How Hollywood’s Anti-Communist Crackdown Made TV and Movies Bland and Boring

The conformity of 1950s film and television was the result of the successful McCarthyist purge of leftists — and their genres — from the entertainment industry. The life of socialist screenwriter Very Caspary shows how it was done and what was lost.

Actress Gene Tierney and Vincent Price in Laura. (Donaldson Collection / Getty Images)

The current Writers Guild of America strike reminds us of the lasting effects of major political and labor action in the entertainment industry on the kind of material that gets produced. The most dramatic instance of this is, of course, the 1950s McCarthyist red-baiting, which resulted in the Hollywood blacklist. Not only did the anti-communist witch hunts directly alter the course of hundreds of lives, but they also radically impacted film and television as a medium — and, consequently, the whole culture.

The conformity and conservatism of the 1950s were manifest across all mainstream media, but especially in sanitized television shows celebrating the American, white, middle-class nuclear family — think Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. These shows imprinted themselves on the conservative political imagination. When politicians urge us, as Ronald Reagan did when first running for president, to “make America great again,” the ideal in their minds is the one modeled by these fantasy shows.

But contrary to popular understanding, the conservatism of the ’50s isn’t simply “old-fashioned.” It came on the heels of a somewhat more progressive period in film and television, which drew to a close with the intensification of Hollywood red-baiting.

The life of novelist and filmmaker Vera Caspary demonstrates the shift. A woman and a socialist, Caspary always had to face down censorship, even before the second Red Scare. But as her story shows, the blacklist was something more comprehensive and insurmountable, not only derailing individual careers but killing entire genres that lent themselves to social critique.

Before the Blacklist

In her 2018 book The Broadcast 41: Women and the Anti-communist Blacklist, Carol A. Stabile describes the life and career trajectories of the forty-one women, mainly writers and actors, who were blacklisted or graylisted during the witch hunt era of the late 1940s and ’50s.

The stories of blacklisted and graylisted men are more well known. They included writers like Dalton Trumbo, Dashiell Hammett, and Langston Hughes; directors like Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles; actors like John Garfield and Burgess Meredith; singers like Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger; composers like Leonard Bernstein, and roughly a hundred more.

The culture is far less familiar with blacklisted and graylisted women’s stories, though there were several dozen of them. Many of them built major careers in the 1930s and ’40s only to be professionally derailed by anti-communist fanatics. These women all fell somewhere on the political spectrum then termed “progressive,” which spanned from committed “reds,” i.e., Communists and socialists, through left-leaning “pinks,” who joined organizations and supported causes like labor unions, racial justice, refugee rights, and opposition to the international rise of fascism.

Among their ranks were writers Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, and Vera Caspary; writer-actor Ruth Gordon; actors Judy Holliday, Lee Grant, Anne Revere, Rose Hobart, Marsha Hunt, Jean Muir, Aline MacMahon, Fredi Washington, Pert Kelton, and Margo; legendary acting teachers as well as actors Uta Hagen and Stella Adler; singers Lena Horne and Hazel Scott; and entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee.

Given the racial hatred, antisemitism, and xenophobia underpinning so much of the anti-Communist witch hunt, it was no coincidence that, of the forty-one women blacklisted, more than a third were Jewish. Four — Horne, Scott, Washington, and composer Shirley Graham Du Bois (second wife of W. E. B. Du Bois) — were black women. One, Margo, was Mexican-American. Sabile writes, “Most of the women listed in Red Channels” — the main publication associated with the ensuing blacklist, created in 1950 by three anti-communist idealogues and ex-FBI agents — “were from working class or immigrant backgrounds (sometimes both).”

Almost all of the women were New York City–based, though many wound up doing stints in Hollywood. They were often friends and colleagues with each other, and many were members of the same Popular Front organizations and supporters of the same causes. They’d made great strides on the stage and in radio and films, and were very hopeful about a progressive future for the new medium of television.

Television, a mass medium with the potential to reach into the homes of who knew how many millions of viewers, became a hard-fought battleground — one that reflected the broader political dynamics of the time period. Ultimately, the bland and blinding traditionalism of so much 1950s television is a result of the era’s successful assault on political progressives. As Sabile notes, “Contrary to popular belief, the images that appeared on American television after 1950 were not simply reflections of American culture. They were products of suppression, fear, and eventually self-censorship.”

Caspary’s trajectory illustrates both the victories progressive women secured before the ’50s and the erosion of those achievements. Caspary’s writing career was dedicated to representing the life experiences of single, independent women such as herself, reflected most strikingly in Laura Hunt, protagonist of her sensationally successful novel Laura.

Caspary had what Sabile called an “anti-romance” tendency in her writing, a refusal to deal in clichéd love-and-marriage plots combined with a bracing frankness about the active sex lives of single working women. Caspary herself, in her life and in her autobiography The Secrets of Grown-Ups, was open about her innumerable love affairs. She didn’t wed until she was in her forties, and as her Austrian-American film producer husband Isadore Goldsmith’s career faltered, she took over the breadwinner role throughout their long and happy marriage.

Caspary came from a prosperous family of German-Jewish and Russian-Jewish immigrants, and her father and grandfather were both self-proclaimed socialists. As Caspary put it in her autobiography, “The skeleton in my closet carries a hammer and sickle.”

When her father went bankrupt in the 1920s, Caspary undertook to support not only herself but also her mother by “pounding money out of a typewriter.” She claimed to have been politically radicalized by the Depression, as many were. But her investment in progressive causes was manifest in her writing from the beginning. Her first novel was a sympathetic account of the life of a young black woman who could pass for white, called The White Girl (1929), which was well-received in the black press.

She was a member of the Communist Party of the USA for a few years, but felt uncomfortable with doctrinaire party membership, and quit after Stalin’s nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler in 1939. But she continued to be active in Popular Front causes, all of which were listed in the dossier of accusations presented to her when she was called into a studio executive’s office at MGM in 1951.

Though she was fortunate in never being called to testify before House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and thus was never blacklisted outright, studio fears that her left-wing past would come out led executives to phase out the career of one of their highest paid writers — a textbook case of graylisting, which was just as devastating as blacklisting only more insidious. Caspary and her husband fled to Europe for years, and fortunately she was able to keep them both going financially, mainly through her work as a popular novelist.

If we look at two films based on Caspary’s books, we can see indications of the political climate’s impact on her career. One was her greatest success, Laura (1944), which was in production in the early 1940s during World War II when film noir, with its built-in critique of American society, was on the rise, along with what seemed then to be a progressive political arc. Laura, with its vivid, unreliable voice-over narration, extensive flashback structure, and an ambiguous femme fatale figure in the central role, helped define the form. It was one of the backlog of early American noirs received with rapture by French film critics at the end of World War II, when they named the new genre they saw developing.

The other Caspary adaptation, The Blue Gardenia (1953), based on Caspary’s novella The Gardenia, was also a film noir, made late in the genre’s main cycle of films. It was made during the depths of the blacklist, when Caspary had already fled the country to escape the attentions of HUAC. Though it’s a generally excellent film made by Fritz Lang, it was badly received and hardly created a ripple. The number of noirs in production during the 1950s was dwindling under the impact of censorship focused on eradicating “subversive” material in films.

Gene Tierney as Laura in the eponymous 1944 film. (20th Century Fox)

Even getting Laura made was no picnic, and that was during the “prosperous and tolerant” 1940s that Caspary claimed all Hollywood leftists of her generation felt nostalgic for. Director Otto Preminger, overseeing the adaptation, insisted that the lead character had no substance and was only a cipher invested with importance by the male fantasies swirling around her: “She’s nothing, a nonentity.” This statement enraged Caspary, whose book was meant to be a celebration of a thirty-year-old career women leading an exciting, independent, sexually active life, which stirs up a whirlwind of murderous desire and envy around her.

Even the famous painted portrait of Laura, in Caspary’s description is nothing like the sweet, winsome, romantic portrait of pliant twentysomething Gene Tierney in the movie. Instead, it emphasizes the besotted male painter’s failure to capture her essence, except for two qualities: her tilted fawn-like eyes and, as Waldo Lydecker — the waspish, erudite columnist and radio star obsessed with Laura — put it, “the fluid sense of restlessness in the position of her body, perched on the arm of the chair, a pair of yellow gloves in one hand, a green hunter’s hat in the other.” Note the evocation of helpless prey (the fawn eyes) and predator (the hunter’s cap) as a way of indicating Laura’s complexity, which keeps the reader thinking of her as both possible murderer and possible murderer’s victim.

When detective Mark McPherson wonders why Laura wasn’t married considering she “wasn’t a bad-looking dame,” Lydecker says, “Marriage wasn’t her career. She had her career, she made plenty of money, and there were always men to squire and admire her.”

Caspary borrowed elements from Wilkie Collins’s novels The Woman in White and The Moonstone, such as the device of examining a murder mystery through the contradictory first-person accounts of those suspected of or investigating a murder. She included among the various men’s accounts a major section drawn from Laura’s diary, confessing how she was trying to navigate not only her own shifting desires but the frightening hostility and manipulative behaviors underlying the desires of the men surrounding her.

Caspary, who clearly based the main character on herself, had heated arguments with Preminger about the first draft of the script, especially what he was doing to the character of Laura, “turning her into the Hollywood version of a cute career girl.” There was nearly a public brawl over the film when Caspary and Preminger happened to meet at the Stork Club after its triumphant opening.

Nevertheless, Caspary claimed to have liked the rewritten script and the way the film ultimately turned out, insisting that Preminger had at least partly incorporated her point of view, though he denied it vociferously. Caspary lost some battles. For example, Laura’s first-person narration was never used in the film; only the character who turns out to be the killer, Lydecker, provides voice-over narration, in the extended flashback sequence describing an extremely biased version of his relationship with Laura. Still, it’s a great film, and retains at least some of what Caspary meant to convey about Laura’s struggle to maintain a coherent sense of herself in a world defined by men.

After the Blacklist

The success of Laura kept Caspary writing noirish murder mysteries, and she sold her novella The Gardenia (1952) to Warner Brothers Studio almost immediately upon publication. The film title was changed to The Blue Gardenia to evoke the 1947 “Black Dahlia” murder of aspiring Hollywood actor Elizabeth Short, thus evoking a notorious case of misogynistic fury that riveted the public.

Like Laura, The Gardenia is also about a young working woman who becomes a suspect in a murder, but in this case, the murder is motivated by a man’s date-rape attempt, and the protagonist really did it, accidentally killing him while trying to fight him off. Called Agnes in the book and Norah in the 1953 film (played by Anne Baxter), she’s a telephone operator, one of dozens working a huge Los Angeles switchboard. She’s living in a cramped apartment with female housemates who have much more exciting sex lives than she does. In the book, Agnes is a mousy, repressed, fearful young woman who was raised in a religious household, doesn’t drink, never goes out on dates, and deplores what she sees as her friends’ obsession with men. Eventually loneliness drives her out on the date that ends so disastrously.

In the film, Norah’s homebody ways are attributed to her total dedication to her boyfriend who’s off fighting the Korean War, and it’s only a “Dear Jane” rejection letter from him that sends her out on a date with the notorious ladies’ man Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). Drunk on too many cocktails pressed on her by Prebble, she doesn’t remember actually killing him.

She’s tormented by guilt and terror as the murder investigation is given lurid coverage in all the newspapers, and she falls for the appeals of a newspaper columnist (Richard Conte) who writes a “Letter to an Unknown Murderess,” offering to help the anonymous young woman about to be arrested by police. He has no intention of really helping her, but winds up falling in love with her anyway, because she’s so different from the type of scarlet woman he expected to meet. But then, so is Harry Prebble’s quiet, desperate, pregnant ex-girlfriend (Ruth Storey) who works a similarly underpaid job as a record store clerk and, it turns out, actually killed Prebble in a bitter encounter after Norah ran from the apartment.

Anne Baxter as Norah in Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1952). (Warner Brothers)

Cleared of murder charges, Norah emerges from jail and seems to reject the overtures of the betraying newspaper columnist as she passes him by, accompanied by her roommates. There’s actually a thrilling moment of female solidarity implied by their striding off together — right before Norah confides to them that she’s only “playing hard to get” as they advised. She intends to make the newspaperman work for her forgiveness. This is the tacked-on romantic happy ending so sadly familiar to admirers of film noir. The film ends on the newspaper columnist’s confident smirk as he watches Norah walk off.

From the screenplay, you’d never know that Caspary’s original story is about the storm of male hostility toward independent working women with sex lives. Date-rape and murder and corrupt betrayal are not treated as serious subjects, but light shots fired in “the battle of the sexes.”

Fritz Lang made something nicely disturbing of it, however. He leans into the jokey, sprightly tone, so at odds with the subject matter, in a way that produces a jarring and eerie dissonance. Combined with the characteristic film noir shooting style by master of shadow-play Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People [1942], The Locket [1946], Out of the Past [1947]), Lang achieves a more deranged affect than if he hadn’t been pushed into such tonal contradictions. Lang actually does something similar in dealing with murderous male misogyny in While the City Sleeps (1956) as well, which together with The Blue Gardenia and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), comprise his unsettling “newspaper trilogy” of the 1950s.

Caspary’s novella The Gardenia ends quite differently than the film, with the newspaperman refusing to believe a young woman he’s attracted to could possibly have killed Harry Prebble. But she admits it, and becomes a kind of public heroine in confessing to the murder she committed and facing the consequences. By then she’s transformed herself, dyed her hair and changed her appearance in earlier attempts to escape police detection, and found it unexpectedly liberating as she leaves her timid self-image behind. In finally “confronting good and evil” instead of hiding from all possibility of “sin,” she’s cast off her mother’s fear-filled religiosity and become an adult.

Caspary makes no mention at all of The Blue Gardenia in her autobiography, though Lang was a friend of hers and her husband’s. Lang himself didn’t seem to remember it with any affection, though he loved Anne Baxter’s performance in the lead role. When Peter Bogdanovich in his book Fritz Lang in America was struck by the “venomous picture of American life” created by the film, Lang responded that he was probably feeling venomous because he had only twenty days to shoot the tightly budgeted movie. And besides, it was “my first picture after the McCarthy business,” which included the flight of his friends to Europe to escape persecution. To say the least, the blacklist made Hollywood a nightmarish place to live and work, even for the nominally successful. In 1960, Lang himself went back to Germany to make his last films.

Though the film noir genre was on the wane, it managed to keep going through the 1950s, often using devices that placated the censors. Writers and directors resorted to common tactics like the sudden, unconvincing happy endings that seemed to restore “normalcy,” take back critiques of American society, and show through strained narrative twists that the protagonist was actually innocent all along, so that the “real villain” could be punished with either death or arrest.

Framing devices were also popular in “semi-documentary” film noir variations that celebrated crime-busting authority figures, sometimes with formal tributes to the heroic “G-men” of the FBI, and to police officers of the New York Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the San Francisco Police Department. The whole middle of these movies could be even darker, harsher, and more violent, labyrinthian, and reflective of American societal malaise than 1940s noir, as long as the framing device made the case that the system worked to keep all those disturbing forces in check.

With her success tied to the startling 1940s popularity of film noir, the most subversive of all genres, it’s no wonder Caspary’s Hollywood career dwindled with it — and that the genre itself, with its bracing tendency to look into the dark heart of American culture, could be counted as yet another casualty of the blacklist.