Blacklisting Depletes Hollywood’s Talent Pool Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Amid the early days of the Cold War and growing hysteria about communists in the United States, the House Committee on Un-American Activities launched an investigation of communist influence in the motion picture industry. The resulting blacklist, or ban on employment of alleged communists, hurt both individual careers and the morale of the film community as a whole.

Summary of Event

During World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States were allies against Nazi Germany. When the war ended in 1945, a rapid worsening of Soviet-American relations turned the American Communist Party, Communist Party, U.S. advocating the Soviet model of socialism, from a tolerated political sect into a band of persecuted political outcasts. As Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin installed puppet governments in one Eastern European country after another, blockaded Berlin, and acquired the atomic bomb, American Communists came to be seen as actual or potential traitors, who, for the safety of the country, needed to be purged from trade-union leadership, government employment, the teaching profession, and even the entertainment industry. American anxiety about domestic communists later was heightened by the Korean War. [kw]Blacklisting Depletes Hollywood’s Talent Pool (1947-1951) [kw]Hollywood’s Talent Pool, Blacklisting Depletes (1947-1951)[Hollywoods Talent Pool, Blacklisting Depletes] [kw]Talent Pool, Blacklisting Depletes Hollywood’s (1947-1951) Blacklisting, Hollywood Hollywood studio system;blacklisting McCarthyism[Maccarthyism];blacklisting Blacklisting, Hollywood Hollywood studio system;blacklisting McCarthyism[Maccarthyism];blacklisting [g]North America;1947-1951: Blacklisting Depletes Hollywood’s Talent Pool[01980] [g]United States;1947-1951: Blacklisting Depletes Hollywood’s Talent Pool[01980] [c]Motion pictures and video;1947-1951: Blacklisting Depletes Hollywood’s Talent Pool[01980] [c]Social issues and reform;1947-1951: Blacklisting Depletes Hollywood’s Talent Pool[01980] [c]Business and labor;1947-1951: Blacklisting Depletes Hollywood’s Talent Pool[01980] [c]Cold War;1947-1951: Blacklisting Depletes Hollywood’s Talent Pool[01980] Thomas, J. Parnell Wood, John S. Trumbo, Dalton Lardner, Ring, Jr. Kazan, Elia Foreman, Carl

Dalton Trumbo (front, second from left) stands with other members of the Hollywood Ten, shortly before he reported to prison in 1950.

(Museum of Modern Art, Film Stills Archive)

The American Communist Party had been more popular in the 1930’s, when massive unemployment at home contrasted with apparently full employment in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and when Stalin opposed German expansion and helped the Spanish Republic battle fascist rebels. The party’s respectability, diminished by the German-Soviet Pact of August, 1939, was restored when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941.

Communism had special appeal for writers, who found Hollywood to be an oasis of good pay in the economic desert of Depression-era America. After talking pictures were introduced, journalists, playwrights involved in New York City’s struggling left-wing theater, short-story writers, and even some who had never written before found scriptwriting jobs in the film industry. Many of them joined the Hollywood branch of the Communist Party, which helped organize the Screen Writers Guild. The industry’s profit orientation, however, left Communist writers little chance, except during World War II, to give films an ideological slant.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities House Committee on Un-American Activities[House Committee on UnAmerican Activities];investigation of Hollywood HUAC;investigation of Hollywood Hollywood studio system;investigation by HUAC (HUAC) was created in 1938. In 1947, Committee Chairman J. Parnell Thomas demanded that individuals in the film industry answer questions about their own and their colleagues’ past or present Communist affiliations. That October, ten of those subpoenaed—the so-called Hollywood Ten Hollywood Ten —refused to answer questions, basing their refusal not on the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against self-incrimination but on the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and association. Five of the Hollywood Ten—Lester Cole, Ring Lardner, Jr., Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk Dmytryk, Edward , and Adrian Scott—were then under contract to major studios. The House of Representatives voted the Hollywood Ten to be in contempt of Congress.

When the rude behavior of some of the Hollywood Ten at the hearings turned public opinion against them, the heads of the major studios became frightened. In November, 1947, the Motion Picture Association of America announced that the Hollywood Ten would be dismissed from their jobs at the various studios and that no known member of the Communist Party would be hired in the future. This ban on employment, the blacklist, later was extended to all who refused to cooperate with HUAC, whether they were proven to be Communists or not. The American Legion exerted pressure on motion-picture studios to maintain the blacklist; other private organizations and individuals smoked out Communists, publishing lists of supposedly subversive entertainers and writers.

Liberal actors and directors who once had vocally opposed the HUAC investigation now stopped doing so, fearing for their careers. The president of the Screen Actors Guild, a young actor named Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald , cooperated with the blacklisters. On April 10, 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court, after a long legal battle, upheld the Hollywood Ten’s lower court conviction on contempt charges; in June, nine of them went to prison. Adrian Scott was sentenced in September.

In 1951, HUAC, with John S. Wood of Georgia now its chairman, resumed its investigation of Hollywood communism. This probe continued through 1951. Some of those summoned refused to cooperate, citing the Fifth Amendment; others, including stage and motion-picture director Elia Kazan, cooperated willingly, naming past associates who had been Communists. Either because of eagerness to leave prison and resume his career or because of a genuine change of heart, Dmytryk publicly renounced communism, giving the names of past associates who were Communists. He was the only one of the Hollywood Ten to do so.

In the late 1950’s, HUAC suffered some setbacks, and its investigatory zeal began to flag. In 1958, Arthur Miller Miller, Arthur , a gifted playwright whose entry into film work had been blocked by his reputation as a leftist, rejected the HUAC demand that he name past associates who were Communists. Miller’s conviction on contempt of Congress charges in 1957 was overturned by a higher court decision in 1958. In 1956, Carl Foreman, who had been blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with HUAC, finally offered, in a closed session with Chairman Francis Walter, to cooperate. This time, however, the chairman did not ask Foreman to name names. Foreman’s name was removed from the blacklist. In 1975, after public tolerance toward dissent had been increased considerably by the national turmoil over civil rights and the Vietnam War, HUAC was abolished.

Many blacklisted writers continued to write screenplays under assumed names. Indeed, Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay for The Brave One Brave One, The (Rapper) (1956)—written under the name Robert Rich—won the Academy Award Academy Awards;Best Original Story for Best Original Story. His award went unclaimed until 1975. In 1960, Frank Sinatra was forced to renege on a promise to hire Albert Maltz, another of the Hollywood Ten. Also in 1960, however, director Otto Preminger announced that Dalton Trumbo had written the script for Exodus (1960). Actor and producer Kirk Douglas stated that Trumbo had also written the script for Spartacus (1960). Neither film’s box-office success was hurt seriously by airing Trumbo’s contribution. Nevertheless, it was not until the late 1960’s, when Ring Lardner, Jr., was hired under his own name to write the screenplay for the antiwar black comedy M$A$S$H M$A$S$H (Altman)[MASH (Altman)] (1970), that the blacklist era really ended.

Significance

The effects of the blacklist and of the era of suspicion that it exemplified were many. The blacklist is estimated to have claimed about three hundred victims. It certainly harmed individual careers, although not all blacklistees were hurt equally. Scriptwriters could keep working in several ways: by leaving the United States and working for foreign film studios; by arranging to have someone else, a “front,” pretend to be the author of scripts that they had written, while still receiving at least some of the monetary reward; or by writing under a pseudonym. Some blacklisted scriptwriters ultimately regained their careers in the American film industry, but many did not.

Actors who refused to cooperate with HUAC or who were revealed by informers or professional Communist hunters to have had past associations with Communist Party causes usually saw their livelihoods ruined. Working under pseudonyms was impossible, as their faces would appear on screen. The film industry shunned them; the nascent television industry, dependent on corporate sponsors for advertising revenue, was even more determined to steer clear of politically tainted performers. One actor committed suicide, possibly because of problems caused by the blacklist. Left-leaning African American singer and actor Paul Robeson Robeson, Paul was stripped of his passport and was shunned even by black civil rights leaders.

Playwrights, such as Lillian Hellman (who had written Hollywood scripts in the 1930’s and 1940’s) and Arthur Miller, did not suffer as much financially from their refusal to cooperate with HUAC as did other creative professionals. Playwrights had an outlet for their work on Broadway, which the blacklist never affected as completely as it did cinema and television.

The damage done to the film industry by the blacklist was ameliorated by the extent to which the blacklist could be circumvented. The practice of writing under a pseudonym not only allowed some blacklisted screenwriters to keep writing; it also allowed motion-picture companies to take advantage of the blacklistees’ skills at reduced rates of pay. The Hollywood studios sometimes were permanently deprived of the services of blacklisted writers who found employment in foreign film industries; Joseph Losey, who carved out a career for himself in Great Britain, is an example. Similarly, the stigmatization of playwrights Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman as communist sympathizers meant that Hollywood studios deprived themselves of the talents of these two first-rate dramatists, even as their careers continued on Broadway. The banishment of actors for past political actions did cost the film industry some talent. In an industry with a surplus of fresh new faces always eager to break in, however, the loss was small.

One sometimes overlooked effect of the blacklist was the loss of foreign-born talent. Some of the German refugees who had been living and working in Hollywood during World War II went back to Europe to escape harassment for their political views. These included dramatist Bertolt Brecht, who had coauthored a screenplay, novelist Thomas Mann, and composer Hanns Eisler. Charlie Chaplin, the once-beloved British-born film comedian, was hounded out of the United States for a while because of revulsion against both his allegedly left-wing political views and his supposed moral peccadilloes.

Not only the employees but also the bosses of the Hollywood film empire were frightened by the specter of anti-Communist vigilantism. The type of films produced, therefore, was to some extent affected. The trend toward daring films of social realism that had been evident in the late 1940’s was halted, at least for a while. There was a spate of pointedly anti-Communist films Propaganda;United States , generally of poor artistic quality and almost all box-office failures. They probably were produced to appease congressional investigators and anti-Communist vigilante organizations. Examples include The Red Menace (1949), I Married a Communist (1950), I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), and My Son John (1952).

The first Hollywood films to discuss the blacklist explicitly, The Way We Were (1973) and The Front (1976), were released after the era was safely over. Two films made during the blacklist era, however, dealt in a disguised form with the issues involved in the blacklist and the anti-Communist witchhunt. High Noon High Noon (Zinnemann) (1952), the story of a Western marshal who is forced to face a band of outlaws alone without the aid of the townsmen, is often regarded by film critics as a veiled criticism of Hollywood’s timidity in the face of congressional investigating committees. Carl Foreman wrote the script shortly before he was blacklisted for his noncooperative stand at a HUAC hearing and was forced to seek work in Great Britain. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront On the Waterfront (Kazan) (1954), in which a longshoreman works up the courage to inform on corrupt union bosses, is often seen as a veiled justification for Kazan’s decision, during the HUAC hearings of 1952, to inform on past Communist associates from his days in the New York City theater in the 1930’s.

The decision of some Hollywood figures to cooperate with congressional investigators by naming names, thereby exposing others to the blacklist and perhaps even destroying such people’s careers, created rifts in the Hollywood community, and in the entertainment world in general, that lasted for years. Elia Kazan, for example, would spend the rest of his life defending his decision to “name names.” Blacklisting, Hollywood Hollywood studio system;blacklisting McCarthyism[Maccarthyism];blacklisting

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buhle, Paul, and Dave Wagner. Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950-2002. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Extensive discussion of every significant work of film and television worked on by a blacklistee in the second half of the twentieth century. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ceplair, Larry, and Steven Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980. An exhaustive study of the Hollywood Ten, the investigation of 1951-1952, and the fate of the blacklistees. Especially informative on the pre-1947 Hollywood communist subculture. The authors view Hollywood’s communists with a mixture of criticism and admiration. Bibliography, endnotes, index, and photographs. Relies heavily on interviews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cole, Lester. Hollywood Red: The Autobiography of Lester Cole. Palo Alto, Calif.: Ramparts Press, 1981. The life story of a screenwriter who never beat the blacklist and who never recanted his faith in communism. Although obviously biased, it provides a good victim’s-eye view of the post-World War II purge of the film world. Filmography, photographs, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kanfer, Stefan. A Journal of the Plague Years. New York: Atheneum, 1973. A film critic’s chronicle of blacklisting from 1947 to 1958, showing its effects on radio, television, and Broadway as well as Hollywood. Especially informative on the private individuals and organizations that helped HUAC by ferreting out show-business Communists. Sympathetic to blacklistees. Photographs, annotated bibliography, index, no notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kazan, Elia. Elia Kazan: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. In this lengthy but briskly written autobiography, covering everything from childhood to professional life to love life, Kazan vigorously defends his decision to cooperate with HUAC in 1952. Provides some insights into communism in the 1930’s New York City theater. Photographs and index. For the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lardner, Kate. Shut Up He Explained: The Memoir of a Blacklisted Kid. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. Ring Lardner’s daughter provides a personal account of the effects of blacklisting on her father and her family.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Navasky, Victor S. Naming Names. Reprint. New York: Hill & Wang, 2003. A journalist examines the ethical dilemma faced by those who named names for HUAC, thus avoiding their own blacklisting but causing others to be blacklisted. Excellent chapter, based on interviews, on informers’ motives. Rejects anticommunism as a morally valid rationale for naming names. Endnotes, list of interviewees, index. For the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Nancy Lynn. The Hollywood Writers’ Wars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. A history of the Hollywood Communist screenwriters’ subculture during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The author expresses nearly undiluted admiration for that subculture. Supplements but does not supplant the book by Ceplair and Englund. Endnotes, photographs, index, and filmographies of more than thirty blacklisted and investigated actors and writers. For scholars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitfield, Stephen J. The Culture of the Cold War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. Views the blacklist as part of a general trend toward conformity in the United States during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Especially useful for its examination of how blacklist-era anxieties affected the kind of films made. Excellent bibliographical essay. Index; no notes.

Kazan Brings Naturalism to the Stage and Screen

HUAC Investigates Hollywood

Premiere of High Noon

The Crucible Allegorizes the Red Scare Era

On the Waterfront Wins Best Picture

M*A*S*H Satirizes Warfare

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