SHOW TRIAL: HOLLYWOOD, HUAC, AND THE BIRTH OF THE BLACKLIST
By Thomas Doherty
Columbia University Press. 406 pages. £24/$29.95. ISBN 978-0-231-18778-7
Reviewed by Jim Burns
There is a whole library of material relating to the way a blacklist operated in the film industry in the period between roughly 1945 and 1960. The fact that so many writers were caught up in it may have something to do with the number of books, magazine articles, and more that can be referred to if one wants to delve into what happened and why. Writers obviously have the skills and the need to express their opinions in print. They also, perhaps, incline more to political opinions and activism than many other professions. And, as communism was centre-stage in the period concerned, it was inevitable that some writers who may have been members of the American Communist Party, or even just sympathetic to the struggles of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, would be targeted for their supposed “un-American activities”.
This isn’t to deny that a number of actors, producers, musicians and others, didn’t also suffer because of their political leanings. They did. It’s also easy to forget¸ probably because they’ve attracted little written attention, that hundreds of what might be described as support workers in Hollywood – painters, carpenters, and other union members – were affected by the purge of alleged communists in the film studios. Their stories have rarely been told.
Thomas Doherty’s Show Trial largely focuses on the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings that culminated in the so-called Hollywood Ten being sent to prison for contempt. But it’s impossible to understand the events of 1947 without an awareness of their background in the 1930s. This is especially relevant when the role of writers during the anti-communist purges of the post-war years is discussed. The Screen Writers Guild (SWG) had been born in the early 1930s in order to further the interests of writers in the film industry. Very few of them had any sort of status in terms of being accorded respect for what they did. But it wasn’t an easy birth.
“Schmucks with Underwoods” was the term coined by one Hollywood mogul, and it’s a fair description of how most writers were looked on. Often lacking proper contracts, they could be hired and fired at will, their work could be altered by actors, directors, producers, and other writers, on a whim, and they were often not properly credited for any screenplays that did go into production. They were paid reasonably well when they were employed, certainly in comparison to the earnings of many Americans during the dark days of the Depression. But they were, with a few exceptions, poorly paid in relation to what many actors could earn.
When the struggle to establish and gain recognition for the SWG got under way, management attempted to divide the writers by backing the rival Screen Playwrights (SP), a more-conservative body that was looked on by SWG activists as a “sweetheart union”. There were bitter fights between the two unions until, under the terms of legislation brought in during the New Deal, the SWG won enough votes for it to be recognised as the union authorised to negotiate on behalf of organised writers in Hollywood. Neither the SP nor the studio bosses were happy with this arrangement, a situation that remained simmering until the post-war years. It has to be acknowledged that there were Communist Party activists in the SWG. John Howard Lawson was a notable example. But most members were probably best described as liberals if they were political, and there was always a struggle to restrain the radical elements from using the SWG to promote communist interests. Bread-and-butter issues were what concerned most SWG members.
Matters like these tended to fade into the background during the war years as energies were diverted into turning out propaganda material along with the entertainment that Hollywood thrived on, and which was considered to be of value in terms of morale-boosting. Russia became an ally and a handful of films were produced that reflected this fact. Song of Russia, North Star, and Mission to Moscow are largely of historical interest now, but the picture they presented of life in the Soviet Union tended to disguise the true facts about what really went on there. A benign Stalin and scenes of happy workers on collective farms were hardly the reality. But the American government was keen to encourage the studios to come up with at least a few films of this type as signs of wartime solidarity. Membership of the Communist Party increased generally around the country, but it still amounted to only a small portion of the electorate. In Hollywood quite a few writers, and some directors and actors, signed application forms to join the party, supported petitions, attended meetings, fund-raising parties, lectures, and study groups, and engaged in related activities.
What they didn’t realise was that the FBI, along with various private organisations, were carefully making notes about who had done and said what, and when, and where. Anti-communism hadn’t disappeared simply because Russia was on “our side” between 1941 and 1945. John Howard Lawson’s screenplay for Action in the North Atlantic had a scene where a group of merchant seamen on an American ship taking supplies to Russia nervously watch an approaching aircraft. Suddenly, there’s a shout, “It’s one of ours,” and the camera pans up to show the plane’s Russian markings. It wasn’t a sentiment that lasted much beyond 1945 in the United States generally.
Hollywood left-wingers had been “persons of interest” to the FBI since the 1930s, but the situation became much more intense as the Cold War got under way. There were some nasty incidents outside the studio gates when a supposedly left-wing craft union, the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) fought the management and a rival right-wing union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), over who should represent certain groups of workers. Management and local police clearly favoured IATSE, and a number of SWG writers threw in their lot with the CSU. Their involvement was again noted by the appropriate authorities.
By 1947 a decision had been made to investigate alleged communist infiltration of the film industry, and HUAC proceeded to subpoena forty-three witnesses to testify about their awareness of communist subterfuge in Hollywood. The hearings would be held in Washington, and nineteen of those summoned were described as “unfriendly witnesses”. It was, perhaps, not surprising that they included a number of writers who were known to be members of the Communist Party. It may also have been significant that many of them were Jewish. An element of anti-semitism in the various HUAC probes into Hollywood shouldn’t be ruled out.
It might be asked at this point why HUAC had chosen Hollywood for an investigation? There were other areas of American life – education, unions, the civil service – that according to anti-communists were deserving of inspection in order to root out subversives. The cinema was, in the 1940s, a key factor in American society, its influence being widespread and its leading lights, the actors, being household names. It’s hard not to think that the publicity likely to arise from hearings which would hear testimony from the likes of Gary Cooper and Robert Taylor was a factor that the politicians linked to HUAC clearly had in mind.
The “friendly” witnesses performed as required, Robert Taylor smooth and assured, Gary Cooper more hesitant and inclined to the laconic (communism wasn’t “on the level”, in his view). In other words, they acted rather like their screen personas. Their general view seemed to be that they didn’t know a great deal about communism, but they didn’t like it all the same. Another actor, Adolphe Menjou, claimed to be more of an authority on communism and spent time explaining its aims and evils. There were others, like the studio bosses anxious to stress that they never knowingly promoted communist ideas in their films. Along the way, a few names were mentioned, among them the director John Cromwell, producer Herbert Biberman, John Howard Lawson, writer Lester Cole, and actors Karen Morley and Howard Da Silva. It would soon become obvious that naming names was to be part of the performance.
In the meantime, in Hollywood there were various reactions to what had happened. Liberal-minded actors and writers formed the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA), determined to protest against HUAC’s accusations of rampant communism among film folk. The Committee, with star names like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, Audie Murphy, Edward G. Robinson, Judy Garland, and Burt Lancaster, on its roster, mounted a highly-publicised campaign to highlight what they were doing, and some of them chartered a plane and flew to Washington to be present as spectators, not witnesses. It all added to the near-carnival atmosphere that occasionally pervaded the hearings, with starry-eyed film fans more interested in the celebrities than what was at stake. Eric A. Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, which represented “the moneyed Hollywood establishment”, said that “never would the motion picture industry preside over anything as un-American as a blacklist”.
When the time came for the “unfriendly” witnesses to be called the mood changed. The questioning by the HUAC members became more aggressive, and so did the responses from those being questioned. It would appear that the witnesses had agreed on a policy of outright defiance rather than any polite form of non-cooperation. It may have been a mistake, and the newsreel film that exists of John Howard Lawson, Dalton Trumbo, and others, shouting and arguing with J.Parnell Thomas, and refusing to say whether or not they were members of the Screen Writers Guild and the Communist Party, does not look impressive today. In some cases they had to be manhandled away from the microphones as they made heated comments about democracy and the onset of fascism in America.
It certainly doesn’t appear to have made a good impression at the time. A less-confrontational approach to the Committee may have come across better, though I suspect that the refusal to co-operate may have still worked against the witnesses. But Ring Lardner’s relatively mild response to the question about whether or not he was a member of the Communist Party – “I could answer, but if I did, I’d hate myself in the morning”. – had a degree of dignity about it. There is irony in the fact that the Committee were fully aware that each of the witnesses was or had been a Party member. The investigators had copies of their applications for membership, with their names and party numbers on them. But openly acknowledging membership was what was required of individuals, and had they done so they would have been expected to have named names of other members.
Lardner, Lawson, Trumbo, Lester Cole, and six others were all cited for contempt of Congress because of their refusal to co-operate. An eleventh witness was called and managed to talk his way out of being held in contempt. He was Bertolt Brecht, and he left the USA within hours of testifying.
It was shortly after the hearings that opposition to HUAC started to crumble. A meeting of “some fifty top motion picture executives, producers, and legal advisers” convened at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, and announced that they wouldn’t hire known-communists, and that they would fire anyone in the existing workforce who refused to sign an oath stating that he or she wasn’t a Party member. Present at the meeting was Eric Johnston, the man who said that Hollywood would never operate a blacklist. The existence of one was now official. There does appear to be some evidence that pointed to pressure to come down hard on communists being applied by the bankers who financed film production. Money was always a major factor when decisions were made in Hollywood. And it was, of course, useful for the studio bosses to have the SWG put on the defensive, so that its bargaining powers were reduced.
The hearings in Washington had been suspended after the Ten had been cited for contempt, but their impact on Hollywood was noticeable. The Committee for the First Amendment began to crumble as actors were advised to distance themselves from it. Despite what had been said about its only allegiance being to principles of free speech and association, the result had been to identify CFA members as somehow in Washington to support the unfriendly witnesses. Right-wing columnists dropped hints about possible Party membership, forcing some stars to issue statements about their loyalty to the values of the United States. Edward G. Robinson made his patriotism plain for everyone to see, and John Garfield, who had embarrassed other CFA members by his noisy activities in support of the unfriendly witnesses, was said to be about to cry mea culpa and publish an article entitled “I was a sucker for a left-hook”.
The Hollywood Ten went to prison, eight of them for twelve months, a couple who came up before a more-lenient judge, for six months. One of the latter pair was Edward Dmytryk, who served his time and when he came out agreed to testify and name names. He managed to resume his career as a director in Hollywood, whereas most of the others had to write under assumed names or through “fronts” who agreed to market their scripts. Dalton Trumbo was probably the most successful at surviving out of the limelight, and by the early 1960s was able to work under his own name. Ring Lardner moved to England for a time and wrote material for the TV series, Adventures of Robin Hood, before getting back into films in the 1960s. John Howard Lawson never worked in Hollywood again, and wrote books about the craft of screenwriting. Alvah Bessie, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, as well as being employed writing for films, was another one who made a living elsewhere after he left prison. He worked in a nightclub in San Francisco for a time, and wrote novels and memoirs of his Spanish experiences and the brush with HUAC.
The general effect on the Hollywood community was to make most people wary of what they said and did. The mood in America by 1950 was one of suspicion and fear as real spies were discovered, Russia developed the atom bomb, and the Korean War broke out. It was not a good time to be a communist, or even a concerned liberal. When HUAC started to probe into Hollywood again in 1951 and more writers and actors were summoned to admit, or otherwise, to their past indiscretions, the list of those blacklisted was extended. To refuse to name names, or to take refuge behind the Fifth Amendment, were good enough reasons for firing people, and for ensuring that they would have problems obtaining alternative employment.
Show Trial offers a thorough, well-researched survey of a subject that never fails to be of interest. You don’t have to be sympathetic to communism to think that investigating and hounding and imprisoning people because of their political opinions was a sad way for a country claiming a devotion to freedom and democracy to behave. None of the Hollywood Ten, or any others on the blacklists, had stolen secrets or plotted violent overthrow of the government. And there was little or no evidence that they’d even managed to put communist propaganda into the scripts they wrote. Lela Rogers, mother of Ginger Rogers, claimed to have identified some in Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay for a film called Tender Comrades. When asked to say what it was, she quoted the line spoken by one of the characters in the film: “Share and share alike, that’s democracy”. Not even the most dedicated anti-communist was inclined to give that assertion by Rogers too much attention.