Hollywood Fights Back was a radio program broadcast in two parts in the autumn of 1947. Some 50 Hollywood stars, writers, directors, as well as some journalists, and some members of the government, appeared in open defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was then launching a twenty-year nightmare on the entertainment industry known as the Blacklist. Its repercussions were felt for a generation, and it has lessons which echo our troubled times today. This is our entry into the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Banned and Blacklisted blogathon.
The group behind radio broadcasts, the Committee for the First Amendment, was formed in Ira Gershwin’s house as a response by alarmed members of the Hollywood community about the persecution by Congress of those they regarded as communists or as sympathizers of communists in Hollywood.
The program is startling, particularly the first episode which was aired on October 26, 1947, just as a group of their members and fellow actors were flying to Washington on a chartered plane to observe the proceedings by HUAC against the so-called Hollywood Ten, a group of writers who were to be skewered by the congressional committee headed by J. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ). Charles Boyer a led off the program in his resonant voice announcing their fourteen compatriots were carrying on, in person, “the fight for our rights as American citizens.”
Judy Garland, in a voice easily recognizable for her soft, girlish sweetness, sounds like her innocent but spunky characters in the Andy Hardy series or as Dorothy tugging at our heartstrings: “It’s always been your right to see and read anything you want to. But now it’s getting kind of complicated.” She says that Hollywood is hopping mad about being accused of being communists and that HUAC is about to strangle not only their creativity, but their freedom. “I’ve never been a member of any political organization, but I’ve been following this investigation and I don’t like it.” Her voice rises, impassioned, “It’s something again to say we are not good Americans. We resent that!”
Hollywood Fights Back: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Lucille Ball
Gene Kelly follows noting that The Best Years of Our Lives (1946 – covered in this previous post, part 1 of 4) the film that won seven Academy Awards and is arguably one of the best if not the best film ever made in Hollywood, remarks “I understand that supporters of the Un-American Committee didn’t like this film. Did you like it? Were you subverted by it? Did it make you un-American?”
The Best Years of Our Lives would be mentioned more than once in Hollywood Fights Back, and some of its stars, including Fredric March, Myrna Loy, and Dana Andrews, would take part in the broadcasts. One of the reasons the film is used in their argument, one of the reasons it met with disfavor by the HUAC is because of the famous scene where Homer, played by Harold Russell is told by Ray Teal that we fought on the wrong side in World War II and should have supported the Nazis. Homer of course becomes upset and in the physical altercation that occurs, Dana Andrews punches the Nazi in the face. We discussed this scene not too long ago in this previous post. Depictions of extreme right-wing politics were not to be seen as negative, let alone traitorous.
How quaint, considering extreme right-wing treason is considered somehow righteous today.
How quaint, considering extreme right-wing treason is considered somehow righteous today.
There was another reason HUAC disliked this movie, and it is because Fredric March’s banker boss, Ray Collins, is portrayed as stuffed shirt who cares more about business than he does about helping returning veterans. The movies often portrayed wealthy men of business as stuffed shirts, sometimes even corrupt, and apparently then as now, the very wealthy, very conservative in our country feel that such depiction is suspicious and threatening, meriting punishment. To HUAC, it was regarded as subversive.
The blacklist – and later Senator Joe McCarthy’s hearings – was not just about politics of communist infiltration to overthrow the government. That alone would make the whole seamy affair seem patriotic and righteous. But it was never about that, because we were never under threat by communist infiltration and overthrow of the government. The politics was about conservative versus liberal, and the wealthy elite versus everyone the wealthy elite felt was a threat to their personal prosperity: liberal views which they felt led to higher corporate taxes and trade unions, and enemies of all stripes including the various racial and religious minorities some would invariably despise.
HUAC had been around since the late 1930s under Martin Dies, Jr. (D-Texas). It kept its eyes on actors who supported liberal causes like James Cagney (who would a few years later perform in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), in part to reaffirm before the public and the studios that he was patriotic), Katharine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, and Fredric March. Most did not suffer a threat to their careers, except for Lionel Stander, who was one of the earliest victims of what became known as the blacklist and it would be many years before he worked in film again. Dies’ committee came under strong rebuke by the American public when it also claimed to have caught Shirley Temple in its net of possible communists. She was ten years old.
But the politics was always deeply entwined with money. Walt Disney took revenge on his staff who took part in the cartoonists’ and animators’ strike in 1941 by publicly accusing many of them of being involved in communist activities, and he felt the strike was a communist activity that was personally meant against him.
During the Depression most people were terrified of the wolf at their door, but for the very well off and the very conservative, they viewed the wolf at their door as the liberals who under the successful four-term President Franklin Delano Roosevelt were able to invoke sweeping changes in our society that brought out reforms in economics, the stock market, banking, unions, and in social causes.
But 1947 was a different climate. When Hollywood Strikes Back was aired while the fourteen compatriots went to Washington to observe and to protest HUAC, it was then under J. Parnell Thomas. He had begun his career as a stockbroker, later going into politics and he served seven terms in the House of Representatives as a Republican from New Jersey. He was one such who despised Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. One of his pet hates was the Federal Theater Project which brought work to thousands of actors, writers, directors and other theatre professionals during those starving years, and also brought new life and important new works into American theatre. Parnell declared that the plays were nothing but propaganda for communism or for the New Deal, which he felt was the same thing.
Money and political ideology were joined by the third member of this unholy triumvirate, prejudice. One of Parnell’s complaints was that the Federal Theater Project frequently featured plays referring to racial discrimination. Indeed, when HUAC was originally formed in the late ‘30s, it was responsible for investigating both left-wing and right-wing political groups, but calls for leaders of the Ku Klux Klan to be investigated were refuted by the then chairman Dies because he supported the Klan and spoke at Klan rallies. Other members of HUAC, including John S. Wood (D-Georgia) and John Rankin (D-Mississippi), an avowed anti-semite, also supported the Klan. Mr. Wood defended the Klan by arguing that “the threats and intimidation of the Klan are an old American custom.” They decided not to pursue any investigation against the Ku Klux Klan, as John Rankin agreed, “The KKK is an old American institution.”
Donald Trump, as has been widely reported, agrees. We sometimes think we are always facing new problems, but they are usually very old problems in new wrappings.
After World War II, but long before the Russians obtained the Bomb, a shift was occurring led mainly by politicians and which would then sweep across the entertainment world, business and industry. The real shift on its axis began in November 1946 when after the election, the Republican Party gained control of Congress for the first time in fourteen years. HUAC, which had waned during the war years when the Russians were our allies, was shifted to the forefront and became once again a pet project of a party which now had the power to pull the strings. In May 1940, J. Parnell Thomas went to Hollywood to meet with studio execs about the problem of infiltrating communist ideals into movies principally through the Screenwriters Guild. The screenwriters’ Guild. Yes, this was about labor unions, not about invasion by the Russians. We have much more to fear about Russian infiltration today than we ever did in 1946.
Now the focus of the committee would be about the film industry.
Jack Warner was the first person to testify before HUAC in September 1947. He wasn’t subpoenaed—he volunteered. He had spoken to the committee earlier that spring, in closed-door sessions, and had admitted to John Huston that he had named the names of “a few” people he “thought might be communists.” In a recollection by Warner’s son, Jack Warner panicked at the lights and the questions and spit out any names he could think of. Power is always intimidating, even for a man like Warner who garnered plenty of power himself and enjoying wielding it.
That same month, back at Ira Gershwin’s house, a group of actors with astounding pluck, admirable idealism, and perhaps forgivable naïveté, formed the Committee for the First Amendment to support the ten screenwriters, known afterward as the Hollywood Ten, who were to be subjected to questioning in Washington, D.C., by HUAC. Myrna Loy, John Huston, William Wyler, and screenwriter Philip Dunne founded the group.
Other members included Jane Wyatt, Edward G. Robinson, Henry Fonda, Dorothy Dandridge, Melvyn Douglas, Lena Horne, Marsha Hunt, Burgess Meredith, Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, Evelyn Keyes, John Garfield, Burt Lancaster, Ira Gershwin, June Havoc, Gene Kelly, Groucho Marx, Billy Wilder, Paul Henreid, and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Many of them would later suffer for it.
On October 27, fourteen of the committee flew to Washington, D.C., to attend and protest the hearings. The day before, on October 26th, the first one half-hour episode of Hollywood Fights Back aired, and some members who flew to Washington had pre-recorded their contributions to the program. Howard Hughes, who was a conservative and actually supported HUAC, provided them a chartered plane at a discount. Although we may smile at Mr. Hughes’ business sense over his ideology, but this only underlines the real purpose of the actors going to Hollywood: no one saw themselves as defenders of communism, only of free speech. They were going in support of the First Amendment, as their committee name said.
The program was a stirring performance, as one actor after another tag-teamed on a tightly written theme of freedom of speech. The program was written by Norman Corwin, one of the finest writers during the Golden Age of Radio. It was he who wrote the program We Hold These Truths after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which we discussed in this previous post. Please see my post on my blog on New England history and culture, New England Travels, for more on the career of Norman Corwin, whom I’m pleased to say once wrote for my local newspaper, the Springfield (Mass) Republican.
The script is a marvel of simple messages and riveting urgency. There is no sense of preaching, rather it is like a college pep rally of hope and promise, a call to defeat to the bad guy, of the wonderful feeling of doing right and doing well. It is biting, angry, sarcastic, and exuberant. Though their remarks are scripted and not off the cuff, is a rare treat to hear these stars as themselves for what they truly think. In an era where the stars were kept at a mysterious distance from us, this was an unaccustomed intimacy.
Lauren Bacall mentions the new movie Crossfire (1947), “the American people awarded it four stars. The committee gave the men who made it three subpoenas.” Here she’s a tough-talking dame. Judy Garland sweetly implored us; Bacall’s taking no prisoners.
Joseph Cotten speaks, and Peter Lorre, June Havoc, and John Huston, who notes that in nine years of its existence HUAC had come up with only one piece of legislation, which was ruled down by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional.
Danny Kaye quotes FDR in a speech from 1938 “most fair-minded Americans will hope that the committee will abandon the practice of merely providing a forum to those who for political purpose or otherwise seek headlines which they could not otherwise obtain.”
Marsha Hunt affirmed, “The committee uses methods that undermine the democratic process. By ruining reputations by publicity, inference and innuendo.”
Cornell Wilde and Melvyn Douglas speak and Richard Conte notes that among those who support HUAC are Nazi sympathizers and the KKK. Evelyn Keyes speaks and Burt Lancaster, Paul Henreid and William Holden. Robert Ryan speaks; and Florence Eldridge; and Myrna Loy, who notes that our First Amendment rights were first put into play by Jefferson, Madison, and Benjamin Franklin.
Robert Young notes that the methods used by the committee, refusing to let their victims testify, go back through the centuries: calls before tribunals included Galileo, Joan of Arc, the Salem witch hunt victims, and Roger Williams.
Lucille Ball recites Article 1 from the Bill of Rights:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It’s so important, she repeats it.
Van Heflin speaks, and Henry Morgan and Keenan Wynn reenact some of the circus dialogue at the hearing.
Hollywood Fights Back: Fredric March, Paulette Goddard,
Edward G. Robinson, and Audie Murphy
Other speakers include John Beal, Edward G. Robinson, Paulette Goddard, Fredric March, Artie Shaw and Vincent Price. Humphrey Bogart wants to know if democracy is so brittle that it can be subjugated by a look, or a line or a gesture. And notes that people’s beliefs are nobody’s business but their own.
William Wyler again refers to his masterful film, The Best Years of Our Lives: “I’m convinced today that I wouldn’t be able to make The Best Years of Our Lives as it was made a year ago.” At the very end of the broadcast Judy Garland comes back and exhorts us to write our Congressman and to send it “airmail special.”
It was an inspirational beginning to the fight, a fight which continues today. Unfortunately, their battle was soon lost in a climate which no longer allowed for a difference of opinion.
“This has nothing to do with communism. It’s none of my business who’s a communist and who isn’t,” Bogart said in a statement in advance of the journey. “The reason I am flying to Washington is because I am an outraged and angry citizen who feels that my civil liberties are being taken away from me and that the Bill of Rights is being abused and who feels that nobody in this country has any right to kick around the Constitution of the United States, not even the Un-American Activities Committee.”
But the protest folded like a house of cards. This was due principally to two things: one, the fact that many of the Hollywood Ten either were or were formerly members of the Communist Party, seemed to taint the First Amendment Committee’s reputation. Lost in the message that it didn’t matter who was communist and who wasn’t because there wasn’t any plot to overthrow the government, was the overwhelming urge for the despotic to gain control, gain followers, and for those followers to throw all reason and integrity to the wind in their attempts to find a scapegoat to ensure their own safe harbor. This is a fight as old as man himself, and despite what we always like to think of as our sophistication and our basic human decency, when we turn into a mob we lose our humanity and our sense of right and wrong, and even a nation of laws can become a nation of wild impulse given the right circumstances.
John Huston noted of the circus in Washington, D.C., “It was a sorry performance. You felt your skin crawl and your stomach turn. I despaired of what was being done to the ten, but I also disapproved of their response. They lost a chance to defend the most important principle.” He also did not want to be associated with them, because it was getting dangerous. He would eventually take off for Ireland.
When the tide began to turn against them, the actors were clearly overwhelmed but no one was more vocal than Humphrey Bogart, who felt that he had been betrayed and embarrassed by the fact that the people who they were defending were actually communists. He even went so far in order to save his own reputation and his own career to write an article for Photoplay magazine in March 1948 affirming that he was not a communist. The tough guy panicked and caved.
Excerpts from Bogie's Photoplay article March 1948
But others caved worse. Another member of their group, Sterling Hayden, found himself in the hot seat when it was revealed he was for a brief time a member of the Communist party. His activity consisted of supporting a union of motion picture painters to take over some other film industry unions, and that union was controlled by members of the Communist party. Hayden’s interest in the party likely began during his service in World War II. He had been a member of the Marine Corps and later served as an Office of Strategic Services agent, which involved parachuting into Croatia and helping the Yugoslav partisans who were fighting the fascists. They were our allies. The OSS was a forerunner of the CIA. He was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry and received a commendation from Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia. The partisans our government was directing him to support were communist; their courage and their work against fascism led him to take on their ideals. Though his participation in the Communist party back in Hollywood was apparently neither deep nor long-lasting, it nevertheless branded him for the rest of his life. But something else branded him even worse when he was called before HUAC when he confessed his communist ties and he named names, selling out friends and colleagues. It was an act which humiliated him and for which he felt guilt for the rest of his life, confessing his own self-loathing in his autobiography.
But because he played along, his career went on. Others who refused to cooperate with the committee on principle were put on a blacklist.
Before that happened, the second episode of Hollywood Fights Back aired a week after the first episode, on November 2, 1947. It is a less tightly written show, a less effusive and optimistic show perhaps because the seeds of doubt and fear and a sense of defeat had already crept in. Fredric March and Myrna Loy spoke again, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. reported that newspapers were supporting their efforts, echoed by Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, Anne Revere, Lon McCallister, Burt Lancaster, Danny Kaye, Evelyn Keyes, Paul Henreid, and June Havoc. Groucho Marx and Keenan Wynn acted out dialogue demonstrating how a nicely a “friendly” witness was treated and how rudely an “unfriendly” witness was treated. Humphrey Bogart said “We sat in the courtroom and saw it happening. We said to ourselves it couldn’t happen here.”
John Huston, Marsha Hunt, Peter Lorre, and Burl Ives spoke, Geraldine Brooks and Jane Wyatt spoke, and Vanessa Brown. Playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart spoke and Hart referred to his work on the screenplay for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and wondered if more such future bold scripts about religious discrimination would be allowed. We discussed Gentleman’s Agreement in these two previous posts here and here.
Composer Richard Rogers wondered, “Are we Americans trading our soapbox for the hooded sheet?”
Leonard Bernstein and Bennett Cerf spoke, and author Thomas Mann, an immigrant from Germany noted “an alleged state of emergency, that’s how it started in Germany. What followed was fascism, and what followed fascism was war.”
Dana Andrews spoke, “The committee recessed because they think they got what they were after – blacklist, people fired from their jobs, and a blanket of fear smothering free speech.” Dorothy McGuire and Gregory Peck spoke, and Richard Conte urged us to write to Washington. The show ended on a less inspiring note, with a greater sense of dread.
Bogart and some others began to distance themselves from the tainted ones, saying they had been duped. John Garfield and Edward G. Robinson agreed, but Bogart escaped the blacklist and Garfield and Robinson did not. Garfield would not even escape with his life, as when he was subpoenaed by the committee in 1951 and refused to name names, he was blacklisted, hounded, and died of a heart attack the following year. He was not a member of the Communist party. What started as the HUAC Hollywood investigation later melted into “McCarthyism” as Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) saw what a hit the witch hunt was, what a forum for publicity, and decided to parlay the smear tactics as the fastest and surest branding to success.
The Hollywood Ten, November 1947 about to be fingerprinted after being cited for contempt of Congress. Front row: Herbert Biberman, attorneys Martin Popper and Robert W. Kenny, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole. Middle row: Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz. Back row: Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott.
The Hollywood Ten, those writers who were called to testify and answer questions refused to testify, so they were all cited for contempt of Congress. Many of them served prison terms, for contempt of Congress—not for being communists because, of course, being communist is not against the law. Belonging to a political party other than the Democratic Party or the Republican Party is not unconstitutional, a very simple fact that the meanest and most moronic among our society cannot understand or accept. The actual crime is in the overthrow of government, like the people today who hoard weapons so that they may fight their government and yet nothing is done to them because they have the powerful backing of the NRA that has deep pockets and has bought off many politicians. It is also like accepting support, monetary and otherwise, from a foreign government to win a presidential election in return for favors.
Then as now, most of the ideological fight is not about ideology; it is about money and prejudice and power.
Then as now, most of the ideological fight is not about ideology; it is about money and prejudice and power.
In 1950, a fascist publication called Red Channels began to out people in the entertainment field accused of being communists or being sympathizers. Most of them named, over 150, found themselves blacklisted. The first among these was actress Jean Muir. But many others later felt the ax of the blacklist because of this publication, including Lena Horne, Marsha Hunt, Anne Revere, Hazel Scott, Artie Shaw, José Ferrer, Orson Welles, and Aline MacMahon. It would be many years before some of them were able to work again and by then their careers were effectively over. They could never gain the momentum back, never gain that part of their lives, their most creative years, or the income they would have earned.
J. Parnell Thomas, the stockbroker turned ultraconservative crusader and seeker of fame and headlines in the spotlights of his hearing room, also had a sorry end. For several years he had been defrauding the Congress by claiming to hire several people whom he did not hire but he put them on the payroll for a kickback of their salary. He was investigated by a grand jury, and like those victims he had persecuted only a few years before, refused to cooperate and answer questions, claiming his Fifth Amendment rights—for which he had found them in contempt. He was indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government, fined, and given a prison sentence of 18 months, however he only served nine months. He was sent to the same prison where, being nothing if not ironic, two of the people who he had persecuted as part of the Hollywood Ten were also serving terms: Lester Cole and Ring Lardner, Jr. Thomas, of course, was forced to resign from the House of Representatives and his later attempts at politics and business failed. He died in 1970.
Hollywood Fights Back: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire,
Danny Kaye, Fredric March.
Hollywood Fights Back was a small but very important experiment in the long war against civil liberties in the mid-twentieth century. We may recall the blacklist, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, Joe McCarthy, and all the hearings and all the ringing of, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” But that idealistic group of Hollywood actors and writers and other people interested in something so simple, so basic as the First Amendment should have equal importance, and perhaps even reverence, in our memories of that era.
Sixty years later, in September 2007, Hollywood Fights Back was re-created in a performance for ABC radio. Modern stars were going to take the parts read by those long ago Hollywood stars, including James Whitmore, Larry Gelbart, Cameron Manheim, Chris Trumbo (the son of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo one of the original Hollywood Ten) and many more. But one person was there to re-create what she said herself: Marsha Hunt was on hand to read her own lines from the broadcast of 60 years earlier.
It is now been 70 years since the original broadcast of Hollywood Fights Back, and Marsha Hunt, still with us, has recently celebrated her 100th birthday. She is the subject of Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity (2015), a documentary on those times. Those times? Our times.
Listen yourself on YouTube to the two episodes of Hollywood Fights Back, here the first episode from October 26, 1947, and here the second episode from November 2, 1947.
This post is part of the Banned and Blacklisted blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Read other terrific blogs in the blogathon here.