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Sunday, November 19, 2017

The film collaborations of Luis Buñuel and Hugo Butler in Mexico

The 'Hollywood blacklist', composed of prominent film personnel that were presumed in the 1940s and 1950s to have ties to the Communist Party, had repercussions well beyond Tinseltown, or the U.S. for that matter.  Despite this being a decidedly dark period of U.S. and Hollywood history, those who made their livelihood from the craft of film-making often still worked to produce films of considerable interest in whatever way they could. One way was to leave the U.S.

In Mexico, two exiles, Spanish-born surrealist Luis Buñuel and blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Hugo Butler, formed an unlikely partnership and produced two unique and divergent films: Robinson Crusoe and The Young Onethe only ones Buñuel made in English.  Both challenged the structures of society that made the blacklist possible.

This post is my contribution to the "Banned and Blacklisted" CMBA Fall Blogathon.  For links to all posts, click on the image below.

Director and writer Buñuel was not a Hollywood filmmaker, and was not included on the official Hollywood blacklist, but had he had a substantive U.S. career, he may very well have been.  He was born in 1900 in Spain, and while, or because, he had a strict Jesuit education, in his younger years was already developing an irreverent, experimental style of film-making in the late 1920s and early 1930s, that was often counter-establishment.  His penetration into surrealism happened alongside his growing friendship with painter Salvador Dalí and playwright/poet Federico García Lorca.  He did find himself on the wrong side of Fascist Spain for his unabashed anti-Fascist and anti-clerical views.  And to Hollywood he did come, after establishing himself in France as a filmmaker, but the studio system did not warm to him. His friend, producer Denise Tual, was more or less kicked out of Louis B. Mayer's office in 1944 trying to recommend he hire Buñuel. Then persona non grata, Tual decided to restart her career in Mexico, and because of the increasing pressure on left-leaning filmmakers in Hollywood, Buñuel was convinced to go with her.  In Mexico he had more options, and began to make complete films again when connected to powerful producers Óscar Dancigers and George Pepper.  Pepper, also 'exiled' in Mexico as a result of the blacklist, had established his own production company under the pseudonym George P. Werker (!).
Buñuel (left) with Hugo Butler working on a script
The pressure on screenwriter Hugo Butler to leave Hollywood was considerably more intense.  While originating from Canada, the writer of Lassie Come Home and The Southerner and his American screenwriter wife Jean Rouverol had been members of the Communist party for a time, and were expecting a call to testify by the unfriendly House Un-American Activities Committee. Rather than submitting to that, they left Hollywood for Mexico in 1951.  There, they joined fellow blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, and other 'exiles'.  The film-making industry in Mexico in the 1950s was protectionist, though, and artists such as Butler and Buñuel did not find it easy at first to gain a foothold.  The state-funded 'Asociación de Productores y Directores de Películas Mexicanas' put heavy restrictions on non-Mexicans in getting work permits.  As a result, working with Dancigers and Pepper, Butler and Buñuel became part of a 'cinematic crosscurrent'.  Exiles from their own countries, and feeling somewhat exiled within Mexico, they perhaps unsurprisingly explored the experience of 'the exile' in their work during this phase. 

Robinson Crusoe was their first joint project together.  The screenplay based on the famed novel by Daniel Defoe had been drafted first by Butler, and was sold to producer Pepper, who reached out to Buñuel to direct.  Buñuel was initially reluctant, but when he had the opportunity to contribute to the developing script the deal was sealed.  Irish actor Daniel O'Herlihy was cast as the title character, and filming commenced in color, in Mexico.  The dialogue was in English, although in the first part of the film it was minimal, with O'Herlihy dominating the screen as the castaway with no other humans.  His thoughts are related, when necessary, with voice-over narration. This version focused on the psychological struggle of Crusoe's fight to survive without any human interaction, rather than the more traditional 'man conquers nature' arc.  While he does come to dominate his surroundings, and the 'imperial' right order is restored, he questions the power dynamic of his relationship with his 'native' companion Friday.  As Ed Gonzalez says in Slant Magazine, "Buñuel dares his audience to question everything they've come to know about morality, savagery, and everything in between.” 

Butler's horizons were expanded working with Buñuel, collaborating to incorporate more non-traditional, including surrealist elements, into the script.  A famous fever-dream sequence inserts a vision of Crusoe's father, chastising Crusoe.  At one point his father is submerged eerily underwater:

Robinson Crusoe was released in 1954 through United Artists, and screenwriting credits were given to Buñuel, and Butler under the pseudonym Phillip Ansel Roll.  It got enough attention that O'Herlihy was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor.  Watching it on Filmstruck, I found it a highly captivating film, and one I'll return to.

Bernie Hamilton and Key Meersman in The Young One
The Young One (1960) was the second of the Butler-Buñuel collaborations, with a distinctly different tone, at least on the surface.  Butler, this time taking the name H. B. Addis, wrote the script from a short story by Peter Matthiessen called Travellin' Man.  It's a contemporary story of a falsely-accused African-American fugitive from justice, Traver, played by Bernie Hamilton, who retreats to a small South Carolina island inhabited only by tyrannical, racist rancher Miller (Zachary Scott) and his ailing father.  He also has living with him a young ward, Evalyn (Key Meersman).  Ultimately, Scott decides to assert himself with Evalyn a bit too much, and Traver befriends both of them while the family politics disintegrate.  Ultimately Miller is forced to confront his own racism as he loses what is dear to him.  It shares with Crusoe, though, the themes of isolation, living in exile, and redemption only by real human connection as equals.

It's filmed in black-and-white with almost no soundtrack except a spiritual "Oh Sinner-Man" at the beginning and end, giving it a harsh, lower-budget feel. Scott disappears into Miller's skin, and is so repulsive at every turn, that his semi-redemption at the end leaves us with not a small amount of doubt.  It's not an easy watch, and there are times when it veers into unreal, if not surreal.  This may because the portrayals were not exactly what Buñuel wanted.  According to his biographer, the director was thrilled to have Zachary Scott, a veteran talent, but was unhappy about what he got from Hamilton and Meersman, the former getting 'carried away' and the latter having no acting experience.  To compensate, he asked Scott to abandon his underplaying, and he then was at least relatively satisfied with the result.  The finished product is a gritty, and pessimistic take on contemporary American society, which was seething with the scourge of racism as well as the culture of fear emanating from the communist witch hunts.
Key Meersman and Zachary Scott in The Young One
Stream the film here:
Ironically, the positive reception of this film at Cannes in 1960 was Buñuel's ticket out of Mexico and back to making 'European' films. Three of his most remembered films, The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Belle du Jour came later in the 1960s.  Sadly, Butler did not live to see his writing credits returned to the films he penned while blacklisted--he died at age 53 in 1968 from heart disease.

1) Baxter, John. Buñuel 
2) Wood, Michael. The Fierce Imagination of Luis Buñuel, in Great Film Directors, Leo Brandy, editor.
3) Schrieber, Rebecca M., Cold War Exiles in Mexico
4) Pepper, Margot. For George Pepper, the Blacklist Isn't Over.


  1. Fascinating account of the times, the films, and the battle between creativity and power.

    1. Thank you, Patricia. Creativity vs. power—exactly.

  2. Buñuel is one of my favorite foreign filmmakers, but for one reason or another THE YOUNG ONE has not been accessed for viewing at Rancho Yesteryear. I hope to rectify this when the opportunity presents itself, since this was an excellent essay (and I'm a big fan of Bernie Hamilton).

    1. Thanks, Ivan. I’ll be interested in your opinion of TYO. I found it strange but fascinating.

  3. Great article! I remember ALMOST watching Robinson Crusoe, but choosing Buñuel's Death in this Garden instead. I hope I have the chance to see both films, now tat I know the interesting story behind them. And what a shame that Butler died without being "pardoned"!
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Robinson Crusoe was much more compelling than I expected it to be. I hope you enjoy it.

  4. I've never seen either of these films, but I will now search them out thanks to your fascinating article.

    1. Thanks Amanda. That is one great thing about being a classic film fan—a seemingly never-ending treasure of movies to watch! 🙂