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Film / Hollywood on Trial

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Hollywood on Trial is a 1976 documentary feature film directed by David Helpern.

It's a film about The Hollywood Blacklist, focusing on the "Hollywood Ten". The film starts out with a thumbnail sketch of American history in the 1930s—the Great Depression, FDR and the New Deal, labor strikes and unrest. The House Un-American Activities Committee is formed in 1938 to investigate supposed disloyalty; in practice, the committe focused its attention solely on liberals and leftists. After a strike by Hollywood set decorators in 1945 turned violent, and after Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech essentially started the Cold War, HUAC turns its attention to Hollywood.

The hearings, which start in 1947, result in a parade of movie stars, writers, and executives. Gary Cooper pleads ignorance of Communism, while people like Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan speak out against Communism in Hollywood. Ten witnesses before the committee refuse to state if they have ever been members of the Communist Party: one director (Edward Dmytryk), and nine screenwriters, including Dalton Trumbo, maybe the best screenwriter in Hollywood in that era. The "Hollywood Ten" take a stand believing that right is on their side and they'll be vindicated; instead they're all held in contempt and sent to prison. When they get out, they're all blacklisted from working in the film industry. In 1951, when the committee starts a second round of investigations, things get much worse, for many more people in Hollywood.


John Huston provides narration.


  • Busby Berkeley Number: Yep! A clip from Footlight Parade, specifically a spectacular Busby Berkeley number, illustrates the glamour of Hollywood in the 1930s.
  • Hauled Before a Senate Subcommittee: It's not a pleasant experience. The Real Life examples shown here are almost certainly the Trope Codifier.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Used heavily with still pictures, like a zoom in on Rep. Martin Dies, the first chairman of HUAC, and a zoom out to show all members of the Hollywood Ten together in a photo.
  • Narrator: John Huston's deep, gravelly voice was perfect for narration.
  • Shout-Out: Many. There's a clip from pro-Stalin (really!) 1943 film Mission to Moscow which is used to illustrate that brief 1941-1945 window in which the United States and the Soviet Union were allies. Propagandistic B-movie The Red Menace is used to show how Hollywood, under pressure, started pumping out anti-communist films. Near the end of the film Zero Mostel, a blacklist victim, is interviewed on the set of The Front, a fictional movie about the blacklist that was made as the same time as this film.
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  • Staggered Zoom: It's impossible to tell if it was done with the original Stock Footage or done later for this movie. But in the clip where Eric Johnston of the MPAA delivers the "Waldorf Resolution" stating that the Hollywood studios won't employ the Hollywood Ten or anyone else who won't testify, there is a three-shot staggered zoom onto Johnston's face. This is followed by interviews with members of the Ten as they express shock at how the MPAA abandoned them.
  • Stock Footage: The bulk of the film. The intense exchanges between HUAC and the Hollywood Ten stand out. Also seen are stock clips showing the history of the era and excerpts from several movies.
  • Talking Heads: A lot. Six of the Hollywood Ten are interviewed (three had died and for whatever reason John Howard Lawson didn't participate). Otto Preminger talks about how he worked with Dalton Trumbo and how he helped undermine the blacklist when he announced that Trumbo wrote his film Exodus. An investigator for HUAC talks about how the committee did its business. Most surprisingly, Ronald Reagan is interviewed, apparently while he was still governor of California. Reagan justifies the blacklist and talks about how he was part of a group that let creative people off the blacklist if they'd do stuff like go to the FBI and name names.
  • The Voice: Interestingly, while extensive clips of the defiant Hollywood Ten in front of HUAC are shown, clips where people sang like canaries for HUAC in later hearings are not shown. So when Larry Parks came before the committee and begs for mercy, all that appears onscreen is a session of still photos accompanied by Parks's voice. Ditto for Edward Dmytryk when, having surrendered, he comes before the committee again and starts naming names.

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