Seventy years ago, one of the most important political meetings of the Cold War era occurred at the famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan — only it wasn’t heads of state but the heads of Hollywood’s top film studios who were in attendance. The House Un-American Activities Committee had begun subpoenaing top screenwriters and producers — including the famed “Hollywood Ten,” Dalton Trumbo, Alvah Bessie, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, and Adrian Scott — who were suspected of insinuating Communist messages into the films they worked on. And the studio heads had to decide what to do about it.
The writers were being told to “name names” of their old comrades in left-wing writers’ groups and collectives, and were expected to make some kind of statement of contrition for their “Commie sympathizer” pasts. When they refused and were subsequently fired and/or jailed for contempt of Congress, it kicked off the era of the Hollywood Blacklist. The Senate inquiries of Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn were waiting just around the corner.
As Kathryn Cramer Brownwell recalled in her book Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life, the story of the Blacklist began when actress Olivia de Havilland was on a press tour in Seattle on behalf of HICCASP (the Hollywood Independent Citizens’ Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions) to support liberal and Democratic candidates in the 1946 midterm elections. De Havilland looked over her speech — written by Dalton Trumbo, the man who would soon become the central icon of the Hollywood Ten — and was horrified. She felt Trumbo’s speech was straight-up “Communist propaganda.” She delivered it — after adding a passage in her own words comparing Soviet Communist repression to the Nazis’ pure evil, bigotry, and violence.
Unsurprisingly, this this kind of “both sides” moral equivalence “sent Dalton Trumbo into a rage” — a fact that was no doubt reported back to HICCASP faster than a plot-point telegram in a film-noir mystery. Fearing that all liberal political or civil- rights activity could be tarred as Communist, the New Deal liberals set a trap to force hardcore Soviet sympathizers out of the Commie closet. Raising the specter of possible infiltration by Russian agents, Jimmy Roosevelt addressed a HICCASP meeting in early 1947 and casually mentioned that perhaps . . . it might be a good idea . . . for the executive board to put out a formal press release making it clear that HICCASP opposed Stalinist and Soviet-style Communism, just so that there would be no further misunderstanding.
As word of this spread to the halls of conservative congressman Parnell Thomas, the chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hollywood went from merely tempting to downright irresistible as a target for a full-on inquiry — both for the legitimate reason of protecting against Communist subversion and for the purpose of political headline-hunting and throwing one’s weight around. Meanwhile, the old-timey studio founders, such as Republican icon Louis B. Mayer and ardent bottom-liners Jack Warner and Harry Cohn, were already aghast by what they felt was the ingratitude and privilege of the Hollywood Ten.
Similar to today’s post-recession Millennial Marxists, they were radicalized by the “thoroughly modern” freedoms of the late 1920s, followed by the Depression of the 1930s.
The Ten were largely second-generation Jews (or other “ethnics”) who had been born in the comparative safety of the United States during the first ten or fifteen years of the 20th century. Similar to today’s post-recession Millennial Marxists, they were radicalized by the “thoroughly modern” freedoms of the late 1920s, followed by the Depression of the 1930s. Many joined collectives of leftist intellectuals and artists in New York and branched them out to Tinseltown when they moved. (One of the primary reasons given by “friendly witnesses” who continued to have prosperous careers, such as director Elia Kazan and legendary movie screenwriter/TV producer Roy Huggins, for breaking with the Communist Left in their youth was the outrageous censorship and thought control that they witnessed firsthand in these groups — where stories, plots, and endings were often to be vetted and approved by various “committees” and Party members.)
Further complicating things was that, though screenwriters earned five or ten times what a typical factory worker or secretary did, the studio system very much viewed them (and all but the biggest-name producers and directors) as “labor” rather than management. The Fitzgeralds, Faulkners, Wests, and Hammetts who went out west to cash in on all the easy money (and women) soon found that although they were the privileged toast of the East Coast’s literary world and Broadway, the foul-mouthed (and in their eyes, barely literate) moguls who ran the studios regarded them as little more than “schmucks with Underwoods.” (That was a brand of typewriter — the iPad of its day — for you post-Millennials out there.) As a result, many writers and low-level producers of pre-war Hollywood still regarded themselves as an oppressed working class, even if their oppression now came with a Cadillac LaSalle and a live-in housekeeper.
In sharp contrast, many of the old moguls could still remember the pogromchiks’ midnight torches and hoofbeats, the stink of the steerage section on the boat to Ellis Island, the desperate dreams for a better life that finally came true for their families, just like a Hollywood movie. And now these ungrateful schmucks with their fancy-schmantzy educations — they have the indecency, the unmitigated gall, to make their pretentious “critiques” of the American system? America brought you all this freedom and tolerance, which no other country could or would. (Just ask the victims of the Holocaust!) And this is how you pay it back already? Feh!
And yet, however honorable one might find the effort to purge possible Communist influence, it cannot and must not be denied that the Blacklist era absolutely reeked of anti-Semitism. As Jewish Chronicle writer Michael Freedland has written, the words “Commie” and “Jew” became virtually interchangeable for many members of the HUAC and McCarthy eras. (The same could be said for Commie and gay, except “gay” couldn’t even be said or alluded to out loud.) While not all the Hollywood Ten, let alone all the subsequent Blacklist victims, were Jewish by a long shot, Jews were vastly over-represented — and that was no accident.
As Robert Cort pithily put it in his roman-à-clef Action, many senators and congressmen still powerfully “resented the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who wielded untrammelled cultural influence” over America. This was their chance to finally cut those “Horatio Algerbergs” down to size. In the most vomitous display of Jew-baiting, Congressman John Rankin read into the Congressional Record a long list of the birth names of top performers whom he felt were suspect. (Danny Kaye = Daniel Kaminsky; June Havoc = June Hovick; Melvyn Douglas = Melvyn Hesselberg; Edward G. Robinson = Emmanuel Goldenberg; and so on.) He said they represented a threat to the “unfortunate Christian people” of the world.
In November of 1947, when they met at the Waldorf Hotel, the heads and higher-up execs of the major Hollywood film studios sought to establish a unified front against Communist subversion as well as the threat of big government regulation. (Already the feds had launched an anti-trust lawsuit that would result in studios’ having to surrender ownership in theater chains the following year.) Most of the moguls were indifferent at best to the welfare of the Unfriendly Ten and other “suspected” screenwriters and producers. But RKO head of production and noted liberal Dore Schary — who, significantly, began his career as a New York playwright and was an Oscar-winning screenwriter (Boys’ Town) — cited a California law that prevented people from being fired because of their political beliefs. Especially since the Ten had never crossed the line into advocating violence.
Meanwhile, just before the Waldorf conference, as Ron Capshaw noted in his recent retrospective at The Liberty Conservative, screenwriter Philip Dunne and directors John Huston and Billy Wilder helped form the Committee for the First Amendment, attracting other A-listers such as Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Judy Garland to the cause. While Dunne was upfront that he did not want to defend or normalize the “peculiar politics” of Communism (which he claimed to abhor), he said he did want to protect against the chilling effect on First Amendment free speech and expression that he felt HUAC (and later, McCarthyism) represented.
These firebrands made it crystal clear that they were fighting for full-on leftism, not some kind of cuddly All Ideologies Matter ‘free speech.’
Unfortunately, when they finally testified, “instead of a sober defense of the Constitution, the Ten came across as shrill [and] doctrinaire,” reciting obvious “Communist agitprop” and a showy, self-righteous martyrdom instead of the liberal respectability politics that they were supposed to be parroting. These firebrands made it crystal clear that they were fighting for full-on leftism, not some kind of cuddly All Ideologies Matter “free speech.” Writers and producers such as Lardner and Trumbo (and soon-to-testify fellow travelers such as Abraham Polonsky and Lillian Hellman) were no more fighting for the First Amendment than the Antifa activist is when she clocks a Nazi or Klansman with a solid left hook. They were playing to win control in the marketplace of ideas — not just politely push their shopping carts through it. Hollywood Communist Party head John Howard Lawson attacked cooperating HUAC witnesses as nothing less than “Gestapo agents” within, while Dalton Trumbo accused HUAC of fomenting an “American concentration camp.”
When the Waldorf conference ended, the mega-moguls had had enough. Iconic MGM co-founder Samuel Goldwyn convinced Dore Schary to give the rest of the Hollywood writing community the bad news: The studios would not stand by the Hollywood Ten if they refused to name names or cooperate further with HUAC, and they would indeed be fired from their jobs. Goldwyn convinced Schary that the writers would “listen to” him as a fellow scribe, especially after Schary had come out as strongly as he had against the firings of writers and producers for their political activism. Schary (who’d helped to found the modern Writers’ Guild) told his screenwriter colleagues the bad news — and then added that, while he didn’t expect them to like or agree with the sacrifice of the Hollywood Ten, the important thing was to work toward due process in the future, to maintain unflinching support for liberal politics and respect for all points of view, and to give any “suspected” writers the chance to “clear” themselves if they wanted to. (Several would and did.)
Sadly, the previous year’s HICCASP hiccup largely repeated itself. Boos and jeering carried the day. Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, whose last major credit would be the anything-but-leftist John Wayne signature True Grit, stammered that she didn’t know how Schary could “look himself in the mirror, without throwing up!” Decades later, Oscar and Tony winner Arthur Laurents (who wrote the Blacklist-themed The Way We Were) called the long-dead Schary a “toad” in his memoir, Original Story By.
Indeed, once serious and rigorous scholarship on the Blacklist era began in the 1970s and ’80s, the most esteemed histories and interviews began to present the survivors’ victimization as not only unjust but unutterable, not just insulting but incomparable. The Blacklist’s targets were now granted victimhood status nearly on par with that of Jim Crow and Holocaust survivors. This chapter of Blacklist scholarship finally ended in March of 1999, when Broadway and Hollywood icon Elia Kazan was awarded a long-overdue Lifetime Achievement Oscar. There was no question that Kazan had earned the award on artistic merit, but he had committed the unpardonable sin — he’d “named names” and continued with his career while his former colleagues from the 1930s Left were twisting in the wind.
Watching a bunch of preening celebs, many of whom were mere toddlers or not even born when the HUAC/McCarthy era was in full force, refusing to applaud as the 90-year-old Kazan gratefully hobbled up to receive his award was a spectacle so galling that even many Hollywood liberals said “enough already.” By 2015, the Coen Brothers satirized this taboo in their Old Hollywood masterpiece Hail Caesar!, portraying a group of Comm-symp screenwriters as being almost exactly what David Brooks or Ann Coulter might have said they were — limousine liberals spouting mutilated Marxism and pusillanimous platitudes from a sumptuous Malibu mansion, complete with mistreated, invisible, and ignored “proletarian” servants.
In one of the most famous moments of the Blacklist era, the famed playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Lillian Hellman defiantly announced that she would not “cut [her] conscience to fit today’s fashions.” At the time, it was seen as an attack on the right wing — which of course it was. But Hellman’s true anger was a whiplash rebuke to compromising, “well meaning” Adlai Stevenson liberals, as opposed to true leftists such as herself. In a book review, the talented New Republic tea-leaf reader Sarah Jones recently deplored the way that Hillary Clinton feminists tried to “erase [Bernie-voting] left wing women” from last year’s narrative. In the same sense, Hellman was telling the world that she refused to be erased, silenced, mainstream-washed, or normalized for public consumption. She was not going to be folded gently into the Miracle Whip post-war ’40s and ’50s Great Consensus — and neither were her most loyal comrades. To use the signature book title of her political opposite number, religious-right founding mother Phyllis Schlafly, Hellman demanded “A Choice — Not an Echo.”
Though it seemed at the time that Joe McCarthy, Parnell Thomas, and J. Edgar Hoover had won the battle, it’s clear today that the Hellmans, Polonskys, and Trumbos won the war.
And though it seemed at the time that Joe McCarthy, Parnell Thomas, and J. Edgar Hoover had won the battle, it’s clear today that the Hellmans, Polonskys, and Trumbos won the war. Their echoes can be seen everywhere from the Bernie Sanders/Jacobin economic Left, to the proud Millennial Muslim who wears her hijabs and burkinis as an empowering feminist statement of Resistance, to the genderqueer activist who insists on “they/them” pronouns and unisex bathrooms. Out-and-proud, in-your-face defiance now rules the roost. The post-war “vital center” — so vital to the narrative of a country desperately seeking normalcy after emerging from a depression and a genocidal world war into atomic-age cold war — just isn’t so vital anymore.
As the recently deceased film and TV star Robert Vaughn famously said in 1972, in the end there were “only victims.” Not just the Hollywood Ten and the writers and artists who fell in the years immediately ahead (many of the latter of whom, it should be said in a loud voice, were not and had never been Communists), but also conservatives who were forced to watch their sincere and conscionable political convictions be reduced, by people such as John Rankin, Joe McCarthy, and Roy Cohn, to demagoguery as vulgar as anything out of the mouth of Richard Spencer or David Duke. And patriotic New Deal liberals who resisted “Commie” excesses even before HUAC and McCarthy, then walked (or were forced to walk) the plank to save themselves — only to be treated like turncoats, snitches, and cowards by their former friends.
It was Dore Schary who deservedly had the final word on this chapter of Hollywood history just before he died in the summer of 1980, a few weeks shy of his 75th birthday. “Perhaps it is just as well. Those who attacked me [from the hard right] on one side and spokesmen from the far left on the other, demonstrated what the position of liberals in politics has always been and will likely forever be: They will be rejected for not having accepted the extreme alternatives.”
One can all too easily imagine another pair of seventyish presidential power players bitterly saying the exact same thing from the darkened screening room of their Chappaqua mansion. (Just look at what happened, or read What Happened.) And that, more than anything else, is why the Blacklist’s battles among conservatives, liberals, and Leftists in the sodium-lit shadows of 70 years ago still haunt our world today.
— Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture War. He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series Pioneers of Television.