NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Ca, March 5…At the age of 102, blacklisted screenwriter Art Ostrovsky says he is witnessing something he never thought he would live to see–the overthrow of Capitalism.
His rheumy eyes brighten, his crabbed fingers tremble around a glass of vodka. “I waited 80 years for the Revolution to come to America,” he says. “Now I can feel it in the wind…”
In this rundown garden apartment complex off Magnolia Boulevard in North Hollywood, Ostrovsky is a puzzle to his neighbors, mostly new arrivals from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. They call him “el viejito” in humorous reference to a popular brand of Tequila and know him as the skeletal old man teetering on his walker in a daily promenade around the courtyard, with a stoic West Indian home care worker in attendance. They occasionally look in on him in the cluttered apartment where along with floating dust devils, spider webs and the resident mouse scurrying in the crawl space he has lived for sixty-two years, among fading photos of the authors, politicians, actors and directors he knew in the “Movement.”
Ostrovsky is convinced that the economic crisis and the new administration of President Obama provide an opportunity to change the world. He urges his neighbors to participate in “bourgeois” politics. “Marx said that capital is reckless to the health and length of life of the laborer unless under compulsion from society,” he says. “I warn them not to let the bosses pit them against each other the way the studios did to us.” He fishes a bent Marlboro out of a crumpled box…”The old ones smile behind their hands, but the young ones hear me. They will carry the torch.”
Ostrovsky may be the last surviving founder of the Screenwriter’s Guild. No one knows…
“In the movie business sentiment is reserved for the successful,” he says. “Lawson, Cole and Ornitz were the stars because they wrote the major features. I was just a laborer in the vineyards. I licked the envelopes and ran the mimeograph…”
Blacklisted in 1953 for his refusal to testify about his Communist affiliations he has stayed faithful to the Marxist view of history.
“Marx predicted that the capitalists would be the agents of their own destruction,” he says with a triumphant gleam. “Now the financiers are pleading for the nationalization of the banks and major industries as the only way to save their personal wealth. The parasite is begging the host to keep it alive.”
Born in Harlem in New York City in 1907, Ostrovsky was raised in an orthodox Communist family. His father was a founder of the Fur and Leather Worker’s Union. His mother was a leader of a historic 1909 strike against the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which won union representation for seamstresses.
“When I was nine years old a little boy named Serge was brought home to play with me,” Ostrovsky says. “He was very serious and said his father was going to make a big revolution in Russia and chase out the Czar. I laughed at him, but my mother pulled my ear until I cried and said his father was Trotsky, a great man..
“That serious little boy became an engineer and returned to help rebuild Russia,” Ostrovsky says. “He was arrested and shot during Stalin’s purges of the ’30′s.”
On September 16, 1920, a horse cart loaded with 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast-iron slugs exploded across from the J.P. Morgan headquarters on Wall St., killing 30.
In the crackdown on Communists and Anarchists that followed Ostrovsky’s parents were deported to Russia and he was sent to live with an aunt in Coney Island.
“My parents became political commissars in charge of collecting grain from collective farms,” Ostrovsky says. “During the Great Famine of the 1933, they were killed by a mob of starving Ukrainians.”
Ostrovsky grew up to become a loyal member of the Communist Party.
“We believed in the words of Nicola Sacco that every human life is connected to every other life through threads that you cannot see,” he said. “We fought for the rights of the workers against the bosses and their gangster goons,” he said. “For the martyrs who were framed by the corrupt judicial servants of the exploiters.”
In 1931, Ostrovsky rode the rails to Scottsboro, Alabama to support the defense of a group of black teenagers who were accused of gang raping two white women.
“When everyone else abandoned them the Communist party came to their defense,” Ostrovsky says.
During the 1932 presidential campaign he traveled to Los Angeles with the Communist candidate William Z. Foster. They were arrested on charges of “criminal syndicalism.”
“I tell the young people that Obama is not the first black man to run in a presidential election,” he says. “In 1932, the Communist Party nominated James W. Ford for as Foster’s running mate. The Party came in fourth with 102,000 votes that year.”
When they were released, Ostrovsky was instructed by cultural Commissar V.J. Jerome to stay in Hollywood. “Movies were seen as a tremendous vehicle for propaganda,” he says. ” A comrade got me a job writing comedy shorts for Vitagraph. My job was to try to portray the class struggle, the nobility of the workers and the essential shallowness of the bourgeoisie.”
Ostrovsky remembers the short unit as the purest expression of collective unity.
“Writers, actors, directors, technicians all worked together in solidarity,” he says. “We were the proletarians of the studio system and were united against a common enemy–the bosses.”
His proudest achievement was a short in which a young Glenda Farrell, playing a shopgirl, is promised a promotion by her lecherous boss, Guy Kibbee, but fights him off and returns to her poor but honest carpenter boyfriend, Dick Foran.
“We were positive that the Depression would raise the collective consciousness of the working class and lead to world revolution,” Ostrovsky says. “But FDR and his band of left meliorists kept the people in check.”
The Party viewed the Spanish Civil War as a proxy battle between the Soviet Union and the Fascist powers.. Ostrovsky was working on a serial in which the hero had to capture a dangerous secret weapon. The Cultural Commissar instructed him to make all his villains Germans or Italians. But Warner Brothers wanted to sell movies abroad and was loath to offend such good customers.
“We compromised and made our villains American neo-fascist plutocrats,” Ostrovsky says. “My bad guys were modeled on Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller. Our subliminal message reached millions of kids in Saturday matinees…”
During the war he worked in an Army Air Corps film unit commanded by Lieutenant Ronald Reagan. “We made morale boosting films for the troops,” he says. “I managed to slip in some pro-Soviet messages…Ronnie never caught on.”
After the war Ostrovsky says “the bourgeois democracies were confronted by the sudden emergence of the Revolution, spreading from Eastern Europe and Asia toward the West.”
“The reaction set in,” Osotrovsky says. “Communists were demonized. At the same time a suffocating blanket of prosperous conformity settled over the land.”
Ostrovsky refused to testify against his comrades and was blacklisted. “The famous writers, the Hollywood Ten, all worked under pseudonyms,” he says. “But the B-writers were finished.”
In the late ’50′s he was given a few pseudonymous scripts on the TV series Robin Hood. “I enjoyed writing stories about a defender of the oppressed. But the series didn’t last.”
After that, Ostrovsky never worked again. His fourth wife supported him with her earnings as an official of the Los Angeles teacher’s union. Now he lives on her small pension and Social Security. He admits he despaired of ever seeing the Revolution. “In the ’60′s they stifled collective action with drugs and false philosophies of self-realization,” he says. “For the last twenty years they deadened the oppressed with easy credit. Now it’s over.” He turns with grim satisfaction to the photos of Paul Robeson, Jules Dassin, Dalton Trumbo, Zero Mostel and The Weavers. “Our time has come..”
After a restorative gulp of vodka Ostrovsky grips his walker and pushes open his screen door. In the courtyard some kids are kicking around a soccer ball. Closing his eyes and harking back to a time when he addressed public meetings Ostrovsky calls to them with sudden strength.
“You must grab the moment,” he shouts. “Capital has exhausted the consumer market it created. In a last gasp it commodified itself. It created a world wide market in which capital was the only product. But now the house of cards has collapsed. Capital is like an animal, gnawing at its limbs to extricate itself from a trap that it set for others…
“Obama’s humane democracy will change the economic relations between people. It will open the door for a socialism of equality and eventually for a classless society….”
Steadying himself with one hand, Ostrovsky raises his fist.
“I believe in the ultimate victory of the Fourth International,” he cries
The kids stop their game and applaud.
“Bravo Art,” they shout. “Ole…”