Herbert Biberman, one of the Hollywood 10, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
In times of social uncertainty and economic malaise, those in fear often turn to discriminating, finger pointing, blame and stonewalling, claiming “the other” is destroying livelihoods, ways of life, and social beliefs just by speaking out. These “others” become the scapegoats for all that is wrong: drought, job insecurity, national security concerns, discrimination, etc.
After the conclusion of World War II, when the Allies defeated the Nazis, Japanese and Axis, thus bringing to an end annihilation, genocide, starvation and imprisonment to so many, everything seemed to turn for a short time to hope, peace, freedom, welcome and acceptance. Unfortunately, demagogues quickly saw the bogeyman again with the Soviets’ takeover of Eastern Europe, which the Allies had allowed in order for a quicker end to World War II. Anyone questioning the role of government, demanding free speech and asking for social justice, was suddenly judged a turncoat, evildoer, overthrower. Many in the United States government would soon ape the policies of totalitarian countries they claimed to abhor by scapegoating those deemed “different,” blocking free speech, destroying lives and careers.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
Fear raised its ugly head as early as February 1940, when ex-Communist Party informer John Leach named Franchot Tone, Humphrey Bogart, Melvyn Douglas, James Cagney, Philip Dunne and almost 40 others as political subversives before the House Committee on Un-American Activities headed by Texas Congressman Martin Dies, which had been investigating leftist sympathies of Hollywood labor unions since 1938. All men were called to testify before the Dies Committee to deny they supported or were members of the Communist Party, before being exonerated after a meeting at a San Francisco Hotel, per Thomas Schatz in “Boom or Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s.” Many in the press quickly alerted the country to the possibility of lying and framing going on by informers in Congress, wondering if it could be the start of possible witch hunts to destroy anyone who didn’t march in lockstep with the committee’s values or principles.
When World War II started, all talk of searching out “reds” and “pinkos” disappeared while the country focused on what was truly important, saving the world from slavery, destruction and death. Immediately upon the war’s end, however, the resurrected committee under J. Parnell Thomas began its systematic investigations and accusations against many in the entertainment field, rising to a crescendo in 1947.
Eric Johnston, head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America (MPAA) , traveled to Washington, D. C., in April 1947 to testify before HUAC, hoping to head off an in depth investigation. He acknowledged that Communists worked in the film industry but noted that it was their constitutional right to do so as long as they did not advocate overthrowing the government. He informed the press after testifying, “As long as I live, I will never be a party to anything un-American as a blacklist…there will never be a blacklist in Hollywood.”
Times grew darker and more oppressed. Thomas and other committee members set up shop in the Los Angeles’ Biltmore during May1947 for a series of interviews. Many of those who talked were members of the conservative Motion Picture Alliance, who happily identified those they considered Communists, many who had supported the Soviet Union, our ally during World War II, or fighters standing up for freedom in Spain, during 1938. Most of the country and Hollywood considered the Committee a circus sideshow, out for a little publicity.
For the first time, many in the motion picture industry stood up and actively denounced the oppression, censorship and punishment of others. In June 1947, directors William Wyler and John Huston and screenwriter Phillip Dunne founded the Committee for the Firs Amendment to defend everyone’s right to free speech and thought. The group’s name came from the part of the Constitution which reads, “Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of speech…nor the right of the people to peaceably assemble.”
They began seeking out like-minded people in the film industry to join their cause, and held the first group meeting at Ira Gershwin’s home. To remain strong as a potent opponent to the committee, they asked those who might have damaging or suspicious connections in the past to remain outside the group. The more strident could voice their opposition in ways they saw fit. In fact, this would be the last time Hollywood liberals and Communists fought on the same side for freedom and free speech before the right wing bludgeoned their message and institutionalized the blacklist.
In September, the committee subpoenaed 43 filmmakers, labor leaders and studio executives to testify to the committee in October, divided between friendly and unfriendly witnesses.
The Committee for the First Amendment appealed to a bipartisan group of people who supported and defended the right of free speech for those considered the unfriendly witnesses. Beginning with a nucleus of three, the organization quickly exploded. In an Oct. 28, 1947, ad in Daily Variety asking for further support, members listed included Lauren Bacall, Ethel Barrymore, Humphrey Bogart, Charles Boyer, Eddie Cantor, Norman Corwin, Joseph Cotton, Joan Crawford, Julius and Philip Epstein, Henry Fonda, Ava Gardner, John Garfield, Judy Garland, Ira Gershwin, James Gleason, Paulette Goddard, Benny Goodman, Sterling Hayden, Rita Hayworth, Ben Hecht, Paul Henreid, Katharine Hepburn, Marsha Hunt, John Huston, Van Johnson, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, Evelyn Keyes, Burt Lancaster, Peter Lorre, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Frank Morgan, Audie Murphy, Gregory Peck, Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Spencer Tracy, Walter Wanger, Cornel Wilde, Billy Wilder, Jane Wyatt, William Wyler, and many others. Four United States Senators, Harley Kilgore of West Virginia, Claude Pepper of Florida, Elbert Thomas of Utah, and Glen Taylor of Idaho, joined their cause, as did former New York Governor Herbert Lehman and ex-Assistant Attorney General Thurman Arnold.
The group bought a half-hour of national air time on ABC Radio on Oct. 26, right before the hearings, to condemn the hysteric mood in Washington. Groucho Marx played a shouting J. Parnell Thomas to Keenan Wynn’s syrupy voiced chairman leading friendly witnesses tenderly through their interviews. Charles Boyer announced that 14 were on their way to Washington “to fight for their rights as American citizens.” Judy Garland noted that, “We don’t mind being called bad actors, but we resent being called bad Americans.” Gene Kelly later claimed, “We founded the Committee for the First Amendment because we thought the people in Washington had gone too far. Everyone was being branded. If they couldn’t brand you down then you were called “pink.” We formed the committee not to protect Communists, but to support the right to free speech,” per the book, “John Garfield: He Ran All the Way.” The broadcast called the committee investigation an “inquisition.” George S. Kaufman called the group, “government by gavel.”
As their Oct. 28 Daily Variety ad stated, “In this fight against the House Un-American Activities Committee, the members of the Committee for the First Amendment in Hollywood are fighting not alone for the film industry. They are fighting for you and your church; you and your newspaper; you and your radio; you and your schools; you and your friends—but most of all YOU AND YOUR THINKING AND SPEAKING!
All America is indebted to these men and women of Hollywood who have fearlessly accepted the challenge of demagogues and have gone forth to battle for the things we have always taken for granted—freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of worship and freedom from fear.”
On Oct. 20, 1947, hearings started, with industry leaders and friendly witnesses like Walt Disney, Robert Taylor and Robert Montgomery kicking off testimony, naming names and denouncing those they claimed were besmirching America in questions presented to them ahead of time, and with speeches cleared by HUAC.
A 26-member delegation of the Committee for the First Amendment flew to Washington on a plane loaned by Howard Hughes as their radio spot aired, including such people as Bogart, Bacall, Huston, Dorothy McGuire, Henreid, and Richard Conte. They intended to support the Hollywood 10 by their presence on Oct. 27. This small group took as their argument that what was transpiring was a First Amendment case, that no legislative committee had the right to ask anyone about personal political beliefs.
Kicking off proceedings on Oct. 27, J. Arthur Rankin made a point to read off the original names of the Jewish members of the Committee for the First Amendment, as if that suggested they were Communist sympathizers. Next, the Thomas committee deviated from its prepared questions to the Hollywood 10, and refused to allow the 10 to make any statement not approved by them or that disparaged the committee. In effect, they were censoring what the 10 could say.
The Committee for the First Amendment saw their cause doomed, however, when the unfriendly witnesses called to testify refused to answer questions directly, responding with forceful speeches against the committee’s authority and abuse of rights, which the committee asked not be read after seeing the contents. Some were gaveled and shouted into silence, with first witness John Howard Larson unceremoniously and disrespectfully dragged from the committee room, and later cited for contempt of Congress. “It was a sorry performance. You felt your skin crawl and your stomach turn,” John Huston later stated, from “Un-American: Hollywood, Politics, and Film in the Black List Era.”
After only 11 unfriendly witnesses had testified, Thomas unexpectedly ended the proceedings, stating they would return at a later date (three years later). On the flight back to Los Angeles, quick-tempered Bogart screamed at some of the CFA members, “You sold me out!” People began abandoning the cause from fear and pressure. Bogart announced to the press on Dec. 2 that the trip was “a foolish move.” Members began announcing they weren’t Communists, denouncing their cause and running away.
British actors like Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Robert Donat, and Michael Redgrave wrote to Wyler in December 1947 denouncing “the inquisition and extending our sympathy to those who refused to submit themselves to this examination,” noting that people had the right to work in freedom whatever their politics may be, as reported in the Dec. 11, 1947, Los Angeles Times.
Congress voted overwhelmingly to cite the Hollywood 10 for contempt on Nov. 24, and Johnston of the MPAA called a two-day, closed-door session at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel with about 50 top film executives. On Nov. 25, he stated that the MPAA deplored the actions of the 10 and that none would work in Hollywood “Until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist.” The producers now noted they would not “knowingly employ Communists or subversives. While they claimed to recognize “the danger of hurting innocent people,” and of instigating an atmosphere of fear, the group institutionalized a blacklist. With that, the Committee for the First Amendment quickly dissolved by Feb. 25, 1948, even though a Gallup Poll showed the country evenly divided over the investigation and its affect on America.
Events and denunciations dragged on for years, so much so that newspaper columnist George Sokolsky denounced the bloodbaths taking place by hardheaded, hysterical supporters of red-baiting, or what he called “Hatriots,” attacking liberals. As the Nov. 11, 1953, Variety stated, “Most anti-Communists are innocent people, whose hatred was emotionalism and not intellectually grounded. Too often they don’t know what they are talking about. They draw no distinction between hardcore Commies, innocent people, dupes, fools, well-meaning young college idealists, and those sucked into the Marxist movement during the Depression.”
Many saw their lives destroyed and careers ruined because of HUAC’s fear and hatemongering. Some resurrected their careers years later, others fled the country, and many turned to whatever work they could, seeing their talents and skills go to waste. May the United States never see such dark days again.