So does Morley, in the proper place -- which was not Gabriel Over the White House. "It's about a crooked president who gets knocked in the head and becomes a liberal," she says; "It's so, so silly." Actually, the president doesn't become a liberal; he becomes a dictator. But as the president's secretary, Morley acted eye to eye with Walter Huston, who was "fantastic ... he didn't seem to be doing anything, until you saw him on the screen."

In her own terse way, Morley debunks the myths surrounding Hollywood communism. Some writers have suggested that Morley's appearances in King Vidor's salute to communal farming, Our Daily Bread (1934), and Michael Curtiz's muddled expose of labor conflict in coal towns, Black Fury (1935), proved her commitment to socially conscious roles. But Morley says simply that she was asked to do them.

Filmmaker/film historian Andrew Bergman has called Black Fury "one of the real frauds of the '30s," and Morley thinks her best scene was cut out of the movie -- a tawdry-poignant set piece of her as an 18-year-old girl trying to practice the tango in her kitchen according to a printed diagram while her siblings yowl and her mother attempts to do household chores. Studio heads made sure that makers of "A" features with social themes couldn't put across the squalor or the crazy-making closeness of real working-class life. And, as Morley notes, the few directors who had the power to do so were often "con-serv-atives, like John Ford and King Vidor. Ford made some of the most progressive pictures. I did Our Daily Bread for King and that made me popular in the Soviet Union; King was amused by that."

Morley portrays herself as a small-town girl who awoke to the wider world through personal, not intellectual, experience. For example, she was raised amid garden-variety antisemitism -- a mistrust of Jews as the Other. (She humorously screws up her face to express midwestern disapproval of "people who aren't like us," whether it's Jews or the Balinese girl she portrayed at the Pasadena Playhouse.) Yet her first husband, a solid Hollywood director named Charles Vidor, was a Hungarian Jewish emigrant.

She disdains political euphemisms: "I was a 'dirty Red,' redder than the rose" she snorts, as if answering a dare. "I was what you'd call a 'pillow Red' -- I became a Communist because I fell in love with a man who was a Red and entered the Army to take care of the Fascists, and I knew it would please him if I became one. There was very little that was political about it." The man was actor Lloyd Gough; he died in 1984. Morley says that it was in the "progressive B pictures" her husband made that raw, muckraking content entered Hollywood movies: "If these B-picture guys said 'Let's make a movie about crooked doctors,' a studio boss like Harry Cohn wouldn't care as long as they delivered it on time."

While Gough was in the Army and stationed in North Carolina, Morley became involved in organizing tobacco workers. After the war, she brought her experience and energy to the union movement in Hollywood. "The Actors Guild had been held to a 10-year no-strike agreement, and when that 10 were up, the progressives in the Screen Actors Guild made all these forward-looking proposals, most of them written on my dining-room table. I was blacklisted because of this activity, so I'm not a typical anything. From that time on, I always had the studios on my neck."

After dodging HUAC subpoenas in the small town of La Quinta (outside Palm Springs), she moved to New York, where Gough found work in the theater. But Morley was still too prominent a target to get a part on stage or screen. She never acted after 1951, when she appeared in a film she has no fondness for: Joseph Losey's turgid remake of Fritz Lang's M. ("There's no comparison," says Morley; "the first one was a pip.") She did run for lieutenant governor of New York in 1954, on the American Labor Party ticket, but says, "I don't like giving speeches -- I enjoy sitting on my rump. What happened was that someone put the arm on me. I liked getting the mail; I was 'Hon.' on everything for a few weeks. And I spoke out on women's rights, like equal pay for equal work. We haven't got around to that yet."

When it comes to Elia Kazan, she says, "I know he's old -- he's my age. But I don't think it's my place to forgive him. He was awful, and he is awful. If he wants to apologize to the people he ruined, that's up to him, and I would be delighted to hear it. If they forgive him, I'll forgive him -- but not until."

-- Michael Sragow

Karen Morley will appear at the screenings of Gabriel Over the White House at the Castro at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 25, and Scarface at the Castro at 7 p.m. Monday, April 26.

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