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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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