Philip Dunne was a distinguished screenwriter and film director whose accomplishments were tested in the crucible of Cold War politics.
His death came only a week after his fellow wordsmiths had gathered at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills to honor him with a rare Lifetime Achievement Award. He was too weak to attend but was sent a videotape of what their subject would probably have called a "fuss."
Dunne charted his life on two tracks: one of words and one of deeds. He had already established a reputation as one of Hollywood's foremost writers when he put himself at risk by helping organize the initial opposition to the Hollywood blacklists of the late 1940s and 1950s.
He, William Wyler and John Huston in 1947 formed the Committee for the First Amendment, traveling to Washington to battle against the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was painting many of their Hollywood colleagues with a Red brush.
Their efforts to support the actors, writers and directors barred from work because of their allegedly subversive political beliefs, found them the subject of several wide-ranging epithets.
Dunne was being called everything from a "crypto Fascist" to "Communist stooge" in print. Always maintaining his gentlemanly demeanor, he shuddered about those days when even movie studio cafeterias divided along political lines.
"I'm always scared, having lived through it," he told an interviewer in 1986.
Dunne, who also wrote speeches for the presidential campaigns of Adlai E. Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, boasted impeccable professional credentials.
He twice was nominated for Academy Awards and received two of the other highest honors given by the Writers Guild of America—the Laurel Award achievement and the Valentine Davies Award for public service.
His writing credits include "The Last of the Mohicans," "How Green Was My Valley," "The Robe," "The Late George Apley," "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" and "Pinky." He also directed "Ten North Frederick" and "Blue Denim," among others.
In "How Green Was My Valley," Dunne took a novel by Richard Llewellyn and crafted it into a film classic that won five Oscars. He unfolded this tale of a struggling Welsh coal-mining family through Huw, the youngest of six children. And he personally cast a young, unknown British actor named Roddy McDowall into that seminal part.
McDowall recalled that Dunne "really triggered my American career with the role . . . and I was always complimented that he had such great belief in me."
He also remembered Dunne "as an impeccable artist and craftsman" who "stood for everything that is of value in America. He was one of the few elegant and eloquent fellows I have ever known."
Fellow screenwriter David Freeman said that it is important to remember that Dunne was not necessarily defending leftists when he raised his vigorous voice against the House Un-American Activities Committee but was protesting abuses of the Constitution in general.
"Although he didn't stop the [subsequent] blacklist [of actors, writers and directors], what remains today is a legacy of forceful response to constitutional crises."
Dunne was born in New York to a literary family.
His father, Finley Peter Dunne, creator of "Mr. Dooley," was the highest-paid writer of his day. (Among the elder Dunne's legendary aphorisms is "Trust everybody, but cut the cards.") In the family scrapbook is a photo of a demure young Philip Dunne standing next to a posturing Theodore Roosevelt.
But the father knew how much difficulty most writers had making a living, so he tried to point young Philip toward a career in banking. Unfortunately, the year was 1929, and Dunne became an early victim of the stock market crash. Years later, Dunne said that his father's strongest influence on him came from the constant political discussions that went on in his home.
Arriving in Hollywood in 1930 (where he had been advised to go by his drama critic brother), Dunne became a script reader at the old Fox Studio. Fired the next year in a cost-cutting move, he free-lanced, then signed to write a comedy for MGM. He worked hard but with no confidence and wrote later in his autobiography that "when I finally handed in my first draft, I attached to it a letter of resignation, which was promptly accepted."
His work on the script for "The Count of Monte Cristo" in 1934 brought him to the attention of movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, who signed him to a contract. In the 1930s, he worked to help win union recognition for the Writers Guild and was also politically active. He was a member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, the Motion Picture Artists Committee and the Motion Picture Democratic Committee. "Did I know that there were Communists in these organizations?" he later wrote. "Of course I did. It was perfectly obvious that there were a few, though I underestimated their numbers and their influence."
His activism cost him later when World War II began and he was denied a U.S. Navy commission that he very much wanted—"my boyhood heroes had been John Paul Jones, Reuben James, Porter, Perry and Farragut."
When told that there was a file on him, Dunne jumped to his feet. The Navy recruiter asked where he was going. "To Moscow, to enlist in the Red Army. Stick that in your goddamn file," he replied. Dunne later said he instead went to the nearest bathroom and threw up.
His loyalty had been questioned by those who perceived guilt by association. Dunne tried to fight what he considered unfair charges and in the end accepted a civilian job with the Office of War Information where he produced documentaries, including Arturo Toscanini's "Hymn of the Nations," which won an Academy Award. The experience with the Navy obviously made him sensitive to loose charges because of people's political activism.
"It is hard to explain to anyone who has never been accused of disloyalty exactly how it feels," Dunne wrote in his 1980 autobiography, "Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics." "Like all other mortals, I believe myself capable of almost any crime, given the right incentive, with the exception of the one unforgivable crime of disloyalty, whether it be to my country, my job, my union, my family, my friends, or my own conception of myself as a reasonably decent human being."
When World War II ended, what Dunne described as "a witch-hunt mentality gripped the government and the movie industry. We'd won the war. We talked about one world. And we had the United Nations. We had defeated the monster. Hitler was buried and the whole thing had been won and yet ... there was another monster."
Investigators in Washington seeking to root out alleged Communists went after what they viewed as easy, visible targets in Hollywood. "At the time the blacklist started there was still a fairly strong, viable, actual Communist Party in Hollywood," Dunne told an interviewer. "By the 1940s, it was much diminished but it did still exist." But some, including Ronald Reagan, then active in industry politics, said the Communists were about to take over Hollywood.
"This, of course, was not true at all," Dunne said. "There was no way they could have taken over this amorphous, headless monster that is the movie industry."
Although never blacklisted himself, Dunne believed that "if anybody is a victim of a witch hunt, then everybody becomes a potential victim."
His role was not without the obvious critics on the right and even those on the left. In 1980, the same year that Dunne wrote his autobiography (updated in 1992 with five additional chapters), Victor Navasky, editor of the Nation, suggested in his book "Naming Names" that Hollywood liberals like Dunne had abandoned the Hollywood 10 who had refused to testify before the House committee. The flap that Navasky's accusations caused showed that the controversy still stirred the old-time Hollywood community.
Years later Dunne and Navasky made several speaking appearances together in which Dunne declared that Navasky's views were "totally untrue." As Dunne said in his own book, he had met with studio executives to try to head off the blacklist. He had helped form committees to support those blacklisted. He had testified as a character witness in screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's trial. And he had helped support the families of those blacklisted.
Movie critic Andrew Sarris once summed up Dunne's role as "an old-fashioned Bill of Rights and freedom-of-speech liberal."
Freeman's judgment was that Dunne, more than that, had succeeded where other Hollywood figures had failed:
"He cut such a dual swath as a respected artist and statesman that he made everything larger. He didn't diminish either one, which is usually Hollywood's curse."
Dunne and his wife, the former actress Amanda Duff, were married in 1939 in one of Hollywood's most enduring and admired matches. They raised three daughters, Miranda, Philippa and Jessica, at the home they built on the Malibu coast.
In their garage was an oversize station wagon that hauled the telescopes and other optical paraphernalia that Philip and Amanda used in their post-retirement bird-watching and stargazing years.
Dunne remembered sadly that his family also had suffered for his activism. One daughter came home from kindergarten reporting that her classmates thought they overlooked the Pacific so they could signal foreign submarines. Another, who later graduated with high honors from the University of California, was placed in the slow-learner section of her class with the children of other liberals.
In his book, Dunne summed up his credo this way: "To be a civil libertarian in the 1950s, even on the highest political levels, was to be perpetually open to charges of Communist sympathies. It was all too easy for unscrupulous right-wingers to blur the distinction between those who defended the rights of Communists and those who supported their policies, and thus the policies of the Soviet Union.
". . . Conscience is the only reliable guide to behavior. I disobeyed mine only once: when I failed to resign the day Ring Lardner [Jr., with Trumbo, one of the Hollywood 10] was fired" by Darryl Zanuck. "That lapse still troubles me when I wake up in the gloomy pre-dawn hours...."
|1941||Best Screenplay||How Green Was My Valley||Nomination|
|1951||Best Story and Screenplay||David and Bathsheba||Nomination|