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May 19, 2017

Anti-Communism in the United States: HUAC and the Hollywood Blacklist in the 1940s and 1950s

It was the casting call no one in Hollywood wanted to receive. In October 1947, when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) convened a hearing in Washington, D.C., to investigate subversive activities in the entertainment industry, 41 screenwriters, directors and producers were subpoenaed. Most witnesses were “friendly” — that is, willing to respond to the committee’s central question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” And those who confessed to membership were offered the opportunity to name “fellow travelers,” thereby regaining their good standing with the committee and, by extension, the American film industry.

Ten witnesses — all current or former party members — banded together in protest, refusing to cooperate on First Amendment grounds (freedom of speech, right of assembly, freedom of association) and affirming that HUAC disagreed: It found the so-called Hollywood Ten in contempt of Congress, fined them each $1,000 and sentenced them to up to a year in federal prison. All 10 artists also were fired by a group of studio executives — and the era of the Hollywood blacklist began.

The Hollywood Ten in November 1947 waiting to be fingerprinted in the U.S. Marshal's office after being cited for contempt of Congress. Front row (from left): Herbert Biberman, attorneys Martin Popper and Robert W. Kenny, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole. Middle row: Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz. Back row: Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott.

1. Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976): Screenwriter and novelist, an outspoken communist who was also a resoundingly successful capitalist — at the time of his blacklisting, he was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. Won two Oscars while blacklisted, for Roman Holiday (1953, using fellow screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter’s name, with his consent) and The Brave One (1956, using the fictitious name “Robert Rich”). Helped shatter the blacklist with his credited work on Spartacus (1960) and Exodus (1960). Also wrote Lonely Are the Brave, Johnny Got His Gun (which he directed and adapted from his own novel) and Papillon.

In a 1970 speech to the Screen Writers Guild, Trumbo said, “The blacklist was a time of evil, and … no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions and his particular circumstances compelled him to. There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides … none of us — right, left or center — emerged from that long nightmare without sin.”

2. Ring Lardner Jr. (1915-2000): Reporter and screenwriter from a writing family including famed sportswriter and humorist Ring Lardner (Sr.) and John Lardner. Notable scripts include Laura, Woman of the Year and MASH, the latter two winning him Oscars. Prominently helped break the blacklist with his credit on The Cincinnati Kid (1965). Lardner claimed he won an Oscar via a front during the blacklist, but refused to specify for which film.

In response to HUAC’s infamous question about whether he was or had been a communist, Lardner said, “I could answer the question exactly the way you want, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.” He also said, in 1947, “Only an act can be a crime, never an idea.”

3. Herbert Biberman (1900-1971): Screenwriter and director (Salt of the Earth), an early advocate for war against Germany following that nation’s invasion of the Soviet Union. The film One of the Hollywood Ten (2000) tells the HUAC story from his point of view.

“I do not consider this committee to be stupid,” he said in 1947. “On the contrary, I consider it to be evil. It is not communism the House Committee on Un-American Activities fears, but the human mind, reason itself. … This committee is in the course of overthrowing not Karl Marx, but the constitutional way of American life.”

4. Alvah Bessie (1904-1985): Novelist, nonfiction writer and screenwriter. Oscar nominee for Objective Burma, a patriotic war story.

Was active in the antifascist cause, fighting in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War and drawing praise from Ernest Hemingway for Men in Battle, an account of his war experiences. Wrote The Un-Americans, a novel about the blacklist, and Inquisition in Eden, a nonfiction account. The blacklist ended his Hollywood career.

5. Lester Cole (1904-1985): Screenwriter (Born Free). Born in New York City, Lester Cole began his career as an actor but soon turned to screenwriting. His first work was If I had a Million. In 1933, he joined with John Howard Lawson and Samuel Ornitz to establish the Writers Guild of America.

Wrote Hollywood Red: The Autobiography of Lester Cole (1981), in which he recounted confronting former communist and HUAC witness Budd Schulberg during a radio broadcast: “Aren’t you the canary who sang before the un-American Committee? Aren't you that canary? Or are you another bird, a pigeon — the stool kind. ... Just sing, canary, sing, you bastard!” The lifelong communist died in San Francisco at 81.

6. Edward Dmytryk (1908-1999): Prolific director who made The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Murder, My Sweet (1944), among other noirs, and was Oscar-nominated for his work on Crossfire (1947).

After being cited for contempt, escaped to England and worked there for a time. Upon returning to the U.S., he was jailed. After a few months, he testified before HUAC, naming names and injuring standing cases by other members of the Hollywood 10. He then successfully resumed his long career.

7. John Howard Lawson (1894-1977): Screenwriter who was the first president of the Writers Guild of America, West (he helped found its forebear, the Screen Writers Guild) and head of the Communist Party in Hollywood. Served as an ambulance driver in World War I. While blacklisted, taught at Stanford University.

His words — “My opinions are not an issue in this case. The issue is my right to have opinions.” — are immortalized in Jenny Holzer’s permanent installation at the University of Southern California, a series of engraved benches called “Blacklist.”

8. Albert Maltz (1908-1985): Playwright, short-story writer, novelist and screenwriter. Won the O. Henry Award for his story The Happiest Man on Earth (1938). Screen credits include The Robe, The Naked City, Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Beguiled. Nominated for the Oscar for Pride of the Marines (1945) and won a WGA Award for Broken Arrow (1951) with fellow writer Michael Blankfort fronting for him. “One is destroyed in order that a thousand will be rendered silent and impotent by fear,” he said in 1947.

Maltz took issue with Dalton Trumbo’s assertion that people on all sides were equally victimized by the blacklist, calling it a “bewildering moral position.” He cited Dmytryk’s capitulation to HUAC, followed by the “Crossfire” director’s return to work, while Robert Adrian Scott, the producer of “Crossfire,” did not testify and was blacklisted for 21 years. “To put the point sharply: If an informer in the French underground who sent a friend to the torture chambers of the Gestapo was equally a victim, then there can be no right or wrong in life that I understand,” Maltz told the New York Times.

9. Samuel Ornitz (1890-1957): Playwright, novelist and screenwriter (Imitation of Life, 1934; Little Orphan Annie, 1938) who also was a social worker for the New York Prison Association. Along with Lester Coles and John Howard Lawson, Ornitz was a key figure in the founding of the Screen Writers Guild. A vocal supporter of the Soviet Union, Ornitz was one of the most outspoken political figures in Hollywood.

As a member of the Hollywood Ten, Ornitz’s refusal to answer questions at the HUAC hearings in October 1947 resulted in a 12-month sentence. While serving his time at the federal prison in Springfield, Vt., he published his most successful novel, Bride of the Sabbath (1951). He never worked in film again.

10. Robert Adrian Scott (1911-1972): Screenwriter and producer (Murder, My Sweet and best picture nominee Crossfire). Was married to actress Anne Shirley.

In 1947, at the height of his career, Scott was subpoenaed to testify at the HUAC hearings (he had joined the Communist Party in 1944). He became one of the Hollywood Ten when he refused to answer the committee’s questions on First Amendment grounds. While waiting a court ruling, Scott moved to London to look for work but decided to return when the courts refused to overturn HUAC’s contempt charge. He noted that “nine of us couldn’t go into court with the 10th on the lam. That would have made it impossible for the rest who were left.”


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