The 1950s Hollywood Blacklist Was an Assault on Free Expression
As the writers’ strike continues, we should look back at the Hollywood blacklist. The blacklist didn’t just ruin many workers’ careers — it narrowed the range of acceptable movies and contributed to the conservatism of the 1950s.
Screenwriters have always been the sharpest thorn in the side of movie executives, the motion picture labor union with the greatest propensity to strike. The current walkout is their eighth, not including a threatened strike in 1941 that secured their first collective bargaining agreement with the studios.
The Screen Writers Guild (SWG), founded in the early 1930s, was by far the most activist labor union in Hollywood; constituted the bulk of the membership of the Hollywood Communist Party; stood in the forefront of what was called progressive politics in the ’30s and ’40s; and represented the majority of those blacklisted during the ’40s and ’50s.
The current writers’ guild, Writers Guild of America, though not politically radical, is fierce in defending its financial rights. And its ongoing strike provides a perfect occasion to look back on the blacklist era, which torpedoed the careers of countless workers in Hollywood and indelibly shaped the output of movie studios.
The Basics of the Blacklist
Blacklisting is a venerable weapon in Hollywood. In the 1930s, executives wielded it to weaken the SWG. In the 1920s and 1930s, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) used it to punish competing unions during brutal jurisdictional contests.
But the most famous motion picture blacklist began in November 1947, when movie executives fired five of the “unfriendly” witnesses under contract and pledged not to rehire them or the other five until they had purged themselves of their Communist taint. This blacklist grew from the famed “Hollywood Ten” to nearly three hundred following the early 1950s hearings.
There was no “list,” per se. The studio bosses derived their information about whom to exclude from three sources: the indices of the hearings transcripts of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); a list of over three hundred names collected by the American Legion and distributed to the major studios; and Red Channels, a compilation of 151 names collected by American Business Consultants, the brainchild of three former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents and one of the leading smear-and-clear organizations that mushroomed during the late 1940s. The only way to get off the blacklist was to appear before the HUAC, apologize for joining the Communist Party, laud the committee, and name names.
During the 1950s, one found oneself blacklisted if fingered by an informer (who was coached to name as many names as possible). If the named person did not appear before the committee, or they did appear but invoked the Fifth Amendment, they would be fired or blacklisted in the future. That is, one had to be publicly alleged as a Communist Party member.
Yet the dragnet affected not just Communists or even radicals, but left-leaning figures of all stripes. Liberals feared retribution should their scripts be read as too progressive. One said he was always looking over his shoulder as he sat at his typewriter. Liberals who had been politically active, like Edward G. Robinson, had to turn cartwheels to absolve themselves of their past deeds.
The blacklist was created and policed by executives. Red-hunting government institutions — the FBI, HUAC, Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee), and Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security — could only expose and intimidate. (The blacklist should not be conflated with McCarthyism. It preceded and outlasted McCarthy, and he did not concern himself with the media.)
The executives were not ideologically anti-communist; they sought to avoid censorship by the government and boycotts by such organizations as the American Legion and Catholic Church. But the blacklist only ended when the producers became convinced that open hiring of blacklisted people did not negatively impact box office receipts.
The First Hearings
The foundation for the Hollywood blacklist was laid on May 9, 1947, the day when two members of HUAC opened executive sessions at the Biltmore hotel in Los Angeles. The committee had actively participated in Hollywood red-hunting since the late 1930s, with little to show for it. The Cold War, however, reinvigorated the domestic red scare (there had been two previously, 1917–21 and 1939–41).
The committee interviewed fourteen friendly witnesses and studio head Jack Warner, who supplied the congressmen a list of suspected Communists employed by his studio, many of whom were liberals. Though Eric Johnston, the president of the producers’ associations, had pledged the full cooperation of the industry, committee chairman J. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ) publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with the movie executives. In July, Thomas sent two of his investigators to Hollywood to intimidate the producers into complying. When that did not work, Thomas authorized the serving of subpoenas.
On September 22, 1947, the Hollywood Reporter divulged the names of forty-two motion picture personnel who had received subpoenas from HUAC. Nineteen were labeled “unfriendly” (unlikely to cooperate) by a few publications. Those nineteen and their lawyers met regularly for the next month to plan a strategy. They decided to challenge the right of the committee to subpoena them or ask them questions about their union and political affiliations. They also decided that each would write a statement to be read when they were called to the stand.
Finally, they made what turned out to be a disastrous decision: they would not refuse to answer any questions, but would use the occasion to attack the committee — that is, they would answer those questions “in their own way.” This tactic obfuscated their core position — the committee was violating their First Amendment rights — and provoked the kind of behavior from some witnesses that gave ammunition to movie executives who wanted to make a show of collaboration.
The solid wall of opposition that the unfriendly witnesses had been told to expect from industry leaders crumbled immediately when the first witness, Warner, the president of Warner Brothers, testified on October 24, the initial day of the hearings. He crawled before his questioners, telling them: “It is a privilege to appear again before the committee to help as much as I can in facilitating its work.”
He claimed that he had been aware for over a decade of Communist working in the industry and that he had fired many of them. Warner then reeled off a list of those he had heard or read were Communists. (Of the fourteen he cited, three were not party members.) Louis B. Mayer, who testified a few days later, insisted that the producers could handle the Communist problem. The last studio boss to testify, Walt Disney, complained about Communist efforts to organize his cartoonists and agreed that there was a Communist threat in Hollywood.
The behavior of some of the unfriendly witnesses, which would provide the producers with grounds for instituting a blacklist, was demonstrated on October 29, 1947, by John Howard Lawson, the first one called to the stand. Set off by Thomas’s interjections and refusal to allow him to read his prepared statement, Lawson grew incensed and argumentative. Thomas ordered the sergeant at arms to remove Lawson from the witness chair.
Though only two of the other ten unfriendly witnesses — screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and Lester Cole — expressed anger, and only Trumbo was ordered to leave the stand, the die had been cast. Johnston followed Lawson to the stand, stating that he welcomed the investigation and hoped that it would expose Communists in the industry.
“Their Actions Have Been a Disservice to Their Employers”
At first, industry leaders masked their concern when the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt of Congress. Producer Samuel Goldwyn announced: “I believe that the entire hearing is a flop; I think the whole thing is a disgraceful performance.” Paul V. McNutt, an industry counsel, said: “The truth is there are no pictures of ours which carry Communist propaganda and we do not care how many so-called experts the Committee employs to try to find out. The search will be fruitless.”
Eric Johnston, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, told the Ten, “as long as I live, I will never be a party to anything as un-American as a blacklist.” But some producers, like MGM’s Eddie Mannix, had decided that the Ten had to go — not because they might be Communists, but because they “had become of great disservice to the industry.”
One month after the hearings ended, while the members of the House were voting to hold the Ten in contempt of Congress, movie company executives and studio bosses met at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to decide how to deal with them. Two of the major studios, RKO and Fox, had already opted to fire the three witnesses under contract: Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott, and Ring Lardner Jr. MGM was close to doing the same with Trumbo and Cole.
For executives, the big question was how to handle the overall issue of communism in the industry. No transcript of the meeting has come to light, but anecdotal evidence indicates that the majority of those present did not want to inaugurate a blacklist. However, Johnston and the two special counsels, McNutt and James Byrnes, insisted that the only realistic course of action was to publicly announce the firing of the five under contract and to state that none of the ten would be employed until they had purged themselves of their Communist taint. Only Goldwyn, Dore Schary, and Walter Wanger objected to terminating those under contract. Those in favor agreed that they would draw the line at the Ten and institute a policy of self-regulation.
The so-called Waldorf Declaration announced that the Ten, by “their actions have been a disservice to their employers and have impaired their usefulness to the industry.” Therefore, “We will forthwith discharge or suspend without compensation those in our employ and we will not re-employ any of the ten until such time as he is acquitted [of contempt] or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist.” Furthermore, “We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force of by illegal or unconstitutional methods.” Finally, the executives promised to “invite the Hollywood talent guilds to work with us to eliminate any subversives, to protect the innocent, and to safeguard free speech and a free screen wherever threatened.”
Despite the fact that seven of the Ten were screenwriters, SWG joined the other talent guilds in cooperating with the executives. A Motion Picture Industry Council (MPIC), consisting of representatives of the producers, guilds, and trade unions, was created to bring the “Communist problem” to the attention of all studios, publicize the industry’s efforts to purge itself of subversives, “clear” repentant Communists for reemployment, and criticize HUAC witnesses who refused to play ball with Congress.
The blacklist was now in full effect.
There matters stood for three years. Two of the Ten, Lawson and Trumbo, were tried for contempt of Congress. The other eight, to save the expense of multiple trials, agreed to accept whatever verdict was rendered. When Lawson and Trumbo were convicted, they appealed and launched a national campaign to rally support to their cause.
On April 10, 1950, the Supreme Court refused to grant certiorari, and the Ten began turning themselves in to federal authorities to start serving their one-year sentences. (Herbert Biberman and Dmytryk were given six-month terms.)
When HUAC formally announced it was reopening the hearings in March 1951, the producers promised their full cooperation and stated that those witnesses who did not deny their Communist affiliation would find it difficult to get work in the studios. One other thing had changed, to the detriment of those who refused to cooperate: they had no support network.
There was no Committee for the First Amendment (and no support from liberals); the most democratic union in Hollywood, the Conference of Studio Unions (an industrial union that represented several crafts in the industry), had suffered a massive defeat at the hands of IATSE and executives; Congress had passed the virulently anti-union Taft-Hartley Act; the Communist Party in Hollywood had been severely reduced in size; and national party leaders were in jail, on trial, or in hiding.
This time around the committee modified its approach, focusing on Communists rather than communism in the industry. And subpoenaed witnesses, having learned their lesson from the October 1947 hearings, recognized they had only two options if they wanted to avoid a prison sentence: invoke the Fifth Amendment and be fired; or cooperate fully with the committee, admitting to membership in the Communist Party, apologizing for this membership, providing the names of other members, and praising the committee.
Larry Parks, the leadoff witness, who had not been adequately coached, initially refused to supply names; by the time he did so, he had effectively ended his career. The friendly witnesses who followed rattled off hundreds of names. (One screenwriter, Martin Berkeley, provided over 150.) When Dmytryk decided to follow the formula of the Waldorf Declaration and recant, he met with members of the MPIC, who prescribed the path to his return to work: coauthoring a lengthy apology in the Saturday Evening Post, testifying anew before the House committee, naming names.
The MPIC also had to contend with a different type of list — the gray list — made necessary by the publication, in 1950, of Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. The book, a compendium of 151 names (mainly actors and actresses) and the “subversive” organizations to which they lent their prestige, was published by three former FBI agents who put out Counterattack, a magazine exposing Communist influence on movies.
Shortly after it appeared, Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild, received permission from the board of directors to enlist the MPIC to protect the actors and actresses named in Red Channels. The MPIC plan allowed any employee under suspicion of subversive activities to write a statement of facts to clarify their position against communism and explain their relationship to any allegedly communist-linked organization. The MPIC would then direct the letter to the producer or studio of the writer’s choice but would not evaluate its quality or credence.
In addition to the blacklist, the movie executives produced nearly fifty anti-Communist movies as a sop to HUAC members who lamented the paucity of such films. And finally, the studio heads stopped making “social problem” films — in August 1948, Variety reported that “studios are continuing to drop plans for ‘message’ pictures like hot coals.”
The Effects of the Blacklist
Blacklisted writers had it somewhat easier than actors or directors: they could write under pseudonyms or behind fronts. But even when screenwriters’ scripts won Academy Awards — The Brave One (1956), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and The Defiant Ones (1958) — the producers refused to bend. The blacklist continued through the 1950s, stifling the range of acceptable topics covered in movies and contributing to the conformity and conservatism of the 1950s.
One can count on two hands the movies that challenged United States society and McCarthyism during the 1950s (Bad Day at Black Rock , It’s Always Fair Weather , High Noon , Johnny Guitar , Silver Lode , Storm Center ). Biblical epics, marriage comedies, upbeat musicals, and alien movies predominated. The television industry was even more repressed, featuring family sitcoms and banal Westerns.
The major crack in the ranks occurred in 1960, when, first, Otto Preminger and, subsequently, Universal Studios announced that Trumbo would receive screen credit for Exodus (1960) and Spartacus (1960). One by one, on their own merit, many of the blacklistees returned to work. A significant number, however, found it difficult to regain their footing in the industry.
The producers’ associations never stated that the blacklist had ended, because they consistently maintained that there had never been a blacklist in the first place. The producers’ position was voiced in a 1980 interview by Reagan, now the Republican candidate for president. He told journalist Robert Scheer that the industry had responded to Communist domination of several unions and Communist efforts to take over the industry. They had “gotten into positions where they could destroy careers, and did destroy them. There was no blacklist in Hollywood. The blacklist in Hollywood, if there was one, was provided by the Communists.” (This claim, that anti-communists were blacklisted by Communists during the 1930s and 1940s, is demonstrably false.)
In some ways, Hollywood has never recovered from the blacklist era. The writers’ guild, for example, essentially became a dues-collecting, welfare organization rather than a highly politicized union. The militant, democratic Conference of Studio Unions has not been replicated.
Fortunately, the media industries have changed so much that a new blacklist is unlikely. Still, one lesson everyone should have learned is the precariousness of the First and Fifth Amendments when the government announces a national security crisis. Another is the necessity of defending those who come under attack.