By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Gnaphron.
It always seemed like an abstract, distant concept growing up. Glossing over American history textbooks for my social studies classes at school, the Cold War chapters always featured a distinguished paragraph or page summarizing a dark period for the entertainment industry: the Hollywood Blacklist.
So strange it was to imagine hundreds of directors, screenwriters, actors, and others in the entertainment business being deemed as communists and becoming blacklisted from working in Hollywood studios. The period was largely reminiscent of a Witch Hunt–another historical theme that sounded absurd by the late 1990s and early 2000s. Blacklisted playwright Arthur Miller even penned The Crucible, a story of the Salem witch trials and allegory for the movement.
Its history remains well documented today. Book authors analyze the plethora of biographies, filmographies, contexts, and consequences of the time. Film series compiled by (and about) blacklisted entertainment figures play in theaters today; NYC’s Anthology Film Archives and Lincoln Center recently hosted such programs.
The era is vast yet intricate, making it difficult to grasp as a coherent trajectory. A better-known aspect of the history is the case of the Hollywood Ten who were suspected of communist affiliation by the US House of Representatives’ investigative committee, the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC).
In 1947, these 10 screenwriters, producers, and directors refused to answer HUAC’s questions and publicly denounced the actions of the committee. As a result of their “contempt of Congress,” the Hollywood Ten were sentenced to one-year jail terms and fines. Consequently, Hollywood studios would not hire them for work.
Later, in 1950, the Red Channels pamphlet was published, which named all sorts of entertainment figures as threats. Celebrities like Dorothy Parker, Pete Seeger, Leonard Bernstein, and Orson Welles were among them.
Orson Welles. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Joseph McBride, a writer, film critic, and professor at San Francisco State University, wrote a book, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career. McBride tells BTR how he researched the Welles FBI files from the 1940s, and studied how the intensive surveillance and blacklisting influenced him to flee to Europe.
The Hollywood Blacklist era effectively ended in 1962 with a lawsuit, but its outcomes still unfolded thereafter.
McBride recalls entering Hollywood in 1973, just a few years before the well-known comedic film about the Blacklist era, The Front, was released. He says that while politics were still a topic handled timidly–McBride’s agent discouraged him from pursuing a script about the Bay of Pigs because it was too political–it was the first time people began to talk about the Hollywood Blacklist again.
“In the ‘70s, I remember going to a lot of events and talking about the Blacklist,” he tells BTR. At that time, many “blacklisted people were coming back to work, like Abe Polonsky,” a director and member of the Hollywood Ten.
McBride says he was quite close with Polonsky and that the two gave talks together. Both of them protested in 1999 against the Lifetime Achievement Award for Elia Kazan, the director of films like East of Eden and A Streetcar Named Desire, who was also an infamous informer.
According to McBride, a largely intimidating part of the era in Hollywood history is not just what is known or talked about–but what wasn’t known and still isn’t. Numerous entertainment figures, he explains, were blacklisted and unaware. They were “greylisted,” meaning they couldn’t get work and couldn’t find out why.
Nevertheless, one facet of the era’s history is that talents found ways to work around their situations. Welles and others worked from Europe, plus numerous blacklisted screenwriters published scripts using pseudonyms and fronts. Part of the Anthology Film Archives’ Blacklist series is a retrospective on Philip Yordan, who fronted for backlisted screenwriters such as Ben Maddow and Bernard Gordon.
McBride’s 2002 article, “A Very Good American,” highlighted the “undaunted history” of the blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson. The author takes things back to 1976, when Wilson–who co-wrote classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia under a pseudonym–spoke upon receiving his Screen Laurel Award for career achievement.
Addressing the younger people (then) who established themselves after the era of the “Great Witch Hunt,” he announced:
“I fear that unless you remember this dark epoch and understand it, you may be doomed to replay it–not with the same cast of characters, of course, or on the same issues.”
Wilson added that he foresaw a day “when a new crisis of belief will grip this republic; when diversity of opinion will be labeled disloyalty; when chilling decisions affecting our culture will be made in the board rooms of conglomerates and networks,” to conform to government policy.
Maybe through today, Cold War communism and witches have all but ceased as a direct threat to the American consciousness. Sure, the name and concept “House of Un-American Activities” sounds strange now, but will the “Patriot Act” and contemporary surveillance tactics seem that way in the future?