"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
MOST HOLLYWOOD MEMOIRS, barely worth writing about or discussing, sell simply because a celebrity (ostensibly) wrote them. The stars are players in their personal narratives both public and fictional. These books are usually tossed aside and forgotten. So it may not be a big deal if the stories within are BS. But the blacklist created its own nuclear winter from which the fallout has not completely cleared and heads still spin when it comes to explaining or understanding what happened in the entertainment industry during the McCarthy era. Real or accused dead Commies of Beverly Hills must be rolling over in their collective grave as, under the muddy banner of memoir, I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist by Kirk Douglas paints a fictional and self-aggrandizing presentation of his actions during the making of that celebrated movie. Many producers, directors and stars of the fifties would not work with blacklisted talent and movie studios forced all employees to sign loyalty oaths throughout the period. The moral high ground of that time was a lofty and perilous place and idealists courageously carved a difficult path. The most talented blacklisted screenwriters, like Dalton Trumbo, were able to work under the table using fronts. Some survived the McCarthy era but not without bankruptcies, divorces, suicides, or any number of other long-time heartaches. Hollywood does that to people even on a good day, but the children of the children of those who named names, or of those who went to jail because they would not, continue to suffer from losses their families incurred.
“In the room” — in Hollywood meetings — creatives trade in fantasy. The execs, the writers, directors, and producers lubricate the business process with their fanciful concepts. Nobody calls them lies “in the room,” but in show biz meetings people make things up to move a project forward even an inch. Kirk Douglas, Hollywood fixture and veteran of the dream factory, uses this same methodology in his memoir to questionable effect and carries that ethos to historical events — to real-world matters — which doesn’t work as well.
Burnished dimple forward, Douglas sets forth a version of events placing himself at the center of the story as both star and protagonist in the breaking of the blacklist and promoting himself to a somewhat undeserved place there when in fact his role in these matters may actually have been less than central. Nevertheless, he has accepted standing ovations in media appearances, on television and in motion picture theaters, “humbly” taking credit for acts of political valor, treating the world as his “room” while on tour with the book since its publication this year.
The kernel of the book’s trajectory is this: Dalton Trumbo, once the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood, was unable to receive screen credit during the McCarthy decade as one of those who refused to name names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He worked for lower pay, using fronts in his contracts and fake names in his screen credits. He won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for The Brave One in 1957 under the name Robert Rich. During this period of his long and successful career, Dalton Trumbo was hired by producer Edward Lewis to write the script for Spartacus.
While writing about Trumbo and Spartacus, Douglas takes on major players of film history who are no longer living and cannot answer for themselves. It may be true that Tony Curtis was having an affair with Mamie Van Doren during the making of Spartacus. Perhaps Larry Olivier was suffering from marital difficulties with Vivien Leigh. Douglas’s verbatim conversations with Frank Sinatra may have occurred as presented on the page. It may also be fact that it was Kirk Douglas himself who convinced Jean Simmons to remove her bra during an outdoor bathing scene in the film. We will never know. And there will probably not be any serious historic exploration of these events. In the tradition of Hollywood memoir, these stories play well; they serve their purpose, upholding the expected aura. Employed in the presentation of the section of the book in which (during a meeting with producer Lewis and Douglas) Stanley Kubrick supposedly volunteers to take writing credit on Spartacus as a solution for the “problem” of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo having written the script, the Hollywood “memoir” style ethos fares less well.
There are others of Douglas’s generation, still very much alive, with personal knowledge of the events surrounding the production of the film, who may have more than “creative differences” with his presentation. Take, for example, the aforementioned producer of Spartacus, Edward Lewis, who was asked repeatedly by Douglas to help him document a version of events which departed from Lewis’s own recollection of what happened during the making of the film. According to Edward Lewis, the meeting between Douglas, Lewis, and Kubrick never took place and Kubrick never suggested taking writing credit on the film. Lewis had his own name on the script before production began and he refused to take screen credit on the released film. Lewis has stated that Dalton Trumbo repeatedly requested that his own name be placed on the list of credits to be submitted to the studio. Lewis did as asked. Eventually, Kirk Douglas signed off on this along with the head of the studio. Contrary to what Kirk Douglas alleges in his book, others have said that Douglas did not hire Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus. Kirk Douglas’s company, Bryna, produced the film and Douglas is listed as Executive Producer in the credits but Edward Lewis has stated that he (Lewis) hired Trumbo and that Kirk Douglas also did not personally enlist Lawrence Oliver, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov to appear in the film. Douglas’s agents and producer Lewis himself accomplished these tasks.
Perhaps most outrageously, Douglas claims that the famed “I am Spartacus” scene from the film was his idea and that he personally presented the scene concept to Stanley Kubrick, who did not want to shoot it. Douglas embellishes his description of his dispute with Kubrick over the scene with highly theatrical details. According to Douglas, he was on horseback, forcing the nose of his horse into Kubrick’s face as he implored him to accept and shoot the famed “I Am Spartacus” scene. In fact, according to Trumbo’s family and producer Lewis, Dalton Trumbo wrote the scene as a result of a set of notes Trumbo drew up after viewing a rough cut of the film. His goal was to emphasize the characters and conflicts of the slaves throughout. Douglas also claims that Dalton Trumbo lunched with him at the Universal commissary, that Trumbo disguised himself to attend a rough cut screening of the film at the studio and that Laurence Olivier dined at Trumbo’s home. Trumbo’s family is certain that these scenes from Douglas’ memoir never actually took place either.
The title itself I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist promotes a series of half-truths. Douglas played Spartacus. He is not the author of the famous line from the film, “I am Spartacus!”, as he seems to claim. Additionally, he did not personally make the film, Spartacus. Stanley Kubrick directed it. Further, Kirk Douglas did not break the blacklist. The blacklist had actually been broken years earlier by CBS and Stanley Kramer. Otto Preminger was the first major Hollywood studio filmmaker to openly declare that he was working with one of the most prominent blacklisted screenwriters of the era — Dalton Trumbo. Prior to actions giving him a screen credit on Spartacus, Trumbo was loudly hired by Preminger, with major media coverage, to adapt Exodus. Months after this announcement, Trumbo, with the help of his “front” (Lewis) on theSpartacus script, was able to double down and “break the blacklist” a second time in 1960. Spartacus was already in the can when Preminger announced publicly that Trumbo would be writing his next film. Then, and only then, was Trumbo able to convince Douglas and Universal to put his name on the screen credits for Spartacus. It was the mission of Edward Lewis to do right by Trumbo. However, it was never the mission of the makers of Spartacus to right a wrong. They were trying to make a good movie. Dalton Trumbo was the best writer available and so they hired him. Lewis knew that he did not want his name on the finished work. It was up to the studio to relent. In the tradition of the Hollywood herd mentality, Universal was probably just following Preminger’s lead in the matter, to the relief and delight of the producer, screenwriter, and star (this, Douglas certainly was) of Spartacus.
Spartacus was released before Exodus, one of the first scripts by a blacklisted writer to be credited properly in the theaters. Two years earlier, however, Stanley Kramer’s production, The Defiant Ones, with a screenplay by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith, was released. Stanley Kramer was characteristically brazen about hiring them. Young and Smith had an office next to Kramer at the studio while they worked on their script. Young was a blacklisted writer, but he was also an actor. His acting name was Nedrick Young but prior to the McCarthy era, his screenwriting name was Nathan E. Douglas. Kramer used “Nedrick Young,” his acting name on the credits. But to clearly identify the blacklisted writers on screen, Kramer gave each of the screenwriters a wonderful cameo. During the credits, there is an image of two truck drivers, played by the screenwriters of the film. As their writing credits appear on the screen, they appear as actors, in medium shot, as driver and passenger of the truck carrying the principle characters of the film, played by Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.
Who decides the dividing line wherein fictionalized truths become attacks on historical truth? Perhaps it doesn’t matter who broke the blacklist, as long as it was broken. We know the witch-hunts for Communist influence were used for political purpose by Washington players. Some sincerely feared Communism and were doing what they thought was right. Others may have known they were chasing an illusion that was essentially harmless, thereby gaining political ground by pretending to be protecting America from evil. By reminding us of the indecency of the blacklist and its tragic results, Kirk Douglas does a service with the promotion of his book, but by presenting himself as a singular hero in the ending of it in Hollywood, Douglas upends his own supposed intentions. Kirk Douglas is decidedly not Spartacus. He is an elderly movie star of another era who did not write the “I am Spartacus” scene. As history, the assertion discredits the book.
History, events which truly mattered, leave discernible traces. Standing on the shoulders of ghosts is a risky enterprise, and those dead, innocent, alleged Communists, their friends, their families deserve better from the survivors of that ugly era. No matter how assiduously an individual attempts to burnish his own reputation a historical matter is beyond any one person’s control. People don’t generally believe they’re going to movies to learn history and they don’t generally read about movie stars for that purpose either, but the patina of old age does have strange effects. If someone lives past 90, we like to think they are wise, honest, venerable. We tend to forget that elderly people can be as full of it as anyone else. They too have personal agendas, can manipulate friends, family, and business associates. Beloved movie stars in particular, have a hypnotic effect. We’re invested in thinking they’re as wonderful as the heroes they play on screen, that they can be more perfect than the rest of us.
Kirk Douglas receives his standing ovations just for showing up, for being alive, for surviving the curveballs of his long life. And of course we expect him to be a person of good intent, a better person than ever for having done so. It’s hard to believe that the drive for attention, acclaim and approval, the same need system which helped drive his rise to the top, would still be in play at such a late date, that it could force a man of such age and stature to behave like a starlet, that his ambitions could include that of historical greatness and that he would engineer a false mythology, documenting it in a memoir to promote an unearned distinction.
Douglas’s I Am Spartacus! is, under the circumstances, a heartless adaptation of truth. In 50 or 100 years, a fictionalization of these events for an opera or a film might take Douglas’s tactic and utilize the star of the film as protagonist in the dramatic events described in his book. In such a telling, the star-producer might be used to embody the passions and conflicts of the other historical characters to intriguing effect. But if the goal were to get the story right, to make it historically accurate, that adaptation of events would decidedly not place the Kirk Douglas character at the center of the story.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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