TRUMBO and THE BLACK LIST

Seeing the new film TRUMBO, about the blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, got me looking into that dark period in Hollywood history when justice was turned on its head.

The film covers the period from 1947 when the first congressional investigation into communist activities in Hollywood took place , up to 1960 when Dalton Trumbo could again use his own name on scripts.

I had always thought of the infamous Black List in Hollywood as being the Joseph McCarthy era , but in fact the first Hollywood HUAC (House Un-American  Activities Committee) hearings were led by congressman J.Parnell Thomas.
Wikipedia defines McCarthyism as the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence. This definition applies equally to the Thomas hearings.

In 1947, ten  Hollywood figures were found guilty of contempt of Congress. The Hollywood Ten   ( as they became known) went to prison for up to a year – and lost their livelihood .

Such was the frenzy,  just being a member of the Communist Party  USA ( a legal political party) , or having any affiliation with communist organisations was enough for people to be blacklisted by the Hollywood  studios.

Fueled by the Hollywood Reporter and the right wing magazine, Counter Attack, over a hundred actors, writers , musicians and others were accused of communist manipulation of the entertainment industry.

You Tube is a great source of archival material including lots of clips from the original 1947 HUAC  Congressional hearings , under the chairmanship of J. Parnell Thomas – who seemed as vicious  as the more well known Joseph McCarthy who re- instated and widened the Hearings in 1950 under a Senate committee.

It is J.Parnell Thomas who asked the notorious question, “Are you ,or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States.?”

The answer from the so called Unfriendly Ten was that the committee had no right to ask that question under the First Amendment , that it was an unconstitutional  violation of privacy.

Most famous of the hundreds of people working in the Hollywood studios who lost their livelihoods because of the hearings were these Hollywood Ten:

Ring Lardner Jr, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, Herbert J. Biberman,Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, John Howard Lawson ,Dalton Trumbo, Samuel Ornitz,Adrian Scott.

All were writers apart from Edward Dmytryk who was a director.

 

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The insidious nature of the questioning meant that not only were they asked about being a member of the Communist Party, but then they were asked to name any other members they knew of.

When screen writer Albert Maltz was asked the question , he said, “Next you are going to ask about my religious beliefs.”

Ironically, after the Hollywood Ten had been jailed for contempt of Congress, J. Parnell Thomas found himself in the same prison as two of the ten,Lester Cole and Ring Lardner jr.  (Thomas had been convicted of corruption.)

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HOLLYWOOD ON TRIAL , written by Gordon Kahn in  1948 ,uses transcripts of the actual hearings  in Washington.

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In  a prepared statement, chairman J.Parnell Thomas said, “The Committeee is determined that the hearings shall be fair and impartial…..All we are here for are the facts.”

Did these words ever come back to haunt him. Probably not.

Facts were tragically missing at the hearings.

Listening to Robert Taylor in front of the committee reminds me of the phrase,’damning with faint praise ‘. In Taylor’s case it’s ‘damning with faint criticism’ when he says ,”Howard Da Sylva always seems to have something to say at the wrong time.”

The ‘unfriendly ‘ Hollywood Ten were not allowed to make statements, or to  question those who had made accusations against them. The hearings became a trial though the accused were not allowed a defence.

 

Robert Taylor 1947 Hearings

Robert Taylor 1947 Hearings

In 1944 The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals was formed, with the purpose of “correcting the impression that this industry is made up of and dominated by communists,radicals and crackpots.”

John Wayne was President of the Alliance for three terms.  Co- founders included Walt Disney,Leo McCarey,Sam Wood,Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck,Irene Dunne and Howard Hawks.

Cooper and Taylor were so called ‘friendly’ witnesses. They were allowed to make statements, with absolutely no concrete evidence of subversion to back them up.

The best that Gary Cooper could say was, “I turned down quite a few scripts because I thought they were tinged with communistic ideas.”

Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper

Robert Taylor was blunt,”If I had my way, they’d all be sent back to Russia.”

Jack Warner’s language showed he took the matter seriously,

“…. dig out the ideological termites , and my brothers and I will contribute to a pest removal fund.”

Mrs Lela Rogers (Ginger Rogers’s mother) when testifying, said that her daughter had been asked to say in a scene, “Share and share alike – that’s democracy.” Mrs. Rogers regarded that line as subversive,dangerous and clearly communist propaganda.

Lela Rogers

Lela Rogers

Ironically, Ronald Reagan, in his 1947 testimony ,said, “I do not believe the Communists have ever been able to use the motion picture screen as a sounding board for their philosophy or ideology.”

Initially, Dore Schary, head of production at RKO said that he would only fire someone if it was proven that the person was a foreign agent dedicated to the overthrow of the government by force.

If only he and the other studio heads had agreed that sensible stand.

Instead , in the Waldorf Statement ( named after the New York hotel where the decision was made) , the Hollywood studios inaugurated the Black List by firing the ten found guilty of contempt of Congress.

Incredibly, the studio heads  said, “There is a danger of hurting innocent people….a risk of creating an atmosphere of fear.”

 

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Richard Conte,Paul Henreid,June Havoc, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart

In 1947, the Committee For The First Amendment was formed by screenwriter Philip Dunne, Myrna Loy, John Huston and William Wyler to support the Hollywood Ten. And was supported by the studios.

In October of that year, some  of the Committee , pictured above, flew to Washington and sat in on some of the hearings.

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But, before long, the Committee for the First Amendment  itself was being branded a communist organisation. Many of those involved backed off. Lauren Bacall said,

“We didn’t realise until much later that we were being used to some degree by the Unfriendly Ten.”

 

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Humphrey Bogart, no doubt on the advice of his studio, made a grovelling apology in  Photoplay magazine ,saying the committee was protecting the Bill of Rights, not defending communism.

It became clear that the Hollywood Ten were on their own. Everyone was diving for cover.

Bogart did say, “It is still our belief that the House Un-American committee could have identified the very small percentage of communists in Hollywood through FBI records.”

 

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Gale Sondergaard, also blacklisted.

Gale’s husband was Herbert J. Biberman, one of the Hollywood Ten. Guilt by association.

 

On the floor of Congress, Representative Javits of New York said he had read the record of the hearings from cover to cover. In his opinion,

“The Committee has permitted witnesses testifying before it to charge other people on their mere assertion and without tangible proof, with being Communists. ………When it comes to a matter of trying an individual’s character, we just don’t operate that way in the United States.”

Robert Ryan later commented,

“Decent people  dragged  through the mud of insinuation and slander. The testimony of crackpots and subversives accepted and given out to the press as if it were gospel  truth.  Reputations ruined and people hounded out of their jobs.”

The film TRUMBO  is well worth seeing.

Dalton Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party  of  the United States from 1943 to 1948.

It was the time of the Cold War. There were genuine fears about the Soviet Union. Hollywood provided great media interest for the Congressional   Committee hearings.

Fear became the motivator for most witnesses , and the Committee seemed  to lose all sense of the law of the land.

In subsequent years, Dalton Trumbo’s Oscars for ROMAN HOLIDAY and THE BRAVE ONE  finally had his name on them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 responses »

  1. A great and timely post. The truly depressing thing is that many of those cinema figures persecuted by HUAC had fled here from similar persecutions by the Nazis (plus a few from Stalin): out of the frying pan into the fire (though at least in the US the thugs didn’t toss them into actual fires, just destroyed their lives). For those unfortunate people it must have been like a nightmare.

    The US has never been too good at introspection. While all this persecution of people for beliefs that in most other developed countries would have seemed innocuous was going on, the US was telling the world that it was a beacon of freedom and enlightenment. More recently, under the Bush administration, torture was a bad thing only if it was the other guys doing it, and it’s still widely regarded (at least among the Republicans) to use deliberate vote suppression to get the electoral result you want.

    In short, the spirit that possessed Thomas and McCarthy is still alive and well, thriving in new hosts placed all over the US political, media and corporate elites. Raise your voice in complaint too much, however, and you’re told you’re an enemy of Freedom.

    George Orwell, where art thou?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts.
    What is frightening was the sheer lack of any evidence that anyone in Hollywood was interested in the overthrow of the Constitution.
    HUAC did not start the Black List though the committee clearly wanted it.
    In an article,”SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and the Motion Picture Blacklist” , Larry Ceplair said that the blacklist…..”was the calculated product of movie studio executives acting from primal economic fear. They believed the film industry would lose vast portions of its audience if they didn’t cooperate.”
    When the McCarthy hearings started in 1951, the witnesses took the Fifth Amendment which meant they couldn’t be found in contempt, though they would be blacklisted.

  3. HUAC’s focus on becoming America’s “thought police” only served to publicize themselves, ruin lives, keep the public panicked and distract from any serious threats from the communist regime. Shameful all around.

    PS: Rich thinks you are right about “Deep Valley”. You win the prize – the prize of satisfaction.

  4. HUAC in Hollywood certainly got the oxygen of publicity but I doubt the general public realised that people were being railroaded.
    PS: Deep Valley is good!

  5. It is not always easy to stand up to the bully. Fear makes cowards of us all. From the great stars like Humphrey Bogart, to the great directors like Frank Capra, they all suffered accusations, they all cow towed in the end to save their careers. The prospect of never working in Hollywood was a real one. Many tarred with the brush of Communism had to leave America to find work. Hollywood lost some great talent; like Joseph Losey, Jules Dassin, Charlie Chaplin and many more. Careers were ruined. Losey went to England and was successful there; Dassin to France and likewise was a success. Chaplin was already in England when the hammer fell. He was barred from re-entering America. They all felt betrayed and of course they all were. A black mark still hangs over the reputation of certain squealers, people like Elia Kazan, to this day. It’s strange for us now to look at that time and wonder just what everyone was so afraid of. After all the two World Wars were started, not through Communism, but by the might of extreme right wing governments of Germany. Fascism was the great threat in 20s, 30s and 40s and was eventually defeated, with the help of the Soviet Union. With that threat gone, Communism took on the roll of the boggy man. American values were under threat, or so some people wanted everyone to believe. At no time was Hollywood under threat from Communism, but it is no surprise that 9 out of the 10 people named by the committee as communists were writers. ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’, as they say.

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