In the 1930s, many Americans became disillusioned with Capitalism and they found Communism to be attractive alternative, drawn to the activism of American Communists on behalf of the rights of African-Americans, workers and the unemployed. Even more were alarmed by the rise of Fascism in Italy and Spain and the Nazis in Germany, and they admired the USSR’s early and staunch opposition to Fascism. By the start of America’s involvement in WW II, membership in the American Communist Party was 55,000.
Party members rallied to the defense of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). The American Communist Party, along with Leftists throughout the world, raised funds for medical relief, and many of its members went to Spain, funded by the party, to join the Lincoln Brigade, the first American military force to include blacks and whites integrated on an equal basis. And remember, the USA and USSR were allies by the 1940s.
When WW II ended, that all changed and Communism became the focus of American fears and hatred. In 1945, Gerald L. K. Smith, founder of the Fascist-ish America First Party, began giving speeches about “Russian Jews in Hollywood”. Reports of Soviet repression in the war’s aftermath added fuel to what became known as the “Red Scare”.
When the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenaed filmmakers to testify about Communism in the industry, a few held their ground, and lost their jobs.
In October 1947, when HUAC convened a hearing in Washington DC to investigate subversive activities in showbiz, 41 screenwriters, directors and producers were subpoenaed. Most witnesses were “friendly”, meaning that they were willing to respond to the committee’s question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”. Those who confessed to membership were offered the opportunity to name “fellow travelers”. This enabled them to regain their good standing with HUAC, and by extension, Hollywood.
Ten witnesses, all former party members, banded together to protest, refusing to cooperate on First Amendment grounds: freedom of speech, right of assembly, freedom of association. HUAC disagreed. It found the Hollywood Ten in contempt of Congress, and fined them each $1,000 ($11,000 in 2017 dollars) and sentenced them to a year in federal prison. All ten artists were also fired by a group of studio executives, and the era of the Hollywood Blacklist began, denying employment to screenwriters, actors, directors, musicians, and other American entertainment professionals during the mid-20th century because they were accused of having Communist ties or sympathies. The Hollywood Ten were Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo. The group originally included German writer Bertolt Brecht, but Brecht fled the country on the day following his questioning, plus the “Hollywood Eleven” just did not have the same ring to it.
The Hollywood Ten took bold stands, resisting the authority of HUAC. They yelled at the Chairman and treated the Committee with open indignation. Upon receiving their contempt citations, they believed the Supreme Court would overturn the rulings, which did not turn out to be the case.
HUAC did not treat the Hollywood Ten with respect either, refusing to allow most of them to speak more than just a few words. Meanwhile, witnesses who had arranged to cooperate with the Committee, such as the anti-Communist screenwriter Ayn Rand, were allowed to speak at length.
Artists were barred from work because of their alleged membership in, or sympathy with, the Communist Party or for their refusal to assist investigations into the party’s activities. The Hollywood Blacklist directly damaged the careers of many people working in the film industry.
The first systematic Hollywood Blacklist began on this day 70 years ago after those ten writers and directors were cited for contempt of Congress. A group of studio executives, acting on behalf of the Association Of Motion Picture Producers fired the Hollywood Ten. They were: Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures; Spyros Skouras of 20th Century Fox; Nicholas Schenck from Loews Theatres; Barney Balaban from Paramount Pictures; Samuel Goldwyn of the Goldwyn Company; Albert Warner from Warner Bros.; William Goetz, of Universal Pictures; Eric Johnston from the Association Of Motion Picture Producers; James F. Byrnes, former US Secretary of State; and Dore Schary of RKO Pictures.
In 1950, a pamphlet entitled Red Channels was published. It identified 151 entertainment industry professionals as “Reds and their sympathizers”. Soon, most of those named, along with lots of other artists, were barred from employment in most of the entertainment field. They included: Abe Burrows, Langston Hughes, Arthur Laurents, Arthur Miller, and Lillian Hellman, playwrights and screenwriters; actors Will Geer, Kim Hunter, Lee Grant, Burgess Meredith, Zero Mostel, Orson Welles, John Garfield, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Dolores del Río, Frances Farmer, Charles Chaplin, Judy Holliday, Larry Parks, Lena Horne, Jack Gilford, Ruth Gordon, Canada Lee and Paul Robeson; composers Leonard Bernstein, E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, Harold Rome, Marc Blitzstein and Aaron Copland; plus Gypsy Rose Lee, ecdysiast.
Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Katharine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, Lucille Ball and Fredric March, among other well-known Hollywood figures were rumored to be Communists or suffered from the innuendo.
The blacklist lasted until 1960, when Dalton Trumbo was publicly acknowledged by Kirk Douglas for writing the screenplay for Spartacus. Some of those who were Blacklisted, however, were still barred from work in their professions for years afterward and their careers never recovered.
The film Trumbo (2015), starring Bryan Cranston, covers much of this story. Also, check out The Front, directed by Martin Ritt, with Woody Allen and Zero Mostel.
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