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Remembering the Hollywood 10
Posted on Oct 8, 2007
Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been?
The hearings in the Caucus Room of the Old House Office Building was a congressional media circus worthy of a Hollywood production. Rep. J. Parnell Thomas chaired the committee that included Congressman Richard Nixon. Preparing the scene for the drama to unfold, beginning Oct. 20, 1947, the cooperative witnesses were the first to take the stand. The “friendly witnesses” were allowed to read prepared statements, starting with three producers: Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer (ex-chairman of the Republican Party’s California State Committee) and Sam Wood.
Warner told HUAC: “Ideological termites have burrowed into many American industries, organizations and societies. Wherever they may be, I say let us dig them out and get rid of them. My brothers and I will be happy to subscribe generously to a pest-removal fund. We are willing to establish such a fund to ship to Russia the people who don’t like our American system of government and prefer the Communistic system to ours.”
Russian émigré Ayn Rand attacked “Song of Russia,” complaining that the Soviet peasants smiled too much. Red-baiter Adolphe Menjou testified on Oct. 21 that he believed the Communist Party should be “outlawed.” Friendly witnesses Walt Disney, Robert Taylor, Robert Montgomery, George Murphy, Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan also testified. While HUAC asked unfriendly witnesses about left-wing affiliations, the committee didn’t ask “Coop” about his membership in the 1930s right-wing paramilitary group Hollywood Hussars.
The Unfriendly or Hollywood 19 were: Richard Collins, Howard Koch, Gordon Kahn, Robert Rossen, Waldo Salt, Lewis Milestone, Irving Pichel, Larry Parks, Bertolt Brecht, John Howard Lawson, Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz, Herbert Biberman, Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott, Ring Lardner and Lester Cole. Despite their subpoenas, the first eight weren’t called to testify during the 1947 hearings. Brecht, a German immigrant who’d written plays such as “Galileo” (about inquisitions and recanting), appeared Oct. 30 and denied Communist Party membership. Although Thomas praised Brecht as a “good example” for other witnesses, the playwright made monkeys out of HUAC. Immediately after the hearings, Brecht fled America, eventually relocating to East Germany.
The remaining “unfriendlies”—Lawson, Trumbo, Maltz, Bessie, Ornitz, Biberman, Dmytryk, Scott, Lardner and Cole—became the Hollywood 10. They insisted that, as Philip Dunne put it, “any official inquiry into political beliefs and affiliations was unconstitutional.” After collaborators had poisoned the atmosphere and tainted their reputations, the 10 were called to testify.
On Oct. 27, Lawson— the “Grand Pooh-Bah of the Communist movement,” according to screenwriter Martin Berkeley—was the first to testify. Lawson protested the fact that he, unlike the cooperative testifiers, was not permitted to read a prepared statement, and in a combative interchange, he tried to do so.
While Lawson attempted to speak, HUAC Chairman Thomas banged his gavel 16 times, reportedly breaking it. The Hollywood 10’s legal strategy was to stand on First Amendment rights in refusing to answer questions regarding political affiliation, which might not only incriminate them but could lead to being questioned about others. Lawson was asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” He responded, “It is unfortunate and tragic that I have to teach this committee the basic principles of American—” but the gavel-pounding chairman drowned out the witness, declaring, “That is not the question,” and ordered officers to drag Lawson away.
Albert Maltz dubbed investigator Stripling “Mr. Quisling,” referring to Norwegian leader Vidkun Quisling, who had collaborated with the Nazis. While police held him, Trumbo shouted, “This is the beginning of the American concentration camp!”
Part two of the “Hollywood Fights Back!” radio program was nationally broadcast Nov. 2, with Danny Kaye, Dorothy McGuire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Peter Lorre, Richard Conte, Richard Rodgers, Rita Hayworth, Jane Wyatt and John Huston. But their effort was in vain.
“Members of the Association of Motion Picture Producers deplore the action of the 10 Hollywood men who have been cited for contempt. We do not desire to prejudge their legal rights, but their actions have been a disservice to their employers and have impaired their usefulness to the industry. We will forthwith discharge or suspend without compensation those in our employ and we will not re-employ any of the 10 until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist. On the broader issues of alleged subversive and disloyal elements in Hollywood, our members are likewise prepared to take positive action. We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party ... which advocates the overthrow of the government. ...”
The opposition back in Tinseltown began crumbling. Many were dismayed by the militancy of Lawson and others, as well as by their legal strategy. Bogart publicly recanted. Leftists were voted out of leadership positions in the talent guilds. The Hollywood Blacklist was in full swing.
Fade to Blacklist
In early 1948, the Hollywood 10 were tried for contempt of Congress. Fate intervened; two liberal Supreme Court justices had died since 1947 and were replaced by conservatives. The defendants were found guilty, fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to up to one year behind bars. By 1950, the 10 lost their appeals—in April the Supreme Court decided not to hear their case.
In 1951, HUAC launched new witch-hunting hearings; more witnesses were called, and the uncooperative ones were blacklisted by the movie industry. Among the 300-plus talents denied employment in Hollywood was “Oz” lyricist Yip Harburg, who had won an Oscar for co-writing “Over the Rainbow,” the song that put Judy Garland on the movie map.
Collaborators such as Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, who named names, were generally allowed to continue making movies. Since the First Amendment defense had failed to keep the 10 out of jail, dissidents changed their legal strategy. As screenwriter Robert Lees—blacklisted in 1951 for refusing to name names—recounted: “After the 10 were imprisoned, and the anti-Communist McCarran and Smith Acts were passed, the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination became the defense. The government couldn’t jail and fine you for contempt of Congress, but the punishment came from the studios, who fired you.” Pleading the Fifth also protected witnesses from naming others.
Actor Larry Parks testified March 21,1951: “I don’t think this is American justice to make me ... crawl through the mud. ... This is what I beg you not to do.” Pressured to inform, Parks insisted: “I am no longer fighting for myself, because I tell you frankly that I am probably the most completely ruined man that you have ever seen. I am fighting for a principle. ... I don’t think that it is in the spirit of real Americanism.” Despite his confessions and informing, Parks was blacklisted.
Not everybody informed or crawled. During her May 21, 1952 HUAC session, Lillian Hellman’s letter stated: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions. ... ”
Actor Lionel Stander often played tough guys. During his May 6, 1953 HUAC hearing, Stander pretended that he was going to cooperate, but mocked the witch-hunters instead: “I know of some subversive activities in the entertainment industry and elsewhere in the country,” he said. “I know of a group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the Constitution of the United States by depriving artists and others of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness without due process of law.”
Paul Robeson appeared before HUAC June 12, 1956. When asked the $64 question, the actor and singer responded: “What do you mean by the Communist Party? ... Do you mean a party of people who have sacrificed for my people, and for all Americans and workers, that they can live in dignity? Do you mean that party?”
How did the Hollywood blacklist work in practice? “Commies” were denounced as Stalinist agents helping Moscow spread world domination and subverting movies. Those subpoenaed or otherwise named had to denounce not only their left-wing ties but name others who’d had progressive links. Those who recanted purged themselves and were considered generally “rehabilitated” and could return to work.
Besides HUAC, there was another way to smear members of the entertainment industry. “Red Channels, the Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television,” was a paperback brochure published in 1950 by former FBI agents. “Red Channels” listed the names of suspected Communist Party members and the organizations they allegedly supported. “It was one way of vetting people,” explained Nat Segaloff, who co-wrote “The Waldorf Conference.”
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