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Media Notes / The Hollywood Blacklist

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"Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"
— The question asked in every HUAC hearing

The Cold War never made as big a mark on American culture as in 1947, the year in which the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities (commonly known as the HUAC, which is not an exact acronym; this may have been intentional) began conducting a series of investigations into Hollywood actors, screenwriters, and directors, inquiring into whether or not they were Communists and whether or not they tried to use the movies to covertly spread Communist ideas and subversive elements to the American public at large. Also in 1947, three former FBI agents founded a private organization called American Business Consultants, which unofficially supplemented the HUAC's investigations and the Attorney General's list of subversive organizations with its newsletter Counterattack: Facts to Combat Communism and the 1950 book Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, which soon became known as "the Bible of Madison Avenue" due to its influence over advertisers.

The blacklist had its roots in the Popular Front of the 1930s (which anti-Communists would later call the "Red Decade") and the Anglo-American-Soviet alliance of World War II. This was a period of widespread cultural opposition to Fascism and sympathy for Communism, even in America and most especially in the arts. It also took roots in the labor movement in Hollywood, where the Writers Guild, the Actors Guild, and the Directors Guild were first formed, which in turn led many studio bosses, including Walt Disney and Cecil B. DeMille, to complain of Communist influence. Though Hollywood studios before the war had remained politically neutral (so that they wouldn't risk having their movies banned in foreign markets), their contribution to the war effort had included shamelessly pro-USSR movies such as Mission to Moscow, The North Star, and Song of Russia (whose portrayal of Glorious Mother Russia was denounced before the HUAC by none other than Ayn Rand). In the late '40s and early '50s, Hollywood movies such as The Red Menace, I Married a Communist, I Was a Communist for the FBI, and My Son John would portray the Soviet Union and Communism in a much harsher (if no more accurate) light.

The HUAC initially compiled a list of 42 artists suspected to have former and/or present Communist affiliations. Of these 42, only eleven were called, and of these eleven only one—Bertolt Brecht (one of the many German refugees who'd come to live and work in Hollywood and LA, though never a prolific screenwriter)—stepped in and gave testimony, during which he smoked a cigar and admitted that he was never a committed member of the Communist Party, and right after the hearing he flew to East Germany. The other ten refused to testify, citing the First Amendment, and the Committee held them in contempt of Congress, beginning legal proceedings against them. This group came to be known as the "Hollywood Ten".

Within Hollywood, several members of the film fraternity were strongly against the idea of government interference in the motion picture business, believing that politics ought not to play a role in deciding talent, contribution, and quality of work. This group formed the Committee for the First Amendment, its members including the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Huston, Henry Fonda, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, and William Wyler. They even came to the hearings in Washington to protest the HUAC's interference, and many of its members were brought to the House themselves later on—with some of them, like John Garfield, ending up fully blacklisted. The fact that many of the Hollywood Ten were Communists, and refused to be up-front about this (on the principle that the House had no right to persecute citizens for their political beliefs), disillusioned some of their erstwhile allies, with Bogart publicly admitting to feeling duped by the Ten, though he remained opposed to McCarthyism.

Meanwhile, anti-Communist figures in Hollywood organized under the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, led for a while by John Wayne and then by Roy Brewer, who was also the Hollywood representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The Directors Guild of America also saw a nasty internal feud at the time, with Cecil B. DeMille leading an anti-Communist faction that tried to force then-president Joseph L. Mankiewicz to require members to sign a loyalty oath. The situation came to a head with an explosive meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel in October of 1950, with a vituperative DeMille being vocally challenged by the likes of John Huston and George Stevens, and John Ford (who generally leaned rightward politically) giving a speech that eloquently defended Mankiewicz and reprimanded DeMille. DeMille's influence on the Guild sharply waned after the meeting.

The fallout of the Hollywood Ten hearings led to a cry for studio pressure on their employees, with Eric Johnston of the MPAA admitting that he wouldn't employ any committed Communist in his work. In December 1947, several Hollywood executives, under mounting pressure from the government, held a meeting at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel and issued the Waldorf Statement where they more or less declared that, until such time as the Hollywood Ten continued to remain Communist and secretive and refused to renounce their affiliations, they wouldn't be allowed employment in American cinema. In practice, this blacklist extended to work in other fields, including theater, radio and television, leaving many of them unemployed and destitute.

After the blacklist was enforced, those who were invited to Washington to testify as a "friendly witness" were offered a Sadistic Choice: they could admit that they were (or once were) Communist and "name names" and renounce their convictions and former associates, or they could be barred from employment for an indefinite period and kiss their careers goodbye. Many of the people who came to the committee noted that they already had all the names, meaning the investigations were technically useless and did not fish out new communists and subversives but primarily worked as a means to intimidate and bully the film fraternity. The blacklist would later be regarded as the Old Shame of Hollywood, where the film industry were turned on each other and friends and colleagues who worked together collaborated with the government to destroy each other's careers all in fear of losing their own. Some historians noted that the paranoia of this climate was reflected in the Film Noir of its time, and brought a darker edge to several '50s films and a more jaded post-war Hollywood culture which coincided with the Fall of the Studio System.

What's not taken into account then and even now is that the Hollywood Communists were by no means a unified contingent taking orders from Moscow. Several of them, like Ring Lardner Jr., Abe Polonsky and E. Y. Harburg, were inspired by Marx but did not associate with the party, citing the Moscow Show Trials and especially the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact as evidence of the Soviet Union's corruption. Indeed, some of the people blacklisted had no ties at all to Communism or the party aside from a broad sympathy for leftist causes like the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and what was termed at the time as "premature anti-fascism" — that is, opposing Hitler and Mussolini before it was cool and okay for America to enter the war. Some of the historians and survivors (including Abe Polonsky) even argued that the Committee collaborated with Studios to institute a purge in Hollywood of more liberal artists as part of the more conservative post-war climate, which made the House Committee similar to the Soviet Union (contrary to Dalton Trumbo's parting words to the HUAC, America never established concentration camps for Communists, though a law authorizing such camps in case of a national emergency remained on the books from 1950 until that section was repealed in 1971).

Many artists and talented figures suffered during this period. Charlie Chaplin, director of The Great Dictator, was an outspoken leftist and definitely a "premature anti-fascist". His dark post-war films and his fairly free approach to sex made him a target, and since he was not an American citizen, they simply revoked his visa when he went to England to shoot Limelight, barring him from entry for several years. Chaplin for his part issued a Take That! to the Committee in A King in New York, where he hoses down the entire party with water.

Of course, Chaplin was lucky enough to be independently wealthy. Unluckier were screenwriters, directors, and actors who had no money, and the loss of career upset several marriages and families. In the cases of actors John Garfield, Canada Lee, Mady Christians, Edward Bromberg, Philip Loeb and Don Hollenback, the blacklist is strongly believed to have hastened their early deaths. A few of them, like Abe Polonsky, Dalton Trumbo, John Berry, Joseph Losey and Lillian Hellman, refused to "name names" on general principle, while others like Elia Kazan and Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins, both of whom had been Communist Party members for only a few years, despite their opposition to the hearings willingly provided names to the committee. Kazan was the only major left-wing artist to take such a public stand and stood by it and even took a front page defending his decision, an action which haunted him to the end of his life, though he also noted in interviews he didn't regret his stand.note 

Those who were blacklisted had to resort to alternate means to find work. This included working under front names and sympathetic screenwriters like Philip Yordan who often gave them work under the table. In the '50s, many of them did uncredited work on major films, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Dalton Trumbo famously won an Oscar under this arrangement. The Academy and the credits of these films have subsequently reversed this injustice, and the DVD and later prints credit original writers. Others like Joseph Losey had to go to Britain and France, where the films for the stateside release had to be credited to another name to qualify for release. The blacklist also had very little influence on Broadway, which at the time was more the domain of independent producers than large corporations.

The blacklist formally ended in The '60s with the release of Spartacus and Exodus (1960), both of which were written by Dalton Trumbo and which publicly gave him full credit in defiance of the blacklist. Notably, soon after being elected in 1960, John F. Kennedy walked through picket lines protesting Spartacus to watch the film. This started the healing process, and the Civil Rights Movement re-energized America to turn against the militant anti-communism of the past, though for many the damage was done and most of them never recovered their careers.

Important Artists from this period 1947-1961

  • Joseph Losey - Losey was a theater and radio director who worked on Bertolt Brecht's Galileo with Charles Laughton. His films often featured All of the Other Reindeer themes, especially The Boy With Green Hair. His Film Noir The Lawless criticized the racism against Mexican laborers while The Prowler (1951), which was co-written by blacklistees Hugo Butler and Dalton Trumbo, featured Take That! and Reality Subtext against the HUAC. After his exile, he went to England and France where he made several acclaimed films with Nobel Prize winning playwright Harold Pinter and recovered his career fully.
  • Abraham Polonsky - Polonsky was a respected screenwriter, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Body and Soul (directed by Robert Rossen of The Hustler (1961) fame) which had John Garfield in the leading role as a Working-Class Hero prize-fighter tempted by the dark side of consumerism and capitalist temptations. Polonsky and Garfield later teamed up for Force of Evil which showed gangsters as budding capitalists and businessmen, and which Polonsky admitted was a Marxist analysis of the crime genre.
  • Herbert Biberman - One of the Hollywood Ten, Herbert Biberman made what is the only American film of the 50s to be actually financed by the Communist Party. His film Salt of the Earth (1954) is one of Noam Chomsky's favorites and featured Older than You Think feminist approach to workers' movements and which is well made enough to not be propaganda. The film featured real migrant workers in those roles, with Clinton Jencks, a labor organizer who'd been convicted of falsely swearing not to be a Communist (as was required for union officers), playing a character based on himself (he won on appeal with the Supreme Court, establishing an important right of all defendants in criminal cases).
  • Dalton Trumbo - Perhaps the most notable member to be blacklisted, he wrote the screenplays for several films, including the Academy Award winner The Brave One (1957), which he wrote under the pseudonym "Robert Rich." He also wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953), which was credited to a friend of Trumbo's, Ian McLellan Hunter, before the award was posthumously reinstated to Trumbo forty years later (Hunter himself would later go on to be blacklisted). He also anonymously wrote Joseph Lewis' Gun Crazy and several other notable films, until finally being given credit publicly for Exodus (1960) and Spartacus, which officially ended the blacklist. Trumbo served a sentence of 11 months in 1950 as did several of the Hollywood Ten. His story is dramatized in the 2015 biopic Trumbo.
  • John Garfield - An actor who was Kazan's first choice for Stanley Kowalski in the theatrical production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Garfield was regarded as a promising actor and rising star who appeared in several films made by suspected and actual communists and whose wife was a member of the party. He appeared in films like Gentleman's Agreement, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body and Soul, Force of Evil and He Ran All The Way. He died young, at the age of 39, of heart problems and anxiety which supporters argue stem from his persecution by the HUAC.
  • Canada Lee - A black middleweight boxer turned actor, he appeared on stage as Banquo in Orson Welles' "voodoo" Macbeth, as Bigger Thomas in Native Son and as Caliban in The Tempest. On screen, he played prizefighters in Keep Punching (1939) and Body and Soul (1947), and also appeared as a steward in Lifeboat and as a Harlem policeman in Lost Boundaries (a 1949 drama of racial prejudice Based on a True Story). He finally was awarded the leading role of Stephen Kumalo in Cry, the Beloved Country, which also ended his career as he was blacklisted after refusing to testify before HUAC. Despairing of finding another acting job, he died in 1952 of a heart attack.
  • Lillian Hellman - A playwright who occasionally worked in Hollywood, Hellman had written the original story and screenplay of The North Star. HUAC investigated her in 1952 over her associations with the Communist Party (of which she was a member from 1938 to 1940); her letter to the chairman explaining her refusal to name other members included the famous statement, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions." Her Candide libretto (written in 1956 but suppressed in the 1970s due to Creative Differences) included a scene where the Lisbon Inquisition promises leniency to suspects willing to name names.
  • Michael Wilson - After being blacklisted, he wrote the screenplay for Salt of the Earth. He moved to Europe in 1954, but continued his screenwriting career without credit in collaboration with fellow blacklisted writers Dalton Trumbo and Carl Foreman, including The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

Films made and/or set during this period

  • High Noon - Written by Carl Foreman as a combination of an original idea and a story by John W. Cunningham, this film starring Gary Cooper centers around a US Marshal of a small Western town who, on his wedding day, receives news that a band of outlaws are coming to town to kill him. He decides to stay, and looks for help but everybody refuses. As he was developing the story, Foreman realized that he was the Marshal, the gang was the HUAC and the townspeople were his friends in Hollywood who turned their backs on him when he was called in to testify.
  • On the Waterfront - Elia Kazan's Oscar-winning classic dealt with real-life Mafia influence on the longshoremen's union but the scene where Terry Malloy testifies against the Mafia influence on the docks was widely seen as Reality Subtext, a defense of Kazan's testimony at the HUAC, which Kazan alternatively admitted and denied. Kazan saw himself as part of the anti-Communist left, and his post-war films like A Face in the Crowd were equally critical of conservative demagoguery.
  • Johnny Guitar - Nicholas Ray's famous western starring Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden featured a lynch mob posse that included actor Ward Bond, himself an anti-Communist agitator. The lynch mob force outlaws to testify and denounce each other and then lynches them anyway. This was an intentional Take That! to the HUAC.
  • The Way We Were (1973) has Robert Redford's character becoming a successful Hollywood screenwriter, only to have his girlfriend's (Barbra Streisand) left-wing activism threaten his career as the blacklist spreads.
  • The Front - This 1976 comedy directed by Martin Ritt, starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel (who was blacklisted as well), dealt with blacklisted artists working under pseudonyms.
  • Hollywood on Trial (1976) - Documentary feature that recounts the HUAC hearings, including interviews with HUAC victims like Dalton Trumbo as well as HUAC supporters like Ronald Reagan.
  • Guilty by Suspicion - A 1991 film on the blacklist, directed by producer Irwin Winkler (of Rocky and Raging Bull fame) featured several expies from this period and criticized the HUAC.
  • Red Hollywood - A documentary by Thom Andersen and Noel Burch, features interviews with survivors and analysis of films made in this period.
  • Cradle Will Rock, directed by actor Tim Robbins, is set in The '30s but it shows HUAC in its early days, then usually known as the Dies Committee (from its chairman Representative Martin Dies), which investigates the short-lived Federal Theatre's purported infiltration by communist artists.
  • The Majestic has Jim Carrey's character getting caught up in the blacklist.
  • Trumbo - A biopic featuring Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo and focusing on his contributions to Spartacus.