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“Stars Face Blacklist” screams the headline. Most people who’ve heard of the blacklist will immediately think of Joe McCarthy in 1954, of witch hunts and ruthless right wing inquisitors. But look again: the headline is from 1945, the earliest known use of the term in Hollywood. It’s the Hollywood Left threatening to boycott non-striking actors—in other words, it’s the opposite of what you’d think. A lot of what people know about that period just isn’t so. Communist writer Lillian Hellman later called it “Scoundrel Time”. But a far better writer, Mary McCarthy, famously said of Hellman, “Every word she ever wrote is a lie, including “and” and “the””.
This is the second half of the story begun in Hollywood Communists 3. In The Road to the Blacklist, we described how Party-backed union leadership tried to push out workers from other unions, and how those bloody labor wars turned most of Hollywood against them. It was a genuine case of revolt, led by the actors, and it caused a generation of liberals to break with the Reds who presented themselves as friends and allies before and during the war. By 1947 the mutual process of kicking out the infidels was in full swing on both sides of the Red line. Mere lily-livered socialists not up to backing tough new Party policies were expelled. On the anti-Communist side, union members who’d proven themselves faithless to IATSE had some explaining to do. It was not always a gentle process but it was overdue.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) was created in 1938 by Samuel Dickstein, a New York Democrat, the only paid Soviet agent in the history of the U.S. Congress. Even his Soviet paymasters held him in such disdain that his secret code name was “Crook”. J. Edgar Hoover credited HCUA with useful work uncovering German influence here and in South America. After the war, it investigated Communists, turning on its original role. It became associated with Democrat John Rankin, a virulent anti-Semite who was, roughly speaking, the Westboro Baptist Church of his day. After the GOP sweep of the 1946 congressional elections, the new and inexperienced Republican team leading the HCUA announced they would hold hearings in the fall of 1947 to investigate Hollywood. Fact is, at that time the GOP didn’t have much experience investigating anybody, as they hadn’t held power in a generation. It showed.
Their first mistake was reaching for the headlines, recklessly condemning the whole industry. Simply put, they didn’t know who the good guys and bad guys were. The industry thought it was already well along in the process of separating the Reds from the liberals and wanted the Washington outsiders to butt out. That feeling was shared by most, though not all, of the growing number of Hollywood people lining up against the hard left. Anti-Communist leaders like Roy Brewer and his allies, who’d stood up to death threats for years, were considered unfriendly witnesses; after all, they were Democrats. 45 congressional subpoenas were issued, many of them to famous names. Others, puzzlingly, went seemingly at random to very minor figures in the Hollywood left. HCUA investigators just didn’t know the territory. They could have gone much higher on the talent scale.
Attacks from the outside, especially badly aimed ones, predictably created some forced unity where little remained. An elite group of 29 including Gene Kelly, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Sterling Hayden, Danny Kaye, and John Huston, centrists and liberals, quizzed each other closely to keep out the Reds and then chartered a plane to Washington to show patriotic public support for their industry. Television was in its infancy but already more than a dozen eastern cities were ready to sign on to the hearings.
The hearings opened on October 20 and ended only ten days later. 1947 was no witch hunt. Though raggedly run, it put a lot of new and true information before a fascinated public, and at the time the industry was reasonably pleased with how they’d come across, especially the celebrities, like Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, and Walt Disney. Disney, in particular, was still angry about the way his studio had been treated in 1941, and denounced Communism in no uncertain terms, in Hollywood or anywhere else. Like the other moguls, while he acknowledged some areas of concern about Communist influence in movie content, Disney strongly cautioned about exaggerating it.
The sheer ignorance of the HCUA staff missed plenty of probing questions that could have been asked. Instead, congressmen cluelessly went after MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, the highest paid man in America, seemingly unaware until right before his testimony that he was a longtime Republican donor who’d attended several national nominating conventions. Committee chairman Parnell Thomas put on a grandiloquent, showboating performance that made those watching the action, Ronald Reagan among others, glad to still be Democrats. The hearings played so badly, even in the conservative press, that Thomas hastily cut them short after only eleven of the nineteen scheduled unfriendly witnesses spoke. Of that eleven, writer Bertolt Brecht fled to East Germany after the hearings, so the ones who defiantly refused to testify became known as the Unfriendly Ten, and later simply the Hollywood Ten, as they are remembered today. The other three-quarters of the witnesses didn’t have to be pressured to speak; it was all committee members could do to shut some of them up.
The public hadn’t judged the whole of Hollywood by the non-cooperative ones, who were advised by attorneys, as it turned out, from the Communist-led National Lawyers Guild. When Bogart and several of the others found out they were furious, and when it turned out that fellow “liberal” Sterling Hayden was actually a Communist, Bogie exploded.
Even the Party could find some consolation in how the hearings went. Most witnesses denounced Communism only in generalities and were rarely pressed in 1947 to implicate individual Communists. Despite the legend, no one in the Ten went to jail simply for being a Communist. The unfriendlies went to jail for contempt of Congress, making them useful martyrs and heroes of the Left, which they are to this day. Ironically, several of them served their year-long sentences in the distinguished company of former HCUA chairman Parnell Thomas, who went to jail for corruption.
The political storm seemed to be over and the town gratefully went back to work. That’s why, three weeks later, a joint statement by the leadership of Hollywood’s studios struck like a thunderbolt. After a meeting at New York’s Waldorf=Astoria Hotel, Hollywood’s bosses offered their own assessment of the Washington hearings as well as the labor turmoil of the past several years, and announced that they would no longer employ Communists, or (the next part is usually forgotten) any person who supported the violent overthrow of the American government—i.e., fascists, Nazis or similar groups. This is the famous Hollywood blacklist, imposed by private industry, not by the government. Few of today’s conservatives would support it—by now, we’ve seen the tactic pointing the other way–but at least understand what it really was and wasn’t, shorn of legend and drama.
At least initially, it wasn’t a list at all, but a simple, starkly clear bright line rule. It didn’t apply to mere liberals or socialists. It said nothing about the past. It applied to a relatively small number of people and was largely enforced through an honor system. MGM did not have squads of detectives hoping to catch their painters and laundresses at Communist Party meetings. People could and did lie on loyalty oaths, but most didn’t and few felt they had to.
There were some injustices that the fevered mood of those times failed to correct. The bluntest one was, it wasn’t against the law to be a Communist, so the studios had no right to lock them out. Most conservatives of later times agree. Anyone who objects to the “deplatforming” of people in our day should see the issue.
But in fairness to those times, step out of the Hollywood framework for a moment. The Communist Party USA made big gains in American society during the Depression. The country came out of the war with something close to a command economy, achieving a Left dream of wartime powers in peacetime. The brand new United Nations was going to lead to a world beyond nations and beyond borders. But many Americans of 1948 were beginning to equate the Communists with the Nazis. Only a few years earlier, nearly 300,000 Americans died fighting a European dictatorship with dreams of ruling the world. The nation had a wary, weary feeling of ‘here we go again’. The postwar years were an immense turnabout of shock and disappointment to the Left. They saw themselves as jilted lovers; the rest of America tended to see them as deluded stalkers and did not run to their defense. For the following seventy years, progressives have done their best to make us feel guilty about it.
Contrary to later belief, people could get off the “list” (there was never one comprehensive, industry-wide list) by establishing their innocence or their remorse. The process was irregular but it wasn’t entirely arbitrary. Roy Brewer and others arranged clearances. John Wayne had a personal rule; if you were a Communist before the war, he didn’t care. If you were glad the Russians beat Hitler at Kursk, so was he. Wayne personally got blacklisted actors like Larry Parks back to work. Lucille Ball joined the Party briefly in 1936, she said to please an elderly relative; America bought her story (which was mostly true) and still loved Lucy. The industry of the late Forties and early Fifties was, in fact, full of former Reds of one stripe or another. There are subtleties to the era that everyone working in the industry knew and few talked about.
One example: Director Irving Pichel, one of the Unfriendly Nineteen who never got called to testify, made “Destination Moon” in 1950, with one of the most libertarian scripts ever written for a mainstream American film. Famously conservative writer Robert A. Heinlein thanked Pichel, who he credited for having the taste and integrity to insist on Hollywood’s first realistic presentation of space flight. Pichel, in turn, thanked IATSE’s Roy Brewer for having helped him get work. Like many others, Pichel was surprised that this power among the anti-Communists was a soft-spoken union man who’d voted for FDR.
The outside world kept intruding on the dream factories. In 1948 rigged elections brought Communists to power in eastern and central Europe. China was now ruled by Mao’s Communists and the Soviets got the atomic bomb in 1949. North Korea, backed by China and the USSR, invaded South Korea in 1950. US armed forces were suddenly in a desperate shooting war. America was shocked at this rapid turn of events. Washington had bigger, grimmer business to hold hearings about; an inadequate peacetime defense establishment and leaky national security agencies led to sensational revelations about Soviet espionage in the United States. Some of the worst spy revelations related to atomic energy. This is sometimes dismissed as a “climate of fear”. The facts were real and damning. In the public’s mind then, and in our hazy memories since, the 1947 hearings were old news, overtaken by much bigger problems with world Communism. But by 1951, with the Blacklist in place for several years, Congress wanted to reopen the Hollywood issue. The world situation and the public’s perception of the Left had changed greatly in four years.
So had Hollywood. It had been chastened politically, and many former Party members volunteered to testify. They were not, as later claimed by writers of the left, cowards who were saving their skins. Nearly all of them were working, some at the highest salaries of their careers. They told detailed, absorbing stories that many could have told in 1947 if anyone had the wit to ask. Elia Kazan’s written statement is an example, and it was powerful enough to make him hated for a half century. The 1951 hearings were better staffed and more strategically run, without the showboaters of four years before. In that respect, they made ’47 look like a clearly lost opportunity.
1951’s unfriendlies had a different tactic: they “took the 5th,” and clammed up, avoiding perjury traps. It made them look worse to the public than 1947’s colorful blabbermouths. Unfortunately, another 1951 change would taint the reputation of the hearings and hand the Left a lasting propaganda weapon that makes reasonable people flinch even now: “Naming names”. The committee investigators were, as far as they were concerned, looking into a criminal conspiracy and were entitled to look for the links. You start with low-ranking people and coerce their cooperation in moving up the chain.
When admitted Communist culture boss V.J. Jerome was being grilled about Party budgets being subsidized by the Soviet Union, that was one thing, and people weren’t going to get upset with bending a few technicalities. It was different when well-to-do witnesses who this time were clearly saving their own skins tossed the “little people” over the side: office workers, assistants, agents, bit players they’d seen at a Party meeting before the war. To the American public watching on TV, it went over the line, starting to turn them against the hearings for the first time.
Subsequent exaggerated legend has it that such obviously non-controversial acts as having listened to a concert in 1937 or having given a friend a ride to the library in 1949 could be twisted into a career-destroying accusation. Forty-nine out of fifty of those stories are pure, made up rubbish, but for the one time in fifty it might have happened, it would have been near the end of the Blacklist, not the beginning, when the lines were drawn and the rules were clear and understood. Scared witnesses made a point of piling on people who’d already been named, as they were already “cooked”. The “naming names” part of the 1951-’52 hearings have been used to typify and inaccurately color our memory of the whole period, and since then have blurred into the memories of the next big anti-Communist epoch in D.C., on the other side of the Capitol in the United States Senate.
It wasn’t until this late phase of the pushback against Hollywood Communism that some of the players were as reckless and corrupt as its enemies have claimed ever since. Social movements turn into businesses and eventually become rackets. The anti-Communist cause, regrettably, was no exception. By 1953 it attracted a small cottage industry of exploiters and shakedown artists. Instead of Twitter, there were mimeographed scandal sheets, with a circulation of all of a hundred people, waved in front of bosses to try to get people fired—no different in spirit than the Woke era. John Ford, greatest of all American movie directors, Roy Brewer and other film industry leaders vigorously protested these abuses.
And then it all went away. Eisenhower hated Joe McCarthy, and after McCarthy lost public support in 1954, the Hollywood Blacklist quietly ended, piecemeal, studio by studio. It had lasted about eight years. Many of the people on it had long been back at work. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev made his famous secret speech denouncing Stalinism, all but destroying the last remnants of the Communist Party USA. There were leftist married couples, some in show business, who went through “Khrushchev divorces”. Some people never found their foothold again, but that wasn’t all politics. At the best of times, Hollywood careers are brief; looks fade, public tastes change. The young Reds who came to town in 1935 and were on the brink of fame and success in 1945 were either long wised up or long gone by then.
There would be other blacklists and other firings in American life, in magazines, in academia, in sensitive security posts, and this is not to explain them, let alone to excuse them. Let them find their own defenders. Our case is Hollywood. The Blacklist wasn’t imposed on it. It is, as screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd would say, something the film industry did to ourselves. The studio chiefs did it out of genuine alarm at the violence they’d seen at their gates, but they also did it as mainstream Truman-era liberals who were anxious to keep the trust of the movie-going public, even if it meant tossing out a few former friends and one-time New Deal allies. Message: “The Party’s Over”.
Conservatives should not offer an unlimited defense of the Hollywood blacklist. It was an undemocratic if understandable response to an unprecedented and undemocratic political movement. At no point was Hollywood ever Communist-dominated. Communists never ran any studio, network or production company, and were never in a position anywhere in the industry to buy scripts. For decades afterwards, there was a stronger Right in Hollywood because of the annealing experience of the strikes and the blacklist.
Liberals should understand that few people actually suffered from the notorious blacklist period, and that doesn’t make it insignificant. But comparing it even rhetorically to the scale of the repressions of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the Forties and Fifties would be a breathtaking act of moral idiocy. It wasn’t an expression of right-wing hate, but of public anger.
Elia Kazan, who turned against the left, was shunned for decades but was too valuable a director to ignore. Repeatedly vetoed for the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award by the virulent opposition of other screenwriters, Kazan finally received an honorary Oscar in 1999, mostly because of the brave advocacy of a non-conservative, Martin Scorsese.
For decades, the Hollywood Ten have been treated in the press as if they were heroic veterans of Pearl Harbor. There’s no chance that people will not continue to step forward to tell their stories. Few books seem inclined to step forward and tell the other side of that story, but “Hollywood Party” is one. I gave a quote to the back cover of the book in 1998, and it stands today: “Now the whole story can be told: the blacklist was never black and white after all, but can only be depicted accurately in shades of gray. From this day forward, no future backstage history of Hollywood can be called complete without taking into account the evidence that Lloyd Billingsley has uncovered”.