In the summer of 1950, Lillian Ross started following the acclaimed director John Huston around Los Angeles as he tried to film Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. She was on a return trip for The New Yorker to report on blacklist-era Hollywood. Two years earlier, Ross wrote a long feature about the immediate aftermath of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings across the industry. The mood was one of bafflement, apprehension, and reaction. At parties, people tried to deduce one another’s communist sympathies by asking “who was or was not a guest at the White House when Roosevelt was president.” A pamphlet titled “Screen Guide for Americans” was making the rounds, with headings like “Don’t Deify the ‘Common Man,’” “Don’t Glorify the Collective,” and “Don’t Smear Industrialists.” Lela Rogers—Ginger Rogers’s mother—cheerfully informed Ross that her “friend Ayn Rand wrote it.”
In one of that essay’s central scenes, Ross had lunch on the set of Key Largo (1948) with Huston and two of the actors—Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart—with whom he recently flew to Washington, DC, to protest the HUAC hearings on behalf of a short-lived liberal group called the Committee for the First Amendment. Ross stayed in touch with Huston. When she visited him at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel one day, she wrote, he invited her back out to LA. “I’m going to show you how we make a picture,” he told her.
“Huston as a person is almost too interesting to be true,” she wrote to The New Yorker’s editor, William Shawn, two weeks into her trip. Here, she thought, was someone “outside of the conventional pattern of Hollywood, yet drawn and held by it, and people in the business are attracted and held by him.” Huston had stayed close to the industry’s center. He could give Ross a direct line into the sites of Hollywood power: its offices, restaurants, and parties. But because he affected a persona of what she called “lonely” distance from its operations, he also seemed to show what it looked like to struggle against the film industry’s conformity and reaction. “It is going to involve so many of the elements of Hollywood that it is too good to let go by,” Ross wrote Shawn. “You see, if the story turns out to be what I think it is, it’s really almost a book, a kind of novel-like book because of the way the characters may develop and the variety of relationships that exist among them.”
Watching Huston make The Red Badge of Courage took Ross 18 months. (“I didn’t even return [to New York] for my brother’s wedding,” she wrote in her memoir.) The story ran in The New Yorker in five installments in May and June of 1952. Later that year, Ross bundled those pieces into a book under the title Picture. It tracks the story of the film’s making, from Huston’s initial phone calls to the shoot on his San Fernando Valley ranch and the movie’s prolonged, grueling edit. When preview audiences reacted with boredom and frustration to Huston’s nightmarish, churning, thinly plotted vision of war, Dore Schary, MGM’s vice president in charge of production, cut some of the movie’s scenes of death and despair to make it tamer and more politically palatable. In the 69-minute version that eventually appeared in theaters, the opening voice-over promises “a story of many frightened boys who went into a great Civil War and came out as a nation of united, strong, and free men.”
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What this wrecked production gave Ross was a tour through the film industry’s levels of influence and power: directors, editors, composers, actors and extras, producers and studio executives, countless peripheral hangers-on. She lingers over what they say and refuse to say. Unlike “Come In, Lassie!” (1948), Ross’s earlier report from Hollywood, Picture never mentions HUAC by name, but its background presence fills the book. It was as if Ross wanted to trace the unarticulated, invisible ways in which the investigations shaped a generation’s creative and professional compromises.
Huston becomes this “novel-like” book’s charismatic hero. Ross saw that he was a contradictory figure, “drawn and held” by Hollywood’s “conventional pattern” even as he resisted it. But she nonetheless got a kind of dramatic energy by positioning him outside Hollywood’s conventions and priorities. It was a position he endorsed. “You know something?” he asked Ross during the visit that set the book in motion. “They don’t want me to make this picture. And I want to make this picture.”
The five installments of Ross’s story caused a stir. In his memoir, Huston remembered that “Hollywood readers waited in line at the newsstands for the next issue of The New Yorker, eager to see who would be done in next, frequently discovering to their dismay that they were themselves the targets.” Ross had a fondness for tacky furnishings—much is made of MGM’s “cream-coloured” office decor—and tasteless shows of power, but most of all she loved talk: anxious conferences, forced or stifled banter, embittered jokes, bloviating monologues, tense conversations at parties.
Everywhere Ross went, she found scenes of crisis and bravado. A publicist grumbled to Huston about “the junk they go for on television.” The “voluble” composer Bronislau Kaper told Ross that “every picture is sick” when it reaches him. “That is my premise. We must take the picture and find out what it needs to make it well and healthy.” One day, Ross heard Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s grandstanding cofounder, tell the musical producer Arthur Freed a story about a reviewer who “used to knock our movies” and subsequently, as if by divine retribution, attempted suicide. In the hospital, Mayer pursued the critic and extracted an apology:
“The doctors are pushing her, trying to make her walk. ‘Walk! Walk!’ She doesn’t want to walk.” Mayer got up and acted out the part of the girl. “Suddenly, she sees me, and she gives a cry! ‘Oh!’ And she walks. And this is what she says: ‘Oh, Mr. Mayer, I am so ashamed of myself. When I think of how I used to knock the movies, I am ashamed.’”
Much of Picture turns on a quarrel between Schary and Mayer, who considered The Red Badge of Courage a bad investment and resisted Schary’s efforts to get it made. (“You want to be an artist!” he bellowed at the film’s producer, Gottfried Reinhardt, outside the MGM barbershop. “Would you work as an artist for one hundred dollars a week?”) Shortly after losing to Schary, he quit the company. “Louie said that as long as he was head of the studio, the picture would never be released,” Nicholas Schenck, Mayer’s and Schary’s boss at Loew’s, told Ross. “I supported Dore. I let him make the picture. I knew that the best way to help him was to let him make a mistake.”
The blacklist warped the shape of these debates about profit and loss. Its influence emerged, for example, in the articles that the right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote for the Los Angeles Times, which Ross quotes near the start of the book. “For a change, we’ll have a real soldier on the screen,” Hopper wrote about the picture’s leading man, the 25-year-old World War II veteran Audie Murphy. “It couldn’t happen at a better time.” Words like “American” had special weight. “I want to give the public entertainment, and, thank God, it pays off,” Ross heard Mayer say to Freed. “Clean, American entertainment.” Midway through an earlier exchange with Freed, Mayer pivoted “his powerful shoulders” toward Ross and recounted overseeing the production of one of MGM’s Andy Hardy movies. “Andy’s mother is dying,” he said, “and they make the picture showing Andy standing outside the door. Standing. I told them, ‘Don’t you know that an American boy like that will get down on his hands and knees and pray?’”
Mayer and Schary (then still at RKO Pictures) both testified at the 1947 HUAC hearings. A month later, they attended the meeting at the Waldorf during which the country’s film executives voted to blacklist the group of screenwriters and directors who became known as the Hollywood 10. By the time he joined MGM in 1948, Schary had conservative critics who thought he “had been altogether too cozy with the Reds during the war,” the critic J. Hoberman wrote in his study of Cold War Hollywood, An Army of Phantoms (2011). But for others, “most now blacklisted,” Schary “epitomized the movie industry’s spineless capitulation to HUAC and the witch-hunters.” He comes off in Picture as a figure of bureaucratic blandness, less crude than Mayer but no less invested in making MGM films announce their national loyalty. He, like Mayer, insisted that “there’s no story” in The Red Badge of Courage. What he decided the movie needed turned out to be not just any story but one about the forging of “frightened boys” into a unified national front.
Huston wanted to make no such thing. Even in its bowdlerized form, The Red Badge of Courage stews in the grime and misery of the bedraggled Union troops it follows. The camera studies their sweaty, dirt-covered faces in tight close-up and pauses over unsettling figures: a deranged, wounded soldier belting out “John Brown’s Body” and wielding a tree branch like a saber; a hoarse-voiced night watchman (played by the character actor Andy Devine) rambling on cheerfully about the consolations of death. To play Crane’s guilt-stricken protagonist, Huston insisted not on an established movie star but on the baby-faced, much-decorated Murphy, who took up acting in the late 1940s and projected a mixture of naivete, ruthlessness, and desperation on-screen. “This little, gentle-eyed creature,” Huston enthused to Ross. “Why, in the war he’d literally go out of his way to find Germans to kill.”
Ross’s Huston is full of lines like those: brash, irreverent, disquieting. A sense of exceptional gravity gathers around him. “When I entered a restaurant with him—‘21,’ for example—life inside seemed to stop,” Ross wrote in a 50th-anniversary preface to Picture. By 1950, his ability to stay “outside of the conventional pattern of Hollywood” had become an important part of his public persona. He had made hit movies about private detectives (The Maltese Falcon), gold prospectors (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and jewel thieves (The Asphalt Jungle). He had shot a documentary for the Army Signal Corps about veterans suffering from “combat neuroses” (Let There Be Light) that the War Department promptly suppressed. In 1946 he directed the first Broadway production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. His opposition to the blacklist had become another part of his legend.
Huston’s persona as an irrepressible, defiant underdog is one of the few Hollywood myths Ross never puts under scrutiny. But from a distance of 70 years, that persona can seem less incompatible than Ross suggests with the studio system’s structures of power. The visions of terror and suffering that fill The Red Badge of Courage surely put Huston at odds with MGM, just as the scenes of traumatized veterans giving shattered testimonies in Let There Be Light (1946) angered the War Department. But Picture is also an inventory of the tones—reassuring, macho, ingratiating, patriotic, regally aloof—that Huston used to smooth his way through the industry and make common cause with figures he seemed to oppose.
“I love John,” Schary told Ross after the two of them watched rushes of The Red Badge of Courage together. “That guy will live forever. He’s a hearty, tough soul. When he wants something from you, he sits down next to you and his voice gets a little husky, and pretty soon you’re a dead pigeon.” It’s an intriguing, ambiguous moment: a record of Schary’s gift for flattery—he went on to reedit the movie anyway—and of Huston’s own means of persuasion. After he denounced HUAC, Huston wrote in his memoir, he assured a group organized by the McCarthyite columnist George Sokolsky that he opposed communism but “mainly didn’t care for dictators or bullies…. What I really like are horses, strong drink and women.” Soon enough, Huston added, Sokolsky wrote “that he felt assured I was a good American. Of course I was relieved to hear that!”
In “Undirectable Director,” an influential profile that appeared in Life magazine weeks after Ross went to LA, the writer James Agee called Huston “a natural-born antiauthoritarian individualistic libertarian anarchist, without portfolio.” To Ross, Huston’s individualism took the form of a plucky opposition to power. But to compare Picture with some roughly contemporary accounts of Huston is to see that plucky, embattled artist turn into something closer to a tyrant with his own power to abuse. A fawning 1949 article in Look reported how “he once approached Joan Crawford at a party with this comment: ‘You wear too much make-up.’ Before that startled actress could reply, he applied his thumbs to her cheeks and smeared her rouge down her face.” A 1953 roman à clef by Huston’s collaborator Peter Viertel, White Hunter, Black Heart, depicts a swaggering film director named John Wilson subjecting his female secretaries to barrages of verbal humiliation that the narrator calls “his daily torture.”
In Picture, Ross introduces Huston as “one of the most admired, rebellious, and shadowy figures in the world of motion pictures.” That triptych of adjectives strikes an odd note: If he was rebellious, it never quite cost him the industry’s admiration. “Hollywood’s fair-haired boy, to the critics, is director John Huston,” the film critic and painter Manny Farber wrote in The Nation in 1950. “In terms of falling into the Hollywood mode, Huston is a smooth blend of iconoclast and sheep.”
Immediately after finishing The Red Badge of Courage, Huston started shooting The African Queen for Horizon Pictures, an independent production company he cofounded several years earlier. It was a hit. “I stand to make a lot of money,” he told Ross. “I’m going to have it all in twenty-dollar bills with a rubber band around it.” When Ross made a visit to the Loew’s offices that serves as the end of Picture, she heard Schenck and the company’s advertising head, Howard Dietz, note ruefully that it “was for his own company” rather than for MGM that Huston made such a profit. “Don’t forget he made the picture with stars,” Dietz said. “Red Badge had no stars,” he grumbled, “and no story.”