originally published September 4, 2012
Everyone knows that the worst research papers begin with the phrase “Webster’s Dictionary defines…”. That said, Webster’s Dictionary defines communism as “a theory advocating elimination of private property.” Post-WWII America defines communism as “the greatest threat to humans ever, including space-rapists and Supertuberculosis.”
Naturally the source of all this evil communist activity was show business, where they wildly flaunted such liberal ideas as singing, dancing, and looking like Edward G. Robinson.
In the 1930s, before the realities of Josef Stalin’s assholishness came to light, the American Communist Party fought for the rights of the poor while supporting unions and welfare reform. A lot of artsy types bought in and signed up, because a lot of artists tend to land on the left side of the political spectrum, Clint Eastwood and his magical invisible friend notwithstanding.
As the Soviet communists fell out of public favor, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (known by the appropriately hork-ish sounding acronym, HUAC) started pointing at Hollywood people. They had the power to influence, so they were the ones HUAC went after.
When animators went on strike in 1941, Walt Disney called it the result of ‘communist agitation.’ In 1945 Mississippi congressman John E. Rankin stated that the Hollywood communists were at the heart of a sinister plot to overthrow the government. Much like the recent attempts to discredit gay marriage as a plot to destroy heterosexual marriage, millions of people actually believed this insanity.
The government responded to these accusations in the most sane, reasonable way they could. They brought dozens of Hollywood professionals to testify before HUAC in 1947, and pried into their personal politics and beliefs with a stabby resilience. Ten of those called before the committee refused to answer the questions, pointing out that the Constitution grants them freedom of speech and assembly. Witch-hunting politicians hate it when you throw that old document in their faces.
The Hollywood Ten, those ten voices that refused to speak up and condemn themselves or anybody else, were the first to appear on a blacklist. The Motion Picture Association of America announced that the Ten would be fired or suspended without pay, and not reemployed until they swore off communism, pledged allegiance to the flag, and sacrificed three virgin Democrats atop a mountain or large hill.
Hundreds of names were flying across the desks of HUAC members. Producers, directors, musicians and actors had to choose between loyalty to their friends and coworkers and having a career that didn’t involve taking food orders or selling discount vinyl siding.
Director Edward Dmytryk, who was known for flaunting the lack of full-time vowels in his last name, was the one member of the Hollywood Ten who turned on his buddies and ratted them out. He claimed that his producer, Adrian Scott, had insisted upon Dmytryk inserting ‘commie propaganda’ into his films, which include the delightfully noir and notably non-communist Crossfire and Murder, My Sweet. As a result, Scott didn’t work again in Hollywood until the early 70’s. Dmytryk was pulled off the blacklist, though he moved to England, possibly because his contemporaries back home thought he was an asshole.
I don’t want to be too hard on Dmytryk; I’ve seen some of his work, and he was brilliant. But brilliance took a beating in this weird time in movie history. Director Elia Kazan, who was at the top of his game in the 50’s with movies like On The Waterfront, East of Eden, and A Streetcar Named Desire, named names in front of HUAC, and as a result, when he was given a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999, some celebrities refused to applaud him, including Ed Harris and Nick Nolte.
The blacklisting continued well into the mid 50’s. Screenwriters who were on the outs sometimes employed ‘fronts’, people who could take the credit for a percentage of the paycheck. The industry was divided by the issue. On the one hand you had Gary Cooper making High Noon, an outstanding western film that was also an allegory for the betrayal and isolation imposed by the HUAC hunt. On the other you had John Wayne, the most iconic face of western films, calling it “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”
A number of other high-profile names were called into the crosshairs of the HUAC scope:
Lloyd Bridges, Airplane! star and patriarch of the successful acting family which includes “The Dude”, was briefly placed on the blacklist for his association with the Actors Lab, a group that had ties to the Communist Party.
Burgess Meredith, who embodied a much less creepy Penguin in the 60’s Batman series than Danny DeVito’s 90’s film version, lost seven years of his career to the Hollywood blacklist.
Jack Gilford, a likeable character actor who played a 4000-year-old man abducted by aliens on the TV comedy Soap, was an activist for social causes, including civil rights, unions, and integration. Some jackass choreographer named Jerome Robbins named Gilford and his wife to HUAC, and they spent the rest of the 50’s struggling to make ends meet.
Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones (so technically Luke Skywalker’s grandpa), also had almost a decade of his career tossed into the scrap heap because of his unfortunate affiliations. Luckily, he was a respected stage actor.
John Garfield, a fantastically talented young actor who excelled in young, rebellious-type roles, was blacklisted in 1951 because his wife had once been a member of the Party. This stress, coupled with a pre-existing condition, is believed to have led to his death at 39 of a heart attack. Have a look at his work in Force of Evil or The Postman Always Rings Twice and see what a stupid waste of young talent this was.
From what I understand, HUAC genuinely feared a communist take-over of the United States, with the evil titans of Hollywood leading the charge. They went after musicians too (Pete Seeger and his fellow folkies had a wicked time with the witch-hunters), but the Hollywood blacklist remains the most famous means of defending the nation in the HUAC legacy.
We still see this kind of divisive attack. ‘Liberal’ is a swear-word for some. Suspicion and distrust of alternate political beliefs seems to permeate political discourse, which is especially troublesome in an election year. I’ll no doubt return to this topic, if only in passing. It still rocks my mind that the American people put up with garbage like this.
On the other hand, it sometimes surprises me what we will tolerate when it comes to Hollywood celebrity personal beliefs.