Thursday, August 31, 2023

The Origins of the Communist Party in the U.S. —Talking About the C Word


Anglo members of the Socialist Party Left Wing and dissident state parties found the CLP on August 31, 1919.

On August 31, 1919 at a rump meeting in Chicago of Left Wing members of the fractured Socialist Party, the Communist Labor Party (CLP), a predecessor to the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), was founded.  It was a year of great turmoil.  Long-time Socialist Party leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was in the Federal prison at Atlanta for giving a speech opposing World War I.  Many socialists and unionists were aflame with passion for the apparently successful Russian Revolution.  Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer with the enthusiastic assistance of the young leader of the Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, had launched his raids against aliens and radicals.  An unheard of era of government repression was sweeping the land. 

Earlier in the year the SP’s well established network of  language federations, each of which had its own publications and leadership, in cooperation with Left Wing state parties had captured a majority on the Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC).  Alarmed, the regulars of the outgoing NEC declared the election invalid charging the language federations with irregularities.  They expelled the leaders of several federations and suspended recognition of the Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, Lettish (Latvian), South Slavic, and Ukrainian federations and the entire state parties of Michigan, Massachusetts, and Ohio. The New York State Executive Committee suspended and reorganized Left Wing locals and branches representing nearly half the state's membership.  Needless to say, such high handed tactics led to an uproar in the Party.

Journalist Jack Reed was a key figure in the the founding of the Communist Labor Party.

The language federations joined by the Michigan state party responded with a call to a founding convention of the Communist Party of America (CPA) to be held in Chicago on September 1.  Many leading English speaking left wingers, including NEC members Alfred Wagenknecht and L.E. Katterfeld and the dashing journalist JohnJack Reed, lionized by the Party rank and file for his eyewitness account of the Russian October Revolution in Ten Days That Shook the World, decided to stay in the SP and try to win control back from the regulars.  The Party called an Emergency National Convention in Chicago scheduled for Aug. 30.  But the regulars controlled the majority of State parties, suspended parties and federations were banned, and a credentials committee ruled against seating many other Left Wing delegates. 

John Reed and Benjamin Gitlow planned to crash the convention anyway, but officials were tipped off and called the police, who obligingly expelled the leftists from the hall. The remaining leftist delegates walked out. Meeting in a rented room directly below the official convention the expelled delegates formed the Communist Labor Party with Wagenknecht at its head.  

....A day later on September 1st Foreign Language sections of the Socialist Party founded another Communist Party.  Both claimed support of Moscow and the Comintern.

Meanwhile the founding convention of the Communist Party of America went ahead as planned the next day.  Suddenly there were two competing Communist Parties, both claiming allegiance to the Russian Revolution and to the Communist International (Comintern), a situation that displeased V. I. Lenin. 

Both infant parties were soon victims of the expanding Palmer Raids and leaders of both were arrested or in hiding.  Both were forced to essentially go underground by December.

In January 1920 the Comintern ordered the two parties to merge as the United Communist Party, and to follow the party line established in Moscow.  .A faction of the CPA held out for a while but was forced into line by 1921. Many English language leftists, however, soon left the Party and it is estimated that less than 5% of the membership were native English speakers.  Through the decade the Party was beset with internal dissent and was frequently reined in by the Comintern.

Although the Communists were allowed to resume operations as a legal organization, the experience in the underground and the formation of cells and the like as well as stringent control from Moscow were stamped on the Party.  The Red Scare of 1919-1920 prevented the Communists from ever becoming a mass or popular party and helped create the secretive culture and fealty to the Soviets that made it the nightmare of post-World War II of conservatives.

Former IWW organizer William Z. Foster spent most of the '20's marginalized in the United Communist Party, the forced merger of the CLP and CPA.  But the Comintern put him at the head of re-incarnated Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and endorsed his bore from within strategy of working inside the conservative business unions of the AFL instead of joining the IWW or organizing explicitly Marxist labor unions.

Initially many rank and file members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were enthusiastic about the new party and some leaders, like William Z. Foster, jumped to the new organization.  But the defection of William D. “Big Bill Haywood to Moscow after the conviction of 101 IWW leaders for sedition in 1919 left a bitter taste in many mouths.  When reports by Emma Goldman and others exiled to Russia exposed the authoritarian underside of the Lenin regime, support dwindled further.  The Party began to demand that the IWW submit itself to Party leadership—a demand that was rudely rejected by the union. When party members meddled in important IWW strikes of the ‘20’s the rift became pronounced.  By the end of the decade the IWW was firmly anti-Communist.

In 1929 the Party was renamed the CPUSA.  Foster, after being frozen out at the demand of Kremlin leaders through most of the ‘20’s emerged as the new Party leader and instituted the directed policy of boring from within the conservative labor movement and shunning the independent IWW.  CP militants helped form and establish the Congress of Industrial Organization in heavy industry during the ‘30s.

Many well-meaning idealists entered the Party in the Depression years and did heroic work in the labor movement and elsewhere.  But the fickle dictates of Moscow took a toll.  A joke around IWW circles years later was that you could tell just how na├»ve a leftist was by when they finally got disgusted and abandoned the CP—the 1936-38 Stalinist Purge Trials in Russia, the Hitler/Stalin Pact, the roughshod imposition of Soviet style government over Eastern Europe in the post war years, or the final straw for many, the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.

The Soviet Union's brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising was the final straw for many longtime Party members.

When the next great upsurge of the left occurred during the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War, the CPUSA found itself mainly on the sidelines, distrusted by the New Left and ignored as irrelevant.  Self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninists split among a bewildering profusion of new parties and organizations.

With the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union the CPUSA was left a virtual orphan.  It numbers continue to dwindle to a hard core of aging militants, many of them from the decedents from those old ethnic federations and from the needle trades in New York.



Wednesday, August 30, 2023

America Fell for Joan Blondell and Those Big Baby Blues

                        Joan Blondell--the whole package.

She was the brassy blonde who had been there, done that, and lived to tell about it.  A wise cracking working girl with the biggest blue eyes ever, an electric smile, and a plump figure that turned heads and got attention.  She could scheme and connive with good humor.  Underneath the veneer of urban cynicism, though, you just knew she was capable of undying loyalty to lovers and friends alike.  That was the persona Joan Blondell brought to Warner Bros. in 1930 and which sustained a career that spanned 40 years.

Rose Joan Blondell was born on August 30, 1906 in Brooklyn to a pair of vaudevillians, comedian Ed Blondell and Kathryn KatieCain, an Irish-American hoofer.  Baby Joan was first thrust on stage at just four months old as the daughter of Peggy Astaire in The Greatest Love.  She would be given lines and bits of business in the family act by age four

The family toured relentlessly and Joan did not know a real home until her teenage years.  By then in addition to becoming familiar with hotel rooms in cities across the country, she and her family spent a year in Hawaii and toured Australia for six years.

                                        Before blond--Miss Dallas, 1926 age 20.

The family finally settled in Dallas, Texas where she managed to finish school.  Under the name Rosebud Blondell, she won the 1926 Miss Dallas Pageant and placed fourth in the fifth outing of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey later that year. 

The next year, 1927, Blondell tried her hand at North Texas State College in Denton where her mother was working as an actress.  Education didn’t take.  Show Biz did.  She worked as a model and a circus show girl before heading for the Big Apple and a bit of fame.

Blondell joined a stock company and worked regularly in small parts, including stints on Broadway.  Her big break came in 1930 when she was paired with a charismatic young hoofer named James Cagney in the play Penny Arcade.  It only ran four weeks, but the show and its young stars wowed Al Jolson, Broadway’s biggest star and the man who had helped save Warner Bros. with his breakthrough talkie, The Jazz Singer. 

Jolson bought rights to the play and then turned around to sell it to Warners with the provision that Cagney and Blondell had to re-create their parts.  Jack Warner agreed but wanted to change her name to Inez Holmes.  Blondell flatly refused, endangering her big chance in the movies.  Rather than risk losing the property and perhaps Cagney as well, Warner relented.  But it would be far from the last time that Blondell clashed with the notoriously dictatorial studio boss.

Blondell and James Cagney made an impression in Warner Bros.' Sinner's Holiday in 1930.

Released as Sinners Holiday the movie was Cagney’s film debut.  The second film Blondell had made for Warners, Office Wife had already been released.  In that one she had a supporting role as the sister of the female lead and stole the show handing out world weary advice while getting into or out of revealing underwear.

Sinners Holiday established the screen personas of both Cagney and Blondell.  Cagney shot to immediate stardom.  Blondell was along for the ride.  She would co-star with the actor six times, more than any other actress in his career.  The films included Public Enemy, Footlight Parade, and Blond Crazy.  Cagney later said the only woman he ever loved other than his wife was Joan Blondell.

If Cagney shot to top stardom, Blondell never quite reached that level despite her great popularity with audiences.  Men adored her and women felt like she could be their best friend.  But the studio already had one blond bombshell, Jean Harlow.  Another up-and-comer young actress with a street-wise persona, Barbara Stanwyck played working class girls in edgy and darker material.   Blondell’s close friend Betty Davis was a fast rising star and would soon be dominating serious and prestige parts.  Ruby Keeler, Jolson’s wife, was the musical star.  And young Olivia de Havilland would soon sew up all of innocent sweetheart parts.  The studio even had extra sassy comic blonds like Glenda Ferrell.

In pre-Code flicks Blondell frequently dished out wise cracks and world weary advice in various states of undress, revealing lingerie, or even from the bath tub.  Seen here on loan to Fox in 1933 with a more modestly covered up Ginger Rogers in Broadway Bad.

So, the studio wasted Blondell’s time in shorts and  relegated her to the sassy best friend in over 50 feature films.  She, her sex appeal, body, and sass were perfect for the pre-Production Code naughtiness for which Warners was famous.  She was cast in fallen women picturesIllicit with Stanwyck in the lead, Big Business Girl with Loretta Young, Night Nurse again with Stanwyck, The Greeks Had a Word for Them in a rare first billed lead, and Thee on a Match with Ann Dvorak and pal Bette Davis.

The studio also put her in their down-on-their-luck Depression stories like Union Station with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as an improbable hobo and Central Park in which two down-and-outers forced to live in the title park fall in love, are separated, and exploited in a scheme to rob a charity ball.

Blondell spent a lot of screen time answering the phone in her underwear or a peekaboo robe.

Blondell was making as many as six pictures a year plus shorts when she married cinematographer George Barnes in Phoenix, Arizona on January 4, 1933.

Musicals were another staple of Warners in the early 30’s.  The fact that Blondell was not a singer and only a so-so dancer did not prevent the studio from casting her as a chorine and pal of the leads.  Most famously she co-starred in Gold Diggers of 1933 in which she performed—mostly in a semi-spoken wail/moan Busby Berkleys epic Forgotten Man number.  That one song may have been Blondell’s finest dramatic performance.  It was on the set of this movie that Blondell met boyish singer Dick Powell who would become her second husband.

The heart wrenching Forgotten Man number from Busby Berkley's Gold Diggers of 1933 was a highlight of Blonell's career.

Warners would pair her with that other wise cracking blonde, Glenda Ferrell, in six films most notably Gold Diggers of 1937.  The characters were different in each film, and most were straight comedies.  By the mid-Thirties the Production Code office had killed the fallen woman genre and limited the amount of time the well-endowed Blondell could spend in lingerie or taking baths.  And the public tired of musicals.  Warners turned to gritty gangster flicks, high flown women’s dramas, prestige historical bio-pics, and swashbucklers.  Davis had the women’s film sewed up, de Havilland’s bosom heaved for Errol Flynn, and Blondell was deemed unsuited for most costume dramas.  But she was perfect for gangster films.  She re-teamed with Cagney in He Was Her Man and with Edward G. Robinson in Bullets or Ballots.

Through the later ‘30s Warners used Blondell almost exclusively in comedies.  Scripts got lamer, budgets cheaper, co-stars second rung.  She was in danger of slipping into B movie unit films like her erstwhile partner Glenda Ferrell had with the Torchy Blaine girl reporter series.

Blondell and husband Dick Powell excaped Warner Bros. and made I Want a Divorce together at Paramount in 1940.  A harbinger of things to come?

When her contract with Warners expired in 1939, Blondell cheerfully left her long time home to become a free-lance actress.  Husband Dick Powell left the studio about the same time.  Parts were harder to come by and Blondell was nearing 40.  She teamed with her husband in a preachy comedy I Want a Divorce in 1940.

But now she was lucky to make one or two films a year.  The high points during the War years were Topper Returns, Lady for a Night at Republic Pictures with John Wayne, and Cry Havoc, a gritty war drama about Army nurses at Bataan  for MGM in 1943.

As disreputable Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1945 with her proper sister played by Dorothy McGuire.

Blondell would not appear on the big screen for nearly two years.  And when she did, she was a revelation.  As Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn she was the scandalous relative of the poor but respectable Nolan family who collects men who may or may not be other women’s husbands.  Blondell considered it her finest film work.

Blondell and Powell divorced in 1944.  In ’47 she married for the third, last, and most disastrous time to charming but profligate theatrical impresario Mike Todd.  She described her relationship with him as the great passionate love of her life.  But Todd was a spendthrift, heavy gambler, and a cad by nature.  It did not take long for him to spend his way through Blondell’s money leaving her essentially broke.  The couple divorced in 1950 with Blondell alleging physical abuse including being dangled out of a hotel window by her ankle.  A few years later Todd swept Elizabeth Taylor off of her feet then died in a plane crash.

In 1951 Blondell reached the pinnacle of her post-war career in The Blue Veil starring Jane Wyman as a self-sacrificing nurse to young children.  Wyman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress and Blondell was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

She appeared sporadically on the big screen after that, mostly in comedies most notably The Opposite Sex, a musical re-make of Clair Booth Luces The Women  with a cast headed by Dick Powell’s next wife, June Allison and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? starring Tony Randal in which she played a pal/companion to Jayne Mansfield.

After that Blondell worked mainly on television where she appeared as a guest star in programs like Playhouse 90, Lux Playhouse,  Adventures in Paradise, The Untouchables, Dick Powell Theater, Death Valley Days, The Virginian, Wagon Train, The Twilight Zone, Burkes Law, Bonanza, Dr. Kildare, The Lucy Show, My Three Sons, Slatterys People, The Man From Uncle, Family Affair, Guns of Will Sonnet, Petticoat Junction, That Girl, The Name of the Game, McCloud, Love American Style, The Rookies, Medical Center, New Dick Van Dyke Show, The Snoop Sisters,  Police Story, and Fantasy Island.

She also was in more than a dozen made for TV movies and had reoccurring or regular series roles in.  The Real McCoys, Here Come the Brides, and Banyon.  

Blondel as the dealer in a high stakes poker game in The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen, Karl Malden, and Edward G. Robinson.  Ann Margaret got the voluptuous girl friend part she would have played thirty years earlier. 

Among Blondell’s later appearances on the big screen were a memorable turn in The Cincinnati Kid in 1965 as an experienced dealer in a high stakes poker game, Support Your Local Gunfighter in ‘71, Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood in ’76, Grease  in’78, and the re-make of The Champ. She was featured in small parts in two more films released after her death.

Center Door Fancy was an autobiographical novel written by Blondell that was published by Delacorte Press in 1972.

Joan Blondell was diagnosed with leukemia and died in a Santa Monica hospital on Christmas Day 1979 at the age of 73.  She was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Those of us who love this stuff delight in stumbling on her old Warner Bros. films, no matter how slight the plot, on Turner Classic Movies and basking in that sensational smile.