Hollywood Ten Trials: 1948-50

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Hollywood Ten Trials: 1948-50

Defendants: Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Sam Ornitz, Robert Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo
Crime Charged: Contempt of Congress
Chief Defense Lawyers: Bartley Crum, Charles J. Katz, Robert W. Kenny, and Martin Popper
Chief Prosecutor: William Hitz
Judges: Edward M. Curran, Richmond B. Keech, and David A. Pine
Place: Washington, D.C.
Dates of Trials: April 12-19, 1948 (Lawson); May 3-5, 1948 (Trumbo); June 22-29, 1950 (Biberman, Cole, Dmytryk, Lardner, and Scott); June 23-29, 1950 (Bessie, Maltz, and Ornitz)
Verdicts: Guilty
Sentences: 1 year imprisonment and $1,000 fine (Bessie, Cole, Lardner, Lawson, Maltz, Ornitz, Scott, and Trumbo); 6 months and $500 fine (Biberman, and Dmytryk)

SIGNIFICANCE: The Hollywood Ten case stands as a landmark in the history of the abuse of civil liberties. As respected author E.B. White commented, "Ten men have been convicted, not of wrong-doing but of wrong thinking; that is news in this country and if I have not misread my history, it is bad news." By setting the stage for the establishment of the blacklist, the case created a precedent for making political belief a test of employability. In refusing to accept the claims of the Ten that the First Amendment entitled them to remain silent, the House Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities caused future witnesses to plead the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination to avoid answering further questioning.

In 1946 writers, producers, actors, and directors in the film industry in Hollywood who had been drawnas "good liberals"to the American Communist Party over the preceding decade began to sense that the party was not the liberal organization they had been told it was. The party's policy and directionin effect during World War II, patriotic cooperation and the renunciation of revolutionary goalswere changing. Party head Earl Browder, the "good liberal" leader, was deposed and replaced by hard-liner William Z. Foster. The new policy, as described by screenwriter Albert Maltz in an essay in New Masses, was that "unless art is a weapon like a leaflet, serving immediate political ends, necessities and programs, it is worthless or escapist or vicious."

Hollywood Divided into Two Camps

At the same time in the film capital, several years of labor unrest had been coming to a head. Two major craft unionsthe International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Motion Picture Machine Operators (IATSE) and the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU)had been rivals in a series of jurisdictional disputes and actions. When the CSU called a strike in 1945 and were supported by Communist Party members and Communist-dominated unions, IATSE leader Roy Brewer viewed it as a concerted attempt by the Communists to take over the motion picture industry. As the strike dragged on for six months, he convinced studio heads of his conspiracy theory.

Meantime, the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions, led by actor (later President) Ronald Reagan, producer Dore Schary, composer Johnny Green, actress Olivia de Havilland, and screenwriter Ernest Pascal, was becoming a militant anti-Communist unit. By 1947, the film capital seemed divided into two camps: anti-Communist and pro-Communist.

Against this background, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., the House Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities, which had been concerned with Communist activities since the late 1930s, sent investigators from Washington to interview "key Hollywood figures," all of whom were members of the anti-Communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The interviews resulted in public hearings by the House committee, mislabeled HUAC ever afterward.

"Friendly witnesses," all members of the Alliance, testified first. They included producer Jack L. Warner, novelist Ayn Rand, and actors Gary Cooper, Robert Montgomery, Ronald Reagan (then president of the Screen Actors Guild), Robert Taylor, and Adolphe Menjou. Altogether, they depicted a Hollywood virtually at the mercy of militant Communists whose orders came directly from Moscow; they described a climate all but saturated with Red propaganda.

Next, 19 people, identified by the "friendly witnesses" as suspected Communists, were subpoenaed from a list that totaled 79.

All were known as radicals. Most were writers; therefore, to HUAC, they were likely conduits for spreading Communist propaganda via the silver screen. But why these particular individuals were called has never been explained.

The Right to Remain Silent

To support them and explore strategy, the Hollywood community formed the Committee for the First Amendment. Its sponsors included four U.S. senators, author Thomas Mann, and film producer Jerry Wald. The strategy was to take the position that the First Amendment provided not only the right to free speech but the right to remain silent.

HUAC Chairman J. Parnell Thomas called 11 of the 19 subpoenaed witnesses to testify. Supporting them in the hearing room were such stars as Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, Jane Wyatt, John Huston, and Sterling Hayden. The first witness, screenwriter John Howard Lawson, proposed to read a statement, as each of the "friendly" witnesses had been permitted to do and as called for in the usual procedure of congressional committees. Chairman Thomas looked at the first line of the statement"For a week, this Committee has conducted an illegal and indecent trial of American citizens, whom the Committee has selected to be publicly pilloried and smeared"and denied Lawson permission to read it. The chairman then demanded an answer to the question, "Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?"

"The question of Communism is in no way related to the inquiry, which is an attempt," Lawson replied, "to get control of the screen and to invade the basic rights of American citizens in all fields." The chairman responded by having a nine-page single-spaced memo on Lawson's career, prepared by the committee's investigators, read into the record. Lawson was given no opportunity to respond to it. Repeatedly, as the questions and responses became a shouting match, Lawson was asked about Communist membership. Finally, the chairman, pounding his gavel for quiet, ordered the witness removed and cited him for contempt of Congress.

"I Would Hate Myself in the Morning"

In succession, writers Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz, Herbert Biberman, producer Adrian Scott, director Edward Dmytryk, and writers Lester Cole and Ring Lardner, Jr.all destined to be known, along with Lawson, as "The Hollywood Ten"were treated to the same questions and the same denial of permission to read their statements. All were cited for contempt of Congress. Lardner, asked repeatedly if he were a Communist, replied at last, "I could answer, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning."

The 11th witness was Bertolt Brecht. A successful German play-wright, he had been in Hollywood for six years, had taken out first citizenship papers and announced his plan to remain permanently. To date, he had but one screen credit. "I was not a member, or am not a member," he told Chairman Thomas, "of any Communist Party." Immediately, Brecht took a plane for Europe and settled in East Germany.

Shortly, a secret conference in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel brought together Hollywood's leading studio heads, including Nicholas Schenck, Joseph Schenck, Walter Wanger, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Dore Schary, Spyros Skouras, and many others, as well as Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. They issued a statement:

We will forthwith discharge or suspend without compensation those in our employ and we will not re-employ any of the ten until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist.

On the broader issue of alleged subversive and disloyal elements in Hollywood our members are likewise prepared to take positive action.

We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods.

The studio heads also promised not to be "swayed by hysteria or intimidation from any source"paradoxically, the very causes of their secret meeting and public statement.

The Blacklist is Born

Thus began the blacklist that determined who would or would not be employed not only in Hollywood films but in all of television and radio for the next several years. Institutionalized, the blacklist meant that no artist in show business who had been accused of Communist Party membership, or called to testify, could get work without naming names.

In November 1947, a special session of Congress was called to appropriate funds to resist Communist infiltration in Europe. To that session, Representative Thomas brought his 10 citations for contempt. After a handful of House members had spoken against them, they were passed, 346 to 17.

On April 12, 1948, John Howard Lawson was brought to trial, followed three weeks later by Dalton Trumbo, in U.S. District Court in Washington. In each brief trial, the jury found the defendants guilty of contempt of Congress. Judges Edward M. Curran and David A. Pine suspended their sentencesone year in jail and $1,000 finepending appeals. Commenting later on Lawson's and Trumbo's willingness to stand trial, Thurman Arnold, former special assistant to the U.S. attorney general, said:

To test the constitutional right of any Congressional committee to ask, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?' it was necessary for these witnesses to do three things:

  1. Phrase their answers as they did.
  2. Accept citations for contempt of Congress.
  3. Stand trial in the Federal courts, and if convicted of contempt appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Supreme Court Refuses to Review

As Lawson's and Trumbo's attorneys filed appeals, the eight others waived their rights to trial by jury, stipulating that they would stand on the records of the jury trials of the first two. However, they reserved the privilege of appealing. All 10 were confident that the Supreme Court would vindicate them. But in the summer of 1949, two liberal justicesFrank Murphy and Wiley Rutledgedied. Their successors, Tom Clark and Sherman Minton, shifted the court majority to the conservative side, and that majority refused to review the convictions of Lawson and Trumbo.

On June 9, 1950, Lawson and Trumbo began their jail terms. The trials of the remaining eight opened on June 22 before Judges Curran and Pine and Judge Richmond B. Keech. By June 29, all were found guilty. Six received oneyear sentences and $1,000 fines. Dmytryk and Biberman, however, for reasons never explained, were fined $500 each and jailed for only six months.

Defense lawyers Robert W. Kenny and Martin W. Popper introduced motions for acquittal, suspension of sentence, and release on bail pending appeal. The judges denied them all. Since the eight had agreed to stand on the records of the jury trials of the first two, and the Supreme Court had denied any review, they were sentenced and jailed at once.

From their prison cells, all 10 men sued their employers for breach of contract. Negotiating together until well after the last of the Hollywood Ten had been released from prison, the studios finally settled out of court for $259,000, to be sharedbut not equallyby all.

Some returned to their professions but had to write in the "black market"using pseudonymsfor years. Trumbo wrote scripts under other names for 10 years, winning an Oscar for Best Motion Picture Story in 1957 as "Robert Rich." Lardner's blacklisting ended in 1964; he won an Oscar for M*A*S*H in 1971. Maltz wrote novels while blacklisted for 20 years. Cole taught screenwriting and reviewed films. Lawson moved from creating plays and films to writing about them and teaching. Bessie wrote novels.

In 1951, Dmytryk appeared before HUAC and recanted, naming 26 as Communists. Over the next 25 years, he directed a film each year. Ornitz wrote a best-selling novel. Scott wrote and produced for television. Biberman formed an independent production company and produced a semidocumentary peopledwith FBI informants and right-wing fanatics that won an International Grand Prize.

In 1948, HUAC Chairman J. Parnell Thomas was convicted of conspiracy to defraud the government by taking kickbacks from his staff. By the time two of the Hollywood TenCole and Lardnerwere imprisoned in the federal penitentiary at Danbury, Connecticut, in 1950, Thomas was already there serving his sentence.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961.

Belfrage, Cedric. The American Inquisition. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1973.

Bessie, Alvah. Inquisition in Eden. New York: Macmillan Co., 1965.

Biberman, Herbert. Salt of the Earth. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965.

Cook, Bruce. Dalton Trumbo. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977.

Dick, Bernard F. Radical Innocence. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.

Donner, Frank J. The Un-Americans. New York: Ballantine, 1961.

Goodman, Walter. The Committee. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.

Kahn, Gordon. Hollywood on Trial. New York: Boni & Gaer, 1948.

Kanfer, Stefan. A Journal of the Plague Years. New York: Atheneum, 1973.

Kempton, Murray. Part of Our Time. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955.

Lardner, Ring, Jr. The Lardners. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

Navasky, Victor S. Naming Names. New York: Viking, 1989.

Taylor, Telford. Grand Inquest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955.

Vaughn, Robert. Only Victims. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1972.

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