‘THE RED SCARE’ 1947-54

‘THE RED SCARE’ 1947-54


HUAC - House Un-American Activities Committee

‘THE RED SCARE’ 1947-54                     

Much has been written about the paranoia that evolved in America, due to the excesses of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the forties and fifties, and their impact on the movie industry in that country. I thought it might be time to post an article that should clear up any misconceptions regarding those responsible and those it smeared. A paperback titled The World’s Greatest Hollywood Scandals, published in 1989 and compiled by John Marriott and Robin Cross, devotes a chapter or two on the subject and provides much of the background for this assessment. The publication is an interesting read.

House Un-American Activities Committee - Wikipedia

Martin Dies

The HUAC had been formed in 1937 and, by 1940, was conducting investigations into Hollywood’s influence on the way movie audiences were viewing the impact of Communism on the world in general. Led by a rabid right-wing fanatic named Martin Dies, the HUAC even suspected child star Shirley Temple of being a Communist at one point! During World War Two, studios, with government approval, released several pro-Russia propaganda features after the Soviets switched sides when Hitler shattered the German-Russian Non-Aggression Pact and invaded Mother Russia. Suddenly, the Russians became valued allies of the USA and Great Britain. Movies such as Mission to Moscow (1943) and Song of Russia (1944), both government-backed propaganda films, would be presented, post-war by the HUAC, however, as evidence of the ‘Red’ influence long entrenched in the movie industry.

49 *Hedda Hopper ideas | hedda hopper, louella parsons, hollywood

Hedda Hopper

The HUAC, by then under the protective umbrella of the right-wing press, had the power to wreck people’s lives, simply by using innuendo, hearsay and malice. One of their more prominent supporters was notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper who travelled the country addressing women’s clubs, urging them to boycott films that featured what she referred to as ‘Communist actors’. She was even made Vice-President of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization that included the likes of director Leo McCarey and avowed right-wing actors John Wayne, Ward Bond, Robert Taylor and Adolphe Menjou. The latter was the self-appointed Hollywood ‘expert’ on Communism, a blowhard who claimed he could identify ‘Reds’ through the inflections they cunningly gave their lines in their movies.

Mrs Lela Rogers testifies before House Committee on Un-American Activities in Was...HD Stock Footage - YouTube

Lela Rogers testifying before the HUAC

The HUAC hearings, aimed at uncovering Communism in the movie industry, opened privately in 1947. Anti- Semitic Mississippi Congressman John Rankin promptly declared his horror and dismay on discovering that singer/actor Danny Kaye’s real name was actually Danny Kaminsky! Laughable though this ‘revelation’ was, it was soon apparent that the committee had no shortage of ‘friendly’ witnesses it could call upon. Ginger Rogers’ mother, Lela, for instance, spoke proudly of her daughter’s refusal to deliver the line, ‘Share and share alike – that’s democracy’, in the 1943 film Tender Comrade, an uplifting wartime morale booster about women war workers. ‘Sharing things?’ huffed Lela, ‘Good heavens, we can’t have any of that in the land of the free!’ Perhaps, it was the word ‘comrade’ in the title that had incensed her so.

Act Like a Man: Robert Montgomery, War Hero and Respectable Heel on Notebook | MUBI

Robert Montgomery

Lela Rogers and her idiotic criticisms aside, there were plenty of others ready and willing to step up in support of the HUAC. Gary Cooper added his two cents worth about Communism: ‘From what I hear of it, I don’t like it, because it isn’t on the level’, he told the committee and most of America thought he spoke both honestly and convincingly! Bob Montgomery (actor/father of Elizabeth, star of the future sitcom Bewitched), told the HUAC. ‘I gave up my job to fight a totalitarianism called Fascism. I am ready to do it again to fight the totalitarianism called Communism.’ Robert Taylor, when asked if he knew of any subversives, promptly named fellow actor Howard Da Silva as someone who ‘always had something to say.’ That was enough to blacklist the man for decades. All in all the Committee called 23 ‘friendly’ witnesses and 19 ‘unfriendly’ ones. Of the latter, eight writers, a producer and a director, declined to testify and were held in contempt of Congress. These men became known as the ‘Hollywood Ten’. Under the leadership of writer John Howard Lawson the ‘Ten’ refused to answer the question: ‘Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?’ They chose to do this rather than stand on the 5th Amendment. They regarded the Committee itself as ‘unconstitutional’. As Lawson eloquently stated – ‘I am not on trial here…the Committee is on trial before the American people.’ The ‘Ten’ were nevertheless jailed from 1948-9.

Down the road less traveled..: Humphrey Bogart, John Houston and Lauren Bacall Show Real Courage

The Committee for the First Amendment hits Washington

The Committee for the First Amendment, chaired by director John Huston, was formed to protest against the HUAC. A planeload of movie stars, among them Humphrey Bogart, his wife Lauren Bacall, Richard Conte and Danny Kaye, flew to Washington in a blaze of publicity. However, when the Truman Administration applied pressure through the stars’ agents, they caved in within two weeks. Consequently, the movie industry did not lift a finger to help the ‘Hollywood Ten’. In fact, in November 1947, the Association of Motion Pictures Producers declared that none of the ‘Ten’ would be re-employed ‘until they had purged themselves of the contempt and sworn under oath they were not Communists’.

McCarthyism and the Red Scare | Miller Center

Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin

The 1949 exposure of State Department official Alger Hiss on an espionage charge, followed by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, ushered in an obscure junior Senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy. He claimed to be in possession of a list of 205 employees of the State Department who were known to the Secretary of State Dean Acheson to be card-carrying Communists. His bogus claim kept the circus rolling as he bullied and blustered his way on nationally televised coverages of the HUAC hearings until April 1954. Indeed, this buffoon actually became the first casualty of ‘over-exposure on TV’. In short, the public simply got bored with him.

John Garfield - Turner Classic Movies

John Garfield

By the time the entire brouhaha had run its course the casualty list in lost careers was substantial. Actor John Garfield not only lost his career; his heart gave out under the pressure and he was dead at 39. Edward G. Robinson’s career was stymied until Cecil B. DeMille gave him a minor re-start opportunity with a role in The Ten Commandments (1956). The careers of Larry Parks and Gale Sondergaard never recovered. Anne Revere, Marsha Hunt, Howard Da Silva, Kim Hunter and others took many years to find work in the industry, all victims of the blacklist and a galloping nationwide attack of ‘Red’ paranoia. Not one of the American movie industry’s greatest moments.


  1. Re: HUAC. During WWII, Stalin was often referred to as “Uncle Joe” in the US. Glad to see that I can access your column again.

  2. Hello Alan. Love your posts as you know but haven’t been able to access for over a week. So happy to enjoy your posts again.

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