This Hollywood Witch Hunt Created a Celebrity Blacklist
Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities

Larry Holzwarth - May 2, 2021

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Numerous right-wing groups contributed to the growth of the blacklist in the 1950s. Library of Congress

10. Red Channels alleged over forty women in Hollywood promoted communism

While the HUAC hearings which led to the Hollywood Ten focused largely on male communists, Red Channels identified women on a large scale. Out of the 151 they accused of promoting communism, 41 were women. Many almost immediately found themselves unemployable in their chosen profession. Lena Horne appeared on the list, largely due to her long dedication to improving civil rights. Writer Dorothy Parker, founder of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, appeared on the list. Immediately blacklisted, Parker’s lucrative screenwriting career came to a sudden end. Judy Holliday, singer, actor, and comedienne, also found her name on the list. It attracted notice in Washington.

Not to be outdone by their Congressional colleagues in the House, in 1951 the Senate established the Senate Internal Security Committee. Having given themselves the authority to issue subpoenas for witnesses and documents, the committee, often referred to as the McCarran Committee, also went after communists in Hollywood. In 1952 they subpoenaed Judy Holliday to answer questions regarding her communist sympathies. Judy channeled her stereotypical role as a less-than-sharp blonde during her testimony, to the amusement of the audiences and reporters, as well as many of the Senators. She refused to name others, and in the end, was cleared of any involvement with communist activities or propaganda. Her Hollywood career continued unscathed until her unfortunate early death in 1965, from recurring breast cancer.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Edward G. Robinson saw his status as a leading star in Hollywood wane while on the gray list. Wikimedia

11. The HUAC resumed under Democratic control in 1951

In the 1950s mid-term elections the Democratic Party gained control of both houses of Congress. Congressmen John Wood assumed the Chair of the HUAC. Wood found witnesses appearing before the committee had changed their legal tactics. Rather than relying on their First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly they turned to the Fifth Amendment. The latter protected them from being forced to present testimony which could be self-incriminating. While it protected them from further legal action by the committee, it did not ensure they would remain off the Hollywood Blacklist. A new group of Hollywood professionals emerged, not definitively labeled as Communists, but finding difficulty gaining employment.

Called the gray list, its members often found their careers stalled. Edward G. Robinson found himself unable to find roles equivalent to those he starred in before the hearings. The HUAC fed the gray list by calling on friendly witnesses to testify, such as noted Hollywood director Elia Kazan. Kazan readily named names, identifying them as communists or communist sympathizers. When those persons were called to testify and heard the question over their own communist leanings, most claimed their Fifth Amendment rights. When word reached the studio heads or union and guild leadership, the unfortunate entertainers found their services no longer desired in the industry.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Senator Joseph McCarthy during his investigation into communists in the US Army. Wikimedia

12. Hollywood began to fight back in the early 1950s

In the Cold War environment of the 1950s, the anti-communist hysteria reached its peak during and shortly after the Korean War. It produced the hearings led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (who had no relationship with the HUAC) and investigations into the US Army, State Department, Treasury Department, and other government offices. McCarthy relied on the extant anti-communist hysteria, much of it fed by the publicity generated by the HUAC and the Hollywood Blacklist. America First, the American Legion, the Catholic Legion of Decency, and other organizations argued Hollywood-based communists used film and the new medium of television to surreptitiously shape the morals and beliefs of American society.

Faced with the accusations from the conservative right, and the Southern Democrats, called Dixiecrats, in their own party, Democratic congressional leaders continued to investigate the entertainment industry. Yet very little, if any, evidence of communist influence shaping American films and television shows emerged. Hollywood fought back. Performers and scriptwriters appeared before the HUAC and attacked their methods as Un-American. Actor Lionel Stander, one of the busiest in Hollywood in 1951, blithely referred to the committee as a “group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the Constitution of the United States…” in his testimony before the HUAC. He found few producers willing to hire him in Hollywood following his comments before the committee.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Hedda Hopper (center), with Lisabeth Scott and Mark Stevens. Wikimedia

13. Hoover’s FBI and the American Legion swung into full gear in the mid-1950s

American Legion members picketed films which their leadership found offensive to true American sensibilities. Among the films picketed were Moulin Rouge, On the Waterfront, and High Noon, all considered classics today. Attorneys who represented actors and others before the HUAC found themselves the targets of surveillance by the FBI. In 1952 the Screen Writer’s Guild directed producers of films to remove the screenwriting credits for writers who refused to testify before the HUAC. The classic film The Robe, a tale of a Roman Centurion who witnessed the death of Christ had been written by Albert Maltz. Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten, wrote the screenplay in the late 1940s. Upon release in 1953, his name did not appear in the credits.

Hoover’s FBI provided information to the American Business Consultant’s newsletter Counterattack, and to newspaper and magazine columnists covering the entertainment industry. Several of these columnists, including Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell, exposed those suspected of communist leanings in their writing. Hopper openly urged some performers be placed on the blacklist. Hopper, who at her peak could boast of 35 million readers, openly attacked performers including Charles Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor, Joseph Cotton, and Kirk Douglas, as well as director Otto Preminger. She served as one of the primary sources of information to the HUAC concerning Dalton Trumbo and Ring Lardner Jr. She also published her suspicions of Trumbo returning to screenwriting, under pseudonyms, in the 1950s. The FBI investigated and found them correct.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Humphrey Bogart penned an article in Photoplay denying he had ever been a communist. Wikimedia

14. The Hollywood community divided socially over the blacklist

During the early 1950s, the blacklist divided friends and even led to the breakup of some marriages. Several eminent stars, including Orson Welles, left for exile in Europe, though in Welles’ case problems with the IRS also contributed to his departure. Some leading stars of film, including Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Lee J. Cobb, and the director Elia Kazan openly supported the HUAC and the blacklist. Others, including Humphrey Bogart, were forced to tone down their opposition. Bogart found himself under suspicion for his vocal support of the Hollywood Ten. In order to return to the good graces of the studio heads at Warner Brothers, he penned an article for Photoplay Magazine. Bogart denied defending the Hollywood Ten in his piece, citing instead his defense of the 1st Amendment.

Edward G. Robinson, who finally testified before the HUAC and confirmed some previously named as communists (including Dalton Trumbo) found himself ostracized by both sides. Having formerly allowed his home to be used for meetings of several of the Hollywood Ten in his absence, he remained under suspicion of having communist sympathies. As a prominent member of the so-called gray list, his roles in films dropped. Formerly one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, he found work only in B films for several years. Often his appearances were in supporting roles. Actress Barbara Bel Geddes also found her film career ended for several years after being named a communist before the HUAC. She went years without appearing in a major film. Years later she gained fame in the television prime time soap opera Dallas, starring as the matron of the Ewing clan, Miss Ellie.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Senator Joseph McCarthy’s style, similar to those of the HUAC, generated revulsion from most Americans in the mid-1950s. Wikimedia

15. Joseph McCarthy’s televised hearings helped cripple the HUAC and the blacklist

In 1952, the United States Army drafted a dentist from New York, commissioned as a Captain. In 1953 he received a promotion to Major. The dentist, Irving Peress, refused to answer certain questions regarding his political affiliations on a security form. He did reveal he belonged to the leftist American Labor Party. Senator McCarthy subpoenaed Peress to appear and testify before his committee in January 1954. Peress appeared, but refused to answer questions, citing the 5th Amendment. McCarthy then demanded the Army charge Peress and court-martial him. Instead, the Army granted the dentist an honorable discharge. To McCarthy, the promotion of a man obviously sympathetic to communists and the gentle manner in which the Army dismissed him meant one thing. Obviously, communists had infiltrated the US Army.

The subsequent televised hearings of McCarthy’s investigation of communism in the US Army proved his undoing. After 36 days of hearings, televised live and viewed by up to 20 million Americans, McCarthy’s approval ratings dropped from a high of 50% to about 34%. He appeared as bullying, arrogant, ill-informed, and petty. Senator Stuart Symington, a member of the investigating committee, replied to a jibe from McCarthy with a devastating assessment of his fellow Senator. “Senator”, he said, “the American people have had a look at you now for six weeks. You’re not fooling anyone, either”. The exposure of McCarthy’s demagoguery led to public distrust of such tactics, and similar procedures long used by the HUAC fell into disfavor. McCarthy had nothing to do with the work of the HUAC, but his behavior helped weaken both the HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Joseph Nye Welch challenged McCarthy and drew the applause of the gallery. He later appeared in a major film. PBS

16. A link between McCarthy and the Hollywood blacklist

When McCarthy received his dressing down during the Army investigation hearings, it came from Joseph Nye Welch, the Army’s chief counsel. It was Welch who famously addressed McCarthy with the question, “Have you no decency sir, at long last?”. When Welch cut off another McCarthy diatribe by addressing himself to the Chairman, Karl Mundt, he drew applause from the crowded gallery, which drowned out McCarthy’s shouting. In 1959, Welch appeared in another role, this one in a major Hollywood film. He portrayed the judge in a murder trial, in Anatomy of a Murder, which starred James Stewart and Ben Gazzara. Welch later quipped the role, “…was the only way I’d ever get to be a judge”. The film was directed by Otto Preminger, a longtime critic of the Hollywood blacklist.

Preminger at the time planned to produce and direct a film based on the Leon Uris novel Exodus. Having read the novel, he recognized the difficulties in adapting it to the screen. Long defiant of censorship of any type, he determined there were serious problems with the script’s content. Preminger knew of Dalton Trumbo’s ongoing work as a screenwriter, though using pseudonyms, or receiving no credit at all for his contributions. Otto Preminger decided to approach Trumbo to write the screenplay for Exodus, offering both a substantial retainer and a screen credit as Dalton Trumbo, defying the blacklist. Trumbo accepted. When Exodus appeared in 1960 it included his name in the opening credits. Preminger though, was considered a Hollywood outsider. The same year another film, produced by and starring a Hollywood insider, struck another blow against the Hollywood blacklist.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Kirk Douglas helped end the blacklist which his longtime friend, Ronald Reagan, helped to create.The White House

17. Kirk Douglas and Spartacus helped end the Hollywood blacklist

Two parties vied to be the first to bring Howard Fast’s novel, Spartacus, to the screen. One, led by Kirk Douglas, secured Fast’s services to write the screenplay. The other, driven by Yul Brynner, raced to produce the film for United Artists. When it became evident that Fast’s script required extensive rewrites, a time-consuming process, Douglas turned to Dalton Trumbo. Initially, the writer did not receive a guarantee of screen credit. After Trumbo satisfactorily completed the rewrite in just two weeks the production team, including Douglas and director Stanley Kubrick, discussed how the scriptwriter should be credited. Trumbo suggested the pseudonym, Sam Jackson. Stanley Kubrick suggested he credit himself as screenwriter. Douglas, disgusted with Kubrick’s suggestion, and aware of Preminger’s hiring of Trumbo, suggested giving the writer the credit with his real name.

During the months of production, Walter Winchell learned of Trumbo’s involvement, and reported it in his column. The subject immediately generated controversy. Numerous supporters of the blacklist, including among the Hollywood community, condemned the use of the writer. Douglas informed Trumbo that his name would remain in the credits. In August 1960, Universal announced the film would list Dalton Trumbo as screenwriter. Several conservative groups announced they would boycott the film, including the American Legion. Nonetheless, when the film was released, Trumbo’s name appeared in the credits, and Kirk Douglas later claimed to have broken the blacklist. In 2012, in an article appearing in the Jewish Chronicle, Douglas told a reporter, “the thing I am most proud of is breaking the blacklist”.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Otto Preminger (right, next to actress Caroll Baker), in 1965. Wikimedia

18. The blacklist supporters fought back as Spartacus and Exodus were released

“That story was sold to Universal from a book written by a Commie and the screen script was written by a Commie, so don’t go to see it”. Hedda Hopper so described Spartacus in her column, warning her readers of the film’s violence. “It has acres of dead people…” she went on. She was not alone. As the film went into release it received condemnation on the far right, much of it centered on its themes. The American Legion demanded its members boycott the film, and theaters which ran it, even when they showed other films. In multiple cities across the country, the American Legion set up picket lines outside theaters where the film played. One of the cities where the Legion picketed theaters was Washington, DC, in the shadow of the Capitol.

The White House had (and has) its own theater, and the President of the United States can request first-run films for private screenings at his discretion. When Spartacus was released, the President could have avoided the controversy over its creation and content with just such a private screening. In February, 1961, with the far-right screaming over its communist associations, and with the American Legion picketing the theaters, the President went to the movies. On February 4, 1961, President John F. Kennedy left the White House and crossed the American Legion picket lines to view Spartacus, later giving the film a favorable review. Though his endorsement probably had little impact on the film’s box office take, it was a major blow against the Hollywood blacklist.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Big Jim McLain told the story of fictional HUAC investigators fighting communism in Hawaii. Wikimedia

19. Hollywood made films for the benefit of the HUAC in the 1950s

While some in Hollywood opposed the HUAC and its methods, others used them to make films. Several anti-communist films appeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in part to appease the committee. Among them were films such as I Married a Communist. Its attendance figures were so low that the producers changed its name to The Woman on Pier 13, which didn’t help much. Other films which depicted Soviet communism in a manner intended to please the HUAC included The Red Menace, The Red Danube, and I Was a Communist for the FBI. Yet one film not only appeared to appease the HUAC, but to depict its work in a dramatic and heroic manner. In the film, HUAC agents hunt communists in Hawaiian labor unions, insurance companies, and sabotage activities against the United States Navy.

The film, Big Jim McLain, co-produced by and starring John Wayne, was filmed in Hawaii in 1952. Wayne, an ardent anti-communist and long-time supporter of the blacklist, depicted the communists as racists in the film. Wayne supported deporting communists, but for those who had recanted, supported welcoming them back. For example, once Edward Dmytryk announced he had rejected communism (and named names before the HUAC), Wayne helped him find work in Hollywood. Hedda Hopper blistered Wayne for his “betrayal” in her column. Big Jim McLain is the only film in which HUAC agents were depicted, as they sought out communist cells similar to those Hopper and others believed existed in Hollywood. In reality, the HUAC sought out communists using more insidious tactics.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
When the Trumbo penned Roman Holiday was first released it was credited to Ian McLellan Hunter. Wikimedia

20. The Hollywood Blacklist began to collapse after Spartacus and Exodus appeared

With the release of Spartacus, Exodus, and the revelation both were written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood blacklist began to collapse. Trumbo admitted he had written Roman Holiday and The Brave One, both of which had been awarded Academy Awards for Best Story. Both credited the story to fictitious writers at the time. Trumbo returned to screenwriting using his own name and was reinstated to the Writer’s Guild of America, to the outrage of Hedda Hopper. Others returned to the good graces of filmmakers and producers. Edward G. Robinson, who had wallowed in low-budget productions while on the gray list, returned to stardom, including with The Cincinnati Kid in 1965.

Many of the actors, writers, directors, and film production experts blacklisted during the period were in fact communists, some proudly so. Not all claimed to have been used or duped. Lionel Stander, whose career stalled for many years after being blacklisted, served as an example of such. Stander (and others) argued that membership in the Communist Party or holding communist political ideals did not break American law. His position was that the techniques of the HUAC and the actions of the studio heads in Hollywood did. “My estimation of this committee is that this committee arrogates judicial and punitive powers which it does not possess”, he told the HUAC. He remained on the blacklist for nearly 25 years, before returning to a major role on television, in the series Hart to Hart.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Singer, actor, and athlete Paul Robeson told the HUAC they were the real threat to American freedom. Wikimedia

21. Some of Hollywood’s most famous performers and creative artists appeared on the blacklist

Besides those already noted, many noted names of screen and literature were blacklisted, with a detrimental effect on their reputations and careers. Dashiell Hammett, the creator of Sam Spade and the Thin Man, appeared on the blacklist. So did writer Lillian Hellmann. Eddie Albert, who gained widespread fame as Oliver Douglas in the rural sitcom Green Acres did so after recovering from years on the blacklist. Blacklisted, Charles Chaplin was refused a visa to return to the United States after a trip to Europe and spent the rest of his life in exile in Switzerland. The noted animator Bill Melendez, a former Disney employee and later responsible for bringing Peanuts to television, spent years on the blacklist.

The Hollywood Blacklist both denied people the right to work in their chosen profession, and drove the careers of many who exploited it. Hedda Hopper used the fear of the blacklist to blackmail studio executives and crush celebrities of whom she disapproved. Politicians labeled those suspected of communist leanings as agents of the Soviets, reporting directly to Moscow. Investigations by the FBI, the NSA, HUAC, and other agencies both in federal and state governments never produced any evidence of such a relationship. American singer and actor Paul Robeson appeared before the HUAC in 1956, and subsequently was blacklisted for many years. During his testimony, Robeson told the committee, “You are the non-patriots, you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves”. The House of Representatives finally disbanded the HUAC in 1975.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Un-Americans”. Frank J. Donner. 1967

“Ex-Rep Martin Dies, 71, Is Dead; Led Un-American Activities Unit”. Obituary, The New York Times. November 15, 1972

“The cruel reality of Disney’s world”. Paul Harris, The Observer. November 26, 2006

“Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, and the Fear of Hollywood Communism”. Jennifer Latson, TIME Magazine. October 20, 2014

“Statement of the Committee for the First Amendment”. National Archives. October 21, 1947. Online

“Bertolt Brecht Testifies Before the House Un-American Affairs Committee”. Josh Jones, Open Culture. November 12, 2012. Online

“The Hollywood Brass Who Endorsed the Blacklist”. Gary Baum, Daniel Miller, The Hollywood Reporter. November 19, 2012.

“J. Parnell Thomas, Anti-Red Crusader, is Dead”. Robert D. McFadden, The New York Times. November 19, 1970.

“Dalton Trumbo”. Article, Biography. Internet Archive. June 18, 2015

“‘We Ask You Not to Condone This’: How the Blacklist Saved Hollywood”. Jon Lewis, Cinema Journal. Winter, 2000

“Reliving the Scare: Looking Back On ‘Red Channels'”. John McDonough, All Things Considered, NPR. June 22, 2010

“Hollywood and Anti-Communism: HUAC and the Evolution of the Red Menace 1935-1950”. John Gladchuk. 2006

“Hedda Hopper: the woman who scared Hollywood”. Article. The Telegraph. Online

“I’m No Communist”. Humphrey Bogart, Photoplay Magazine. May, 1948

“No Sense of Decency: The Army – McCarthy Hearings”. Robert Shogan. 2009

“Kirk Douglas helped end the Hollywood blacklist, but he wasn’t alone”. Phil Helsel, NBC News. February 5, 2020

“Hollywood gladiator Kirk Douglas has his eyes set on a third bar mitzvah”. Barbara Paskin, Jewish Chronicle. September 20, 2012

“Spartacus: The anti-slave film that helped free cinema”. Peter Howell, Toronto Star. August 11, 2011