Fun With Zero Mostel and the HUAC

Zero MostelI was talking to Will last night and the subject of Zero Mostel came up. It was actually a conversation about Mel Brooks and what a total jerk he is. As an example, I talked about his treatment of Mostel during the production of The Producers where the cast and crew divided into two camps: the Zero camp and the petulant manboy camp. Anyway, I had said that Mostel was a legend in New York, and he would have been a huge star had he not been blacklisted.

He was effectively blacklisted long before the official blacklist. He was briefly in the Army, where he was refused a position as entertainment director of Special Services because he was “definitely a Communist.” He went on to entertain the troops for the rest of the war via the USO. But after the war, Hollywood wouldn’t hire him until Elia Kazan hired him for Panic in the Streets. After that, he did a number of movies. It is amazing: then as now, Hollywood is run by a bunch of followers. Regardless, this only lasted for a year before Mostel was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). After that, he didn’t work in Hollywood for another 15 years.

I assume that there is video of his testimony before the HUAC, but I haven’t been able to find it. I did, however, find this amazing clip of Jim Brochu in his one-man play, Zero Hour. He does Mostel really well. Here is the part of it from his testimony before the committee. Take a look; it really is great:

It’s very funny, but it also highlights the absurdity of the committee. These really were show trials without any point but to show how powerful and important the Representatives (and the Senators in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations) were that they could get people to grovel before them. It was public shaming for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.

Of course, there was another side to it. You can hold a whole nation in line by claiming that any liberal activity—unions, civil rights, anti-war—is really the work of the Great Existential Threat (communism then; simply “liberalism” now, because the word has been so effectively vilified). This is why it was widely claimed that Martin Luther King Jr was a communist. Martin Luther King Jr was not a communist.

And Zero Mostel wasn’t a communist. The HUAC knew this too. He probably was nominally a communist in his youth. But what did it matter in 1952? Nothing. And it is clear today. And future generations will look back on us as the fools we are. Broad swaths of the middle class have been convinced that the real America is some mythic thing that will be found if we just funnel enough money to the super rich. Above all, let us not deal with our real problems. We need more of the same! But that is America in a nutshell: in the 1950s, we pretended to save freedom by destroying it. Now we pretend to save the middle class while destroying it.

And the la-hand of the Freeeeee!
And the hoooome, of thhhhhe, braaaave!

9 thoughts on “Fun With Zero Mostel and the HUAC

      • Compare Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder’s version of the movie to Nathan Lane (also a gifted comic actor) and Matthew Broderick’s (who is, I suppose, an actor of some kind.) The first was sloppy, occasionally offensive genius. The second was as blah as blah can be.

        Brooks is a hack. He made his reputation by using gifted performers like Mostel, Wilder, Cleavon Little, Madeleine Kahn. Late in life he had a “comeback” by using Cary Elwes, just like “The Princess Bride” did a decade-plus before.

        “Young Frankenstein” is a little boring, but I never tire of watching what Wilder does with his cane in “Pure Imagination.” It’s creepy and clever. Pure Roald Dahl:

        My folks had Zero Mostel’s recordings of “Fiddler On The Roof,” so that’s how I remember those songs. And I quite like them.

        • Ah, you forgot to mention Cloris Leachman. She just did a part in one of the last Bob’s Burgers episodes. For a good picture of Mel Brooks, I recommend reading editor of The Producers Ralph Rosenblum’s book, When The Shooting Stops… The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story. Rosenblum was Woody Allen’s long-time editor. He has little but praise for Allen. By the end of The Producers, he hated Brooks and refused to work with him. But I think anyone who is interested in the art of filmmaking should watch The Producers with the sound off. It is shot so badly! And it isn’t because of the cinematographer; it’s because Brooks wouldn’t listen to the professionals he had hired. Later Brooks films are far better from a cinematic standpoint — I think because, in the end, he saw how bad The Producers looked.

          When I was a kid I listened to the Fiddler on the Roof original cast album with Mostel over and over. He was great.

          The original commenter, however, was pretty obviously a right-wing nut.

          • What an actor. Blows me away in that clip how he’s doing a song he’s done 10,000 times before but uses his schlumpy physical frame to portray the poor Russian farmer once again. Then lets loose with the pure joy of singing.

            No doubt what the best line in the song is. “When you’re rich, they think you really know.”

            • Yep. I include that video all the time in political articles. It’s always been true: people think the rich know something.

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