The Hollywood Ten

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The Hollywood Ten

In the fall of 1947, a group of ten prominent artists working in film who were to enter American history as the Hollywood Ten, were subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as part of investigations into "the extent of Communist infiltration in the Hollywood motion picture industry." Taking the First Amendment, the Hollywood Ten denied HUAC's constitutional legitimacy as well as its right to inquire into an individual's personal and political beliefs, and refused to answer any of the Committee's questions. In their prepared statements, they went so far as to compare the activities of the Committee to those of Nazi Germany and stated that HUAC heralded the onset of a new fascism within American life. The Ten's refusal to co-operate in admitting to their political affiliations resulted in their being tried at the Washington, D.C., Federal court in April, 1948. Found guilty of contempt, writer-producer Herbert Biberman, director Edward Dmytryk, producer-writer Adrian Scott, and screenwriters Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, and Dalton Trumbo were each sentenced to one year in jail and a thousand-dollar fine. They were blacklisted by the film industry, and for many years were able to work only by living abroad or under cover of a pseudonym. (Robert Rich, for example, who won an Oscar for The Brave One in 1956, was actually Trumbo).

The Hollywood Ten became a benchmark for resistance against the investigative powers of the congressional committees during the Cold War, but their treatment left a shameful blot on the community that ostracized them. It was an omen for a much wider process that expanded to all sectors of American society and eventually all but destroyed the liberal left in America. The cultural consequences of their indictment and the subsequent blacklisting of many of their distinguished peers were serious—Hollywood was deprived of many of its finest and most intelligent creative talents, and the climate of fear that came to prevail led to blandness, even sterility, of artistic expression and new ideas for fully a decade.

Matters grew worse when Edward Dmytryk recanted his position and agreed to co-operate with the HUAC. He was released early from jail, admitted past membership of the Communist Party, and took himself to England. Ironically, Dmytryk is admired for the socially conscious, humane stance of some of his best work, including the anti-fascist drama Hitler's Children (1943) and Crossfire (1947), a serious attempt to address anti-Semitism. He returned from exile in 1951, stood as a witness in the HUAC's second round of hearings into Hollywood and named names. He was not alone. Altogether over this dark period in Hollywood's history, some 300 "witnesses" confessed to their own past Communist affiliations, and many also incriminated their fellows. Among the more celebrated who failed to take the First Amendment were writers Clifford Odets, Isabel Lennart and Budd Schulberg, actors Sterling Hayden and Larry Parks, and, famously, the great director Elia Kazan, whose appearance to receive a special Oscar at the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony opened old wounds and provoked furious controversy.

The fate of the Hollywood Ten exemplified that of anyone who refused to cooperate with the HUAC. The refusal of any individual to name names before the Committee was interpreted as evidence of Communist or fellow-traveling sympathies, and the fate of the Ten instigated an ignominious cycle of cowardice and betrayal in the Hollywood community. The FBI put many creative artists under surveillance, and at least two victims of the hearings committed suicide. The roll call of those either "named" by their peers or blacklisted on suspicion is long, shocking, and substantial. Among the many who suffered the harsh artistic, economic, and social consequences of blacklisting were writers Ben Barzman, Waldo Salt, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, documentarist Joris Ivens, director Joseph Losey, writer-directors Carl Foreman, Jules Dassin, and Abraham Polonsky, actors Anne Revere and Gale Sondergaard, satirist Dorothy Parker, and Paula Miller (Mrs. Lee Strasberg). Foreman, Dassin, and Losey in particular continued to forge careers in Europe; the more fortunate actors found work on the stage, while others were forced into retirement. Actor John Garfield died in 1952, aged 40, from a heart attack said to have been caused by the strain of the investigations.

Blacklisting began to fade in the late 1950s, along with the rest of the McCarthyite hysteria that had for so many years held Americans under threat. Many of the previously blacklisted writers and directors were able to return openly to Hollywood, where their achievements were a salutary lesson in the loss that films had suffered by their absence. Thanks to the insistence of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger respectively, Dalton Trumbo was the first screenwriter to re-emerge under his own name on the credits of Spartacus and Exodus (both 1960). Robert Rossen added The Hustler (1961) to his distinguished body of work pre-1951. Abraham Polonsky, whose career had been completely ruined by the hearings and his subsequent exile, came back to make only his second of three films, the highly regarded Western, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1970), and Ring Lardner, Jr. wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for M*A*S*H (1970). Carl Foreman, who had just completed the screenplay for High Noon (1952) when he was blacklisted, never returned from Britain, but was posthumously acknowledged in 1985 for his previously uncredited Oscar-winning work on The Bridge on the River Kwai. Waldo Salt received the Oscar for Midnight Cowboy (1969), shared it for Coming Home (1978), and was nominated for Serpico (1973).

The unwavering courage of the Hollywood Ten and others continues to stand as a historic reproach to the movie moguls who caved in to McCarthyite demands to "clean up" their industry.

—Nathan Abrams

Further Reading:

Bentley, Eric, editor. Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938-1968. New York, Viking, 1971.

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

Kahn, Gordon. Hollywood on Trial: The Story of the Ten Who Were Indicted. New York, Boni & Gaer, 1948.

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

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The Hollywood Ten

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