Hollywood Blacklist Historical backgroundThe Hollywood blacklist is rooted in events of the 1930s and the early 1940s, encompassing the height of the Great Depression and World War II. During this era, long before the horrors of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin's rule became common knowledge in the West, the American Communist Party attracted a large number of followers, many of them young idealists in the field of arts and entertainment. The party was the primary force in the United States fighting for the rights of poor people, and was centrally involved in campaigns for improvement in welfare, unemployment, and social security benefits. Two major film industry strikes during the 1930s increased tensions between the Hollywood producers and the unions, particularly the Communist-affiliated Screen Writers Guild.
The American Communist Party lost substantial support after the Moscow show trials of 1936–38 and the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939. The U.S. government began turning its attention to the links, real and imagined, between Hollywood and the party during this period. Under then chairman Martin Dies, Jr., the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) released a report in 1938 claiming that communism was pervasive in Hollywood. Two years later, Dies privately took testimony from a former Communist Party member, John L. Leech, who named forty-two movie industry professionals as Communists. After Leech repeated his charges in supposed confidence to a Los Angeles grand jury, many of the names were reported in the press, including those of stars Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Frederic March, among other well-known Hollywood figures. Dies said he would "clear" all those who cooperated by meeting with him in what he called "executive session". Within two weeks of the grand jury leak, all those on the list except for actress Jean Muir had met with the HUAC chairman. Dies "cleared" everyone except actor Lionel Stander, who was fired by the movie studio, Republic Pictures, where he was contracted.
In 1941, producer Walt Disney took out an ad in Variety, the industry trade magazine, declaring his conviction that "Communist agitation" was behind a cartoonists and animators' strike. According to historians Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, "In actuality, the strike had resulted from Disney's overbearing paternalism, high-handedness, and insensitivity." Inspired by Disney, California State Senator Jack Tenney, chairman of the state legislature's Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, launched an investigation of "Reds in movies". The probe fell flat, and was mocked in several Variety headlines.
The subsequent wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union brought the American Communist Party newfound credibility. During the war, membership in the party reached a peak of 50,000.As World War II drew to a close, perceptions changed again, with communism increasingly becoming a focus of American fears and hatred. In 1945, Gerald L. K. Smith, founder of the neofascist America First Party, began giving speeches in Los Angeles assailing the "alien minded Russian Jews in Hollywood". Mississippi congressman John E. Rankin, a member of HUAC, held a press conference to declare that "one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this Government has its headquarters in Hollywood...the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States." Rankin promised, "We're on the trail of the tarantula now". Reports of Soviet repression in Eastern and Central Europe in the war's aftermath added more fuel to what became known as the "Second Red Scare". The growth of conservative political influence and the Republican triumph in the 1946 Congressional elections, which saw the party take control of both the House and Senate, led to a major revival of institutional anticommunist activity, publicly spearheaded by HUAC. The following year, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), a political action group cofounded by Walt Disney, issued a pamphlet advising producers on the avoidance of "subtle communistic touches" in their films. Its counsel revolved around a list of ideological prohibitions, such as "Don't smear the free-enterprise system ... Don't smear industrialists ... Don't smear wealth ... Don't smear the profit motive ... Don't deify the 'common man' ... Don't glorify the collective".
The blacklist begins (1947)In October 1947, a number of persons working in the Hollywood film industry were summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which had declared its intention to investigate whether Communist agents and sympathizers had been surreptitiously planting propaganda in U.S. films. The hearings began with several Hollywood professionals, including Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild, testifying that the threat of Communists in the film industry was a serious one. Actor Adolphe Menjou declared, "I am a witch hunter if the witches are Communists. I am a Red-baiter. I would like to see them all back in Russia." In contrast, several leading Hollywood figures, including director John Huston and actors Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Danny Kaye, organized the Committee for the First Amendment to protest the government targeting of their industry.
Many of the film industry professionals in whom HUAC had expressed interest—primarily screenwriters, but actors, directors, producers, and others as well—were either known or alleged to have been members of the American Communist Party. Of the forty-three people put on the witness list, a total of nineteen declared that they would not give evidence. Eleven of these nineteen were called before the committee. Members of the Committee for the First Amendment flew to Washington ahead of this climactic phase of the hearing, which commenced on Monday, October 27. Of the eleven "unfriendly witnesses", one, émigré playwright Bertolt Brecht, ultimately chose to answer the committee's questions. The other ten refused, citing their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The crucial question they refused to answer is now generally rendered as "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" In fact, each had at one time or another been a member; most still were, while a few had been in the past and only briefly. These ten were formally accused of contempt of Congress and proceedings against them began in the full House of Representatives.
In light of the "Hollywood Ten"'s defiance of HUAC—in addition to refusing to testify, many had attempted to read statements decrying the committee's investigation as unconstitutional—political pressure mounted on the film industry to demonstrate its "anti-subversive" bona fides. Late in the hearings, Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), declared to the committee that he would never "employ any proven or admitted Communist because they are just a disruptive force and I don't want them around." On November 17, the Screen Actors Guild voted to make its officers swear to a non-Communist pledge. The following week, on November 24, the House of Representatives voted 346 to 17 to approve citations against the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress. The next day, following a meeting of film industry executives at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel, MPAA president Johnston issued a press release on the executives' behalf that is today referred to as the Waldorf Statement. The statement declared that the ten would be fired or suspended without pay and not reemployed until they were cleared of contempt charges and had sworn that they were not Communists. The first Hollywood blacklist was now in effect.
The list grows (1948–50)The HUAC hearings had failed to turn up any evidence that Hollywood was secretly disseminating Communist propaganda, but the industry was nonetheless transformed. The fallout from the inquiry was a factor in the decision by Floyd Odlum, the primary owner of RKO Pictures, to get out of the business. As a result, the studio would pass into the hands of Howard Hughes. Within weeks of taking over in May 1948, Hughes fired most of RKO's employees and virtually shut the studio down for six months as he had the political sympathies of the rest investigated. Then, just as RKO swung back into production, Hughes made the decision to settle a long-standing federal antitrust suit against the industry's Big Five studios. This would be one of the crucial steps in the collapse of the studio system that had governed Hollywood, and ruled much of world cinema, for a quarter-century.
In early 1948, as well, all of the Hollywood Ten were convicted of contempt. Following a series of unsuccessful appeals, the cases arrived before the Supreme Court; among the submissions filed in defense of the ten was an amicus curiae brief signed by 204 Hollywood professionals. After the court denied review, the Hollywood Ten began serving one-year prison sentences in 1950. In September 1950, one of the ten, director Edward Dmytryk, publicly announced that he had once been a Communist and was prepared to give evidence against others who had been as well. He was released early from jail; following his 1951 HUAC appearance, in which he described his brief membership in the party and named names, his career recovered.
The others remained silent and most were unable to obtain work in the American film and television industry for many years. Adrian Scott, who had produced four of Dmytryk's films—Murder, My Sweet; Cornered; So Well Remembered; and Crossfire—was one of those named by his former friend. Scott's next screen credit would not come until 1972 and he would never produce another feature film. Some of those blacklisted continued to write for Hollywood or the broadcasting industry surreptitiously, using pseudonyms or the names of friends who posed as the actual writers (those who allowed their names to be used in this fashion were called "fronts"). Of the 204 who signed the amicus brief, 84 would be blacklisted themselves. There was a more general chilling effect: Humphrey Bogart, who had been one of the most prominent members of the Committee for the First Amendment, felt compelled to write an article for Photoplay magazine denying he was a Communist sympathizer. The Tenney Committee, which had continued its state-level investigations, summoned songwriter Ira Gershwin to testify about his participation in the committee.
Blacklisted Screenwriters Get Credits
In recent years the Writers Guild of America, West, has corrected the writing credits on 95 such films.
Hundreds of writers as well as actors, directors, agents and producers found themselves blacklisted in the 1950's following efforts by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to find suspected Communists in the entertainment industry. Many of those on the blacklist refused to name names, declined to discuss their political beliefs, were singled out by informers or were simply liberals who were friendly with Communists. Many of the blacklisted writers started using ''fronts'' or pseudonyms, while others fled to Europe to find work. Careers were damaged, if not shattered.
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