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Remembering the Hollywood 10
Posted on Oct 8, 2007
In describing HUAC’s mission, Chairman Thomas declared that his committee “has the responsibility of exposing and spotlighting subversive elements wherever they may exist. It is only to be expected that such elements would strive desperately to gain entry to the motion picture industry [which] offers such a tremendous weapon for education and propaganda.”
Was this conservative charge true? One person’s “subversion” is another’s “freedom fighting.” Although it’s rarely noted, Hollywood’s Golden Age also coincided with its “Crimson Era,” when Left Coast Reds and independent leftists had their greatest influence on the industry.
“We were idealists ... who wrote humanist films about real people with real problems ... progressive films way ahead of their time—feminist, anti-racist—mostly well-made little ‘B’ films, such as Robert Rossen’s “Marked Woman” , starring Bette Davis [and Humphrey Bogart], and John Howard Lawson’s “Smash-Up” , starring Susan Hayward. They did not try to get in any Communist propaganda,” insisted Barzman.
Alvah Bessie’s son Dan stressed, “The CP line was identical with the line of lots of democratic Americans. Lots of people besides Communists were opposed to racism, wanted to portray blacks in a fair and democratic way.” Antifascism reflected CP policies, “but was also part of Roosevelt New Deal politics ... of the whole thrust of democratic sensibilities ... part of which included the CP line, Dan Bessie said, adding that at the time there were also “people who injected stuff of a similar nature into films who weren’t Communists.”
Sidney Buchman, the screenwriter of 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” starring Jimmy Stewart as an idealistic senator fighting corruption, was a card-carrying Communist. Yes, Hollywood Reds and independent leftists tried to work their progressive politics into films, but movies and moviegoers are better off because of the conscience and consciousness they injected into mass entertainment. I’m glad movies like “Mr. Smith” were made—aren’t you?
Moviedom suffered when many of its most committed creative people were banished, causing a leveling of artistic expression. A repressive culture of conformity swept 1950s’ America. Costa-Gavras, director of the Oscar-winning “Z,” said: “For the cinema and democracy, this was one of the darkest periods of the American story. There is not any doubt.”
But the blacklist couldn’t last forever. Screenwriters used pseudonyms and fronts to sell scripts; Trumbo even won an Oscar under a pen name. In 1958, independent producer Stanley Kramer hired two blacklisted screenwriters, Ned Young and Harold Jacob Smith, to write “The Defiant Ones.” The title sequence rolled their credits under their faces, as they briefly appeared onscreen. In 1960, Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas allowed Trumbo to receive screen credit for “Exodus” and “Spartacus.” Eventually, the blacklist dissolved and a handful of blacklisted artists made comebacks.
Commemorating the Hollywood 10 and the Blacklist
According to Costa-Gavras, the Hollywood Blacklist is “a period we should visit, and try to see what happened, and why that happened to understand it, so it won’t be repeated.” The upcoming 60th anniversary of the Hollywood 10 “needs to be marked,” insists Lawson biographer Gerald Horne.
In January 2007 blacklist survivors and their relatives, a member of the original Committee for the First Amendment and supporters met to discuss appropriate ways to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Hollywood 10 and Blacklist. They formed a sort of exploratory group, the Committee for the First Amendment ‘47/ ‘07, and considered proposals for righting wrongs and raising awareness, including: congressional apologies from the House of Representatives for the House Un-American Activities Committee and from the Senate for Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations; a star for the Hollywood 10 and blacklistees on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame; and a special Oscar for the Hollywood 10 and blacklistees.
Addressing and redressing these grievances is not merely an exercise in ancient history. The Committee for the First Amendment ‘47/ ‘07 seeks to raise consciousness about the legacy of the Hollywood 10 and the Blacklist, and their relevance vis-à-vis repression in our own age: the Patriot Act, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, torture, habeas corpus, mass detentions, preventive war, warrantless wiretapping and other forms of surreptitious surveillance, as well as other “homeland security” measures.
Los Angeles-based film historian Ed Rampell (named after Edward R. Murrow) wrote “Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States” (The Disinformation Co., 2005).
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