Seeing the new film TRUMBO, about the blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, got me looking into that dark period in Hollywood history when justice was turned on its head.
The film covers the period from 1947 when the first congressional investigation into communist activities in Hollywood took place , up to 1960 when Dalton Trumbo could again use his own name on scripts.
I had always thought of the infamous Black List in Hollywood as being the Joseph McCarthy era , but in fact the first Hollywood HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings were led by congressman J.Parnell Thomas.
Wikipedia defines McCarthyism as the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence. This definition applies equally to the Thomas hearings.
In 1947, ten Hollywood figures were found guilty of contempt of Congress. The Hollywood Ten ( as they became known) went to prison for up to a year – and lost their livelihood .
Such was the frenzy, just being a member of the Communist Party USA ( a legal political party) , or having any affiliation with communist organisations was enough for people to be blacklisted by the Hollywood studios.
Fueled by the Hollywood Reporter and the right wing magazine, Counter Attack, over a hundred actors, writers , musicians and others were accused of communist manipulation of the entertainment industry.
You Tube is a great source of archival material including lots of clips from the original 1947 HUAC Congressional hearings , under the chairmanship of J. Parnell Thomas – who seemed as vicious as the more well known Joseph McCarthy who re- instated and widened the Hearings in 1950 under a Senate committee.
It is J.Parnell Thomas who asked the notorious question, “Are you ,or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States.?”
The answer from the so called Unfriendly Ten was that the committee had no right to ask that question under the First Amendment , that it was an unconstitutional violation of privacy.
Most famous of the hundreds of people working in the Hollywood studios who lost their livelihoods because of the hearings were these Hollywood Ten:
Ring Lardner Jr, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, Herbert J. Biberman,Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, John Howard Lawson ,Dalton Trumbo, Samuel Ornitz,Adrian Scott.
All were writers apart from Edward Dmytryk who was a director.
The insidious nature of the questioning meant that not only were they asked about being a member of the Communist Party, but then they were asked to name any other members they knew of.
When screen writer Albert Maltz was asked the question , he said, “Next you are going to ask about my religious beliefs.”
Ironically, after the Hollywood Ten had been jailed for contempt of Congress, J. Parnell Thomas found himself in the same prison as two of the ten,Lester Cole and Ring Lardner jr. (Thomas had been convicted of corruption.)
HOLLYWOOD ON TRIAL , written by Gordon Kahn in 1948 ,uses transcripts of the actual hearings in Washington.
In a prepared statement, chairman J.Parnell Thomas said, “The Committeee is determined that the hearings shall be fair and impartial…..All we are here for are the facts.”
Did these words ever come back to haunt him. Probably not.
Facts were tragically missing at the hearings.
Listening to Robert Taylor in front of the committee reminds me of the phrase,’damning with faint praise ‘. In Taylor’s case it’s ‘damning with faint criticism’ when he says ,”Howard Da Sylva always seems to have something to say at the wrong time.”
The ‘unfriendly ‘ Hollywood Ten were not allowed to make statements, or to question those who had made accusations against them. The hearings became a trial though the accused were not allowed a defence.
In 1944 The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals was formed, with the purpose of “correcting the impression that this industry is made up of and dominated by communists,radicals and crackpots.”
John Wayne was President of the Alliance for three terms. Co- founders included Walt Disney,Leo McCarey,Sam Wood,Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck,Irene Dunne and Howard Hawks.
Cooper and Taylor were so called ‘friendly’ witnesses. They were allowed to make statements, with absolutely no concrete evidence of subversion to back them up.
The best that Gary Cooper could say was, “I turned down quite a few scripts because I thought they were tinged with communistic ideas.”
Robert Taylor was blunt,”If I had my way, they’d all be sent back to Russia.”
Jack Warner’s language showed he took the matter seriously,
“…. dig out the ideological termites , and my brothers and I will contribute to a pest removal fund.”
Mrs Lela Rogers (Ginger Rogers’s mother) when testifying, said that her daughter had been asked to say in a scene, “Share and share alike – that’s democracy.” Mrs. Rogers regarded that line as subversive,dangerous and clearly communist propaganda.
Ironically, Ronald Reagan, in his 1947 testimony ,said, “I do not believe the Communists have ever been able to use the motion picture screen as a sounding board for their philosophy or ideology.”
Initially, Dore Schary, head of production at RKO said that he would only fire someone if it was proven that the person was a foreign agent dedicated to the overthrow of the government by force.
If only he and the other studio heads had agreed that sensible stand.
Instead , in the Waldorf Statement ( named after the New York hotel where the decision was made) , the Hollywood studios inaugurated the Black List by firing the ten found guilty of contempt of Congress.
Incredibly, the studio heads said, “There is a danger of hurting innocent people….a risk of creating an atmosphere of fear.”
In 1947, the Committee For The First Amendment was formed by screenwriter Philip Dunne, Myrna Loy, John Huston and William Wyler to support the Hollywood Ten. And was supported by the studios.
In October of that year, some of the Committee , pictured above, flew to Washington and sat in on some of the hearings.
But, before long, the Committee for the First Amendment itself was being branded a communist organisation. Many of those involved backed off. Lauren Bacall said,
“We didn’t realise until much later that we were being used to some degree by the Unfriendly Ten.”
Humphrey Bogart, no doubt on the advice of his studio, made a grovelling apology in Photoplay magazine ,saying the committee was protecting the Bill of Rights, not defending communism.
It became clear that the Hollywood Ten were on their own. Everyone was diving for cover.
Bogart did say, “It is still our belief that the House Un-American committee could have identified the very small percentage of communists in Hollywood through FBI records.”
Gale’s husband was Herbert J. Biberman, one of the Hollywood Ten. Guilt by association.
On the floor of Congress, Representative Javits of New York said he had read the record of the hearings from cover to cover. In his opinion,
“The Committee has permitted witnesses testifying before it to charge other people on their mere assertion and without tangible proof, with being Communists. ………When it comes to a matter of trying an individual’s character, we just don’t operate that way in the United States.”
Robert Ryan later commented,
“Decent people dragged through the mud of insinuation and slander. The testimony of crackpots and subversives accepted and given out to the press as if it were gospel truth. Reputations ruined and people hounded out of their jobs.”
The film TRUMBO is well worth seeing.
Dalton Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party of the United States from 1943 to 1948.
It was the time of the Cold War. There were genuine fears about the Soviet Union. Hollywood provided great media interest for the Congressional Committee hearings.
Fear became the motivator for most witnesses , and the Committee seemed to lose all sense of the law of the land.
In subsequent years, Dalton Trumbo’s Oscars for ROMAN HOLIDAY and THE BRAVE ONE finally had his name on them.