BROADWAY AND THE BLACKLIST
By K. Kevyne Baar
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Books about the blacklist during the McCarthy era in the
It always intrigues me that we know very little about the numerous technicians (electricians, carpenters, camera operators, etc.) working in the film industry, who were, perhaps, caught up in anti-communist investigations and allegations of subversion, and so lost their jobs. Is it that they didn’t seem as glamorous as actors and directors and producers? Newspapers probably didn’t bother to report it if a plumber, who may have been a communist, or even just an active trade unionist, was fired for refusing to testify and name names. And later writers, looking to publish books about the blacklist, have naturally wanted to cover the personalities and events that will arouse a response from the general public. A recognisable name makes for good headlines.
The same might be said of the theatre, where there were
investigations, though on nowhere near as big or controversial a
scale as in
The significant thing about many of the actors, stage managers, and
others, who were summoned by HUAC
when it began its investigations into the world of the
theatre, is that they had started their professional lives in
There is little doubt about the fact that most of the people
concerned probably had been members of the Communist Party, or
significantly close to it. The Group Theatre and the Federal Theatre
Project (part of
One of the problems facing those called to testify in
The Screen Writers Guild (SWG) in Hollywood had backed away from speaking out in support of the Hollywood Ten, the group of writers, directors, and producers who had been sent to prison for refusing to name names and otherwise co-operate with HUAC. It may be true to say that the hearings were a heaven-sent opportunity for anti-communists in the SWG to get their revenge for defeats they suffered in factional fighting in the 1930s. As for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), its President, Ronald Reagan, happily co-operated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in identifying alleged communists in the union.
It was a different matter when HUAC started to call witnesses from the theatre in 1955 and 1958. The actors’ union, Equity, took a firm stance against any form of blacklisting, and even negotiated an agreement with the body representing theatre owners to the effect that no-one would be denied employment because of a refusal to be a “friendly witness” with HUAC. This gave the actors the confidence to refuse to co-operate. It would seem that only one out of the twenty-nine summoned in 1955 freely admitted to one-time membership of the Communist Party and named names of others he said he knew to have also been members. That was George Hall, a minor and not-particularly noteworthy actor. I doubt very much that HUAC gained any great publicity benefit from his testimony.
The 1958 hearings did land a bigger fish when Arthur Miller had to
face questions from Committee members. He had a more-prominent
profile than earlier witnesses from the world of the theatre (Death
of a Salesman had been a success), and there was more publicity
attached to his appearance. There is a story about Miller being
approached by one of the Committee and asked if he could persuade
Marilyn Monroe, then Miller’s wife, to have her photo taken with the
Committee member. The inference appeared to be that Miller might get
an easier ride if he agreed. He didn’t, and was subsequently
questioned about his possible involvement with communists, and his
play, The Crucible, in
which the story of the 17th century witch-hunts in
A degree of controversy surrounded the investigation of Joe Papp,
the founder and producer of the Shakespeare Theatre Workshop which
staged free performances of Shakespeare’s plays in
Reading about the suggestion that Shakespeare’s work might be a useful tool for subversion, I was reminded of an earlier exchange when Hallie Flanagan during her testimony made a reference to Christopher Marlowe, and was immediately asked, “You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a communist?” This occurred during the 1938 hearings. Philistinism was never in short supply among HUAC’s members.
The hearings into the theatre mostly occurred after those that took
place and created such fear and havoc in
It is a fact, however, that the blacklist had at least partly broken down by 1960. Baar records that Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, was openly acknowledged as the screenwriter for films like Exodus and Spartacus. The signs of a fightback against McCarthyism had been evident from the mid-1950s and McCarthy had shown himself in a bad light as he blustered and argued during the televised “Army hearings” in 1954. He died in 1957 as a result of his alcoholism.
The question arises as to why the actors in
Baar does more than describe the ways in which individuals coped with the problems arising from being called before the Committee. They had to be summoned first, and that involved being served with a subpoena. She has accessed the reports of Dolores Faconti Scotti, a process server for HUAC, and though they are essentially fairly routine documents, in which Scotti describes how she tracked down and served the required summons, they do make for informative reading. The ways in which the individuals concerned reacted varied. Attempting to serve a subpoena on Madeline Lee, Scotti almost came to blows with the actress in an argument that extended down the street. She also faced some hostility from Sarah Cunningham, but in her report stated that John Randolph, Cunningham’s husband, was “pleasant and friendly” when handed his subpoena.
There is information about
Red Channels, a publication listing the names of actors,
musicians, technicians, and others active in TV and radio who were
alleged to be (or had been) communists, or who were sympathetic to
the ideas of the Communist Party. It was compiled by several ex-FBI
agents and used as a kind of guide for management when deciding
whether or not it was safe to hire someone. And there was a man
called Laurence Johnson, the owner of supermarkets in
Broadway and the Blacklist is valuable for the way in which it looks at blacklisting in the theatre and, in certain cases, in radio and television. It is clearly written, has a useful bibliography, helpful notes, and appropriate illustrations.