R.I.P. Richard Collins, blacklisted screenwriter

R.I.P. Richard Collins, blacklisted screenwriter

Screenwriter and producer Richard Collins has died at the age of 98. Collins, who started out working at Columbia Pictures as a script reader, was the last surviving member of the “Hollywood 19,” the nickname given to the “unfriendly witnesses” who were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee during its investigation of Communism's infiltration of the movie industry, which ended in 10 of them being sent to prison for refusing to “name names.”

Collins had been an active member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, though he later said he became disillusioned with the ideological restrictions it tried to place on writers. One of the projects that brought Collins to the attention of HUAC was Song Of Russia, a 1944 MGM production on which he shared the screenplay credit with another prominent victim of the blacklist, Paul Jarrico. Song Of Russia was a idealistic in its portrayal of life in the Soviet Union, but it was also fell in line with the U. S. government’s call for pop culture that promoted its WWII-era alliance with the Soviets. 

By 1947, political winds had shifted, to put it mildly. Song Of Russia was one of three films denounced by HUAC as “pro-Soviet propaganda,” with Ayn Rand called upon by the committee as an anti-communist expert to assess the film. She testified that it was full of deliberately misleading impossibilities, such as scenes in which people living under the yoke of Communism are seen “dancing very happily,” as well as showing Soviet people smiling—something she assured the Committee actual Soviets never did. (“If they do, it is privately and accidentally,” she added.) 

When he was first subpoenaed by the Committee that year, Collins stood with the rest of the Hollywood 19 in refusing to cooperate. He never served jail time for his defiance, but the effect on his career—which was already suffering even before the blacklist—led him to quit the party and, after four more years of rough times, decide that his best move would be to name names after all. By that time, his ex-wife, Dorothy Comingore—an actress best known for playing the character modeled on Marion Davies in Citizen Kane—had also been called before HUAC and been branded an unfriendly witness, subsequently having custody of her children stripped from her and never working again. (Comingore’s story inspired a similar character in the 1991 movie Guilty By Suspicion, starring Robert De Niro and Annette Bening.)

Stuck with raising their kids all by himself and desperate for work, Collins returned to HUAC in 1951 and named two dozen colleagues—including his former partner Jarrico and novelist Budd Schulberg, an old friend from college—as having “subversive” political ties. Instantly, he was able to go back to work, eventually finding a niche as a producer on TV series such as Bonanza and Matlock. One of his other most notable post-blacklist jobs was writing the original treatment for the 1956 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, a movie that has since been interpreted both as an attack on the soul-deadening effects of Communism and as a satire of the cowardice and conformism that fed the hysterical anti-Communism of the blacklist era.

 

In Victor Navasky’s 1980 history of the blacklist, Naming Names, Collins described his actions in terms of practicality and economic necessity, but also expressed his regrets at selling out his friends, calling himself “a son of a bitch, a miserable little bastard.” Nevertheless, he also believed he’d stood up for his country, saying, “I was a good boy, doing what you’re supposed to do.”  

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