From blacklist to main stage

Ask Norma Barzman, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” and she’ll tell you straight up: Yes, she was, and proudly so.

Barzman is one of the last of the blacklisted Hollywood writers. Her career was derailed by Sen. Joe McCarthy and his pet political project — the House Un-American Activities Committee — back in the late 1940s.

Today, feisty at 85, she is taking as many curtain calls as possible, having published her memoirs “The Red and the Blacklist” in 2003 and speaking to audiences across the country.

At the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this year, several films written by blacklisted writers have been added to the schedule, among them “Hotel Berlin,” “The Search” and The Locket,” a 1945 film Barzman co-wrote.

Even better, Barzman and fellow blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein will be on hand to take a bow. (Bernstein’s 1976 comedy “The Front,” which starred Woody Allen, will also be shown.)

On Tuesday, July 19, Barzman and Bernstein will receive the festival’s Freedom of Expression Award. They also will join a panel discussion on Jews and the blacklist following the screening of “The Locket.”

“It was my original story,” she says. “I sold it to [late actor] Hume Cronyn to direct and he sold it to RKO.”

“She was obviously very talented,” adds Paul Buhle, a Brown University blacklist scholar and moderator of the upcoming film festival panel. “She has a fabulous temperament and has not let things get her down.”

A native New Yorker, Barzman grew up the daughter of German Jews, though she later took on the fiery socialist leanings of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants from her neighborhood.

“They brought with them a feeling for social justice inherent in Jewish culture,” notes Barzman. “The reason why you see it more with the Eastern European Jews is a class thing: They had it harder, so more of them were socialist.”

After graduating from Radcliffe College, Barzman moved West and became known in Los Angeles for the column she wrote for the now-defunct L.A. Examiner. Together with her late husband, screenwriter Ben Barzman, she joined a circle of Jewish lefties.

“I became progressive during the Spanish Civil War,” says Barzman. “I joined the Communist Party because I saw they really were fighting fascism at home and abroad. They were organizing the guilds and unions.”

The advent of the McCarthy era drove the Barzmans first from Hollywood and then from the United States. They moved to Europe and befriended left-leaning royalty in England and on the continent (Pablo Picasso was a good friend). They also found film work there.

“There was no point in coming back to Hollywood, where neither of us could have worked,” she says. “There were subpoenas out for us and we knew we would not inform on friends.”

The couple reared their seven children in Europe. In 1979, with the McCarthy era ancient history, they returned to Los Angeles.

Barzman’s husband died 10 years later, but she found work writing for the L.A. Times Syndicate. Though the blacklist experience still sears her, it also fills her with a kind of defiant pride.

“The blacklist victims democratized Hollywood,” Buhle says. “They introduced unions, they introduced dignified non-white actors, and they dealt with serious social themes. As the shadows [of the blacklist] fell, they invented the noir film, the apex of American film art in black-and-white.”

As stridently left wing as ever, Barzman believes a blacklist-style witch-hunt could happen again.

“We have the prerequisite for a pre-fascist state,” she says. “A corporate-run administration and a corporate-controlled media, and every day it’s getting worse. I do have faith in our democracy, but we have to stop being afraid.”

Norma Barzman will participate in a panel discussion on Jews and the blacklist 7:30 p.m., Sunday, July 24, at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., S.F. Tickets: $7-$10. Information: (925) 275-9490 or www.sfjff.org.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.