Caught in the Crossfire: The Effects of Hollywood Blacklisting

Paper by Hollyn Heron.

“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
Those were the words heard by the infamous “Hollywood Ten” when they were subpoenaed and put on trial for supposed involvement with the Communist Party. Following WWII, top leaders in the United States Congress had a gratuitous, growing fear of the spread of communism, which they considered to be the greatest threat to the United States at the time. While many American citizens were put on trial, the Second Red Scare had many damaging effects on Hollywood, and the careers of many talented writers (Lewis, 197).

Following the end of WWII, and on the cusp of the Cold War, fear of the spread of fascism and communism was at an all-time high, and the United States wasn’t taking any chances as they were recovering from not only the war, but the Great Depression (Stafford). Between 1947 and 1957, the US government led a witch-hunt throughout the United States, aiming to wipe out any possible threat of infiltration from communism. The fear that communism would spread, and capitalism would fail, was a result of the United States economy finally beginning to make a comeback after the crash of 1929. The economy wasn’t the only thing at risk if communism spread, though. The idea was that if the political ideology made its way into the U.S. the Soviet Union could expand its military powers (History.com)

So why was Hollywood targeted? The FBI already had an eye on Hollywood,
thanks to what they saw as constant moral corruption by its constant portrayal of sex,
violence and crime in the movies, which seemed glorified to many (PBS). Furthermore,
many actors and studio workers had started to see the appeal of leftists organizations
following the struggles of The Great Depression. In the eyes of the government,
Hollywood had become a vital center for communist activity. Aside from the growing
suspicion that communism had already found its way into Hollywood, the FBI saw the
potential for Hollywood to use its own influence to gain more followers by using films as
pro-communism propaganda (History.com). The FBI felt that they had to step in.
Formed in 1938 as a temporary committee, the House Un-American Activities
Committee, otherwise knowns as HUAC, was established in order to combat possible
spies from Communist countries. Led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, (whose name
would eventually become synonymous with anti-Communist ideology), J. Edgar Hoover,
HUAC, and the FBI sought out any individual who displayed any “anti-American”
behaviour, or anyone suspected of being affiliated with the communist party. Operating
under congressional leadership, the HUAC was able to subpoena those who were
suspected, and order them to attend a hearing, in which the accused would be
relentlessly questioned about possible ties to communism, and asked to provide names.
The targets also included those in the academic community and individuals that had a
(Stafford foreign sounding last name. What this meant for Hollywood, since a lot of the studios
were led by people of Jewish descent, was all too easy of a target. A driving force
behind targeting Hollywood studio execs was the HUAC distrust of Jewish executives,
as it was the belief that the Jewish ideals aligned with communism (Lewis, 199). The
HUAC operated under the belief that communist spies had become involved in the
Hollywood system, and had put hidden messages of communist propaganda in films.
Though there was an assumption that Communists were very intelligent and sneaky,
and that the messages might be veiled, the HUAC still saw fit to attempt to censor
scripts (Lewis, 199). The HUAC began watching films closely, to try and spot any
suspicious content.

One film that had raised eyebrows among the FBI and the HUAC, was Edward
Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947). The film had what was considered to be controversial
themes dealing with anti-Semitism, and appeared to some to be a message that was
Communist in nature. Three months following the release of the film, Dmytryk was
subpoenaed by the HUAC to testify in a hearing (Fox). Dmytryk had at one time been
considered one of Hollywood’s rising directors (Andrews) but his career was put on hold
when he was accused of having communist ties following the films release, and became
one of the “Hollywood Ten.” Dmytryk was jailed after refusing to incriminate himself, but
eventually decided to cooperate with the government. Dmytryk listed more than 20
names of fellow directors and screenwriters for the HUAC to investigate. (History.com)
Following his cooperation, Dmytryk was able to start working in Hollywood again, which
was better treatment than what some of the other “Hollywood Ten” received. (Stafford)
On the other hand, the anti-Communists had their own films to make. The films
produced ranged in a variety of different platforms designed to reach a multitude of
audiences, including children. The short cartoon, Make Mine Freedom, produced by
Harding College in 1948, excessively glorified capitalism by painting communism as a
villainous character that aimed to swindle the common American out of freedom. But
luckily, the common American is too savvy to believe in communism, and so capitalism
prevails. Through animation and commentary, Make Mine Freedom explains why
capitalism is good by using the auto industry to illustrate the American Dream. The
bottom line of the film was that all the freedoms the common American enjoyed and
loved was to be stripped away under communism. This was a common tactic used in
making anti-communist propaganda films (archive.org).

Although several small shorts and feature films were made during the time, there
was one that stood out and became a classic in the “anti-communist propaganda” genre
(Pearson). Written by Albert Demond and directed by R. G. Springsteen The Red
Menace was released in 1949 (Imdb.com). The film follows the story of several people
who get swept up by the allure of the communist party. Promising to make the world a
better place, the communist party preys upon the poor who have struggled their whole
lives, giving them false hope. The film was attempting the illusion of a documentary,
with a rigid script that failed to explain communism accurately, but portrayed it through
the eyes of fear mongers (Crowther). Once the key characters realize that they no
longer want to be involved in the party, they try to make a run for it. Their departure from
the party is portrayed as if they are escaping a cult, and not a political organization. The
film was blatant propaganda, warning against involvement with the communist party, on the basis that members would immediately regret it; that the party was not all that it was cracked up to be.
But producing propaganda was the minimal action being taken to combat the
spread of communism. While cooperating studios were working hard to make anti-
communist films, the HUAC made its move on Hollywood. In the fall of 1947, the
hearings began. In an attempt to gain public sympathy, the HUAC called a number of
people, known as “friendly witnesses,” who were known to hold strict, conservative
views, and to also be sympathetic to the HUAC cause, such as Robert Taylor, and Gary
Cooper, to testify against communism. These people did not need to be subpoenaed,
but were simply asked to appear (PBS).

Though there were many people in Hollywood whose names were mentioned
and ultimately subpoenaed during the Red Scare, the Hollywood Ten stood out among
the others. These were the people who publicly spoke out against the HUAC and their
accusations about messages put in films, as well as their tactics used against the
accused. The Hollywood Blacklist was comprised of many writers and executives, who
had been accused by J. Edgar Hoover himself of having communist ties (
The Hollywood Ten, (Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk,
Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Robert Adrian
Scott, and Dalton Trumbo) were all summoned to hearings to defend themselves
against the allegations of having ties to communism. Deemed as “unfriendly” witnesses
for their unwillingness to cooperate during the hearings, each of them refused to answer
questions and pleaded the fifth amendment. One member of the Hollywood Ten, John
Howard Lawson, was so outraged during his hearing, he protested the court by yelling,
“I am not on trial here, this committee is on trial!” (History.com). All eventually served
jail time and were fined $1000 due to contempt of congress and were blacklisted,
(Dmytryk excluded) forbidding them from working in the Hollywood system. Many
executives in Hollywood did not want any link to the accused or communism, and
agreed to the blacklist. Though it was later determined that while many of those who
were accused may have been communist sympathizers, there was never any concrete
evidence linking them officially to the communist party. (History.com)
However, there were some who still wrote screenplays, though they ended up
using a pseudonym while the blacklist was still in place. Following the blacklist, Dalton
Trumbo began writing screenplays anonymously in addition to under a pseudonym
(PBS.org). It is believed that Trumbo wrote more than 30 screenplays under a false
identity, but since many were written anonymously, no one is sure what the actual
number is. One thing that is known is that Trumbo wrote a number of screenplays,
including the film The Brave One, under the name “Robert Rich.” In 1956, The Brave

One, won an Academy Award for best original screenplay, which had come as a
surprise to many in the industry. More surprising, was the writer, Robert Rich was
nowhere to be found. This was the opportunity Trumbo had waited for, and used the
publicity he received to openly protest the blacklist. (PBS.org) Following his win for The
Brave One, Trumbo was able to receive credit for several films that he had written
prior.

It was during his accusations and trial that Trumbo had found an ally in non-other
Buhle, 129). Chaplin, disgusted by the tactics used by the FBI and HUAC,
donated money to Trumbo’s defense fund. This was more than enough evidence
needed to officially label Chaplin as at least a communist sympathizer. The FBI began
accumulating a file on Chaplin, which during the entire investigation, ended up being
more than two thousand pages long (History.com). At the time Chaplin had lived in the
United States for more than 40 years (Telegraph), but that fact did not sway the FBI
from their accusations. In 1948, Chaplin was put on the blacklist, and was barred from
working in Hollywood. Chaplin had protested this decision, declaring:
“I do not want to create any revolution. All I want to create is a few more
films. I might amuse people. I hope so.” (Telegraph)
Despite the blacklist, Chaplin stood his ground. Chaplin, who was no stranger to
controversy, and not opposed to asserting his stance on issues, remained outspoken
about his views on the handling of the communist investigation. Sadly, this led to more
than Chaplin being blacklisted from Hollywood. During a trip to England for the first time
in 21 years, Chaplin learned that if he were to return to the United States, the FBI would
be waiting to arrest him (Telegraph). Chaplin made the decision to not return to the
Hollywood. And on September 19th, 1952, Charlie Chaplin was exiled from the United
States (History.com).
In his final leading role, Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in A King in New
York (1957). The film was released in Europe during the closing years of the blacklist,
but because of Chaplin’s exile from the United States, the film was not released in the
U.S. until 1973 (History.com).The film focuses on King Igor Shahdov (Chaplin) of
Estrovia, who travels to New York following the revolution in his own country. The film is
considered to be Chaplin’s response to Hollywood’s blacklisting and overall censorship
of films. Chaplin, who was considered a master at satire, uses every opportunity in the
film to oppose and parody the actions carried out by the HUAC. He takes aim at the
HUAC as Shahdov is approached several times, and offered money in order to perform
in front of the camera. The suggestion is that people can be “bought” and convinced to
do things they would not normally do as long as there is a price.
Shahdov is given a tour of a very progressive school where he meets many
young children. One child, Rupert (Michael Chaplin, Charlie’s son) is dubbed “a young
historian.” Rupert, is sitting by himself reading a book, which we find out is Karl Marx,
the father of Communism. Shahdov asks Rupert,
“Surely you’re not a Communist?”
Rupert asks him,
“Do I have to be a Communist to read Karl Marx?”
This Conversation between Shahdov and Rupert is not subtle in the least bit. It is
a valid question. Rupert himself, unquestionably embodies Chaplin’s stance during the
blacklisting, asking questions about freedom, and passports. During his entire speech,
Rupert preaches about the hypocrisy of a government that boasts about freedom, yet
tells the citizens what they can and cannot practice.
But anti-Communist behaviour is not the only target in Chaplin film. Chaplin also
takes a shot at the censorship that is being imposed on Hollywood. While touring the
same progressive school where he meets the child historian, he takes a look at the art
the children are making. Shahdov approaches a young boy making a sculpture. He
asks what he is making, and the boy replies, “A fig leaf.” Shahdov responds,

“Interesting?” To which the boy angrily responds, “Nothing interesting about a fig leaf!”
as he slams the fig leaf over what would be the genitalia of his sculpture. This implies
that his art is being highly censored, and is also a nod to the censoring of early
sculptures, as most private parts were covered with fig leaves. This can be considered
one way Chaplin strikes back at the censorship in films; claiming that creativity is
encouraged, while at the same time hindering it by imposing rules on art.
Chaplin did not hold back in A King in New York, attacking everything from
Hollywood’s beauty standards by having the Shahdov resigning himself to plastic
surgery, to commercialization of the Hollywood system.
Considering that many on the blacklist had written scripts under pseudonyms, it
became clear that the blacklist was hindering the once booming and creative industry.
While some writers had been blacklisted from making films in Hollywood, Television
was on the rise and many writers found news homes writing for T.V. and the movie
industry was beginning to lose money (PBS). In order to keep the movie industry from
collapsing on itself, there was no choice but to reconsider and reconstruct the practices
and policies brought on by the HUAC and FBI. And so, the blacklist came to an end in
the 1960’s. (Lewis, 231)
The blacklist for those affiliated with communism may have ended more than 50
years ago, but do the effects still reverberate today? Luckily, in today’s Hollywood
system, there isn’t too much to worry about when it comes to the affiliation with certain
religions or political organizations. Celebrities are free to practice whatever religion they
seem fit, and are a part of many different political organizations. Many use their celebrity
power to speak out on events and policies, much like Chaplin did. But the blacklist and
communist witch-hunt may have had a different outcome. While censorship in films still
exists, the guidelines are not nearly as strict. And when it comes to the
unsavory behavior of celebrities, and studio moguls, there is an astronomical amount of
leniency given to those who bring in the audiences and therefore the money; something
that was not taken into consideration during the red scare. Presently, it takes many
allegations, and several years for a member of Hollywood to lose their clout that they
once had. While maybe not a direct correlation, one has to wonder if the fear of losing
money again hinders any form of large scale blacklist from ever occurring again.

Work Cited

Crowther, Bosley . “The Red Menace,’ Dealing With Communist Party in U. S., Shown
at the Mayfair.” The New York Times, 27 June 1949, www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=940DE5DE113CE23BBC4F51DFB0668382659E DE.
Springsteen, R. G. director, The Red Menace, Republic Pictures, USA, 1949 Chaplin, Charles, director, A King in New York Attica Film Company, UK, 1957
Lewis, John, American Film: A History. W. W. Norton & Company, 2008
Buhle, Paul and Dave Wagner. Hide in Plain Sight; The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and
Television, 1950-2002. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003
Dmytryk, Edward, director, Crossfire. RKO Radio Pictures, USA, 1947
Make Mine Freedom, Harding College, John Sutherland Productions and Metro-Goldwyn
Meyer (MGM), 1948, Retrieved 1 November 2017 https://archive.org/details/MakeMine1948
Pearson, Glenda, The Red Scare: A Filmography 5 March, 1998. Update, 19 September, 2011. Retrieved, 19 October, 2017 http://guides.lib.uw.edu/c.php?g=341346&p=2303736
PBS Learning Media, HUAC: Backlash and Implications. Thirteen/WNET New York.
Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2002. Retrieved, 25, October 2017
https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/aml15.ela.lit.backlash/huac-backlash-and- implications/#.WgURDGhSyUl
The Telegraph, Why Was Charlie Chaplin Banned From the US? Telegraph Media Group, 19 September, 2016. Retrieved 31, October, 2017 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/only-in-
britain/charlie-chaplin-barred-from-us/
Andrews, Evan, 7 Artists Whose Careers were Almost Derailed by the Hollywood Blacklist, 11, July 2016.
Retrieved 15 October, 2017 http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/7-famous- victims-of-the-hollywood-blacklist
PBS Socal, About Dalton Trumbo, Thirteen/WNET 2016, 11 August, 2009. Retrieved 29 October, 2017 http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/dalton-trumbo-about-dalton-
trumbo/1166/
Fox, Darryl, Film History, Vol 3, Crossfire and HUAC: Surviving the Slings and Arrows of the Committee
Indiana University Press, 1989. Retrieved 20 October 2017
https://www.jstor.org/stable/3815077?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
History.com Hollywood Ten 2017, A&E Television Networks, Retrieved 21 October, 2017 http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/hollywood-ten
Stafford, Jeff Crossfire, (article) 2017 Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 25 October, 2017 http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/86527%7C0/Crossfire.html
Internet Movie Database, IMDB.com

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