HOLLYWOOD & THE ‘COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY’.

                     

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To understand how the US Government came to investigate possible links between Hollywood and the Communist Party, we need to go back as far as 1938, when the Moscow show trials preceded the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, support for the American Communist Party took a consequential, substantial hit, and the government started to get nervous. Chairman Martin Dies Jr of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) released a report in ’38, claiming that Communism had established a pervasive presence in the movie capital of the world. And people in high places began to contemplate the possibility. A couple of years later, Dies upped the ante when he privately took testimony from a former Communist Party member, John L. Leech, who named no fewer than forty-two industry professionals as Communists! He supposedly repeated his claims in confidence to a Los Angeles grand jury and, lo and behold, many of the names suddenly appeared in the press.

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Martin Dies Jr

Among the names designated as Communists were the likes of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Fredric March, Katharine Hepburn and Melvyn Douglas! A sign of things to come saw Dies offer to ‘clear’ those listed, providing they co-operated by meeting with him in an ‘executive session’. Fearful of repercussions should they not attend, 41 of the 42 turned up. Only actress Jean Muir did not. Dies magnanimously ‘cleared’ all but actor Lionel Stander, who was promptly fired by his studio Republic Pictures. A cartoonists and animators’ strike at the Disney Studio in 1941, prompted Walt Disney to label it the result of ‘Communist agitation’. In fact, it was instigated by Walt’s own high-handedness and insensitivity, combined with his overbearing paternalism. Communism had nothing to do with it.

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William Wilkerson, founder of The Hollywood Reporter

Fresh on the heels of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June ’41, a newfound alliance between the US and the Soviets, one born of sheer necessity, lent a kind of credibility to the American Communist Party. Even so, their numbers only hit a rather lame peak of 50,000 during the whole war. After 1945, the prospect of what neo-fascist Gerald L.K. Smith called the ‘alien-minded Russian Jews in Hollywood’ began to cause concern among American politicians. Shortly afterwards, a Mississippi congressman held a press conference and declared that Hollywood was, in fact, a hotbed of subversive activity and at the centre of a dangerous plot to overthrow the government! This, combined with a Republican triumph in the 1946 Congressional elections, saw the HUAC spearheading a major revival of institutional anti-communist activity. In July 1946, enter William Wilkerson, the publisher and founder of The Hollywood Reporter. As revenge for being thwarted in his ambition to own his on movie studio, he published a column naming eleven movie industry writers as ‘Communist sympathizers’. By August and September he had published additional lists. October ’47 saw the HUAC draw on those lists and subpoena a number of film industry persons to testify at hearings. Its intention, so the committee said, was to investigate whether Communist agents (or sympathizers) had been planting propaganda in American films. And the first to appear at these hearings were Walt Disney and the President of the Screen Actors Guild, a B-grade actor named Ronald Reagan.

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Walt Disney testifying

Disney not only testified that the threat of Communists in the industry was a serious one, he even named probable Reds working for him. Reagan was less specific but equally paranoid, testifying that a small clique in the guild was using ‘Communist-like tactics’ to steer union policy, although he conceded he did not know if they were Reds or not. In her 1985 biography, his wife, actress Jane Wyman, stated that his allegations against friends and colleagues eventually led to their divorce. The right-wingers did not have it all their own way, however. Director John Huston, Bogart, Bacall, Garland and Danny Kaye formed the Committee for the First Amendment to protest this targeting of their industry. Another member of the committee, actor Sterling Hayden, assured Bogart he was not a Communist when, in fact, he was. Bogart was incensed. So, too, was Huston, once he realized that members of the blacklisted ‘Hollywood Ten’ had also lied about their Communist ties. He felt naïve and foolish for standing up for them.

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Ronald Reagan, President of the Screen Actors Guild

Forty-three people were put on a ‘witness list’. Nineteen of them declared they would not give evidence, whereupon eleven of these were then called as ‘unfriendly witnesses’ and ordered to appear before the committee. One of the eleven, playwright Bertolt Brecht, chose to answer the committee’s questions; the other ten did not; citing their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and assembly. All of them refused to answer the question, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?’ and were formally charged with contempt of Congress. Those who attempted to read out statements, decrying the committee’s investigation as unconstitutional, were prevented from doing so. The ‘Waldorf Statement’, released by executives of the movie industry, announced that the ‘Ten’ would be fired or suspended without pay and not re-employed until they had been cleared of all charges and had sworn they were not members of the Communist Party. It was the first Hollywood blacklist. There would be more.

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The first fallout from this state of affairs was the 1948 sale of RKO Studios to Howard Hughes by its primary owner Floyd Odlum. The whole situation had disillusioned him and he wanted out of the business. Hughes immediately fired most of RKO’s former employees and shut down the studio for six months while he investigated the political sympathies of the rest. In 1950, the ‘Hollywood Ten’ began serving one-year prison sentences for contempt. In September, one of the imprisoned men, Edward Dmytryk, publicly admitted he had once been a Communist, then named others he knew were also members. He was released early and his career recovered. The remaining nine stayed silent and stayed in prison. Over the ensuing years some of them wrote under pseudonyms at hugely reduced fees. In 1949, the Americanism division of the American Legion climbed aboard the bandwagon and published its own blacklist; 128 people whom it claimed were participants in the ‘Communist Conspiracy’. Playwright Lillian Hellman headed their list and she was unable to gain employment in Hollywood until 1966 because of it.

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Blacklisted actress Jean Muir

The right-wing publication called ‘Red Channels’ emerged in June 1950 and it did not take long to name actress Jean Muir as a Communist sympathizer. NBC immediately removed her from the cast of the TV sitcom The Aldrich Family. Sponsor General Foods said it would not sponsor a program in which a ‘controversial person’ was featured. Thousands of phone-calls lamenting her dismissal had no effect. The decision stood. In 1951, the HUAC launched a second attack on Hollywood and Communism. Actor Larry Parks was the first to be called before the panel. He reluctantly testified as a ‘friendly witness’ and was blacklisted, nonetheless. Citing the First Amendment as a defence strategy had not worked before, so this time those brought before the panel cited the Fifth instead; the Constitution’s shield against self-incrimination. The result was almost the same, however. Standing behind the Fifth avoided the ‘Contempt of Congress’ outcome, but it guaranteed that anyone doing so would instantly be blacklisted.

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Actor Larry Parks – blacklisted

Director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg were content to describe the political leanings of friends and associates, effectively ending dozens of careers whilst saving their own in the process. As for any real evidence of on-screen Communist influence uncovered by the HUAC, well, it was infinitesimal at best and not worth mentioning here. Nevertheless, several influential newspaper columnists covering the entertainment scene, including Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper, to name but two, took it upon themselves to suggest names that should be added to the blacklist! It appeared that everybody wanted to be a part of the witch-hunt. Lawyers who defended the ‘Hollywood Ten’ back in ’47 were labelled Communists and investigated by the FBI. Bartley Crum was one such individual. Throughout the fifties the FBI tapped his phones, opened his mail and followed him everywhere. As a result, he lost most of his clients and when he was unable to cope with the ceaseless harassment, he committed suicide in 1959. Fund-raising for popular humanitarian causes such as the Civil Rights Movement, even opposition to nuclear weapons testing, left people open to accusations of harbouring leftist sympathies.

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Budd Schulberg (L) & Elia Kazan 1955

Gradually, however, the ‘Red Scare’ lost its impetus and cracks began to appear in the effectiveness of the blacklist. In 1957, Alfred Hitchcock employed blacklisted actor Norman Lloyd as a producer for his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Two years later, actress Betty Hutton insisted that blacklisted composer Jerry Fielding be hired as musical director for her new TV series. In 1960, Otto Preminger announced that blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo would be the screenwriter for his forthcoming film Exodus. Six months later, Universal announced that Trumbo would be given full screen credit for his role as writer on Spartacus. Since 1947, he had written or co-written seventeen motion pictures without credit.

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Sterling Hayden naming names

Kazan and Schulberg always maintained they had made an ethically proper decision to save their careers, despite the expense to others. Lee J. Cobb, another ‘co-operator with HUAC, conceded, with remorse, that he had ‘named his way back to work.’ Sterling Hayden was far more self-critical: ‘I was a rat, a stoolie, and the names I named of those close friends were blacklisted and deprived of their livelihood.’ Fast-forward to the 2000 Academy Awards where 89 year-old Kazan was presented with an Honorary Oscar. Many of those present sat with arms firmly folded, refusing to join in the applause as he appeared on stage. This strong minority included actors Nick Nolte and Ed Harris, along with Ed’s wife Amy Madigan. Fans of Field of Dreams (1989) will recall Amy portraying Annie Kinsella, the wife of Kevin Costner’s character, in the film. Television cameras caught Warren Beatty, Helen Hunt, Lynn Redgrave, Kurt Russell, Kathy Bates and Meryl Streep standing and applauding as Kazan was honoured. Steven Spielberg and Jim Carrey (and many others) remained seated but applauded nevertheless.

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Kazan (R) with his Oscar and close friend Martin Scorsese 2000

Back on April 10, 1952, Kazan had testified before the HUAC and informed on eight of his old friends from the Group Theatre who, like Kazan, had once been members of the Communist Party. Playwright Clifford Odets was among those he named. Kazan’s refusal to apologize for doing so in later years made him a non-person in the eyes of many in politically liberal Hollywood. The big disappointment for the anti-Kazan faction on Oscar night was that he didn’t address the issue one way or another. Robert Lees, a screenwriter who was blacklisted in the 50s told reporters: ‘Kazan could have worked. He didn’t need to have talked. He should apologize.’ Kazan’s old friend and board member Karl Malden had been first to propose the award. All thirty-nine board members ultimately voted in favour of his proposal. As the elderly director walked out on the arm of his wife to receive his Oscar, he noted the applause. ‘I really like to hear that’, he said. ‘I want to thank the Academy for its courage and generosity.’ He then gave a big hug to director Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, who had introduced him, adding: ‘Thank you all very much. I think I can just slip away.’

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Ed Harris (C) & wife Amy Madigan 2000 Oscars

Conservative activist Charlton Heston surprised no-one with his assessment of the situation: ‘To deny a film-maker of Elia Kazan’s abilities, to deny him the life achievement award is not only petty but shocking.’ Clearly, Kazan had not named him in 1952. Critics of the award lodged a full-page ad in Daily Variety, stating that Kazan had ‘validated the blacklisting of thousands.’ Actors Sean Penn, Ed Asner and Theodore Bikel were among the signatories. The only vague admittance of regret, if we can call it that, might be found in Kazan’s reference to the initially blacklisted Fredric March: ‘Poor, blacklisted Freddie was no more a Communist than my cat’, he scoffed The same could no doubt be said of some of those Kazan had named all those years ago.

The scenes at the 2000 Academy Awards demonstrated that polarization still exists in America’s movie industry. The McCarthy witch hunts and the actions of the HUAC may have taken place over 70 years ago, but they still evoke strong feelings both for and against to this day. I must admit that the numbers of Academy members who stood and applauded Kazan as he received his Oscar surprised me. The ‘once a rat always a rat’ concept appears to be questionable these days. Of course, anyone can make a bad judgment call, and should he or she express remorse for doing so, be entitled to expect forgiveness or at least acknowledgement, if not from their victims, then surely from the public in general. The problem with Kazan lay in the fact that he never expressed remorse (not even doubt) over his actions all those years ago, defiantly maintaining he followed an ethical and proper course! And that is why so many of his peers shunned him that evening. The man passed away in September 2003 – unrepentant to the end.

2 Comments

  1. Hwood has always had a lot of communists, atheists, druggies, drunks, perverts socialists, demonrats, libtards for some reason. I would rather have total freedom as I long as I do not hurt anyone and low taxes ….you do a good job alan

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