Conversation with Filmmaker John Berry

It is mid-June and I am talking to the noted Yiddish scholar Jean Mouton in a restaurant in Belleville. Actually, that sentence is designed to fool any FBI agents who may still be on the trail of McCarthy-era survivor John Berry, the actor and director who, after three months of dodging a HUAC subpoena, traded America for the City of Lights in late March 1950.

“Producer Hanna Weinstein and I would go to Paris nightclubs and speak in Yiddish since we were convinced the FBI was following our every move,” says Berry, who celebrated his 80th birthday June 9, a week after he was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.  “I had curly hair,” Berry continues, “so my code name was Jean Mouton.”

The formerly blacklisted “Sheep” is the first to admit that such cloak and dagger precautions were probably unnecessary, but he and his fellow blacklistees in exile had no way of gauging the true danger at the time.  Thanks to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s which hunt, America had gone off the deep end where the perceived “red threat” was concerned.

“There were maybe 100,000 members of the Communist Party in a nation of 120 million,” says Berry of his onetime affiliation. “They did have an intellectual impact, absolutely – and a very healthy one in my opinion – but we were about as much of a threat to the American government as my tuchas.” He evokes his own backside with a hearty laugh, driving home the point that the founding fathers needn’t have stirred one bit in their graves.

But wasn’t anybody making subversive stuff that could have triggered the House Un-American Activities Committee’s paranoia?

“Nobody was making actively subversive stuff,” Berry roars. “Maybe there were such people, but the people we knew in the Communist Party were marvellous. … . People forget that in 1932 you could die on the streets if you didn’t have a job. Soldiers who’d fought in WWI sold apples. Young people were desperate. It was just terrifying to live in that period. Of course you were a communist. You were either a communist or a fascist. You were influenced in one direction or the other.  There’s no question about it.   Especially in New York.

“My problem,” Berry emphasizes, “was not whether I’d been a communist,” but rather his refusal to invoke the Fifth Amendment. “I would only testify on the basis of the first amendment and the first amendment, was condemnable. People have forgotten that. It’s what the Hollywood Ten went to jail for.

“You’ve gotta understand what else was going on at that time. Another congressional committee was investigating the Mafia.  And every mafia killer – hardened murderers – took the fifth and got off scott free.

“We got into trouble because we were premature anti-fascists.  Did you know that was a crime, by the way, at that time also?  If you’d supported the Spanish loyalists that made you a premature anti-fascist, which immediately tinged you with red.

“I’m in good shape today because I’m full of rage,” Berry affirms.

“We organized unions, we fought to have freedom, we fought for the black people.  There may have been some people in there who were very pro-Soviet, but so what? General Douglas MacArthur said: ‘The hopes of civilization ride on the banners of the Red Army.’ And of course the French, who had just come out of the Resistance and had killed people for informing, they couldn’t understand me. I loved them.  They’d say to me, [mix of matter-of-fact and conspiratorial tones]: ‘Why didn’t you kill him?’ I swear to you. Why didn’t I kill Eddie Dmytryk [the Hollywood Ten director who eventually relented and named names] for informing on me!”

Brooklyn-born Berry formed his political opinions and honed his multiple talents in impressive company. An apprentice at the legendary Mercury Theater, he acted beside Orson Welles and eventually became his assistant.  He was Billy Wilder’s assistant on “Double Indemnity.” Berry was the recipient of an O. Henry award for short story writing, he directed Joan Fontaine in the excellent “From this Day Forward” (1946) and he appeared onstage as Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1950. Around the same time he directed John Garfield and Shelley Winters in Garfield’s final picture, “He Ran all the Way” (Menace dans la nuit) and helmed the clandestine documentary “The Hollywood Ten.”

Shortly thereafter, Berry found himself running all the way to Europe. In presenting Berry with his commander’s medal, Marc Tessier, director of the National Center for Cinema said: “Your misfortune in America turned out to be our good fortune here in France.”

Berry himself felt fortunate when he arrived 47 years ago. “I walked past immigration, the guy stamped my passport and I was at Invalides. ‘Man,’ I said, ‘it’s absolutely extraordinary and wonderful to be here. The French are freedom-fighters.’ All I could think of was the Resistance and how I was now part of this great nation of fraternity and liberty and equality.”

Figuring any resident Americans would be registered at American Express or Thomas Cook, Berry – who didn’t speak a word of French – announced to a cab driver, “I want to go to the Opera.”

Met with incomprehension, he struck a pose and mimicked a florid aria.  The cabbie immediately drove away. So Berry set out on foot. “I walked across Paris in the extraordinary bright sun on this fragrant, cool, exquisite day and just was assailed constantly by the wonders of what I saw.”

Eventually he ended up at a hotel on the rue Mazarine. “I went in and there was a lovely lady. I said I’d like a room. She said, ‘For how long?’ I said, “A couple of days, I guess.” She said, “You don’t have to stay that long.” I said, ‘I’d like to get my bags.’ She said, ‘You don’t have to have bags.’ I said, ‘But if I’m staying for several days, I’ll need my bags.’ She said, “Okay, go get your bags.” I got my bags, she showed me my room – an utterly charming room with mirrors around the bed.”

He wanted to locate the French ex-wife of an American friend, whom he’d known before her divorce. So he told the receptionist, “I need to find a woman.” She said, “That won’t be a problem.” I said, ‘This is a particular woman.’ She said, ‘What’s her name?’ I said, “Georgette Knox.” That was her married name. I didn’t know her French surname. “Do you have an address for her?” “No, but I know she lives in Champigny-sur-Marne.” She said, ‘I’ll find her.’

“It was raining like the hell the next day and there’s a knock on the door. The woman downstairs had sent a pneumatique to the post office in Champigny, saying: ‘Il y a un américain qui s’appelle John Berry qui cherche une femme: Georgette.'” Georgette entered in stitches. Berry hadn’t realized, his “lovely little hotel” rented rooms by the hour. Luggage Optional. Women Cheerfully Located.

“The first café I ever went to was Deux Magots.” The door revolves and out of the rain comes a guy in a trench coat who was a very close friend of mine in the United States: Vladimir Posner, a French writer and an important member of the Communist Party at that time.  He sees me, walks over with the most casual gait, opens his arms and says “We have been waiting for you!'”

Through Posner, Berry found screenwriter Ben Barzman and other Hollywood exiles. “My dear friends proceeded to scare the shit out of me,” he recounts, laughing. “‘You must get out of the hotel because the police check the hotel registers. The CIA – which was the Office of Strategic Services at that time – is all over Paris and we want you to be very careful because otherwise they will pick you up'” Avoiding a subpoena was, in theory, an extraditable offense.

John’s wife sold their house and joined him about four months later with their two young children in tow. “Gladys came to France almost 50 years ago and she has never set foot back in the United States since,” he says, with deep admiration. “I was a politically engaged man.  I fought the committees, I made unions, I was opposed to all kinds of things, so it was only natural that they should come after me.  But Gladys was a fourth-generation, free-thinking American citizen whose ancestors covered the Great Plains in covered wagons.  The total resentment and repugnance of what happened in the United States was even greater on her part than it was on mine.”

Berry did not return to America for 11 years. “Before ’61 you had to sign a loyalty oath or you couldn’t get a passport; ’61 was the first time the Supreme Court ruled that you had to be issued a passport if you were an American citizen.”

He had infact used his acting skills to renew his expired passport in 1951 for a trip to England to stage plays. He took the train to Nice, dressed up like a respectable businessman, “bought every American newspaper and magazine in sight, tucked them under my arm and ambled into the consulate just before lunch.  I said, ‘I have to renew my passport immediately, I have a crucial meeting in Rome and I must leave this very afternoon.’ The clerk told me it would be impossible to provide a new passport that quickly.”

Berry made it clear that momentous affairs hung in the balance and the clerk relented, saying, “Come back after lunch. I’ll see what I can do.” When Berry returned after sweating bullets for several hours, the clerk said: “I’ve wired the State Department and performed a rush job. Here you are, sir.” It might be interesting to know whether the accommodating clerk continued his career in the Foreign Service.

As for Berry’s current activities, his third wife, Myriam Boyer, won this year’s Best Actress Molière for her performance in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” under Berry’s direction. In June, the Mac-Mahon cinema in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, mounted an impressive retrospective of Berry’s French and American films. He hopes to see the new Minister of Culture soon about a project he’s been working on for three years – a pan-European performing arts center modelled on the celebrated Actor’s Lab.

John Berry exudes a life force that could probably reverse the flow of the Seine if you hooked him up to a generator.  Genes may be part of his secret – “My father also had a lot of energy” – but attitude has to be the key.  “Whatever happens to me, it’s been fun, it’s been an adventure.”