A Brief History
On November 25, 1947, the United States was in the glow of having decisively won World War II and stepping up to become the major economic and military power in the world, the only nation with nuclear bombs. But. And this is a big “but,” and not the kind I sit on! The Soviet Union (USSR) had built a gigantic military force during World War II and proved to be a problematic ally after the war by scooping up as much territory and installing as many puppet governments as they could. The avowed goal of Soviet communists was to spread communism throughout the world, and by force if necessary. The tremendous increase in military power and industrial capability after World War II and the impoverishment of many Western nations made the threat very real to Americans afraid of their only realistic opponent on the planet. Certain American politicians played on the fears of Americans about the Soviets/Communists and this paranoia spread to cover Hollywood, which was seen as a hotbed of liberal communist sympathizers.
The anti-communist rhetoric and witch hunts that ensued became a “Red Scare” that culminated in the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy until he was finally censured in 1954. Having become a US Senator (from Wisconsin) in 1947, McCarthy made himself famous by his anti-communist rants and allegations that the government and all sorts of other organizations were riddled with communists and communist sympathizers that threatened the well-being of our nation. This sort of Red Scare only got worse when the communist Chinese seized power in China (1949) after a long struggle for control of the country, and when the Soviets announced to the world that they had successfully detonated the first communist atom bomb (1949). Far from a baseless fear, there really were many Americans and allied persons in many positions, including entertainment and the media, that were communist sympathizers and even were actively spying for the USSR. The problem that developed was blowing the size of the problem out of proportion and blindly making accusations willy-nilly about all sorts of people with little or no proof.
In the post-World War II atmosphere of paranoia about communism, the House Un-American Activities Committee (became a permanent committee in 1945) would call witnesses before congress to testify, often to a hostile panel of Representatives. In 1947 the House committee called 10 Hollywood screen writers and directors to testify before the committee, and when those 10 refused, fearful Hollywood studio executives refused to give those 10 stubborn artists any further work, effectively “blacklisting” them. Even before the infamous Hollywood 10, other Hollywood personalities had already been painted with a red brush and been effectively banned from Hollywood by being named in the Hollywood Reporter (newspaper) as having communist ties or tendencies, sometimes with no evidence at all. Those named by the Hollywood Reporter in 1946 became known as being on “Billy’s Blacklist” in deference to publisher William Wilkerson, a development sure to catch the attention of the ambitious politicians on the House Un-American Activities Committee. By early 1947 the committee started calling Hollywood executives and other personalities, including Disney execs and Ronald Reagan, future President of the United States and President of the Screen Actors Guild. As a union boss and formerly supposedly fascinated by communism, Reagan became a prime target. Reagan shamefully threw other union officers under the proverbial bus with vague reports of their communist tendencies. Reagan thus avoided being blacklisted himself, though he ruined the careers of some other movie people. Reagan’s wife at the time, actress Jane Wyman, later told of a strained relationship between herself and Ronald over Ron’s callous treatment of friends and colleagues for his own safety, partially leading to their divorce. Walt Disney, the founder of the Disney entertainment empire had previously accused writers of being influenced by communists when the writers went on strike in 1941.
Some prominent Hollywood actors, including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye and Judy Garland along with famed director John Huston protested the persecution of Hollywood people and formed an organization called the Committee for the First Amendment to present their complaints. Pressure from studio executives and fear of being blacklisted themselves led these protesters to back off of their stridency and take a conciliatory posture about the hunt for communists. As far as studio executives go, major studios were quick to release anti-communist themed films in a blatant attempt to portray themselves as anti-communist.
Although the House Un-American Activities Committee never did turn up any substantiated evidence of any real communist plots being hatched in Hollywood during the Red Scare (1946-1954), there were over 300 Hollywood movie industry people who were blacklisted and many of those never got to work in Hollywood or on movies again. Some prominent victims of the witch hunt included Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles (of Citizen Kane fame), and African American Civil Rights activist Paul Robeson among the many.
The Hollywood 10 were not merely blacklisted, but actually prosecuted for Contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Many of the Hollywood 10 and other accused and blacklisted people reacted with scorn toward the Un-American Activities Committee when forced to testify and publicly denounced the perceived witch hunt. The public, as usual, was split on support for the accused Hollywood people and displaying open contempt for those Hollywood types seen as effete communist “pinkos.”
Below is a list of the infamous Hollywood 10, blacklisted by Hollywood after their conviction of Contempt of Congress:
Alvah Bessie, screenwriter
Herbert Biberman, screenwriter and director
Lester Cole, screenwriter
Edward Dmytryk, director
Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriter
John Howard Lawson, screenwriter
Albert Maltz, screenwriter
Samuel Ornitz, screenwriter
Adrian Scott, producer and screenwriter
Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter
These 10 people were fined $1000 apiece (over $10,000 in today’s dollars), and though they were excluded from Hollywood work, most continued to speak out against the persecution of Hollywood types for alleged communist ties. The gist of the complaint was that it was not against the law to be a communist! It is debatable if Congress even had a right to insist on the testimony of these people before Congress in the first place. Perhaps if the Committee had asked instead of ordered their testimony, all or some of these folks may well have testified voluntarily. The Hollywood 10 and others were accused vaguely of inserting pro-communist innuendo into motion pictures, but neither the Committee nor any of their informants ever really defined what the objectionable content was or how it was somehow dangerous to the United States.
In reality, many of the accused Hollywood people either were currently or previously had held communist sympathies, and some were active members of the Communist Party, a perfectly legal association. Some may well have tried to inject social engineering into their films, as today the injection of social engineering along the ideals of Hollywood types is still obvious. Whether or not such bias from Hollywood constituted a danger to the United States or if so, to what extent, is debatable. Although we often do not agree with Hollywood productions and the political announcements some Hollywood celebrities make, we do recognize the importance of the First Amendment and we denounce any attempt at censorship. How About You?
Questions for Students (and others): Do you think Congress had a right to compel testimony from Hollywood movie makers? Have you ever seen a movie that seemed to be an attempt to sell a certain political philosophy or point? (If so, what movie and what point?) Were you aware of the Red Scare and its impact on Hollywood?
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For more information, please see…
Dmytryk, Edward. Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten. Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.
Horne, Gerald. The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten. University of California Press, 2006.
Schickel, Richard. The Hollywood 10. New Word City, Inc., 2012.
The featured image in this article, a low-resolution reproduction of widely published news photograph of The Hollywood Ten in November 1947 waiting to be fingerprinted in the U.S. Marshal‘s office after being cited for contempt of Congress, although subject to copyright, the image linked here is claimed by Wikipedia editor DCGeist to be used under fair use as:
- it is a widely disseminated news photograph of an event of major historical significance;
- it is of much lower resolution than the original (copies made from it will be of inferior quality);
- the photo is being used only for informational purposes; and
- its inclusion in an article about the Hollywood blacklist adds significantly to the article because it illustrates the ten men known as the “Hollywood Ten” who were the first victims of the blacklist.