Writer. Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, 20 August 1919. Family: Married to the literary agent Gloria Loomis; several children from a previous marriage. Education: Graduated from Dartmouth College, 1940. Military Service: Drafted into the U.S. Army, 1941; served as a correspondent for the Army weekly Yank during World
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Foster)
That Kind of Woman (Lumet); The Wonderful Country (Parrish) (uncredited)
Heller in Pink Tights (Cukor); A Breath of Scandal (Curtiz) (uncredited); The Magnificent Seven (Sturges) (uncredited)
Paris Blues (Ritt)
Something's Got to Give (Cukor)
The Train (Frankenheimer) (uncredited)
The Money Trap (Kennedy)
The Molly Maguires (Ritt) (+ pr)
The Front (Ritt)
The Betsy (Petrie)
An Almost Perfect Affair (Ritchie); Yanks (Schlesinger)
Little Miss Marker (+ d)
The Legend of Billie Jean (Robbins)
The House on Carroll Street (Yates)
Women & Men 2: In Love There Are No Rules (for TV) (+ d)
Doomsday Gun (Young—for TV)
The Affair (Seed—for TV) (story only)
Miss Evers' Boys (Sargent—for TV)
Durango (Shields—for TV)
Fail Safe (Frears—for TV)
Panic in the Streets (Kazan) (ro)
Hollywood on Trial (Helpern) (doc) (ro)
Annie Hall (Allen) (ro)
The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe (Olgiati) (doc) (ro)
Keep Your Head Down , New York, 1945.
Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist , New York, 1996.
"What Blacklist," interview with Patricia Aufderheide, in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1988.
"Conversation with Blacklisted Writer Walter Bernstein," interview with David Walsh, World Socialist Web Site wsws.org , February 1999.
* * *
If for no other reason, Walter Bernstein will be remembered for his sheer longevity as a film and television screenwriter. Incredibly, his screenplays have spanned a period from the 1940s to the 2000s and may well qualify him as the longest-working writer of produced films and television programs in history.
Bernstein began his screenwriting career in 1947, shortly after he had published a collection of World War II essays originally written for the New Yorker and the Army weekly Yank. The anthology, Keep Your Head Down , was so strong that it landed him a ten-week contract as a writer with Columbia Pictures. He moved to Hollywood and soon began working with Columbia's Robert Rossen. Though he learned much about the craft of screenwriting from Rossen during that period, he did not actually write his first script until the ten-week stint was over. His agent, Harold Hecht, and actor Burt Lancaster had just formed an independent film company, Norma Productions, and Hecht hired Bernstein at $500 a week, doubling the writer's Columbia salary. Paired with the more experienced writer Ben Maddow, Bernstein created the screenplay for his first film: Kiss the Blood Off My Hands , an adaptation of a British thriller novel and regarded by Bernstein as "an offbeat melodrama that borrowed (stole) heavily from Hitchcock."
The tyro screenwriter had little time to savor his breakthrough accomplishment, however. He left Hollywood in December 1947—a mere six months after he had arrived and before Kiss the Blood Off My Hands had even opened—in the wake of the anti-Communist investigation of the movie industry launched by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Bernstein, who had joined the Communist Party a year after his Army discharge, could see the destructive effects of HUAC's inquisition and returned to his native New York in the hope of writing film screenplays on the East Coast. Instead, he found steady work as a writer for the fledgling medium of television.
Bernstein's early success as a TV writer could not shield him from the icy effects of the Cold War and the anti-Communist fervor of the time. He was blacklisted in 1950 and was unable to write television scripts under his own name until 1961, though several film directors did hire him openly as early as 1959. Routinely harassed by the FBI during the 1950s, Bernstein wrote many TV scripts under various pseudonyms (principally "Paul Bauman") for some of early television's most prestigious anthology programs, including You Are There , Playhouse 90 , and Studio One. Working behind a "front" for producer David Susskind, Bernstein also adapted Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper for television. His script for the latter production won a Christopher Award, which he was unable to collect because of the blacklist.
Following his return to Hollywood under his own name in 1959, Bernstein crafted screenplays for movies that ranged widely in their content; westerns, thrillers, comedies, and melodramas became his stock in trade, with the screenplays for Fail-Safe , The Train , The Molly Maguires , and Semi-Tough among his best. Unquestionably the most heartfelt of Bernstein's screenplays were for those films that dealt with the blacklisting era: The Front , for which he received Oscar and Writers Guild of America (WGA) screenplay nominations; and The House on Carroll Street , a film that Bernstein unapologetically turned into a melodrama to deliver his views. "With melodrama you're never going to go very deep," he said. "What you can do is to state a social issue, draw the lines, and you can't do a hell of a lot more than that. But that's a lot. It's not disgraceful. It's a very American form—stories in the way people expect to hear them."
Since the 1990s, Bernstein has written exclusively for television. His work there has included his much-admired screenplay for Miss Evers' Boys and a rewrite of his Fail Safe script for a production performed live on network TV in April 2000. In a sense, his writing career had returned full circle with the new Fail Safe screenplay, since much of his early work had been for live television as well.
Despite the heavy demands of his writing career, Bernstein has found time to share his knowledge with up-and-coming filmmakers. He has been an Adjunct Professor of Film at Columbia University's School of the Arts for years, taught at New York University, and also served as an advisor at the Sundance Institute's Screenwriters Lab for several summers. He has also worked as a teacher of a different sort, reminding people of Hollywood's dark days during the 1940s and 1950s. He was vociferous in his complaints, for example, when Elia Kazan, a Hollywood director who informed on his leftist colleagues during the blacklisting era, was soon to receive a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. As he told interviewer David Walsh in early 1999, "I don't think they should give Kazan an award. It's true, it's been a long time [since Kazan testified before HUAC], but this was a man who damaged the industry that is now giving him the award. . . . He hurt a lot of people."
Bernstein's dedication to screenwriting may be found in a simple remark in his memoir, Inside Out : "I write movies; focus is all." Judging from the breadth and depth of his work, the span of his career, and the passion of his beliefs, Bernstein must surely be among the most focused of writers ever to have their work appear on the large and small screens.
—Martin F. Norden