pennsylvania Trial, Tensions Simmer Over Race

SHENANDOAH, Pa. — Ten days ago, shortly after two white teenagers were acquitted of the most serious charges in the beating death of Luís Ramírez, a Mexican immigrant, several white students at the local high school told Felix Bermejo that he would be the next person to get a beating, he says.

Last Sunday, Eileen Burke, a former Philadelphia police officer who found Mr. Ramírez unconscious on the ground outside her Lloyd Street home after he was beaten, found that her car had been egged after she was quoted in a local newspaper saying she believed that the police had mishandled the investigation.

Last week, a fight broke out between a group of white teenagers and a group of black and Latino teenagers and someone pulled out a gun, an escalation that several onlookers said never would have happened before.

The trial stemming from Mr. Ramírez’s death ended nearly two weeks ago, but tensions continue to boil in this small Pennsylvania coal town of 5,100 northwest of Philadelphia, where Mexicans and other Latinos have been settling in search of affordable housing and work in the mines or apple and peach farms.

“It’s only gotten worse since the verdict,” said a white woman at a downtown store who asked that her name not be used because she was afraid of how her neighbors might react to her having talked to a reporter. “The whole thing has set us backwards, and if the trial had swung the other way, it would have just been the whites who were angry.”

Read full article

Mel Neuhaus’s piece on “Trial” is an exercise in stupidity, making the case that the movie is somehow a statement against HUAC and other McCarthyite bodies:

It was no wonder that courtroom dramas were all the rage in the 1950s; television had brought the real thing into millions of viewers’ living rooms via the broadcast of the Army-McCarthy hearings. MGM, under Louis B. Mayer, had been virulently anti-Communist, but with Mayer long ousted and the studio under the new Dore Schary regime, the climate was positively liberal.

McCarthy’s deserved humiliation and defeat on live TV may not have ended the blacklist; however, it set the tone for a lengthy healing process that would eventually span more than two decades to vindicate many of the political victims. It seemed apt that Metro would take on a project encompassing a number of controversial topics, and Trial (1955), based on the best-selling novel by Don Mankiewicz (who also penned the taut script), zeroed in on every falsehood perpetrated by the dreaded HUAC moniker.

In fact, “Trial” contains a scene that is even more fantastic than anything Joe McCarthy could have cooked up. The lawyer for the victimized Chicano youth is invited to speak at a rally in New York that was organized under the auspices of the “All Peoples Party” and Barney Castle, the shady lawyer who hired him. It makes the Communists who built and attended the rally look like a mixture of fools and guttersnipes, who only donate to the cause because higher-ups in the party tell them to. What’s even more unlikely is Barney Castle’s failure to make a single political statement throughout the film. He approaches the entire project as a way to siphon off funds for his personal gain. In the film’s climax, the defense attorney played by Glenn Ford confronts Castle (Arthur Kennedy) who has decided to engineer a guilty verdict in the courtroom for the Chicano youth since “the party” decided he would be more useful as a martyr than a free man. In the final moments of the movie, as Castle becomes more and more of a red scare bogeyman, you don’t know whether to laugh or to scream at the images on the screen. This, of course, is exactly the reaction that most people have to these 1950s McCarthyite movies.

For what its worth, Don Mankiewicz, who wrote the novel that “Trial” is based on, also penned the original TV pilot scripts for Star Trek.

Go to http://www.tcm.com/2009/lif/index.jsp to see the trailer for “Lawless”. Unfortunately, none is available for “Trial”.


  1. Actually Mankiewicz wrote the pilot for the TV show, “Ironside”. (Gene Roddenberry wrote the script for Star Trek’s pilot, “The Cage”.) However, Mankiewicz wrote the script for the Star Trek episode, “Court Martial” in 1967.

    – peace

    Comment by Fred — May 21, 2009 @ 7:59 pm

  2. If you like fictional movies which reflect, somewhat, U.S. leftist history, you might be interested in checking out the public domain fictional “Fugitive Generation”/”Bloggywood” screenplay at the following blog link:


    Comment by bobf — May 22, 2009 @ 3:31 am

  3. I would like to just let people know that Trial will be available on netflix apparently. I was able to call it up and right now its only “on wait” – so one can add it to their “Save” list, as I have done.

    Comment by amanda — November 20, 2009 @ 2:19 am

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