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HUAC, the Hollywood Ten, and the Birth of the Blacklist

witnesses industry committee unfriendly

The House Un-American Activities Committee, popularly known as HUAC, became a standing (permanent) committee in 1945, but not until the November 1946 elections did HUAC really become a major political force. In those elections, both the House and Senate attained a Republican majority for the first time since the pre-Depression Hoover era as cold war conservatism swept through the nation and into Congress. The elections brought a new generation of zealous anti-Communist ideologues to Washington—including Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy—and it also installed a conservative anti-Communist, J. Parnell Thomas, as chairman of HUAC. It was soon evident that the new Congress would exact its revenge after four terms of FDR and the left-liberal politics of the New Deal, and that the motion picture industry would be in its direct line of fire.

Crucial to HUAC’s incursion into Hollywood, and in fact its prime ally, was the Motion Picture Alliance. Since its founding in late 1944, the members of the Motion Picture Alliance had sought to accomplish two goals: first, to demonstrate to the public that the “silent majority” of movie industry employees were conservative, hardworking, freedom-loving Americans; and second, to purge the industry of those who were not. The Alliance already had invited the Dies Committee to look into Hollywood’s leftist leanings. That earlier inquiry had come to naught, but the recent conservative swing in Congress encouraged the Alliance to try again. HUAC’s Parnell Thomas, a savvy politician and a strident anti-labor, anti-Communist, anti-New Deal Republican, proved most receptive. Thomas was eager to showcase his committee and dramatize the “red menace” in those early months of the cold war, when allegations of Communists working in government and industry were rampant. Seizing the opportunity, Thomas announced that HUAC would be looking into Communist infiltration of the Hollywood movie colony, and into the content of the movies themselves.

MPAA’s president, Eric Johnston, hoping to head off a full-blown investigation, went to Washington in April 1947 to testify before HUAC. He acknowledged that there were Communists working in the movie industry but maintained that it was their constitutional right to do so as long as they did not advocate the overthrow of the government. Johnston insisted that “the Communists hate and fear American motion pictures,” pointing out the Soviet efforts to prevent Hollywood films from penetrating the Iron Curtain. Johnston also assured the committee that attempts by Communists to attain positions of power in Hollywood or to influence movie content in any way had “suffered an overwhelming defeat.” The committee was not persuaded, however, and at one point the archconservative Mississippian John Rankin stated: “Unless the people in control of the industry are willing to clean house of Communists, Congress will have to do it for them.”

HUAC took the initiative in May 1947, when Thomas and two other committee members went to Hollywood and took up residence in the Biltmore for a series of informal interviews. Most of these were with Alliance members who readily identified those in the industry whom they suspected were Communists or “fellow travelers.” Convinced that a full investigation was warranted, Thomas revealed (primarily through well-placed news leaks) that subpoenas would be issued and a congressional hearing conducted later in the year. 78 Although Thomas earlier indicated that the investigation would include the CSU strike and the jurisdictional dispute, he ruled that out after the initial sortie to Hollywood. He decided instead to pursue three premises: first, that Communists had attained positions of power in the Screen Writers Guild and in studio writing departments; second, that Communists were successfully introducing subversive propaganda into pictures; and third, that Roosevelt and his administration had pressured Hollywood to produce pro-Soviet pictures during World War II.

From all indications, Hollywood simply did not take HUAC and the pending investigation all that seriously, deeming it little more than a political sideshow—a view that apparently was shared by much of the public and the press. That view changed in September, however, when Congress issued subpoenas to forty-three studio executives, labor leaders, and filmmakers. The summonses were divided about evenly between the so-called friendly and unfriendly witnesses, all of whom were requested to appear in Washington on 20 October to testify about “Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry.” Several summonses went to Alliance members, along with studio executives, like Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer, who were outspoken anti-Communists; another nineteen went to those suspected of being politically subversive or having direct ties to the Communist Party.

Johnston announced that the industry would be represented by Paul V. McNutt, a liberal attorney and onetime presidential aspirant who had served as national commander of the American Legion, governor of Indiana, head of the War Manpower Commission, and most recently as U.S. ambassador to the Philippines. Reminiscent of the late Wendell Willkie, who had defended Hollywood in the 1941 Senate propaganda hearings, McNutt was highly touted for his legal and courtroom skills, and he was expected to ably defend the industry against the congressional inquisitors. As the battle lines were drawn, however, it quickly became evident that this inquiry would be altogether different from the propaganda hearings. First of all, Congress let it be known that even though many studio executives had been summoned, they and their companies were not under investigation. HUAC, in other words, was convinced that the studios were not knowingly or willingly producing Communist propaganda. There would be questions about such overtly pro-Soviet pictures as Warners’ MISSION TO MOSCOW (1943), but the issue was pressure from the Roosevelt administration more than anything else. And second, McNutt was not secured to defend or represent the nineteen unfriendly witnesses; mostly writers and SWG members, they were left to secure counsel on their own.

The only organized industry support for the unfriendly witnesses came from the Committee for the First Amendment. Something of a counter to the Alliance, the Committee was formed shortly before the hearings and was spearheaded by John Huston, Philip Dunne, and William Wyler. Membership included many of the industry’s leading liberals: John Garfield, Katharine Hepburn, Billy Wilder, Groucho Marx, Paulette Goddard, Humphrey Bogart, Fredric March, George S. Kaufman, Walter Wanger, and Jerry Wald. After collecting some five hundred industry signatures in support of the First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceable assembly, the Committee planned to send a contingent to Washington at the end of the first week of testimony, just before the unfriendly witnesses were scheduled to testify.

The hearings were held in Washington from Monday, 20 October, to Thursday, 30 October, during which time forty-one witnesses were heard. The first week of testimony was devoted to friendly witnesses; Jack Warner was the first to be called. Warner’s testimony set the tone and outlined the studios’ general defense strategy. He condemned communism and assured the committee that the vast majority in the Hollywood filmmaking community were deeply patriotic. Warner acknowledged that there were reds in Hollywood, but he testified that any efforts to influence either the industry or the movies had been thwarted. HUAC had flatly stated before the hearings that it expected witnesses to “name names,” and Warner readily complied—although most of those he named already were on the roster of unfriendly witnesses. Louis B. Mayer and the Alliance president, Sam Wood, both of whom also appeared on the opening day of the hearings, presented similar testimony.

Through the first week, the hearings followed much the same pattern, which smacked of a carefully rehearsed publicity effort and a setup for HUAC to go after the “unfriendlies” during the following week. Press coverage was mixed, not only in its treatment of the testimony but in its regard for the proceedings in general. The Washington Post on the eve of the hearings referred to them as “the biggest show of the fall investigating season” and devoted its front-page coverage to the sideshow aspects as well as the testimony. When the Alliance member Robert Taylor appeared on 22 October, for instance, the Post’s page-one headline read “Bobby Soxers and Mothers,” followed by the subhead “Women Cheer Robert Taylor as He Urges Ban on Reds.” 84 Robert Montgomery, another Alliance member and former president of the Screen Actors Guild, wryly stated, “For too long a time a vociferous minority has misled the public to believe that the majority of Hollywood actors and actresses are radicals, crackpots or at least New Deal Democrats.”

Most of the testimony was deadly serious, of course, and some of it quite vindictive—Walt Disney testified that Herb Sorrell was “a Commie,” for instance, and that reds had tried to “ruin” him in the strike of 1940-1941. And the industry attorney Paul McNutt repeatedly maneuvered the testimony into assurances that, despite the Communist presence in Hollywood, there was no clear evidence of their ideology within the movies themselves.

While the first week of the hearings produced no major revelations or surprises, the second week promised a good deal more drama. The unfriendly witnesses received an obvious boost over the weekend by the much-publicized arrival late Sunday of a twenty-six-member delegation of the Committee for the First Amendment in Washington (in a plane furnished by Howard Hughes). In an impromptu 11:00 P.M. press conference at the Statler Hotel, Committee spokesman John Huston stated that they were there simply to observe, that they intended neither to “attack” HUAC and the friendly witnesses nor to “defend the hostile witnesses.” But the name of the group, along with its full-page ads in various newspapers, left no question as to the Committee’s allegiance.

The second week’s testimony proved to be even more eventful and dramatic than expected, beginning on Monday morning with the first unfriendly witness, John Howard Lawson. The nineteen had decided not to cooperate with the congressional committee, insisting on their individual rights accorded by the Constitution. The strategy of noncooperation went beyond refusal to answer, however: Lawson demanded to read a prepared statement (as the friendly witnesses had been allowed to do the week before). When Thomas denied the request and demanded answers to the committee’s questions (“Are you now or have you ever been…”), Lawson launched a verbal tirade against Thomas and the committee. Thomas ordered Lawson removed from the House chamber, and according to the Post, he was bodily carried from the packed room “screeching ‘Hitler Germany—Hitler tactics!’” 88 Lawson was immediately cited for contempt of Congress, and this pattern of refusal to cooperate, disruptive behavior, and contempt citations was repeated with each of the next ten unfriendly witnesses throughout the week.

Whatever their intent, the general strategy and tactics of the unfriendly witnesses proved to be woefully ill advised. Huston and Philip Dunne, not only a highly respected screenwriter but a student of constitutional law, had encouraged the witnesses to openly disclose their political affiliation outside the House chamber in a press conference, and then once inside to inform HUAC that it had no right to ask them such questions and that they had every right not to answer. Clearly the unfriendly witnesses opted for a more aggressive and hostile strategy. With each raucous confrontation, Huston later recalled, he grew more appalled. “It was a sorry performance,” said Huston. “You felt your skin crawl and your stomach turn. I disapproved of what was being done to the [unfriendly witnesses], but I also disapproved of their response.”

More reasoned testimony was heard during the second week, notably by Dore Schary (then head of RKO) and the Writers Guild president, Emmett Lavery. But that was lost in the chaos as the hearings degenerated into a sideshow of a very different sort than had occurred in the previous week. On 30 October, after only eleven of the unfriendly witnesses had testified, Parnell Thomas suddenly and unexpectedly suspended the hearings, with assurances that they would resume within a matter of weeks. (The sudden stoppage was never explained, and it would be another three years before HUAC resumed its investigation of Hollywood.) One of the eleven, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, testified that he was not a Communist and promptly left for France. The remaining unfriendly witnesses, all of whom had been cited for contempt, were dubbed the “Hollywood Ten”—writers Lester Cole, Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, and Ring Lardner Jr., directors Edward Dmytryk and Herbert Biberman, and producer Adrian Scott.

The Ten returned to Hollywood and, by some accounts, were confident they had faced down the committee and weathered the storm. That was hardly the case. Although HUAC had confirmed virtually none of its charges, still it had been eminently successful. Congress voted overwhelmingly on 24 November to cite the Ten for contempt of Congress. That same day, Eric Johnston convened a two-day, closed-door session in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel with about fifty top industry executives from both the Hollywood studios and the home offices in New York. On 25 November, Johnston, on behalf of the industry, issued what came to be known as the Waldorf Statement.

“Members of the Association of Motion Picture Producers deplore the action of the 10 Hollywood men who have been cited for Contempt of Congress,” the statement began, and it went on to state that none of the Ten would be employed in Hollywood “until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist.” And on the “broader issue of alleged subversion and disloyal elements in Hollywood,” the producers asserted that they would not “knowingly employ” any Communists or subversives. The producers recognized “the danger of hurting innocent people” and also “the risk of creating an atmosphere of fear,” and they invited “the Hollywood talent guilds to work with us to eliminate any subversives; to protect the innocent; and to safeguard free speech and a free screen.”

Thus, the Ten were sacrificed to political expediency, and the Hollywood powers instituted blacklisting—a practice that technically was illegal in California but that the studios rationalized via the “morals” clause in workers’ contracts. (That rationale ultimately held up in court.) The Motion Picture Herald reported in early December that the talent guilds were “reluctant to rush to the aid of the cited ten but … equally reluctant to accept blacklisting as an industry policy.” 93 But the guilds and the labor unions ultimately did accept the blacklist—which was, after all, only a step beyond the loyalty oaths already mandated by Taft-Hartley.

Gallup’s ARI conducted a public opinion study of the HUAC investigation and, interestingly enough, concluded that it would be “easy to overestimate the harm done to Page 313  date.” The public was evenly split about the way the hearings were handled, and only 10 percent felt that there were “many Communists in Hollywood”—a figure consistent with public opinion about other industries and labor organizations. But that 10 percent included many “citizens over 30 years of age,” who happened to be the most strident anti-Communists and also, crucially, the most infrequent moviegoers in the United States. Because this group “offers the greatest opportunity for increasing domestic revenues,” said the ARI, their response “warrants serious consideration.”

The Ten were tried for contempt in the spring and summer of 1948; all were found guilty, fined, and sentenced to prison terms. They appealed the sentences and also filed a suit against the studios’ blacklisting policy in May 1948; SWG filed a similar suit in June. Not surprisingly, considering the cold war mentality of the courts as well as government and industry, all of those legal efforts failed. One clear indication of that mentality was the June 1949 ruling by the U.S. district court of appeals in Washington in the Lawson and Trumbo cases. “No one can doubt in these chaotic times that the destiny of all nations hangs in the balance in the current ideological struggle between communist-thinking and democratic-thinking peoples of the world,” said the court. Movies are “a potent medium of propaganda dissemination,” and Hollywood “plays a critically prominent role in the molding of public opinion.” Thus, reasoned the court, “it is absurd to argue, as these appellants do, that questions…[which] require disclosure of whether or not they are or have ever been a Communist, are not pertinent questions.”

An “atmosphere of fear” was indeed permeating the landscape, and although the Hollywood producers accepted and even exploited that climate, they scarcely created it. As Robert Sklar has aptly noted, “The behavior of the studios during the period was contemptible, but given their unwillingness to take a stand on principle (along with nearly every American university, newspaper, radio and television station, and the vast majority of intellectuals), what choice did they have?”

The Hollywood labor unions and talent guilds also buckled under to HUAC and to public opinion—even the writers guild, which, as Victor Navasky points out in Naming Names, was a “vocal critic of HUAC’s practices” but ultimately followed the same pattern as the other guilds, “condemning the Committee’s practices but conceding its premises.” 97 While Navasky makes a valid point, there is no question but that SWG paid dearly for its leftist bent and its “vocal” challenges of HUAC and the anti-Communist forces. The guild emerged from the HUAC debacle with its reputation tattered, its authority undercut, and its organization in utter disarray. Moreover, its fate stood in sharp contrast to that of the Screen Actors Guild, which not only survived but continued to flourish in the turbulent postwar era. As Gorham Kindem points out in the following section, these two different fates had as much to do with changing economic conditions as the charged political climate.

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almost 7 years ago

Using this as research material for my lecture on the blacklist; will deliver it to the Senior Studies Institute in Portland, OR, which is sponsored by the Portland Community College.

Thank you.

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over 5 years ago

this was sooo lame