Today, the Hollywood Blacklist is largely seen as an extension of Red Scare, McCarthyist paranoia. Conservative congressmen, out of the frying pan of the Second World War and into the Cold War fire, turned their attention to America’s biggest and most visible entertainment industry to warn the people of a perceived communist threat.
This is partially true, but it is only half of the complicated story. While the blacklist, the committee that instituted it, and the “friendly witnesses” who cooperated with it were partially motivated by an irrational fear of communist takeover, they also allowed their own ambitions and prejudices—not only political, but also racial, ethnic, and religious—to inform the proceedings.
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The film industry in America was established and, in its early years, maintained by a group of Jewish Americans. Mostly first- or second-generation immigrants from Eastern European countries, Jewish Americans were well represented in all sectors of Golden Age Hollywood, from studio executives, to on- and off-screen talent, to distribution and exhibition.
Those at the top, who earned the moniker of “moguls'' after the powerful Mughal emperors of South Asia, were eager to assimilate into American life. The Russian-born, Jewish mogul Louis B. Mayer, who lends his name to the second M in MGM Studios, claimed to have “forgotten” the exact place and time of his birth. When pressed, Mayer gave a symbolic date: July 4th, 1885.
In a further attempt to seem more American, many studio heads and ambitious filmmakers embraced politics, busting up progressive unions and cozying up to conservative politicians. Mayer was known for showing visiting dignitaries around his studio, and when Republican Herbert Hoover moved into the White House in 1929, the Mayer family were his first dinner guests.
By the 1930s, the cinema and its players had captured the hearts and minds of the American people. With the rise of gossip columns and tabloids, audiences no longer looked to Hollywood merely for entertainment; actors now served as role models and political mouthpieces, too.
With US entry into the Second World War in 1941, Hollywood shelved its political differences and came together to support the war effort. The most prominent political organization to come out of the World War II period was the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL for short). Though it took its orders directly from the Communist Party, HANL was a big tent organization that included members from across the political spectrum, from card carrying communists like director Herbert Biberman to conservative moguls like Louis Mayer and Jack Warner. Boasting 5,000 members at its peak, HANL united those with disparate political ideals with a common cause: a support for US intervention in Nazi Europe.
Studio moguls and filmmakers alike rushed to get pro-war propaganda on screen, all presided over by the newly established Office of War Information (OWI). The OWI’s Bureau of Motion Pictures reviewed screenplays and provided feedback on how to incorporate anti-Nazi sentiment into the movies.
Often this involved heroic portrayals of American soldiers, but America’s allies also appeared. In particular, the film Mission to Moscow portrays the Soviet Union as a pastoral utopia, replete with musical numbers and folk dancers.
The government’s eyes were on Hollywood, but their gaze was not always favorable. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was established on May 28, 1938. It had its roots in several prior congressional committees with the stated purpose of investigating “un-American” elements within the country—both pro-Nazi and pro-communist. However, HUAC focused most of its efforts on communism.
The Hollywood blacklist would be drawn up under the leadership of John S. Wood, but also highly influential were John E. Rankin and J. Parnell Thomas. Richard Nixon also sat on the committee; he was later recorded expressing his belief that there was a secret Jewish conspiracy to control America.
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Wood, a Democrat from Georgia, had been present at the scene of the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent wrongly accused of murder (although Wood's involvement in the horrific act is disputed). Rankin, a Democrat from Mississippi, was a true blue racist and anti-Semite who was taken to using racial slurs on the House floor and called the Ku Klux Klan “an old American institution.” Thomas, a Republican from New Jersey, was by his own account no bigot, but he was ambitious. He was known for his frequent statements to the press, and allowed paparazzi to hang around his Los Angeles hotel while he interviewed celebrities. Thomas recognized just how much press attention he might get by targeting Hollywood, and Rankin, who saw Hollywood as a nest of red vipers, was one of his most vocal supporters.
Meanwhile, those who worked in Hollywood saw the writing on the wall. Some of the accused so-called communists were all too happy to cooperate, not necessarily because they believed that there was a communist threat, but because they wanted to clear their names and that of their industry. Louis Mayer was among them. Others directly sympathized with HUAC’s fear of a communist takeover in Hollywood, and “named names”—provided lists of individuals whom they suspected to be members of the Communist Party. Among those who cooperated were storied director Elia Kazan, and then-actor/future president Ronald Reagan.
Of course, there were also those who refused to cooperate. An original list of 19 unfriendly witnesses was distilled into a group now widely known as the Hollywood Ten. Consisting of directors Herbert Bibermann and Edward Dmytryk, along with writers Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood Ten refused to answer any questions of the committee, leaning on their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. On the stand, Ornitz declared, “I say you do raise a serious question of conscience for me when you ask me to act in concert with you to override the Constitution.” He was immediately interrupted and dismissed.
Six of the Hollywood Ten were Jewish, and two (Dmytryk and Scott) had worked on Crossfire, a film that treats anti-Semitism with seriousness and portrays its victims with sympathy. Scott called the HUAC hearings “a cold war…waged on minorities.”
While the committee deliberated about what to do with the unfriendly witnesses, Rankin stood up and made a statement. He opined that the committee was just trying to protect those who would destroy America, “and bring to the Christian people…the murder and plunder that has taken place in the communist-dominated countries of Europe.” He then listed a series of stage names of prominent actors—Americanized names like June Havoc, Danny Kaye, and Edward Robinson—and then compared them to their apparently Jewish birth names of June Hovick, David Daniel Kaminsky, and Emmanuel Goldenberg. Rankin suggested a hidden agenda, a dangerous conspiracy.
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The committee decided to cite all of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress, a charge which carried with it a jail sentence. They were added to a longer blacklist of individuals who were prohibited from working in Hollywood. Even after their release from prison, the Hollywood Ten were faced with an industry that had ostensibly ousted them. Some broke into other fields, usually journalism or the nascent world of television.
Still, many continued to work on Hollywood films in secret. Dalton Trumbo’s career saw relatively little decline as a result of the blacklist. He began writing films under pseudonyms—30 scripts in total, mostly for King Brothers Productions.
Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist
Blacklisted writers were not allowed to appear at studio meetings, so a mere pseudonym often wasn’t enough. Some writers made use of “fronts”—friends or acquaintances in the industry who would, for all intents and purposes, take credit for the scripts written by their blacklisted cohorts. Those who worked as fronts did so for many reasons: some for the money, some for the credits, and some out of conviction to help their blacklisted friends.
The blacklist is generally considered to have ended with the release of Otto Preminger’s 1960 film Exodus. Preminger, who had worked with the blacklisted Trumbo extensively, announced to United Artists that he planned to give Trumbo due credit for the film, and, while the studio executives chose not to encourage him, they also declined to stop him.
Even so, the blacklist’s effects would be felt for years to come. It decimated the careers of multiple talented filmmakers, and left countless others afraid to put controversial ideas on screen. It took power from the hands of unionized writers, directors, and actors, and handed it back to a small collection of big studios, most of whom still dominate the industry today.
And worst of all, it created a culture of suspicion: a culture of informants, in which one had to take caution about what they said around their friends, their neighbors, their coworkers; and one in which any political gesture might be taken as a sign of a larger conspiracy. And all this to advance the careers of a few prejudiced politicians, while preserving those of even fewer studio moguls.
Sources: "We Do Not Ask You to Condone This": How the Blacklist Saved Hollywood by Jon E. Lewis (published in Cinema Journal); The Un-Americans: Jews, the Blacklist, and Stoolpigeon Culture by Joseph Litvak; Hollywood on Trial by Gordon Kahn; An Empire of Their Own by Neal Gabler