The screenwriter who became a Hollywood exile
Jean Rouverol 1916–2017
In 1951, Jean Rouverol opened the front door of her Hollywood home to find two men in suits waiting outside. The actress and screenwriter instantly knew who they were: FBI agents aiding Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s crackdown on Hollywood left-wingers. Several of her friends had been jailed for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. So when the agents asked to speak with her husband, Hugo Butler, the screenwriter of such wholesome movies as Lassie Come Home and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Rouverol put her acting skills to use. “I said, on the verge of tears, ‘We had a little disagreement. I don’t know where he’s gone,’” she later recalled. The men said, “We’ll be back.” Before they could return, Rouverol and her husband, both Communist Party members, fled to Mexico with their four children. The family wouldn’t return to the U.S. for another 13 years.
Born in St. Louis, Rouverol was inspired to enter show business by her playwright mother, Aurania, who created the Andy Hardy character popularized on screen by Mickey Rooney, said The Times (U.K.). At age 16, Rouverol made her acting debut on Broadway; the poverty she saw in New York City would shape her political sympathies. After winning a contract with Paramount, Rouverol was cast as W.C. Fields’ self-involved daughter in the 1934 comedy It’s a Gift. She married Butler in 1940 and began writing “after starting a family,” said the Los Angeles Times. By 1950, her first screenplay, the reform school drama So Young, So Bad, had been made into a movie starring a thenunknown “Rita Moreno as a suicidal teen.”
After escaping to Mexico, Rouverol and Butler were often spied on and had to use “pseudonyms and fronts” to get around the Hollywood blacklist, said The Hollywood Reporter. Their script for the 1956 Joan Crawford drama Autumn Leaves was credited to a friend, Jack Jevne, but the FBI still intercepted their paycheck in the mail. The couple returned to the U.S. in 1964, and Rouverol received Daytime Emmy nominations in 1976 and 1978 for her work on the CBS soap opera Guiding Light. She often missed her old cloakand- dagger life. “I wouldn’t change a moment of it,” she said. “We were periodically terrified. But we felt like some curious kind of pioneer.”