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Remembering the Hollywood 10
Posted on Oct 8, 2007
Sixty years ago, as wicked witch-hunters descended upon the movie industry, Judy Garland took to the microphone for a coast-to-coast radio program called “Hollywood Fights Back!” Instead of singing, the 25-year-old starlet asked Americans:
Garland railed against the gathering tornado that would strike “Wizard of Oz” lyricist Yip Harburg, and so many other Tinseltown talents, on the star-studded Oct. 26, 1947, broadcast. The following day, the first “unfriendly witness” took the stand to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Hollywood 10 and the Hollywood Blacklist, an epidemic of censorship in the movie industry that set the stage for “McCarthyism,” a term that evokes the fearful and oppressive mood of that bygone era and resonates with our current age of repression under the Bush regime.
Better Red Than Dead
By the time the so-called “Inquisition in Eden” officially began, Hollywood had already been in reactionaries’ sights for a long time. According to “The Marxist and the Movies,” Larry Ceplair’s new biography of screenwriter Paul Jarrico, J. Edgar Hoover led the attack against left-leaning La-La Land, authorizing a “massive investigation of the industry under the code name COMPIC (Communist Infiltration—Motion Picture Industry).” When anti-Semite and racist John Rankin became chairman of HUAC in 1945, the Mississippi congressman claimed he was investigating “one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of the government. ... The information we get is that [Hollywood] is the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States. We’re on the trail of the tarantula now, and we’re going to follow through.”
It’s true there was a significant left-wing and Communist Party [CP] presence in Hollywood during the 1930s and ‘40s. The 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Depression led Ring Lardner Jr., a onetime Communist who won the Oscar for co-authoring 1942’s “Woman of the Year,” to conclude, “The whole system had broken down and was not going to be fixed. That it needed a change.”
“From the time of the Spanish Civil War, the CP fought fascism abroad and at home,” contended Norma Barzman, who wrote “The Red and the Blacklist: The Intimate Memoir of a Hollywood Expatriate.” The ex-Communist added, “During the Roosevelt years, the CP was responsible for Social Security, unemployment insurance legislation. ... We got the teenage Latinos off for the Sleepy Lagoon murder [in L.A.]. ... We fought racism against the Japanese [and other minorities]. ... “
Hollywood’s Reds were inspired by the Russian Revolution and its use of movies as agitprop, as evidenced by Lenin’s dictum: “For us, the cinema is the most important of the arts.”
Talking pictures also spurred the creation of Hollywood’s Left. Unlike silent films, the talkies needed dialogue writers, so studios recruited playwrights from Broadway, including radicals such as John Howard Lawson and Clifford Odets. They “brought to Hollywood the dissatisfaction of Dramatists Guild enlightenment and union tradition,” Nancy Lynn Schwartz wrote in “The Hollywood Writers Wars.” As a playwright, it troubled Lawson that screenwriters had fewer rights and didn’t receive appropriate credits.
The Hollywood Left brought the war for social and economic justice home to the movie colony. Lester Cole called writers “the niggers of the studio system,” grousing that “1 percent of what American movie-goers pay for their entertainment is allocated to ... screenplays.” Donald Ogden Stewart, whose screen credits included the Hepburn pics “Holiday” and “The Philadelphia Story,” ranked screenwriters’ status “below the heads of publicity but above the hairdressers.” According to Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner’s “Radical Hollywood,” while 10 percent of screenwriters made more than $10,000 annually, 50 percent-plus earned under $4,000 and 30 percent made less than $2,000 per year. Junior writers earned $35 weekly.
“We organized the guilds and unions—they have all these benefits we fought for—and went out on strike for the medical, pensions and what young people today take for granted,” noted Barzman, whose husband Ben co-wrote 1944’s “Meet the People,” starring Lucille Ball.
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