During the early years of the Cold War, the fear of Communist infiltration had a firm foothold in America. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had a mandate to investigate subversive activities on the part of private citizens and organisations with possible Communist ties.
By 1947, their gaze had fallen on the famously liberal town of Hollywood. It was 20 October when they launched a 9-day hearing that was to rock Tinseltown to its core.
Here is how it happened:
1. The creation of the Hollywood blacklist
This is the most infamous repercussion of the ‘Red Scare’ on Hollywood. The first hearing saw Hollywood heavyweights Walt Disney, Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan, among others, give statements decrying communism in the film industry.
At the end of it, ten industry professionals were singled out for contempt of Congress by refusing to co-operate. They were sentenced to jail time, fines and were all barred from the working in the business again. They became known as the ‘Hollywood Ten’, the first of many to be ‘blacklisted’ and it terrified their peers.
In his 1981 autobiography, Hollywood Red, screenwriter Lester Cole stated that all of the Hollywood Ten had in fact been Communist Party USA members although at that time it was mostly unconfirmed rumour.
2. Uniting the Hollywood elite under a singular statement
On December 3rd 1947, a closed-door meeting by 48 of the most powerful executives in Hollywood took place. What emerged from the meeting was a statement issued by Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.
This statement, known as the ‘Waldorf Statement’ – whose signatories included the heads of MGM, Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and 20th Century Fox – condemned the actions of the Hollywood Ten.
More worryingly however, they promised to not ‘knowingly employ a Communist’ and ‘to this end… 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.’
This was Hollywood’s official declaration of war on the Communist ideology.
3. Thousands blacklisted and put in jeopardy
According to a new study by Elizabeth Pontikes of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, thousands of artists who were affiliated or connected to those blacklisted suffered setbacks to their careers.
Allegedly an actor’s chance of working in Hollywood fell by 13% if he or she had a mere association with a stigmatised actor. Even the smallest of connections put you at risk. In the early fifties, a pamphlet entitled Red Channels identified 151 entertainment industry professionals who were affiliated with the Reds. Most of them were barred from the industry for good.
In 1951 HUAC launched a second investigation into Communism in Hollywood. At the height of the blacklist in the mid-fifties, the Screen Writers Guild authorised the movie studios to omit the names of any individuals who had failed to clear their names from the credits of their movies.
During this same period, a number of influential newspaper columnists covering the entertainment industry, including Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, Victor Riesel, Jack O’Brian, and George Sokolsky offered up names suggesting they should be blacklisted.
Actor John Ireland received an out-of-court settlement to end a 1954 lawsuit against the Young & Rubicam advertising agency, which had ordered him dropped from the lead role in a television series it sponsored.
Variety described it as ‘the first industry admission of what has for some time been an open secret — that the threat of being labeled a political nonconformist… has been used against show business personalities.’
Actor Larry Parks said, when called before the panel, ‘Don’t present me with the choice of either being in contempt of this committee and going to jail or forcing me to really crawl through the mud to be an informer… I don’t think this is American. I don’t think this is American justice.’ He was later blacklisted.
4. Hollywood’s output changes to fit the anti-Communist agenda
How did Hollywood ultimately respond to this fervour of pro-capitalist/anti-Communist sentiment? By making a quick buck of course. Films like I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), My Son John (1952) and Big Jim McClain (1952) starring John Wayne all contained anti-Communist themes.
Representing the other end of the political spectrum, Bette Davis starred in Storm Center (1956) as a heroic small town librarian who refused to pull a Communist book from her shelves, with serious repercussions.
The perennial Marlon Brando classic On the Waterfront (1954) is also seen as one of Hollywood’s “HUAC pictures”. The story of Brando’s heroic dockworker who chooses to inform on his corrupt union bosses has been interpreted as a metaphorical defence for its director Elia Kazan’s decision to ‘name names’ to the HUAC Committee.