Rossen, Robert: Director Profile


Born Robert Rosen, March 16, 1908, New York City; died 1966.


The son of Russian?Jewish immigrants, Rossen was raised in the poverty and violence of New York's Lower East Side. He boxed professionally for a brief while but gradually oriented him­self toward the stage as a director and a playwright in stock, off Broadway, and finally on Broadway.


His play The Body Beautiful closed on Broadway after only four performances, after which he went to Hollywood, in 1936, as a contract screenwriter for Warner.  A socialist, he gravitated toward membership in the Hol­lywood cell of the Communist party, a move that had grave consequences on his life and career. His political concerns were also reflected in his scripts, which often dealt with social problems and the threat of tyranny. But in 1944 he became deeply disillusioned with the party. He took a year's sabbatical in New York, in 1945, before returning to Hollywood, where he severed his ties with the Communist party.


In the late 1940s, Rossen became a director and an independent producer. But like many of his characters, his past had damaging effects.  In 1947, he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un?American Activities Committee, but the hearings were suspended after the convic­tion of the Hollywood Ten, and Rossen was able to continue his work.


During the interval between the 1947 and 1951 hearings, Rossen made a name as a hard?hitting director of such dramas as Johnny O'Clock, Body and Soul, and All the King's Men. The latter, a sturdy drama of polit­ical corruption, won the Best Picture Oscar for 1949.


In the 1951 round of hearings by the House Un?American Activities Committee, Rossen was identified as a Communist by several witnesses. In his own testimony, he denied present membership in the party, but refused to testify about past mem­bership and to identify other Hollywood personalities as past members, which led to his being blacklisted by the industry.


After two years of inactivity and soul-searching, Rossen wrote to the Committee, requesting a special hearing, during which he admitted his past association with the Communist party and named more than 50 colleagues. He was able to work again, but never returned to Hollywood, choosing instead to work in other locations.


In the early 1960s, he regained some of his lost prestige with The Hustle, but his last film, Lilith, was a commer­cial failure in America.  


Ironically, Rossen died before learning that the film was included in the Ten Best Films published annually by the widely respected French magazine Cahiers du Cinema.