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The Hollywood blacklist of the late 1940s and 1950s was one aspect of anti-communist paranoia in America. It swept through Hollywood, the centre of the United States' film industry, from about 1946 or 1947 and didn't completely end until the early 1960s. Many film industry figures were deprived of work due to actual or perceived left-wing or liberal sympathies. There were some Marxists in Hollywood, mostly involved in the labor union movement, but even the most paranoid investigators could not find communist plots that posed an actual threat to America. Many people caught up in the blacklist were liberals or centrists, either losing their jobs or forced to betray their friends and issue humiliating public apologies. This reflected the nationwide paranoia commonly known today as McCarthyism, although McCarthy was a latecomer and only a small part of it.
After World War Two, as Stalin consolidated his hold on eastern Europe and the US re-evaluated its role in the world, America was struck by a wave of fear. Everybody was a communist spy or a traitor, seeking to betray their nation to foreign interests. In Hollywood, center of the American film industry, communist infiltration seemed a particular threat because of the ability of films to influence people's opinions and thoughts. As a result there were a series of moves by right-wingers and anti-communists to eliminate communist influence, impose loyalty oaths, and stop anyone of left-wing beliefs from working in Hollywood.
Some of the people accused of communism were genuine disciples of Marx or Stalin, although membership of the Communist Party was not illegal and none had planned the violent overthrow of the US government. Some, such as comedienne Lucille Ball, had been involved with communist organisations in their youth in the 1930s. But many were never communists, often with moderate liberal or centrist political beliefs. Some opposed the blacklist because they supported American values like free speech, and were in turn condemned as communists. Some disliked the bullying tactics of right-wing organisers like directors' guild leader Cecil B. de Mille and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Others, like director John Ford, just felt that union or guild members should stick together, and (in his case) the director's guild shouldn't be "putting out derogatory information about a director, whether he is a Communist, beats his mother-in-law, or beats dogs." Ford was one of many to swiftly realign from liberal to red-baiter. People suspected of communist sympathies who did not repudiate their beliefs and denounce former associates were blacklisted from working in the film industry, and variously went overseas, used pseudonyms, or changed career.
There is a mythology in left-wing and liberal circles which looks at Hollywood at the time of the blacklist in terms of heroes and villains: brave people who stood up for their beliefs and for freedom of speech and who were driven out of jobs, and villains and traitors (such as Cecil B. de Mille and Elia Kazan) who destroyed lives or ratted on their friends. In reality, most people even in left-wing circles swiftly disavowed their earlier actions as far as they could, and many simply kept their heads down. To that extent, the anti-communist activities were a success for their proponents; rather than create heroic martyrs, they destroyed the left, making it almost impossible to hold or express communist or socialist beliefs, and even threatening liberal opinions.
As well as the overt political dispute, there were many other factors involved. In the late 1950s and early-1950s the film industry went through vast changes: already threatened by the growing popularity of television, in 1948 the Paramount Decision called for the breaking up of studio monopolies on anti-trust grounds, while other decisions weakened the hold that studios had on their workers. The result was that instead of a monolithic studio system that could control every aspect of film production and distribution, from scheduling how films were exhibited to regulating the off-duty behavior of starlets, studio heads faced a loss of revenue streams and desperately needed to exert control over their remaining assets.
Anti-communism was also overlaid on existing trade unions in Hollywood, many of which were infiltrated by organised crime. There were two main blocks of unions, with the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) more left-wing and pro-communist but less corrupt, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) more right-wing and more influenced by organised crime. Gangsters posed a threat to studios, but could also be used by the film industry to manipulate and control workers, and maintaining good relations with the more corrupt unions was essential.
And, in addition to that there was personal ambition. Creatives were no longer salaried employees of studios with their careers mapped out, but free agents, required to promote themselves ahead of their rivals and generate their own projects and career opportunities. There was also a powerful and very right-wing popular press, and many figures in politics and law enforcement who saw red-baiting as a sure path to the top.
The paranoia was largely stirred up by the media, particularly William Randolph Hearst's newspapers. Inside Hollywood, the notoriously anti-trade unionist Walt Disney was a prominent figure, as was the actor Ronald Reagan (though ironically, he was once head of the Screen Actors Guild union). The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had started their inquiries into Hollywood communists in 1938 under Representative Martin Dies Jr., and in 1940 HUAC produced its first list of 42 suspected communists, including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Katharine Hepburn; but at the time the trade journal Daily Variety accused Dies of being only a publicity-seeker with no facts. Walt Disney was one of the early witnesses and in 1941 he blamed communist agitators for a strike at his company.
The war directed people's minds in other directions, but it was ironically a major factor in anti-communist paranoia. World War Two saw rapid moves in American attitudes to Stalin's communist Soviet Union. From 1939 to 1941, Stalin and Hitler were allied, and the pro-Stalin wing of American communism was generally opposed to war, while many Americans of other political persuasions were also isolationist. Then in June 1941, Hitler attacked Stalin, so that by the time the US entered World War Two in December 1941, Russian communists and American patriots were on the same side. This changed again when the war finished, but lots of Americans had supported Stalin at some point in history.
The real start of the Hollywood witch hunt was when William R. Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, wrote a column on 29 July 1946 headlined "A Vote for Joe Stalin". It attacked as communists various Hollywood figures including:
- Dalton Trumbo, author and screenwriter known for 1938 pacifist novel Johnny Got His Gun
- Ring Lardner Jr., journalist and screenwriter (whose films included Laura and much later M*A*S*H). He was a Communist Party member until the 1950s.
- Harold Buchman, a left-wing lawyer
- Maurice Rapf, the screenwriter who incongruously wrote Disney's Song of the South, now lambasted for its racism
- Lester Cole, another communist and screenwriter
- Howard E. Koch, a screenwriter who worked with Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre and on the film Casablanca, but had the misfortune to also write the World War Two propaganda film Mission to Moscow in 1943 when Stalin was an ally
In opposition to the witch hunt, the Committee for the First Amendment was formed in September 1947 by screenwriter Philip Dunne, actor Myrna Loy, and directors John Huston and William Wyler. Other members included Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, William Holden, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, Burt Lancaster, Groucho Marx, Vincente Minnelli, Frank Sinatra, and Billy Wilder. Most of the members were past supporters of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, but no further to the left; some like Fonda were on the liberal wing of the Republican Party.
The anti-communist crusade was closely linked to the right-wing press, from Wilkerson onwards. In a spirit of contrition, The Hollywood Reporter much later produced a long list of possible motives for Wilkerson's actions. It may have been his desire to boost the importance of his newspaper column and make himself indispensable to the film industry. He was generally anti-union and had a long-running feud against the Writers' Guild of America, which had campaigned against the practice of industry professionals buying advertisements in exchange for favorable press coverage (the WGA banned members from purchasing advertisements in Wilkerson's paper): many of the early names were screenwriters. Wilkerson also had links to organised crime, which was hostile to communism especially in labor unions, and he may have sought to challenge hostile unions and enhance the influence of gangsters.
In October 1947, HUAC called several Hollywood figures for hearings on communist infiltration of the film industry. Many of those who testified were hostile to communism and sympathetic to the committee, although it still found no evidence of communist messages being secretly inserted into films. HUAC then started asking people if they were communists, and ten subpoenaed witnesses refused to answer, some of whom had already been named as communists by Wilkerson. The ten were:
- Alvah Bessie, a writer who had worked for Eugene O'Neill, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and translated avant-garde French literature
- Herbert Biberman, writer-director who had opposed war with Hitler during the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact
- Lester Cole
- Edward Dmytryk, Oscar-nominated director known for Raymond Chandler adaptations
- Ring Lardner Jr.
- John Howard Lawson, head of the Hollywood branch of the Communist Party USA
- Albert Maltz, writer of left-wing sympathies whose books included the popular novel The Cross and the Arrow (1944) about the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany; his name was removed from widely-ridiculed Christian epic The Robe (1953)
- Samuel Ornitz, writer, founder of the Screen Writers Guild, prominent supporter of the miners in the Harlan County War, and screenwriter of films including race drama Imitation of Life (1934) and anti-Nazi film They Live in Fear (1944)
- Adrian Scott, film critic, screenwriter, producer, and Communist Party USA member
- Dalton Trumbo
Some definitely were communists; others were of left-wing sympathies but weren't party members. The ten claimed that the First Amendment gave them the right to freedom of speech and thought outside the control of the government, but they were charged with Contempt of Congress for not testifying, fined US$1000, and sentenced to 6-12 months in prison. After lengthy appeals, all ten were sent to jail in 1950, but Edward Dmytryk agreed to testify and had his sentence commuted.
Rather than a single blacklist, there were various organizations compiling lists, and various degrees of blacklisting. The first list was the Waldorf Statement of 25 November 1947, issued by Eric Johnston, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, on behalf of 48 Hollywood executives. It included the names of the Hollywood Ten and stated that none of them should be allowed to work in the motion picture industry until they declared they were not communists.
The American Legion issued a list of 128 suspected communists involved with the entertainment industry in 1949, which included playwright Lillian Hellman. HUAC itself produced lists. Another prominent organisation was American Business Consultants, Inc, which was founded in 1947, and published Counterattack, "The Newsletter of Facts to Combat Communism"; it had close links to the FBI and HUAC. Its 1950 publication Red Channels listed 151 people in entertainment and journalism, including Orson Welles (by then in Europe anyway), humorist Dorothy Parker, leftist folk singer Pete Seeger, and composer Leonard Bernstein.
Several organisations, both trade guilds and employers, required loyalty oaths or other displays of patriotism. The Directors' Guild of America under Mankiewicz kept the oath that De Mille had proposed in 1950. Broadcaster CBS introduced their oath in December 1950.
The Screen Writers Guild has long had strict rules about who is credited as the writer on a film, and in 1952 it changed its rules so that anyone not cleared by Congress could be deleted from credits.
Newspapers such as those owned by the Hearst organisation and powerful gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons also enforced conformism in a less formal way, using their power to destroy somebody's reputation. Wilkerson handed his column over to Mike Connolly, who published savage attacks on suspected communists, and even gave out their addresses, an early example of the now-common practice of doxxing.
There were incidents where the wrong person was blacklisted: actor Anna Lee (known for her work with John Ford) was confused with someone else, and unable to work in the mid 1950s; in that case John Ford was able to intervene. A similar thing happened to screenwriter Louis Pollock who was confused with a rag trade figure called Louis Pollack.
One of the most famous incidents was the 1950 attempt by members of the Screen Directors' Guild, the professional association or labor union of film directors, to require all its members to sign an oath of loyalty to the US government. Central to this proposal was Cecil B. De Mille, a leading silent film director whose artistic relevance was on the slide by the late 1940s as he continued to churn out dated Biblical epics. De Mille led a contingent that attempted to remove the guild's president Joseph L. Mankiewicz (double Oscar-winning director of A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve). John Ford famously spoke out against De Mille at a meeting on Oct 22, 1950, declaring "My name is John Ford. I am a director of Westerns", and getting himself elected vice-president. On that occasion the right-wingers were defeated, but only briefly.
In 1951-52 HUAC held another round of hearings. Some people relied on the Fifth Amendment to avoid giving evidence. This avoided legal punishment, but a refusal to testify led to blacklisting. Others named names. Those who were named often chose to name others, although some apparently only gave names who were already well-known to authorities, maybe hoping to minimise the damage. Those who named names included actor Larry Parks (a communist from 1941-45), actor Lee J. Cobb, writer Budd Schulberg, and director Elia Kazan.
Many of those named were reduced in status or made to change their line of work. Elmer Bernstein found himself scoring Cat Women of the Moon (1953). Edward G. Robinson, who had been a friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt but was certainly no communist, was informally blacklisted and spent the decade working on stage. Alvah Bessie, a Spanish Civil War veteran and Warner Bros writer who was in the original Ten, moved to San Francisco and became a nightclub stage manager.
Some fled abroad. Joseph Losey settled in the UK, where he was instrumental in improving the artistic standards of British film, as part of the British New Wave of the late 1950s and 1960s. Robert Adrian Scott worked on British television, presumably wryly enjoying his job on The Adventures of Robin Hood. Sam Wanamaker moved to London and campaigned for what ultimately became the revived Globe theatre. Bertolt Brecht gave evidence before leaving for East Germany.
Others issued pathetic public apologies and were able to resume their work. Bogart wrote a magazine article denying he had ever been a communist. He claimed he had been duped, saying he did not know that the people he had campaigned for were actually communists (who included the head of the Hollywood branch of the Communist Party USA), and soon he was acting again. The black actor and singer Lena Horne, who was a close friend of prominent communist Paul Robeson, likewise used newspaper articles and public apologies to rehabilitate her reputation. (Even in 2015 The Atlantic still believed that her membership in communist organisations, friendship with prominent communists, and advocacy of communist causes were simply as an innocent stooge.) After recanting, Edward Dmytryk gradually found work with independent producer Stanley Kramer and then others.
Some of the blacklisted figures attempted to work entirely outside the studio system. Herbert Biberman made a film Salt of the Earth, about striking Mexican-American mine workers, but it was boycotted by distributors, media refused to carry advertisements for it, and projectionists declined to show it.
A few blacklisted writers worked in secret under pseudonyms. Dalton Trumbo won two Oscars under false names, for romantic comedy Roman Holiday (1953), and for a Mexican toreador drama The Brave One (1956). Michael Wilson got one for anonymously co-writing The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
End of the blacklist
As time went by, the paranoia faded. In the late 1950s some of the blacklisted actors managed to get work again, as the power of the studios declined and people cared less about now-distant events.
The end is generally dated to 1960, when Dalton Trumbo was credited for writing Exodus, and acknowledged for his recent work on Spartacus; this marked the end of the Writers' Guild's refusal of credits. Another landmark was in 1962, when John Henry Faulk won damages of US$3.5m (later reduced) over his inclusion in Red Channels 12 years previously.
Inevitably the topic has featured in many films, at first in an allegorical fashion, with later films dealing more directly:
- High Noon (directed by Fred Zinnemann, 1952) — western written by Carl Foreman, who had refused to testify
- On The Waterfront (directed by by Elia Kazan, 1955) — drama about organised crime, seen as a justification for Kazan's naming of names, also featuring the talents of Cobb and Schulberg
- The Big Knife (directed by Robert Aldrich, 1955) — Hollywood drama written by the left-wing playwright Clifford Odets
- Hollywood on Trial (documentary film directed by David Helpern, 1976)
- The Front (directed by Martin Ritt, 1976). This film starred Zero Mostel, who was blacklisted in real life.
- Trumbo (biopic directed by Jay Roach, 2015)
So many more blacklists
Today there is again a highly partisan political atmosphere and powerful, unscrupulous media are again accusing people of crimes and treason. So in Trump's America there are a lot of possible blacklists:
- Right-wing conspiracy theorists claim a blacklist against Donald Trump supporters.
- Comedian Kathy Griffin claimed there was a blacklist against people who mocked Trump. Ridiculous, but right-wingers have seriously accused her of treason and called for blacklisting or jailing. (Should we take that as an implicit admission of guilt, or just a part of the modern habit of conservatives to accuse anyone they disagree with of treason?)
- Film producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of blacklisting people who noticed his poor sexual ethics.
- Liberal media
- Hollywood values
- Big Hollywood
- Roy Cohn — Joseph McCarthy's chief legal counsel during the Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954
- Useful idiot
- The Hollywood Reporter, After 65 Years, Addresses Role in Blacklist, Gary Baum, Daniel Miller The Hollywood Reporter, November 19, 2012
- The Convoluted Politics of John Ford, Joseph McBride, LA Times, June 3, 2001
- Hard-Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles, Jon Lewis (2017) University of California Press. ISBN 0520284321.
- ‘Trumbo’ and Five Facts You Didn’t Know About the Hollywood Blacklist, Tim Gray, Variety, Sep 12, 2015
- The Hollywood Ten: The Men Who Refused to Name Names, The Hollywood Reporter, 16 Nov 2015
- See the Wikipedia article on Committee for the First Amendment.
- The Robe, Kim Newman, Empire magazine
- See the Wikipedia article on Red Channels.
- Winning a Battle but Losing The War Over the Blacklist, Greg Mitchell, New York Times, 25 Jan 1998
- See the Wikipedia article on Hollywood blacklist.
- Hollywood Ten, Spartacus Educational
- The Red-Baiting of Lena Horne, The Atlantic, Aug 27, 2015
- How ‘Commie’ writer turned ‘High Noon’ into subversive Hollywood hit, New York Post, Mar 12, 2017
- New Hollywood Blacklist: Oppose Trump or Face Career Ruin, Racism, Sexism, Threats, Daily Wire, January 17, 2017
- Antonio Sabato Jr. Says Hollywood is Blacklisting Him for Supporting Donald Trump, Variety, Aug 3, 2016
- Kathy Griffin: Trump photo put me on 'Hollywood blacklist', Chicago Tribune, Nov 21, 2017
- Commentary: This is why Hollywood should blacklist Trump-detractor entertainers, The Blaze, Jun 23, 2017
- Harvey Weinstein, and the new Hollywood blacklist, NJ.com, Nov 27, 2017