Brooklyn-born Albert Maltz grew up in affluence. His Russian immigrant Jewish parents had made good in their new American home. Maltz’s education credentials were those of an elite. He studied philosophy at Columbia University, graduating in 1928. He then attended the Yale School of Drama, where he earned a master’s degree in the craft of playwriting.
Despite his well-to-do beginnings, the plight of those less fortunate tugged at him. His own father had begun as a grocer’s boy before becoming a successful contractor and builder. Maltz was also influenced by fellow Yale student George Sklar, whose radical politics ignited his own budding leftist leanings.
Adding to the mix, Maltz read the works of political philosopher Karl Marx and later told journalist Victor Navasky, “I still think it to be the noblest set of ideals ever penned by man…. Where else in political literature do you find thinkers saying that we were going to end all forms of human exploitation? Wage exploitation, exploitation of women by men, the exploitation of people of colour by white peoples, the exploitation of colonial countries by imperialist countries. And Marx spoke of the fact that socialism will be the kingdom of freedom, where man realizes himself in a way that humankind has never seen before. This was an inspiring body of literature to read.”
As a young playwright in the New York theater community, Maltz became known for staging pointed dramas acted by progressive companies such as the Theatre Union and the Group Theatre. By 1935, Maltz had joined the American Communist Party. Professional people, journalists, teachers, writers, artists and working people on factories and farms had come to respect the Communist Party for their words and deeds over the past decade in support of the working man. Maltz channeled his political views into his writing. His short story “The Happiest Man on Earth,” about unemployment during the Depression, won the 1938 O. Henry Award.
Soon, in 1941, Maltz moved to Los Angeles to take a job with Warner Brothers. His first screenwriting credit was for the gritty noir film This Gun for Hire (1942). For his script for Pride of the Marines (1945), Maltz was nominated for an Academy Award. He received an Academy Award for his 1942 work on The Defeat of German Armies Near Moscow and in 1945 for The House I Live In, a 10-minute film with singer-actor Frank Sinatra opposing anti-Semitism through the use of a staged incident of young bullies chasing a Jewish boy, prompting Sinatra to speak and sing about why such behavior is wrong.
Meanwhile Maltz had not abandoned his career as a writer of published fiction and stage drama. In 1944 he published the novel The Cross and the Arrow chronicling German resistance to the Nazi regime. It was distributed in a special Armed Services Edition to more than 150,000 American fighting men during World War II.
Despite his contribution to the war effort, Maltz was subpoenaed in 1947 to testify at hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was created to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and organizations suspected of having Fascist or Communist ties. While refusing to answer questions on First Amendment grounds, Maltz was able to get a statement on the record: “I am an American, and I believe there is no more proud word in the vocabulary of man.” Nevertheless, he was tried and convicted of contempt of Congress.
Before he was sent to the federal lockup in Ashland, Ky. — the same facility that housed Adrian Scott, a fellow member of the Hollywood Ten — Maltz recruited his friend screenwriter Michael Blankfort to front for him on a screenplay for the film Broken Arrow starring James Stewart. The sympathetic treatment of Native Americans in the Western earned Blankfort (in actuality Maltz) an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay.
After prison, Maltz moved to Mexico City, where he wrote novels and uncredited screenplays for The Robe (1953) and other films. By 1970, producers agreed to give Maltz credit for writing Two Mules for Sister Sara, a Western starring Clint Eastwood.
His papers at the American Heritage Center include material pertaining to the Hollywood Ten and Maltz’s blacklisting from Hollywood, including photos, correspondence, court documents, advertisements, and pamphlets. Reel-to-reel audio tapes of his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 is also included.
Post contributed by AHC Archivist Leslie Waggener