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
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