Robert Rossen: Wikis


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Robert Rossen

Robert Rossen
Born March 16, 1908(1908-03-16)
New York City, New York, USA
Died February 18, 1966 (aged 57)
New York City, New York, USA
Years active 1932–1963
Spouse(s) Sue Siegel Rossen

Robert Rossen (March 16, 1908 – February 18, 1966) was an American screenwriter, film director, and producer. Initially writing and directing for the stage, Rossen moved to Hollywood in 1937. His film career spanned almost three decades. Rossen was twice nominated for an Academy Award for best director and once for best adapted screenplay, winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Director for All the King's Men (1949).

Rossen was twice called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in 1951 and in 1953. He exercised his Fifth Amendment rights at his first appearance, refusing to state whether he had ever been a Communist. As a result he was unofficially blacklisted by the Hollywood studio bosses. At his second appearance he named 57 people as current or former Communists and was removed from the unofficial blacklist. He returned to filmmaking, although his last film so disillusioned him that he did not work for the last three years of his life.


Early life and career

Robert Rossen, originally known as Robert Rosen,[1][2] was born on March 16, 1908,[1] and raised on the lower East side of New York City.[3] His father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant rabbi.[2][3] As a youth Rossen attended New York University,[1] hustled pool,[4] and fought some prizefights.[5]

He started his theatrical career as a director and playwright in stock and off-Broadway productions.[2] New York had several social and radical theaters in the 1930s, and Rossen's associates in these included John Huston, Elia Kazan and Joseph Losey.[6] Rossen directed two plays in 1932, John Wexley's Steel and Richard Maibaum's The Tree, about a lynching. A year later Rossen directed Birthright, in which Maibaum attacked Nazism.[7] In 1935 Rossen wrote and directed The Body Beautiful, a comedy about a naive burlesque dancer. Although the play closed after four performances,[7] Warner Bros. director Mervyn LeRoy was so impressed that in 1936 he signed Rossen to a personal screenwriting contract.[5] Around this time New York's radical theaters were collapsing.[6]

In 1936 Rossen married.[5] His son Stephen was born in 1940.[8]

For his first credit in Hollywood, in 1937 Rossen co-wrote with Abem Finkel a script based on the prosecution of crime lord Lucky Luciano, eventually titled Marked Woman. Although some of Warner Bros.' management saw him as an unknown quantity, the result won praise from both Jack Warner and the Daily Worker. The plot turns on the decisions of prostitutes to testify, but the ending contrasts the political prospects of the prosecution with the uncertain future of the women.[5] Rossen first solo script was for They Won't Forget (1937), a fictionalized account of the lynching of Leo Frank, featuring Lana Turner in her debut performance.[9] In the same year Rossen co-write Racket Busters with Leonardo Bercovici, a radical he had known from New York. The film, released in 1938, is based on a real-life organized crime prosecution, and emphasized the workers in the face of the self-interest of the racketeers.[5] Dust Be My Destiny, co-wrote in 1939 by Rossen, is the story of a fugitive from justice but is eventually acquitted with help from an attorney and a journalist, the latter arguing that "a million boys all over the country" were in a similar plight. Warner Bros. then ordered producer Lou Edelman that "This is the story of two people – not a group. It is an individual problem – not a national one."[10]

Rossen was one of three writers on the gangster melodrama The Roaring Twenties, released in 1939.[11][12] A remake of the 1932 play and film Life Begins was written in 1939 by Rossen and released in 1940 as A Child Is Born. The plot recounted the experiences of six expectant mothers, and there was little scope to modify the original.[13]

Blues in the Night, written by Rossen and two colleagues and released in 1941, shows a group of jazz musicians traveling in the Depression. Their informal methods represent working class culture rather than the commercialized music of the big bands.[14] However, The New York Times' reviewer thought the sound track was "about all the film has to offer",[15] and Warner was disappointed with the sales.[14]

Although The Sea Wolf, released in 1941, had a strong cast and production, Rossen's re-draft of the script may be the greatest influence.[16] While the character of Larsen remained both victim and oppressed in a capitalist hierarchy, he became a symbol of fascism. Rossen also split the novel's idealist hero into an intellectual bosun and a rebellious seaman.[17] Warner Bros. cut many political items during production.[18]

Out of the Fog (Litvak) (co-sc)

Rossem was a member of the American Communist Party from 1937 to 1947.[5][9] Later he explain to his son Stephen that he believed the Party was "dedicated to social causes of the sort that we as poor Jews from New York were interested in."[19]

After the Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Screen Writers Guild set up on December 8, 1941 the Hollywood Writers Mobilization Against the War, a body to organize writers for the war effort. Rossen served as the body's chairman until 1944 and advocated the opening of a second front to support West European resistance again the Nazis. He was now seen as a patriotic rather than a radical, and his earnings were much greater than in 1937. However, his work for Hollywood Writers Mobilization and for the Communist Party force him to abandon some part-developed film projects, including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which John Huston eventually directed in 1948.[14]

In 1945 Rossen join a picket line against Warner Bros. He signed a contract with an independent production company formed by Hal Wallis, who had previously head of production. However Rossem wrote only one full script, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946, because the relationship broke down when Rossem received offers from other production companies.[20]

After the end of World War II in 1945, the USA afraid the spread of Communism. The Communist victory of China in 1949 and the start of the Korean War in 1950 reinforced the fear and extended it to Hollywood, where the film companies also opposed attempts to organized a industry-wide trade union.[21] In 1946 the Republicans gained a overwhelming majority in the Congressional elections.[20] Conversative and right-wing groups fought to undo many of the liberal measures of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidencies.[21] During hearings in 1947 Jack Warner included Rossem among many leftist writers whom Warner accused of incorporating Communist propaganda in scripts, and whom he claimed to had fired. However, Rossen was not called to testify in 1947.[20]

Dick Powell was ambitious to move from crooning to dramatic actor, and in 1947 he campaigned at Columbia Pictures for Rossen's first credit as a film director, in Johnny O'Clock.[22] When this crime melodrama proved a modest success, Roberts Productions signed Rossen to direct Abraham Polonsky's script of Body and Soul,[23] described by Bob Thomas as "possibly the best prizefight film ever made."[24] Following the success of Body and Soul, Rossen formed his own company and signed with Columbia Pictures a contract that gave him wide autonomy over every second film that he made at the studio.[23]

As a requirement for his participation in All the King’s Men in 1949, Rossem had to write to Columbia's Harry Cohn saying that he was no longer a Communist Party member.[23] The film's central character, based on the Louisiana politician Huey Long, introduced a new concept, that the defenders of the ordinary people can in turn became the new exploiters. A meeting of the Communist Party in Los Angeles severely criticized the film, and Rossen finally ended all relations with the Party.[25]

After ten years with Warner Bros. Rossen moved to Columbia Pictures. He wanted to direct, and was given his opportunity with the 1947 film Johnny O'Clock. He followed this the same year with Body and Soul, described by Hollywood reporter Bob Thomas as "possibly the best prizefight film ever made."[26] His next film was All the King's Men (1949), described as Rossen's "triumph and very likely his corruption".[27] The film, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, won the Academy Award for Best Picture; Broderick Crawford won the award for Best Actor and Mercedes McCambridge was honored as Best Supporting Actress. Rossen was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director but lost to Joseph L. Mankiewicz and A Letter to Three Wives.[28] He won a Golden Globe for Best Director and the film won the award for Best Picture.[29]


Rossen joined the American Communist Party in 1937 and left the party in 1947.[9] He joined, he would later tell his son Stephen, because he believed the party was “dedicated to social causes of the sort that we as poor Jews from New York were interested in."[19] Rossen was one of 19 "unfriendly witnesses" subpoenaed in October 1947 by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the second Red Scare but was one of eight not called to testify.[30] Rossen in 1948 sent a letter to Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn advising Cohn that he was not at that time a Communist. In 1951, however, Rossen was named as a Communist by several HUAC witnesses and he appeared before HUAC for the first time in June of that year.[31] He exercised his rights under the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, taking what came to be known as the "augmented Fifth". He testified that he was not a member of the Communist Party and that he disagreed with the aims of the party but when asked to state whether he had ever been a member of the party Rossen refused to answer.[32] Rossen was placed on the unofficial blacklist by the Hollywood studios and he did not work for the next two years.[33] In May 1953, Rossen again appeared before the committee and named 57 people as Communists. He explained to the committee why he chose to testify: "I don't think, after two years of thinking, that any one individual can indulge himself in the luxury of personal morality or pit it against what I feel today very strongly is the security and safety of this nation."[34] Stephen Rossen later shed light on his father's decision:

"It killed him not to work. He was torn between his desire to work and his desire not to talk, and he didn't know what to do. What I think he wanted to know was, what would I think of him if he talked? He didn't say it in that way, though. Then he explained to me the politics of it—how the studios were in on it, and there was never any chance of his working. He was under pressure, he was sick, his diabetes was bad, and he was drinking. By this time I understood that he had refused to talk before and had done his time, from my point of view. What could any kid say at that point? You say, 'I love you and I'm behind you.'"[19]

Return to filmmaking

Having testified before HUAC and having been removed from the unofficial blacklist, Rossen returned to producing and directing with Mambo (1954), followed by Alexander the Great (1956). In 1961, Rossen co-wrote, produced and directed The Hustler. Drawing upon his own experiences as a pool hustler,[4] Rossen teamed with Sidney Carroll to adapt the novel of the same name for the screen. The Hustler was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won two. Rossen was nominated as Best Director and with Carroll for Best Adapted Screenplay but did not win either award.[28] He was named Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle[35] and shared with Carroll the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written Drama.[36] The Hustler was an enormous popular success and is credited with sparking a resurgence in the popularity of pool in the United States, which had been on the decline for decades.[37]

Rossen was already ill when he started on Lilith.[38] It was poorly received in the USA.[38]

Following his final film, Lilith (1964), Rossen lost interest in directing, reportedly because of conflicts with Lilith star Warren Beatty. "It isn't worth that kind of grief. I won't take it any more. I have nothing to say on the screen right now. Even if I never make another picture, I've got The Hustler on my record. I'm content to let that one stand for me."[26]

Later life

Robert Rossen died at age 57 following a series of illnesses[26] and is interred at Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. He was survived by his wife Sue, son Stephen and daughters Carol and Ellen.[9] At the time of his death the filmmaker was working on Cocoa Beach, a script he conceived in 1962.[39]


Rossem was one of the directors who developed film gris (French for "grey film"). In his films for Warner Brothers' "Popular Front" period between 1937 and 1944, consistent themes were the conditions of working people, the portrayal of gangsters and racketeers, and opposition to fascism.[5] After Dust Be My Destiny, written by Rossen and released in 1939, Frank Nugent, who regularly reviewed for The New York Times, complained, "It shouldn't be a career for the Warners, either, but, from what we've heard, the end is not in sight."[40]

All Rossen's playscripts were adaptions except Marked Woman, Racket Buster and Alexander the Great, which were based on real events.[41] Only two of the adaptions were of serious novels, and Rossen's early drafts of the script for All the King's Men received serious criticisms within Columbia.[42]

He generally destroyed the main character.[43]

Polonsky commented that "Rossen's talent is force applied everywhere without let-up."[43]

While head of production at Warner, Hal Wallis considered that some of his films - including The Roaring Twenties, Marked Woman and The Sea Wolf - was written by Rossen.[44] Wallis was very pleased with Rossen's script in 1946 for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.[45] When Wallis proposed Paid in Full, the story of two sisters in love with the same man, Rossen responded, "I disapprove of said basic material." Rossen also turned down Wallis' Rope of Sand, despite the cast's including old Warner colleagues Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and Peter Lorre.[46] Both Wallis as producer and Rossen as writer-director wanted to operate as independents, rather than under the control of a studio.[47]

Harry Cohn took a very hand-on approach to some films, and he quickly saw the commercial and critical potential of All the King's Men. Cohn's critiques of draft of Rossen's script including scrapping a framing structure that were difficult to audiences to follow, and several improving the relationships and motivations of characters.[48]

All the King's Men was one of the last of the social "message" films, as they were eclipsed as America turned conservative. Thomas Schatz' regarded All the King's Men as possibly the best of the genre, as it examined alcoholism, adultery, political corruption and the influence of journalism.[49]

Farber noted the strong female characters of the 1930s and 1940s, and laments their replacing by all-male relationships from the 1950s onwards. For the earlier pattern Farber cited Rossen's 1946 script The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which was over melodramatic but portrayed a woman consumed by power, money and success.[50] Lilith created one of the few strong women in the 1960s.[51]

In 1952 to 1953 Rossem wrote and directed Mambo, aiming to repairing his finances after almost two years without work since the 1951 HUAC hearing. He later said, "Mambo was to be for fun only," but he "took it seriously, and it didn't come off."[52] Contemporary critics dismissed the film.[53][54][55] However, in 2001 Dorothea Fischer-Hornung concluded that the film achieved more than Rossen and contemporary critics realised: the lead resolves her conflicts by devote herself to dance;[56] Katherine Dunham's choreography highlights this process;[57][58] and innovative cinematography intensified the dance scenes.[59]

Rossen produced, directed and co-wrote The Hustler in 1961. In the timeVariety praised the cast, complained about the "sordid aspects" of the story and felt the film was far too long.[60] The New Republic praised the cast and Rossen's "sure, economical" direction, but thought the script "strains hard to give an air of menace and criminality."[61] The film won two Academy Awards and was nominated for another seven,[62] was nominated in four of the Golden Globes' categories,[63] and gain many other awards and nominations.[62] In 2002 Roger Ebert described the film as one "where scenes have such psychic weight that they grow in our memories" and praised Rossen's decision to develop all four main characters,[64] and James Berardinelli listed the film in his All Time Top 100 for similar reasons.[65] In 1997 the United States National Film Registry preserved The Hustler as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[66] Other accolades appeared in the 2000s.[67][68]

In 1966 Stephen Farber used "Gothic" to described Lilith and a few other American films of the early 1960s based on psychological horror, and regarded Lilith's female protagonist as a demonic temptress.[69] Nina Leibman regarded Lilith as the most extreme of the American film industry's applications, or rather misapplications, of psychoanalytic concepts, as the patient is already psychotic and has a track record of previously conquests.[70] In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film David Thomson describes Lilith as "an oddity, the only one of [Rossen's] films that seems passionate, mysterious and truly personal. The other films will look increasingly dated and self-contained, but Lilith may grow."[71] Neve says Lilith emphasizes mood rather than narrative, using images and silences to exploration the boundary between sanity and insanity.[38]



  1. ^ a b c Tomlinson filmreference.
  2. ^ a b c Robert Rossen - Biography
  3. ^ a b Thomas 1966, p. 11.
  4. ^ a b Rossen, Carol. DVD commentary, The Hustler Special Edition
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Neve 2005, p. 54.
  6. ^ a b Mayer 2007, p. 64.
  7. ^ a b Neve 1992, p. 14-15.
  8. ^ Death: Stephen Rossem 2007.
  9. ^ a b c d UPI obituary 1966.
  10. ^ Neve 2005, p. 55.
  11. ^ Nugent - Roaring Twenties 1939.
  12. ^ Neve 2005, p. 56.
  13. ^ Nugent - A Child 1940.
  14. ^ a b c Neve 2005, p. 57.
  15. ^ T.M.P - Blues in the Night 1941.
  16. ^ Williams 1998, p. xix-xxi.
  17. ^ Williams 1998, p. xxii-xxiii.
  18. ^ Williams 1998, p. xxiii-xxiv.
  19. ^ a b c LoBianco, Lorraine. "Directed by Robert Rossen". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2008-11-13. 
  20. ^ a b c Neve 2005, p. 58.
  21. ^ a b Mayer 2007, p. 62.
  22. ^ Neve 2005, p. 60.
  23. ^ a b c Neve 2005, p. 62.
  24. ^ Thomas 1966.
  25. ^ Neve 2005, p. 63.
  26. ^ a b c Thomas, Bob (Mar 11, 1966). "Robert Rossen Thought About Impending Death". Ada (Oklahoma) Evening News (Associated Press): p. 11. 
  27. ^ Buhle, et al., p. 386
  28. ^ a b "The Hustler - Awards". Retrieved 2008-03-31. 
  29. ^ "Awards search - Robert Rossen". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Retrieved 2008-11-13. 
  30. ^ Pells, p. 302
  31. ^ Neve, p. 170
  32. ^ Cogley, p. 104
  33. ^ "Rossen, Director of Many Movie Masterpieces, Dies". UPI. 1966-02-19. 
  34. ^ Bentley, p. 576
  35. ^ "New York Film Critics Circle: 1961 Awards". New York Film Critics Circle. Retrieved 2008-03-31. 
  36. ^ "WGA Awards". Writers Guild of America. Retrieved 2008-03-31. 
  37. ^ Dyer, p. 119
  38. ^ a b c Neve 1992, p. 214.
  39. ^ Neve 1992, p. 215.
  40. ^ Nugent - Dust 1939.
  41. ^ Millar 1972, p. 309.
  42. ^ Dick 1993, p. 172.
  43. ^ a b Millar 1972, p. 310.
  44. ^ Dick 2004, p. 124-125.
  45. ^ Dick 2004, p. 122.
  46. ^ Dick 2004, p. 123.
  47. ^ Dick 2004, p. 124.
  48. ^ Dick 1993, p. 168-174.
  49. ^ Schatz 1999, p. 5.
  50. ^ Farber 1974, p. 573.
  51. ^ Farber 1974, p. 574.
  52. ^ Fischer-Hornung 2001, p. 94.
  53. ^ Fischer-Hornung 2001, p. 95.
  54. ^ Crowther 1955.
  55. ^ Casty 1966.
  56. ^ Fischer-Hornung 2001, p. 96-98.
  57. ^ Fischer-Hornung 2001, p. 99.
  58. ^ Fischer-Hornung 2001, p. 102.
  59. ^ Fischer-Hornung 2001, p. 98-99.
  60. ^ Variety - The Hustler 1961.
  61. ^ Kauffmann 1961, p. 28.
  62. ^ a b Allmovie - The Hustler - Awards.
  63. ^ GoldenGlobes - The Hustler.
  64. ^ Ebert 2002.
  65. ^ Berardinelli- Hustler Review 2002.
  66. ^ National Film Registry - Hustler 1997.
  67. ^ Writers Guild of America West 100.
  68. ^ AFI: Top 10 Sports Films 2008.
  69. ^ Farber 1966, p. 23.
  70. ^ Leibman 1987, p. 32.
  71. ^ David Thomson The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002, London: Little, Brown, p760.


  • Dyer, R. A. (2003). Hustler Days: Minnesota Fats, Wimpy Lassiter, Jersey Red, and America's Great Age of Pool. New York, Muf Books. ISBN 156731807X.

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