THE HOUSE UNAMERICAN ACTIVITIES 
COMMITTEE
(HUAC) AND HOLLYWOOD 

     Many older Americans think of the 1950s as the Good Old Days. World War II had ended, jobs were plentiful, and most families could live on just Dad’s income, which meant that Mom didn’t have to work. Certainly television portrayed this as an idyllic time. Consider the placid suburban lives of Ozzie and Harriet, their sons and neighbors; the Cleavers; and the Stone family, with Donna Reed as the mater familias. But while life was seemingly calm, there was unrest beneath the surface: abundant anti-Semitism and racism, with legalized segregation; mothers unfulfilled by driving carpools, attending PTA meetings, or baking cookies, as Betty Friedan would explain in her groundbreaking manifesto The Feminine Mystique; and teens feeling a general sense of malaise (think of Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean). This would boil over in the protests of the 1960's.

     A shameful series of events in our nation’s history unfolded during these prosperous Cold War years (1947-56), "thanks" to seeds planted almost a decade earlier. In 1938, the U.S. Congress had organized a Special Committee on Un-American Activities, initially called the Dies Committee.  This committee was set up to investigate fascist, communist, and other so-called subversive political groups, and they began to probe Hollywood that year, even going so far as to interrogate Shirley Temple, who, though only ten years old at the time, was suspected of being a Communist dupe! The Dies Committee was dormant during World War II, but seven years later, the HUAC was established to replace it. At the height of its investigations, the HUAC -- whose members included a young Richard Nixon, then a senator from his home state of California -- became one of the most controversial Congressional committees in American history. It was mainly concerned with investigating centers of communications, including universities, the publishing community and the motion picture industry.

     In 1947 the HUAC began to search in earnest for communists within the motion picture industry.  The Hollywood trials had three purposes. First, they were set up to show that the Screen Writers' guild also included Communists; second, it reckoned that these writers were able to inject leftist propaganda into films; third, that President Roosevelt had sanctioned pro-Soviet films during the war. None of these pronouncements would ever be proven.

     The first ten people called by the Committee, who were later dubbed the Hollywood Ten – seven screenwriters, two directors and a producer/screenwriter -- maintained their rights under the Constitution by citing the Fifth Amendment and refused to cooperate. When they would not answer the Committee’s questions, they were found in contempt of Congress. After the House of Representatives upheld the contempt charges in November, 1947, the Ten lost their jobs. In later proceedings, they were given prison sentences ranging from six months to a year, and the U.S. Supreme Court voted not to hear their appeal in the spring of 1950. The group members were put into a federal penitentiary, and the second wave of HUAC hearings began on September 17, 1951.

     The highly publicized HUAC hearings were supposed to call individuals suspected of being communists or having communistic "leanings." The Committee concentrated on Hollywood, resulting in many actors, writers, directors and producers losing their jobs. The "blacklist" began at the time of the second set of hearings, when more than 300 names were added to the "red lists," often by coercing those called by the Committee to name names or lose their jobs. Blacklisting was routinely denied by its practitioners, but the influence of "official" and independent blacklists was epidemic. Blacklisting ruined many careers. Blacklistees were routinely denied work, and their memberships in professional guilds and unions were revoked. While many of those called to testify refused to name names, others caved in, destroying careers and friendships in the process.

     The HUAC hearings were only a part of America’s Cold War assault on communism. The Truman administration used the HUAC was an central ingredient in its aggressive anti-communist program.* The Committee was seen as a legitimate way to identify Americans sympathetic to Marxist, Leninist and Stalinist ideologies, all were viewed as a threat to national security during the Cold War years.**  Most denizens of Hollywood who had dabbled with communism had become disillusioned with it long before the HUAC came on the scene and had had no involvement with the party for years, if ever at all. Those who had been tangentially involved – perhaps signing petitions year earlier, when Russia was our ally and the Axis forces were the enemy-- had acted out of hatred for fascism, whether it was emanating from Francisco Franco’s regime in Spain, or Hitler’s Germany. Certainly it has not been shown that anyof the people subpoenaed, who for the most part were enjoying a lofty standard of living in Hollywood, ever advocated the overthrow of the American government. In addition, despite the assertion by the Committee’s eventual chair, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, that he had a list of communists, this list was never made public, and none of the accused was ever proven to be a communist. (NOTE: There is a revisionist view, currently being voiced on the Internet and elsewhere, asserting that McCarthy did indeed have such a list.  However, as of this writing, no concrete proof has been proffered to bolster this point of view.)

     In 1947, when J. Parnell Thomas, then chair of the HUAC, announced his intended hearing, the major studio heads refused to have anything to do with what they saw as a thoroughly un-American activity like blacklisting, but two events changed their minds. One was a bitter writers’ strike that polarized the studio chiefs on one side and the creative community on the other; the second was a notorious meeting at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel on November 24, 1947. At that meeting, bankers informed  studio executives that investment funds would be shaved if the studios did not cooperate with the HUAC. After that warning, the studios capitulated and informed employees that a refusal to cooperate meant their jobs would be terminated.

     The fear of being blacklisted created an underground system in which some writers, including members of the Hollywood Ten, worked under pseudonyms names, or had others acting as "fronts" for them. There was, naturally, the loss of title credits for these writers, but some temporary employment was possible. Blacklisted actors were less fortunate. Many had their careers sidelined for years or ruined altogether, with few escaping the long-standing stigma imposed by blacklisting. For example, the actor Sam Jaffe, who had been nominated for an Oscar for The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and was celebrated for roles in Lost Horizon (1937) and Gunga Din (1939), was blacklisted for refusing to testify.  He had to leave Hollywood to live with his sisters and teach high school math. -He would eventually make a successful comeback in the early 1960's as Dr. Zorba on the Ben Casey television show.  Actress Lee Grant, a 1951 Oscar nominee for her role in Detective Story, was blacklisted when she would not testify against her ex-husband, screenwriter Arnold Manoff. Grant would eventually return to Hollywood and win two Oscars, one for acting and another for directing a documentary.  Some of the accused became so despondent about not being able to financially support their families, they committed suicide. (See the 1975 movie The Front, written by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt, two blacklistees, and starring many performers who had also been blacklisted, including Zero Mostel and Herschel Bernardi.) And friends and family of of movie star John Garfield *** (shown testifying before the HUAC in the picture above right) have been vociferous in their belief that his death at age 39 from a massive heart attack was caused by the stress of having been blacklisted.

     Another factor was that most Hollywood studio heads were Jews who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. Although their films had long promoted melting pot values (ceding individual ethnic and religious differences to embrace Americanism), and the studio chiefs themselves lived lives of capitalistic splendor as opposed to dabbling in communism/socialism, they realized that the majority (more than 70 per cent) of those accused by the Committee were Jews, and the accusations were too close for comfort. (Indeed, at one point, HUAC committee member John Rankin read a list of Hollywood Ten supporters into the record: "Another one was Danny Kaye, we found out his real name was David Daniel Kaminsky... Edward G. Robinson. His real name is Emmanuel Goldenberg. Another...calls himself Melvyn Douglas, whose real name is Melvyn Hesselberg." ) Although few, if any, of the studio heads were religious (many had Americanized their Semitic-sounding surnames and had shed their Jewish spouses in order to marry Gentile trophy wives), they felt they had to back the HUAC, or they would be next on the hit list. Thus, these Hollywood honchos relentlessly blackballed those unsympathetic to the Committee.

     The Red Scare affected Hollywood's film output on many levels. Movie content became more cautious. During 1947 to 1954, Hollywood eschewed social dramas and instead churned out more than 40 anti-Communist, i.e., patriotic propagandist, films.  While these pictures didn't make much money, the studios felt they were a good hedge against possible anti-communist accusations. 

     The blacklist lasted for nearly 16 years, during which no blacklisted writer received a credit on any Hollywood movie. The first break came in 1960 when actor/producer Kirk Douglas and producer/director Otto Preminger gave screen credit to Dalton Trumbo – one of the original Hollywood Ten – on their respective films, Spartacus and Exodus. Even after his blacklisting, Trumbo had continued to write under different aliases, including Robert Rich, the name he’d used for his 1956 Oscar-winning screenplay for The Brave One. In 1985, the Academy restored the names of blacklisted writers Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman (who had previously written the screenplay High Noon) to the writing credits of the 1957 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Both men had died, and the Oscar statuettes were presented posthumously to their widows. As for the HUAC, it was renamed the Internal Securities Committee in 1969 and was finally abolished in 1975.

     In 1997, an event called "Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist," commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the HUAC hearings, was held. It was an emotional presentation, featuring many Hollywood stars, including Billy Crystal, Kevin Spacey, Alfre Woodard, John Lithgow, James Cromwell and David Hyde Pierce, in recreated events from that era. 

     Another tangential event was the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award to veteran director Elia Kazan in 1999.  Kazan, a co-founder of the famed Actors Studio, would earn Academy Awards for helming two socially conscious films, Gentlemen's Agreement and On the Waterfront. However, he would also become a cooperative witness for the HUAC, naming names and thus ruining the careers of several people who had considered him their friend. (Ironically, Kazan himself would lose some work because so many Hollywood denizens, including playwright Arthur Miller, publicly denounced his actions.)  Almost 50 years later, some liberal Hollywood old-timers who were present at the ceremony had obviously softened their views and decided to bury the hatchet; Warren Beatty, for one, stood up and applauded the bestowal of the honorary Oscar.  But about one-quarter of the attendees were indignant about the award; some, including actor Nick Nolte, expressed their views by remaining in their seats, stone-faced and refusing to applaud.  There were also hundreds of protestors outside the Dorothy Chandler pavilion, bearing posters with messages such
"Elia Kazan: Nominated for Benedict Arnold Award," "Don't Whitewash the Blacklist," and "Kazan - the Linda Tripp of the 50s" (PBS American Masters, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/kazan_e.html).

     Thus, it is easy to surmise that even decades later, the HUAC's actions still generate a great deal of debate.     


*I’d often wondered how a sensible president like Harry S. Truman could have allowed the HUAC and MacCarthy, to flourish. A few years ago, a made-for-cable biopic about Truman starring Gary Sinese as the former president clarified the issue. The film shows Truman not doing anything about McCarthy and his ilk because he didn’t think Americans would be stupid enough to fall for their brand of patriotism. Obviously, he was wrong.

**Don't forget that just a few years earlier, the Russians had been our allies.   However, the dissolution of the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union came about quickly after World War II ended. The turnaround from trusted friend to feared enemy created mighty anti- Soviet paranoia in most Americans. Our government utilized that fear to build a national  security mentality and the extensive defense and intelligence systems  needed to battle what was seen as the global spread of communism and the potential Red subversion of the U.S.

***Garfield is now largely forgotten, but he was a megastar during this era.  A scrappy street kid from the Bronx who often played toughs on screen, Garfield has been posthumously lauded as "the pre-Brando Brando."  His funeral attracted thousands of fans.  

   INTERNET LINKS 

http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/blacklist.html - A terrific explanation of the blacklist from Penn's English Department

http://www.moderntimes.com/palace/huac.htm - A more detailed explanation of the HUAC and filmdom

http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Roosevelt_Eleanor/Hollywood_HUAC.html - A published critique of the HUAC by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (just keep clicking "okay" to access)

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAhollywood10.htm - Article on the Hollywood Ten