I’d hoped to avoid this subject, but as I continue doing research, it’s come up repeatedly. In spite of the fairy tale that the Motion Picture Academy were established to honor film artists, the truth is that it was created by the studio bosses to smash the Screen Actors Guild. The plan didn’t work, but the sins of the Academy are well documented in Peter Brown’s book, Oscar Dearest (1988). One of these sins is not supporting actors who faced the House Unamerican Activities Committee or HUAC, which destroyed the careers of many writers, actors and directors.
Established by Martin Dies in 1938, the HUAC investigated communism in Hollywood. Among their claims was that child star Shirley Temple, Clark Gable and James Cagney among others were Communist sympathizers. World War II put a stop to these activities, but in 1947, the committee renewed their investigations. Joseph McCarthy, a Junior Senator from Wisconsin wanted to make a name for himself, and along with attorney Roy Cohn and Senator (later President) Richard Nixon, the committee assured Blacklisted individuals wouldn’t work for years to come.
Among those first listed: Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Katharine Hepburn, Gale Sondergaard, Melvin Douglas and Fredric March. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was branded a communist but continued writing under different aliases and won Oscars. In 1956, when Robert Rich’s name was called for The Brave One no one accepted the award, causing suspicions to rise. Trumbo, under the name Sam Jackson, wrote the screenplay for Spartacus(1960), which parallels the HUAC hearings.
Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucibleis an allegory of these “witch hunts.”
The Hollywood Ten
After actor Adolphe Menjou cooperated with the committee and named names, a group called “The Hollywood Ten,” including John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Billy Wilder and Danny Kaye protested, demanding their First Amendments rights. Sadly, it backfired. 19 were subpoenaed, and 11 were called. Only one, playwright Bertolt Brecht, who had escaped Hitler’s Germany, responded to the most fearful question of the era: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” Brecht returned to Germany, locking himself forever behind the Iron Fear of HUAC which forced the Screen Actors Guild to ask its executives to pledge their allegiance to the United States. The House of Representatives voted that the Hollywood Ten had been in contempt of Congress. They wouldn’t work until they were cleared and sworntheirallegiance to the U.S. as well.
The HUAC found no evidence, but it seriously affected the film industry, as the downfall of the studio system began. First, RKO was taken over by Howard Hughes, who closed the studio, fired the staff and chose to settle a federal antitrust claim against the top five studios. Then the Hollywood 10 were convicted of contempt and given year long prison sentences (not all of them served time). When one of the ten, director Edward Dmytryk, announced the he’d been a Communist and would name names, he was released. He went back to work.
Humphrey Bogart tried clearing the air by writing aPhotoplaydenying that he was a Communist sympathizer, but it didn’t improve things. The American Legion created a Blacklist of its own. Playwright Lillian Hellman showed up on their list, and her partner, Dashiell Hammett, after refusing to cooperate with HUAC, went to prison. Hammett was ruined, his dignity and health weakened by prison conditions, and he passed away in 1961.
American Business Consultants, Inc. published Counterattackweekly, intending to combat Communism. The FBI created Red Channels, and more careers were in jeopardy, as CBS also asked its employees for a loyalty oath. Actress Jean Muir was named a communist, losing her role on the TV sitcom, The Aldrich Family. Actor Larry Parks, who’d starred in The Jolson Story, was known as a friendly witness but was blacklisted anyway. He and his wife, Betty Garrett survived by doing regional theater throughout the 1960s. When it was found that Elmer Bernstein had written some music reviews for a Communist publication, the composer of such films as Hawaii and The Great Escapefound himself writing scores for poverty row productions.
Who Cooperated and who hurt others?
Kazan was one of the most respected directors of the stage and screen, but when he and screenwriter Budd Schulberg (whose father had once been CEO of Paramount) cooperated with the Committee, artists they named moved overseas. Jules Dassin had been a member of the Communist Party but had resigned. He met his wife, Melina Mercouri and in the 1960s, and among other works, made two films, successful with American adult audiences: Never on Sundayand Topkapi. He continued to live overseas, especially after Mercouri became Greece’s Minister of Culture.
Dorothy Comingore played the delicious role of Susan Alexander Kane in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Due to blacklisting, her husband left her. Comingore was a delicate creature. Without work, she sank into alcoholism and died at 58.
By the late 1950s, the HUAC had lost much of its power as actors and directors requested blacklisted people be hired for positions on their film and television projects. The impact of the HUAC continues, by those who remember, to this day. Dalton Trumbo wasn’t officially given his Oscar for The Brave Oneuntil 1975. Groucho Marx made a wisecrack about the script for The Ten Commandmentsnot being nominated for Original Story, because the writer, Moses, had “once crossed the Red Sea.”
Marx was obviously trying to relieve tensions, but as late as 1999, when Elia Kazan was given a Life Achievement Oscar, only a portion gave him a standing ovation. Kazan was, instead, greeted by boos and negativity, because he had named names 45 years earlier. As stated above, the Academy, who gave this award to Kazan, did little to fight against the HUAC when their power was needed.
Victims of McCarthyism weren’t limited to Hollywood either. Besides the Red Scare, there was the Lavender Scare, against LGBT people. Perhaps the most famous performer was Liberace. Accused of being gay by a number of publications but primarily by Confidential Magazine, Liberace took them to court and won. Liberace later succumbed to AIDS and it was revealed that he was gay following his death.
The HUAC had run out of steam by the late 1950s, although it wasn’t until 1975 that the Committee was renamed to work on Internal Justice. All of his rants finally backfired on “Tail-gunner Joe” McCarthy, who was accused of being gay. Hepatitis and alcoholism brought about his death. The Junior Senator of Wisconsin is buried in Appleton.
Blacklisting is a topic that doesn’t fit into one article. There are plenty of books, especially biographies that cover the subject thoroughly. For a crash course on this subject, the documentary, Hollywood on Trialis on You Tube. The topic is the subject of such films as The Front,written by Walter Bernstein, directed by Martin Ritt and featuring Zero Mostel, all of whom were blacklisted; The Way We Were, written by Arthur Laurents, who observed first-hand how people were being hurt while working in Hollywood.
Next article: Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.