Ah, the movies. It’s fun to watch them, whether in the cinema, at home, or in exile in Czechoslovakia because it’s illegal to show your film in your country of birth. Oh, I may have told you too much too soon! Let’s go back to the start, the start of one Herbert Biberman to be exact.
We fade in on Herbert J. Biberman’s life in scenic Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1900. After his Penn and Yale education he decided begin Act Two of his life by entering his family’s textile business before eventually winding up in Hollywood in the late 20’s.
His star began to rise and Biberman directed a few films, including the well titled Meet Nero Wolfe, before mostly becoming known as a screenwriter of films like When Tomorrow Comes, New Orleans, and Together Again.
Unfortunately, other things eventually made Biberman more famous than his movies. When the House Unamerican Activities Committee started calling people in to question them about their ties to communist activities, Biberman was among them. He refused to answer questions at the inquiry and eventually became one of the Hollywood 10 among great names like Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, Ring Lardner Jr., and Edward Dmytryk, who said “I ain’t sayin’ nuthin'” to the committee’s questioning and ended up blacklisted for various periods.
Biberman himself was blacklisted for more than a decade, as was his wife, the actress Gale Sondergaard, who unfortunately chose not to opt for the double-barreled Songergaard-Biberman upon their marriage.
But Herbert Biberman wasn’t someone you could just shut down though, in spite of exceptional douchebaggery from folks in Hollywood and the government. He decided to make another film in 1954 called Salt of the Earth without the help of the studio system, but the product faced some big challenges.
The star of the film, a Mexican actor, was arrested and deported before she could finish shooting her role. The hawkish Walter Pigeon, head of the Actors’ Guild at the time, told the FBI of the film’s making and managed to get Biberman and the filmmakers shut out of every production house and sound studio in the country.
Somehow, the film did get finished and shown exactly once in New York City before never being seen in America again until eleven years later – well after the end of the blacklist.
On the plus side, it did become a big hit in Czechoslovakia, so that was some comfort, and Congress later named it in to the National Film Registry on the grounds that it was deemed a culturally significant film. A happy ending then.
To finish with the cheesy film language I started this article with before abandoning it halfway through, the curtains were pulled on Biberman’s life in 1971 when he died of cancer. He left behind a number of good films, a great name and a story to remember. He was even played by Jeff Goldblum in a movie about his life, which to me is about the highest honor imaginable.