I Married a Communist or Woman on Pier 13 (1949)

Dr Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, Strategic Communication, La Trobe University

I Married a Communist was one of the most distinctive of the early anti-communist films.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The initial failure of anti-communist films deterred some filmmakers.  A Hollywood producer John Sutherland scrapped plans for anti-communist film Confessions of an American Communist after he found that exhibitors were ‘indisposed towards films touched with propaganda’.[1]  But the major studios were not deterred and a series of anti-communist films followed in 1949 including The Red Menace, The Red Danube and I Married a Communist.

I Married a Communist or Woman on Pier 13 (1949) was one of the most distinctive of the early anti-communist films.  It was the second of Howard Hughes’ attempts at an anti-communist film,[2] and was an important film for RKO, as the New York Times noted, because it signaled the switch at the studio from its traditional liberal views Hughes’ ultra-conservative values.[3]  The film was beset with production problems, the screenwriters had to ensure its attacks on communist unions were not seen as attacks on all unions.  Making the distinction was proving difficult.  The writers had to create a story about industrial unrest on dockyards without ever mentioning the word ‘strike’.  Instead they had to contend with ‘walk-out’, or ‘work stoppage’ or ‘tie-up’.  Actors Merle Oberon and Paul Heinreid were pressed into appearing in the film and then walked out.[4]

The film was also used as a political barometer for RKO directors.  Joseph Losey along with 13 other directors were offered the job before it was picked up by Rovert Stevenson.  Losey told that the film was the ‘touchstone for establishing who was a “red”’.  Directors were offered I Married a Communist and if they turned it down, they were blacklisted.  Nicholas Ray was also one of the directors offered the film.  He began working on sets and on the script thinking that the film was so idiotic that it would never be made.  When he realized that it was going to be produced, he walked off the set.[5]  Ray later claimed that he told Hughes that the film was a ‘loser’ and wanted nothing to do with it.[6]

After its first disappointing commercial screenings, the film was retitled The Woman on Pier 13, in the hope that a hint of sex and mystery on the waterfront would attract the crowds.[7]  Despite the screenwriting problems about unions, the film was, in large measure, a smear campaign against the head of the West Coast Longshoreman’s and Warehousemen’s Union Harry Bridges.  The union leader was born in Australia and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover tried hard and failed to have him deported.[8]  The choice of Bridges as a target by the studio may also have been made because of the links between the ILWU and the Hollywood’s 10’s Dalton Trumbo who had been a noted supporter of the union leader for many years.[9]  In return, the ILWU had also been a strong promoter of the Hollywood 10.[10]  The ultra-conservative director Cecil B. DeMille had said that Harry Bridges should be in jail and wanted laws to stop him from having a ‘stranglehold on a critical American industry’.[11]

The film focused on Brad Collins, played by Robert Ryan, who played a reformed communist.  He was blackmailed by his former colleagues who threatened to tell his wife and employer of his communist and criminal past.  Ryan, who worked for the waterfront management, was forced to prolong a litter union dispute on the waterfront.  His brother-in-law Don Lowry was indoctrinated by the communists to lead the waterfront union towards confrontation.  The communists acted by manipulating key agents in sensitive positions.  With agents in management and in the union, the communists inflamed and prolonged an industrial dispute which caused economic damage to the United States.  They did this because Moscow had ordered that the docks had to be ‘tied up for 60 days’.[12]  Eventually Lowry became aware of he communist plans and was killed by them.  Angered by Lowry’s murder, Ryan fought and exposed the communist ring, but while regaining his honour, he lost his life.

Throughout the film, the structure of the Communist Party was not made clear; the leader Thomas Gomez took his orders from a shadowy figure on a telephone.  The appearance of this shadowy figure who directed operations from behind the scenes, and who was never caught, was one of the consistent images in anti-communist films.  The figure appeared to be rich and wealthy; a member of the establishment.  The film implied that communists were present throughout society and their senior officials occupied high levels of power.  This hinted that the officials were connected with the Democrat administration.

Former communist membership could be an instrument of blackmail.  If Ryan’s communist past – which included murder – were discovered, he was told he would lose both his wife’s love and his career at the shipyards.  This was a clear attack on those Hollywood radicals who defended their party membership on the grounds of a youthful indiscretion.  Party membership was a lifetime commitment, regardless of the intentions of the individual.  Once a member of the party, it took an extreme act of contrition to remove the taint.  I Married a Communist can be read as Hollywood’s version of its own internal politics.  The hysterical tone of the films and the slimy depiction of communists was a reflection of how the moguls saw the communist threat.  In one scene, an FBI informer was killed by the communists and this was a calculated insult to those who refused to testify.  Informing on communists was depicted as an act of bravery.  Those who attempted to purge themselves of their past were the only ones who could be free from the taint of communism, just as those who did not recant before the various committees could ever again be trusted.

Exploration of the reasons for becoming a communist were confined to those weak-minded young men who were seduced – both literally and metaphorically – by communists.  The script of I Married A Communist claimed that one party member can indoctrinate a thousand Americans.[13]  The means of indoctrination looks to be sexual in nature.  Critic Nora Sayre has noted that there was a common figure running through the anti-communist films called ‘the Bad Blonde’.  The role of the blonde was to seduce ‘impressionable’ young men into joining the Party.[14]  Certainly as the communist agents Nixon[15] and Christine discussed indoctrination of Lowry in I Married A Communist, they equated it with seduction.


We begin on Christine’s hands rinsing a short piece of Leia film in tray-pull back as she hands the film to Nixon, who slips it in viewer and studies it closely.

CHRISTINE:   (in moment) Important?

NIXON: (continues studying film) Very.  As a matter of fact, it’s what I’ve waited for – for he last eight months.  (still studies film while questioning) How close is young Lowry to his brother-in-law?

CHRISTINE: Very close.  Why?

NIXON: (still studies film)  In that case – I’ve changed my mind about him.  Continue with his indoctrination.  I’ll inform headquarters you personally guarantee he’ll be delivered for use when and if he’s needed. 

Christine takes this with mingled reaction: pleasure about Don, puzzlement about Nixon’s new purpose.  She smiles answering:

CHRISTINE: (with slight mockery) Why – that will be a very interesting assignment- that I will enjoy very much.

He gives her an unreadable side-look – hands strip of film to her.

NIXON: Destroy it.

She drops film I tray – takes bottle of chemical from shelf.  Nixon exists.  Christine pours acid on film.  Fumes and vapor rise.  She still smiles – about herself and Don.[16]

Anti-intellectualism was another theme of I Married a Communist.  In one scene, communist agent Nixon reminded Brad Collins of his communist past.

            Nixon sits – opens briefcase – rummages through folders.

NIXON: (during this action) I’m a student of contracts.  They’re what makes this country of ours fabulous to the rest of the world. (finds what he seeks) On one hand, we have Bradley Collins – the great success story.  On the other – here I have the record of a very unsuccessful young man named Frank Johnson.

                        Brad shows no visible reaction – asks:

BRAD: Who’s he?

NIXON: He was typical of the lost generation – produced by the 30’s.  He left school – ambitious, strong, intelligent – hunting a job, to make his start up ladder.  Unfortunately – there were no jobs.

BRAD: (calmly) Why tell me about him?

NIXON: I’m coming to that – Mr. Collins. (consults documents) Embittered – and violent by nature – Frank Johnson joined the Young Communist League – then became a full fledged member of the Party… (seem to skip through document – hitting only the salient details).. Party card listed Frank J… Agit-prop activities, strikes in New Jersey … Very prominent in strong-arm work .. Then suddenly – broke all connections with the Party and disappeared … Reason unknown.

He stops – puts folder down – removes spectacles in a gesture we’ll learn is characteristic.  With spectacles off, Nixon is a changed man: cold, hard, the complete “intellectual”

NIXON: (continued) … Or was unknown until now…[17]

For these screenwriters being an intellectual was to be suspect, and being ‘the complete “intellectual” was to be a communist.

[1] New York Times, 4 August 1948.

[2] The first was a film called The Whiphand (1951) which was originally on Nazis but had the focus changed to communists because of Hughes’ ownership of RKO.

[3] New York Times, 5 December 1948.

[4] New York Times, 5 June 1949.

[5] Tom Milne (ed.).  Losey on Losey, Secker & Warburg, London, 1968, pp. 73 – 76.

[6] Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise, No. 6. ‘Nicholas Ray: Rebel!’ Take One, 5 January p. 11.

[7] Andrew Velez (ed.).  Robert Stevenson’s The Woman on Pier 13, RKO Classic Screenplays, Frederick Ungar, New York, 1976.  From introduction by Andrew Velez.  No page Number.

[8] Harry Bridges was the president of the International Longshormen’s and Warehousemen’s Union.  He is remembered for leading a strike in 1934 on the West Coast which eventually became a general strike.  The Congress of Industrial Organizations expelled the ILWU on the grounds of communist domination.  Bridges never denied his sympathy for communist and radical causes, but always denied being a party member.  Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets, Norton, New York, 1991, pp. 245 – 264.

[9] Bernard F. Dick, Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten, Universtiy Of Kentucky Press, Lexington, 1989, p. 219.

[10] Dalton Trumbo to

[11] Keep Faith, a speech before the American Legion Convention, Dinner Kay Auditorium, Miami, Florida, 15 October 1951, Box 212, Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Utah, USA.

[12] Velez, Woman on Pier 13, p. 31.

[13] Velez, Woman on Pier 13, p. 31.

[14] Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War, Dial, New York, 1982, p. 81.

[15] The script refers to the communist leader as being Nixon, but the final cast list gives the name as Vanning.  It may have been changed to avoid confusion with HUAC member, later US President, Richard Nixon.  As the screenplay refers to him as Nixon, this name will be used.

[16] Velez, Woman on Pier 13, p. 33.

[17] Velez, Woman on Pier 13, p. 13.

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