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Blacklisting

Blacklisting

In 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), chaired by J. Parnell Thomas, held a series of hearings on alleged communist infiltration into the Hollywood motion picture industry. Twenty-four "friendly" witnesses—including Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan, and Walt Disney—testified that Hollywood was infiltrated with communists, and identified a number of supposed subversives by name. Ten "unfriendly" witnesses—including Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, and Ring Lardner, Jr.—refused to cooperate with the Committee, contending that the investigations themselves were unconstitutional. The "Hollywood Ten," as they came to be known, were convicted of contempt of Congress and eventually served sentences of six months to one year in jail.

Shortly after the hearings, more than 50 studio executives met secretly at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. They emerged with the now infamous "Waldorf Statement," with which they agreed to suspend the Hollywood Ten without pay, deny employment to anyone who did not cooperate with the HUAC investigations, and refuse to hire communists. When a second round of hearings convened in 1951, the Committee's first witness, actor Larry Parks, pleaded: "Don't present me with the choice of either being in contempt of this Committee and going to jail or forcing me to really crawl through the mud to be an informer." But the choice was presented, the witness opted for the latter, and the ground rules for the decade were set.

From that day forward, it was not enough to answer the question "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Rather, those called to testify were advised by their attorneys that they had three choices: to invoke the First Amendment, with its guarantee of free speech and association, and risk going to prison like the Hollywood Ten; to invoke the Fifth Amendment, with its privilege against self-incrimination, and lose their jobs; or to cooperate with the Committee—to "purge" themselves of guilt by providing the names of others thought to be communists—in the hope of continuing to work in the industry. By the mid-1950s, more than 200 suspected communists had been blacklisted by the major studios.

The Hollywood blacklist quickly spread to the entertainment industries on both coasts, and took on a new scope with the formation of free enterprise blacklisters such as American Business Consultants and Aware, Inc., which went into the business of peddling accusations and clearances; and the publication of the manual Red Channels and newsletter Counterattack, which listed entertainment workers with allegedly subversive associations. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), who built his political career on red-baiting and finally lent his name to the movement, was censured by the U.S. Senate in 1954. But the blacklist went virtually unchallenged until 1960, when screenwriter Dalton Trumbo worked openly for the first time since 1947. And it affected others, like actor Lionel Stander, well into the 1960s. The House Committee on Un-American Activities remained in existence until 1975.

That the HUAC investigations were meant to be punitive and threatening rather than fact-finding is evidenced by the Committee's own eventual admission that it already had the information it was allegedly seeking. According to Victor Navasky, witnesses such as Larry Parks were called upon not to provide information that would lead to any conviction or acquittal, but rather to play a symbolic role in a surrealistic morality play. "The Committee was in essence serving as a kind of national parole board, whose job was to determine whether the "criminals" had truly repented of their evil ways. Only by a witness's naming names and giving details, it was said, could the Committee be certain that his break with the past was genuine. The demand for names was not a quest for evidence; it was a test of character. The naming of names had shifted from a means to an end."

The effects of the blacklist on the Hollywood community were devastating. In addition to shattered careers, there were broken marriages, exiles, and suicides. According to Navasky, Larry Parks' tortured testimony and consequent controversiality resulted in the end of a career that had been on the brink of superstardom: "His memorable line, 'Do not make me crawl through the mud like an informer,' was remembered, and the names he named were forgotten by those in the blacklisting business." Actress Dorothy Comingore, upon hearing her husband on the radio testifying before the Committee, was so ashamed that she had her head shaved. She lost a bitter custody battle over their child and never worked again. Director Joseph Losey's last memory was of hiding in a darkened home to avoid service of a subpoena. He fled to England. Philip Loeb, who played Papa on The Goldbergs, checked into a room at the Hotel Taft and swallowed a fatal dose of sleeping pills.

There was also resilience, courage, and humor. Blacklisted writers hired "fronts" to pose as the authors of their scripts, and occasionally won Academy Awards under assumed names. Sam Ornitz urged his comrades in the Hollywood Ten to be "at least be as brave as the people we write about" as they faced prison. Dalton Trumbo sardonically proclaimed his conviction a "completely just verdict" in that "I did have contempt for that Congress, and have had contempt for several since." Ring Lardner, Jr., recalled becoming "reacquainted" with J. Parnell Thomas at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, where Thomas was already an inmate, having been convicted of misappropriating government funds while Lardner exhausted his appeals.

Many years later, in an acceptance speech for the highest honor bestowed by the Screenwriters Guild, the Laurel Award, Dalton Trumbo tried to bring the bitterness surrounding the blacklist to an end. "When you [… ] look back with curiosity on that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none," he said, "there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us—right, left, or center—emerged from that long nightmare without sin. None without sin."

Trumbo's "Only Victims" speech, delivered in 1970, was clearly meant to be healing. Instead, it rekindled a controversy that smoldered for years, with other members of the Hollywood Ten bristling at his sweeping conviction and implied pardon of everyone involved. The social, psychological, legal, and moral ramifications of the Hollywood blacklist have haunted American popular memory for more than half a century. The blacklist has been the subject of numerous books, plays, documentaries, and feature films, the titles of which speak for themselves: Thirty Years of Treason, Scoundrel Time, Hollywood on Trial, Fear on Trial, Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been, Hollywood's Darkest Days, Naming Names, Tender Comrades, Fellow Traveler, and Guilty By Suspicion, to name a few.

In 1997, the New York Times reported that "The blacklist still torments Hollywood." On the 50th anniversary of the 1947 hearings, the Writers Guild of America, one of several Hollywood unions that failed to support members blacklisted in the 1950s, announced that it was restoring the credits on nearly 50 films written by blacklisted screenwriters. There was talk of "putting closure to all of this" and feeling "forgiveness in the air." At the same time, however, a debate raged in the arts and editorial pages of the nation's newspapers over whether the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the American Film Institute were guilty of "blacklisting" director Elia Kazan. Kazan appeared before the Committee in 1952 and informed on eight friends who had been fellow members of the Communist Party. His On the Waterfront is widely seen as a defense of those who named names. As Peter Biskind remarks, the film "presents a situation in which informing on criminal associates is the only honorable course of action for a just man."

Variety advocated a lifetime achievement award for Kazan, describing him as "an artist without honor in his own country, a celebrated filmmaker whose name cannot be mentioned for fear of knee-jerk reactions of scorn and disgust, a two-time Oscar winner not only politically incorrect but also politically unacceptable according to fashion and the dominant liberal-left Hollywood establishment." But as the New York Times pointed out, "Not only did [Kazan] name names, causing lasting damage to individual careers, but he lent his prestige and moral authority to what was essentially an immoral process, a brief but nevertheless damaging period of officially sponsored hysteria that exacted a huge toll on individual lives, on free speech, and on democracy." Kazan accepted his lifetime achievement award at the Academy Awards in 1999.

—Jeanne Hall

Further Reading:

Benson, Thomas. "Thinking through Film: Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist." In Rhetoric and Community: Studies in Unity and Fragmentation, edited by J. Michael Hogan. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Bernstein, Walter. Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Biskind, Peter. "The Politics of Power in On The Waterfront." In American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives, edited by Donald Lezere. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985.

Ceplair, Larry, and Steven Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community 1930-1960. Garden City, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980.

McGilligan, Patrick, and Paul Buhle. Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Blacklist. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Navasky, Victor S. Naming Names. New York, Viking Press, 1980.

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