John Berry: Romantic Rebel

"Yeah, man," says director John Berry. "My name was originally John Sold, or Jackie Szold. But why would anyone want to print that? It's totally goddamn stupid. What's the point? If I'm known as John Berry, it's for a reason. Was Jesus really named Jesus?"
This response comes after I mention that the article about him in the San Francisco International Film Festival program guide (written by fest capo Peter Scarlet) leads off with a mention of his original name. "Yeah? How will he like it when I get to San Francisco and start referring to the festival as the Iowa Pear Show? Think of what it would be like if this were the McCarthy period and someone was making a big deal of that. I don't like this business of naming names."

Festival tributee Berry made Tension (1949) and He Ran All the Way (1951) as a Hollywood up-and-comer and Tamango (1957) as a blacklisted exile, based in France. He had too many rich experiences in Europe to feel "cheated" that McCarthyism short-circuited his career, but his outburst indicates how the scars of that era still rankle. I speak to him in a New York hotel room. Sipping coffee and munching matzo, this feisty octogenarian dispenses wisdom like a street-wise zayde. At times his craggy visage, guttural tone, and inertial force recall the expatriate movie tough guy Eddie Constantine, whom he directed in France. Berry is trying to launch two projects in the U.S., and he's agreed to interrupt his search for financing to talk about his films and the real life that influenced them. "The way I changed my name was funny," he recalls, suddenly warming to the subject. "I had written a letter asking to audition as an actor for a Shakespeare festival, and then got a better job, as a comic in the borscht belt. When I reapplied to the Shakespeare festival, I thought they'd be certain to have a record of my last letter, so I went looking for another name to sign the letter with. I remember A&P was having a berry sale -- and John Barrymore was my ideal. John Berry sounded right."

As a young boy, when his mother was busy in her synagogue ladies auxiliary, he'd hang around the restaurant his father owned on 38th Street. To keep him from interfering with the crap game going on in the basement, his father's minions led him to the 38th Street Theater, where he saw Shakespeare's Richard III and patriotic spectacles like The Pony Express and Maryland, My Maryland. Berry got the performing bug and followed it, first as a 15-year-old Catskills comic and later as a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater. His opening night in a Catskills kochalayn (a low-rent resort where vacationers cooked in their own rooms) was hardly auspicious. He bounded onstage in his "John Barrymore white silk shirt with the fashionable wide collar" and started to deliver joke after joke to no response -- or, rather, polite silence. Afterward, the proprietor reassured him, "Don't worry, they like you -- they think you're a nice-looking fella, an attractive, charming young man. You've got to understand you can't tell these jokes in English; they only speak Yiddish!"

The Catskills of the '20s and '30s, says Berry, wasn't all cheerful vulgarity and romance on the wing; it was also a place for transplanted Eastern European Jews to re-create the communal lives they left behind and debate the weighty social-cultural issues of the day. To Berry, the Arthur Kober play Having a Wonderful Time caught the high end of the Catskills experience. So when John Garfield (formerly Julie Garfinkel) left the Broadway production to go Hollywood, Berry auditioned for his part. He didn't get it because all he did was "a perfect imitation of Garfield."

What made Garfield so important to an ambitious young actor that he'd want to mimic him? "Garfield was the romantic rebel, the precursor to Dean and Brando," says Berry. "He was a few years older; I followed in his footsteps." However, it was a more flamboyant theatrical rebel, Orson Welles, who gave Berry the experience that landed him on his first Broadway marquee. As part of the Mercury Theater troupe, Berry did everything from work on the stage crew to act in featured roles. He took over the role of Bigger Thomas' lawyer in Richard Wright's Native Son and ended up directing the road company and the show's return to Broadway.

Berry says that his political awakening grew out of the despair and class warfare of the Depression era. Engagement was part of the cultural atmosphere wherever he worked, whether in the Catskills or at the Mercury Theater: "I remember Orson made a speech to Actors Equity about the danger to world democracy and the coming world war if the Republic fell in Spain, and people laughed at him, as if this young contemptuous figure of energy and power didn't know what he was talking about." Berry says he makes no apologies and has few regrets for his political actions, which he describes as anti-fascist and pro-worker. And he has remarkably little bitterness toward the U.S.: "What makes the McCarthy era such a terrible episode in our history is that it's so anti-American, so opposed to our central beliefs. People betrayed their comrades, their friends, their fellow humans, and did all these anti-American activities in the name of anti-communism."

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