Richard Collins

Richard Collins

Richard Collins, the son of fashion designer, Harry Collins, was born in New York City on 20th July, 1914. As a child he spent a lot of time in Paris. After graduating from Beverly Hills High School in 1932, he entered Stanford University, where he got to know Budd Schulberg.

Collins went to Hollywood and married the actress Dorothy Comingore in 1939. During this period he established himself as a screenwriter by writing the scripts of Rulers of the Sea (1939), One Crowded Night (1940), Lady Scarface (1941) and Journey into Fear (1943).

Collins worked with Paul Jarrico on Song of Russia (1943). Jarrico claimed that he did most of the work. "Collins said to me, shamefaced, 'Look, I've done ten percent; you've done ninety percent. I don't deserve credit'. I turned the offer down, 'We were hired as a team, I said, and we'll take credit as a team. But I don't think we ought to work together again'." Collins also worked on Thousands Cheer (1943) and Little Giant (1946).

On 20th October, 1947, the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) opened its hearings concerning communist infiltration of the motion picture industry. Harley Kilgore of West Virginia, Claude Pepper of Florida, Elbert D. Thomas of Utah, and Glenn H. Taylor of Idaho joined forces to protest about the hearings: "We the undersigned, as American Citizens who believe in constitutional democratic government, are disgusted and outraged by the continuing attempt of the House Committee on Un-American Activities to smear the Motion Picture Industry. We hold that these hearings are morally wrong because: (1) Any investigation into the political beliefs of the individual is contrary to the basic principles of our democracy; (2) Any attempt to curb freedom of expression and to set arbitrary standards of Americanism is in itself disloyal to both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution."

The chief investigator for the HUAC committee was Robert E. Stripling. The first people it interviewed included Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Ayn Rand, Jack L. Warner, Robert Taylor, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Montgomery, Walt Disney, Thomas Leo McCarey and George L. Murphy. These people named several possible members of the American Communist Party.

As a result their investigations, the HUAC announced it wished to interview nineteen members of the film industry that they believed might be members of the American Communist Party. This included Collins. One of those named, Bertolt Brecht, an emigrant playwright, gave evidence and then left for East Germany. Ten others: Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson and Alvah Bessie refused to answer any questions. Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The House of Un-American Activities Committee and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of congress and each was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison.

As a result of being named as a member of the American Communist Party Collins was sacked by Warner Brothers in 1947. At the time he had been earning up to $1,500 a week. According to Elaine Woo: "He (Collins) borrowed money to open a dress-cutting business but couldn't make a go of it. He was by then caring for his aged parents and raising two children from his 1939 marriage to actress Dorothy Comingore, best known for portraying the character modeled on William Randolph Hearst's mistress Marion Davies in Citizen Kane."

After failing to get work for over four years, Collins agreed to testify before the HUAC in an attempt to get off the blacklist. On 12th April, 1951, Collins told the HUAC that he had been recruited to the party by Budd Schulberg in 1936. He named John Howard Lawson as a leader of the party in Hollywood. Collins also claimed that fellow members of his communist cell included Ring Lardner Jr. and Martin Berkeley. He also named John Bright, Lester Cole, Paul Jarrico, Gordon Kahn, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Robert Rossen, Waldo Salt and Frank Tuttle. Collins estimated that the Communist Party in Hollywood during the Second World War had several hundred members and he had known about twenty of them.

Abraham Polonsky later claimed: "Collins is interesting because his role is more complex than the normal informer who went before the Committee and did his thing and then tried to forget this business. He was reporting to the FBI while he was still ostensibly a member of the Party." Sylvia Jarrico recalled: "There was a lot of contempt about Richard Collins because his career had been quite bumpy until he started working with Paul (Jarrico)".

Collins divorced Dorothy Comingore, who had been an unfriendly witness. She lost custody of their children in a highly publicized 1952 court hearing, at which she was accused of being an unfit mother because of alcoholism and her Communist beliefs. Collins later told Victor Navasky, the author of Naming Names (1982): "I know that in every case where someone cooperated, there was tremendous anguish because it was not considered a very pleasant or even, I would have to say, a decent thing... I was ashamed, really, of my role when I thought back on it... I have to say, I was a son of a bitch, a miserable little bastard. It was unfortunate, but true."

After testifying Collins returned to Hollywood and wrote China Venture (1953), Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), The Flaming Torch (1954) and Kiss of Fire (1955). He also wrote the treatment for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1956 science-fiction movie about a town whose residents are replaced by emotionless alien clones. It was widely interpreted as a parable about the McCarthy era. However, his son has argued: "A lot of liberals thought it was about the committee and the brainwashing the committee did. From talking to Richard, he felt he and his peers had been brainwashed by the party, by Stalin. It's an interesting kind of paradox that everybody faced in those times."

Other films written by Collins included My Gun is Quick (1957), Spanish Affair (1957), The Badlanders (1958), Edge of Eternity (1959) and Pay or Die (1960). He also wrote for television including episodes of Maverick, Wagon Train, The Untouchables, Route 66 and Bat Masterson.

According to Marsha Hunt, Collins helped maintain the blacklist in television. In the 1960s he was a producer on Bonanza and after she had been recommended for a part in the show, he told a mutual friend: "Don't bother bringing up Marsha Hunt to me. As long as I'm connected with this show, she will never work on it." Hunt commented: "He was so vehement and adament about me, a stranger. I've since heard that he was someone who had been a Communist and repented, which was an enviable position."

Richard Collins died on 14th February, 2013.

Primary Sources

(1) Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times (15th February, 2013)

Called before the House committee twice, Collins was one of 19 unfriendly witnesses in 1947, when the congressional panel opened its investigation into subversive activity in Hollywood. He was not asked to testify but 10 who were called were cited for contempt after refusing to answer questions about their political beliefs. By 1950, all 10 - including Ring Lardner Jr., Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Alvah Bessie and Albert Maltz - were in prison.

Anti-communist hysteria spread throughout the movie industry, causing a witch hunt that ruined lives and careers. When Collins was subpoenaed again in 1951, he identified more than 20 colleagues - including his friend and collaborator Paul Jarrico and novelist-screenwriter Budd Schulberg - as belonging to or sympathizing with the Communist Party. Many Hollywood figures, including Jarrico, never spoke to him again.

(2) Ronald Bergan, The Guardian (20th February, 2013)

In 1951, when the screenwriter Richard Collins, who has died aged 98, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (Huac), he named more than 20 colleagues and friends in the film industry as belonging to or sympathising with the Communist party. Although by so doing he saved his Hollywood career, it was an action that cast a shadow over the rest of his life, regardless of his success in film and television as a writer and producer.

According to many, it was a cowardly act, which Collins later tried to justify, as did directors Elia Kazan and Edward Dmytryk, by saying that it was his patriotic duty, and that Huac knew the names anyway. However, in an interview in Victor Navasky's book Naming Names (1980), Collins called himself "a son of a bitch, a miserable little bastard. It was unfortunate but true. I was a good boy, doing what you're supposed to do."

Collins, who had admitted having been a member of the Communist party, but had stopped paying his dues in 1939, was first subpoenaed as one of 19 unfriendly witnesses in 1947, which led to him being blacklisted. Four years later, with no screenwriting work coming his way, Collins decided to recant, while others went to prison for pleading the fifth amendment. He then immediately continued in films where he had left off.