Work in Hollywood
Rossen was a member of the American Communist Party from 1937 to 1947. Later he explained to his son Stephen that he believed the Party was "dedicated to social causes of the sort that we as poor Jews from New York were interested in."
For his first credit in Hollywood, in 1937 Rossen co-wrote with Abem Finkel a script based on the prosecution of crime lord Lucky Luciano and eventually titled Marked Woman. Although some of Warner Bros.' management saw Rossen as an unknown quantity, the result won praise from both Jack Warner and the Daily Worker. Rossen's first solo script was for They Won't Forget (1937), a fictionalized account of the lynching of Leo Frank, featuring Lana Turner in her debut performance.
Dust Be My Destiny, co-written in 1939 by Rossen, is the story of a fugitive from justice who is eventually acquitted with help from an attorney and a journalist, the latter arguing that "a million boys all over the country" were in a similar plight. Warner Bros. then ordered producer Lou Edelman to cut the script, adding that "This is the story of two people – not a group. It is an individual problem – not a national one."
The Sea Wolf, released in 1941, was based on Jack London's novel. Although the film had a strong cast and production, Rossen's re-draft of the script may be the greatest influence on the film. While the character of Captain Larsen remained both victim and oppressed in a capitalist hierarchy, he also became a symbol of fascism. Rossen also split the novel's idealist hero into an intellectual bosun and a rebellious seaman. Warner Bros. cut many political points during production.
After the Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Screen Writers Guild set up on December 8, 1941, the Hollywood Writers Mobilization Against the War, a body to organize writers for the war effort. Rossen served as the body's chairman until 1944 and advocated the opening of a second front to support West European resistance again the Nazis. He was now seen as a patriot rather than a radical, and his earnings were much greater than in 1937. However, his work for Hollywood Writers Mobilization and for the Communist Party forced him to abandon some partly developed film projects, including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which John Huston eventually directed in 1948.
In 1945 Rossen joined a picket line against Warner Bros., making an enemy of Jack Warner. Rossen signed a contract with an independent production company formed by Hal Wallis, who had previously been Warner Bros.' head of production. However Rossen wrote only two full scripts for this company, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946 and Desert Fury in 1947. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers Rossen used a short story by John Patrick to introduce the main plot, which was set fifteen years later and which Rossen wrote himself. The relationship between Rossen and Wallis broke down when Rossen received offers from other production companies.
Dick Powell had been a crooner but was making a new career as a dramatic actor. When Columbia Pictures agreed to make Johnny O'Clock for him in 1947, Powell successfully campaigned for Rossen to direct, and this became Rossen's debut in directing. As this crime melodrama proved a modest success, Roberts Productions signed Rossen to direct Abraham Polonsky's script of Body and Soul, described by Bob Thomas as "possibly the best prizefight film ever made." Rossen preferred an ending in which the hero wins a boxing match and then is killed by a gangster, but Polonsky insisted on his own ending, in which the hero escapes into obscurity before the fight. Following the success of Body and Soul, Rossen formed his own company and signed with Columbia Pictures a contract that gave him wide autonomy over every second film that he made at the studio.
All the King's Men (1949) was based on the novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, which in turn was based on the career of the Louisiana politician Huey Long. Rossen introduced a new concept, that the defenders of the ordinary people can in turn become the new exploiters. As a requirement for his participation in the film, Rossen had to write to Columbia's Harry Cohn saying that he was no longer a Communist Party member. Cohn's critiques of draft of Rossen's script including scrapping a framing structure that was difficult for audiences to follow, and several improvements in the relationships and motivations of characters. A meeting of the Communist Party in Los Angeles severely criticized the film, and Rossen finally ended all relations with the Party. All the King's Men won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Broderick Crawford won the award for Best Actor and Mercedes McCambridge was honored as Best Supporting Actress. Rossen was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director but lost to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives. Rossen won a Golden Globe for Best Director and the film won the Golden Globe for Best Picture.
The Brave Bulls was directed in 1950 and released in 1951. This was Rossen's last work before studios blacklisted him. The New York Times critic called this "the best film on bull-fighting yet."
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