On June 8, 1950, the US Supreme Court’s Conservative Majority voted
to reject considering the1st Amendment Appeal of the Hollywood Ten.
On June 9,1950, Dalton Trumbo began to serve a year’s jail sentence for
Contempt of Congress.
At once, the cries of injustice sounded through out the land.
But one voice agreed with the verdict…Dalton Trumbo
‘As far as I was concerned, it was a completely just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress
and have had contempt for several since.’
This is an example of the writing of Dalton Trumbo, one of Hollywood’ greatest screenwriter. His wit and wisdom prevails in the stage presentation of TRUMBO that Brian Dennehy brought to the Pantages that I was fortunate enough to work it. Originally this post was to be the 2nd in my experience working with Dennehy, but I got caught up in my researching the backstory of Trumbo and the Black Listing era. Brian warned me. He mentioned how when he first did research for his acting in TRUMBO, he got carried away and just kept reading more and more. I could not stop either.
Here is some skimming over the top of an American era straight out of Orwell’s 1984…with HUAC taking the part of the Thought Police. The novel was published June 8, 1949, the same day Dalton Trumbo started his jail sentence for thinking.
And today history is repeating itself.
The Constitution no longer applies to the politicians who are above all laws.
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In 1938, the Congress formed the House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, to look into Fascist and Communist activity in America. Basically it was Republicans, the majority party, looking into Left Wing activity and overlooking Right Wing activity.
For instance when asked why it never looked into the Klu Klux Klan, the answer was because the KKK was an old American institution.
In the early days there was a brief excursion into possible Communist activities in the movie industry based on a list of questionable facts; but little came of it except unproven innuendos.
Shortly after F.D.R. began to institute his ‘socialist reforms’ the emphasis was on trying to stop the reforms. It tried it to stop the Federal Government from financing work projects for the unemployed and projects that involved the Arts. The grounds for these actions were masqueraded as a search for Communist infiltration.
Again their attempts were futile, but in many cases very funny. For instance one of the members in his ‘interrogation’ into the Federal Theater Project asked an official if he thought Christopher Marlowe, (2/26/1564 – 3/30/1593), was a member of the Communist Party. Another member said he heard that a Mr. Euripides was preaching class warfare.
The shift towards Hollywood began in 1941 when, at the insistence of Walt Disney, the US Senate looked into Reds in the Motion Picture Industry. Disney, who had a reputation of being an obnoxious hands-on-employer, blamed a strike by his animators on Communist influence. He felt there was no way his ‘boys’ would ever have any grievances against him if it wasn’t for of outside influence. The Senate committee’s investigation was ridiculed in the trade papers and realizing they were being used by Disney to go after the union and certain people who had stood up to him in the past, went no further and dropped the investigation.
In 1945, the neoFacist party, America First, began a campaign to remove the ‘alien minded Russian Jews in Hollywood’. Gerald Rankin, ranking member of HUAC declared, ‘One of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this government has its headquarters in Hollywood…the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States.’
The election of 1946 put the GOP in the majority of both the House and Senate. Walt Disney, spearheaded yet another attack at the unions in what he called the Communist influence in the motion picture industry.
In 1947, heads of many of the major studios, joined Disney in asking Congress to investigate Communist activities in the industry. This action was actually at the suggestion of a Hollywood union.
Two of the Hollywood union locals had been having jurisdictional disputes. One went on a strike that lasted over six months, during which time the head of the other persuaded the studio the strike was result of Communist infiltration.
The call of the studio heads to investigate had a dual purpose. It could ease the antiSemitism against them and it could break the backs of the unions, technical and artistic.
AntiSemitism is a hatred that can never be eased by Law. And as far as breaking the backs of the unions, the antiUnion publicity did help pass the Taft-Hartley Law, which greatly crippled the union movement. But in the end the Black List initiated by the Studios robbed them and the public of many true artists.
HUAC was more than pleased to conduct an investigation. The Motion Picture Industry would provide a much needed public awareness leading up to elections than looking into Public Theater had done. And interviewing movie stars
It opened the hearings with a ‘friendly witness’, Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild and eventually President of the United States, said he suspected Communist tactics in the way some of the members tried to steer things, but he said the union had things well in hand to counter such actions.
The next day was the turn of another ‘friendly witness’ Walt Disney who regergitated his views for the last several years; Hollywood was under the influence of the Communist threat; and he named names, those men who had the gall to stand up to him in the past.
Then the attention turned to the Hollywood liberal block. Many household names refused to say if they ever belonged to any Red organization or if they knew anybody that did. For a while they had strength in numbers.
Actor Sterling Hayden had told the liberal bloc headed by Humphrey Bogart that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. As soon as he was appointed a member of the bloc’s leadership, it was revealed that he had been a member of the party.
The names of people who had been members of the Communist Party was already known to HUAC. For years the LA Police Department had infiltrated the Party, and two of the Party’s Board were undercover LA policemen.
The forcing of people to name names was nothing more than a show and a sly means of harassment by HUAC. As far as uncovering illegal actives, if the undercover police and FBI agents that ‘belonged’ to the Party, why would HUAC think they could find some.
The organized resistance took a hard blow when the truth about Hayden and others was revealed. Bogart and the bloc felt they had been betrayed by Hayden and others and the bloc dissolved. Every man for himself.
Some, like Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, and others went to Europe to avoid further harassment and to continue to work.
The Hollywood Ten, who used the 1st Amendment in their defense, instead of recanting or naming names, went to jail for Contempt of Congress.
Families were uprooted. Marriages destroyed. Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan’s wife at the time of the hearings, said Reagan’s actions both in his testimony and after, destroyed their marriage.
Guilt caused many to resort to the bottle or drugs. No better example was that of Sterling Hayden, actor, author, sailor, and War Hero.
Hayden had been discovered by Hollywood when he was a captain of a yacht. He had just finished his second motion picture when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
Not waiting to be drafted, he enlisted in the Army. He was sent to Scotland for advanced training; where he broke his ankle causing him to be discharged.
He recovered and enlisted in the Marines under the alias, John Hamilton. The Marines sent him to Officer Training School. When he got his commission he was assigned to the fledgling OSS, forerunner of the CIA.
His expertise in captaining a ship earned him the dangerous task of getting through the German blockade in the Adriatic with cargos of arms and ammo to the Yugoslav Resistance. Wanting more direct action he volunteered and parachuted behind enemy lines into Croatia and fought with the resistance. A true War Hero!
His admiration for the Yugoslav partisans he fought with in the war moved him to join the American Communist Party for a brief period in 1946. Called to testify before HUAC in 1951, he admitted belonging to the Party but refused to name any names or answer questions about other members of the party. The FBI threatened him. He was in the midst of a divorce and the FBI told him if he was a hostile witness and if he continued to be a hostile witness and refuse to name names he would lose all custody of his children.
He said he was sorry for ever joining the Communist Party saying it was the stupidest thing had ever done. He gave them names of fellow Hollywood Communists; but those names had already been given by the undercover cops and others, who had already testified. The FBI threats produced nothing new or nothing illegal. The recanting and the naming of names plus his war record saved him from being on the Black List.
But his betrayal haunted him the rest of his life.
When he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer, he neglected any form of treatment. He retreated into the bottle to ease the pain of the cancer but more so the pain of his guilt.
His children said he seemed to welcome his fate.
Hayden died at the age of 70. Suicide, not from commission but from omission.
‘I was a rat, a stoolie, and the names I named of those close friends were blacklisted and deprived of their livelihood,’ so wrote Hayden in his autobiography, WANDERER.
As for those who testified and named name some used their testimony to gain personal gain. Rumor columnists, Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell, used it as items in their columns and to declare they were real Americans. Others, like the petty ultra right wing Adolph Menjou, named people he did not like to help resurrect his movie career.
As for those Black Listed some managed to find work through underground sources. Some managed to come back as the Black List began to crumble. Some said the hell with it and found work in other fields.
The Red Scare carried over into TV and radio in 1951. A pamphlet, Red Channels, was published that contained 151 names of entertainers and writers that may have had some ties to Red organizations and expanded to include speaking out against Fascist Spain, the H bomb, anti-Semitism, Jim Crow, civil rights, world peace. In short, the men behind this list said it was a list of well-intended liberals, who allowed their names to be used to support ‘anti-American causes’.
Included were such names as Edward G. Robinson, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, and Pete Seeger.
Seeger, folk singer, songwriter, and Activist was brought before HUAC in 1955. Like the Hollywood Ten, his principles would not allow him to lose his rights under the 1st Amendment. And like the Hollywood Ten, the defense failed and he was cited for Contempt of Congress. He got one year on each of his ten different refusals, to be served consecutively. He appealed on 1st Amendment grounds; but the Appeals Court ruled the trial was conducted in such a way that it had to be overturned. He was never retried.
CBS Radio and TV, fearing the loss of advertising revenue, made performers sign a ‘Loyalty Oath’ stating that they were not a member of any ‘Red tainted’ organization. If anyone refused to sign, their name went on the Black List.
All this went on and yet membership in the Communist Party has never been against the law, anymore than membership in the KKK or the American Nazi Party is against the law. Membership is legal. It is acts that are committed under the blanket of an organization such as lynching, bombing, driving a car into a group of protesters, and the like are illegal. There is also the strong legal argument that states HUAC had no right to this investigation in the first place.
The Committee gained it’s biggest triumph in 1948 when, led by the freshman congressman from California, Richard Nixon, later Vice President/ President/non-President, it convicted Alger Hiss, a prime architect of the United Nations, on perjury charges, saying he lied ten years before when he said he had testified he was never a member of the Communist Party. To this day the original charges of being a Communist and guilty espionage rests only on the say so of a very questionable source.
In 1948, J. Parnell, HUAC chairman during much of these Hollywood hearings, was convicted of conspiracy to defraud in a trial unrelated to HUAC. Parnell was in prison before any of the Hollywood Ten.
HUAC was the precursor of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt. HUAC strengthened the strangle hold that J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, had on America, on American politics, and to augment his personal hunt into people he disliked, like the Kennedys and Martin Luther King.
HUAC, although a Congressional organization, opened the door for a president to fire and or disgrace people who disagreed with him… For a Justice Department to make rules unto itself even to go so far as taking children from their parents and locking the children in cages or giving them to perfect strangers for whatever these strangers wanted the children for…And for the attitude so prevalent in America today that certain individuals are above the law.
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‘When you look back at that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints because there was none, there were only victims.’
There has numerous articles written on this subject along with a good many film documentaries. There are four major motion pictures that deal with those times.
Guilty By Suspicion – DiNiro
The Way We Were – Redford & Streisand
The Front – Woody Allen
Trumbo – Bryan Cranston
That is a wrap for this post, I hope to get back to Dennehy and Trumbo in the next.