It is difficult to comprehend in this time of intense, some would say excessive, “political correctness,” but there was a time in the not so distant past when many entertainers were denied employment because of their political beliefs. I am referring to the period from the late 1940s through the 1950s. During that time, hundreds of writers, directors and actors were “blacklisted” because of their real , or even suspected, communist sympathies. The effect of the blacklist was that these individuals were unable to find work in the entertainment industry.
At first blush, blacklisting someone based upon their political beliefs, especially without due process, seems un-American. After all, we are not talking about spies, just Americans who sympathized with socialist or communist policies. Keep in mind that membership in the Communist Party was not illegal, per se. In addition, many of these people were not hardcore communists; they had merely attended a meeting or two, or were associates of left-leaning persons, or simply believed in stronger workers’ rights. For example, former President Ronald Reagan, whom we think of as a strong conservative, had, in his youth, explored communism and attended a few meetings, before rejecting that philosophy.
In order to understand the blacklist fully, one must examine it within the context of the times. In the late 1940s Russia had suddenly gone from being one of our allies in WWII to our arch enemy. Concurrently, Communism, which had been more or less acceptable during WWII, was now viewed as a scourge, replacing Fascism. America was engaged in a “cold war” with communism all over the globe. China, North Korea and most of Eastern Europe had recently turned or were in the process of turning communist. Americans were tense, and afraid. Communism was viewed as the chief threat to our very existence. Being a communist in the 1930s and early 1940s was not so bad; being one in the late 1940s was about the worst thing one could be.
In addition, remember, this was a time when the few, large, powerful studios ran Hollywood with an iron fist. A select few studio executives, such as Jack Warner and Sam Goldwyn, could make or break an actor or writer. Many actors, writers and other entertainers thought the existing system was unfair and needed to be changed. Two major strikes during the 1930s had exacerbated conflicts between the studios and the entertainers.
The central government organization involved in the blacklist was The House Committee on Un-American Activities (“HUAC”). HUAC was created in 1938 to ferret out Communist sympathizers in the US. It established the initial Hollywood Blacklist on November 25, 1947 one day after ten writers and directors had been cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before HUAC. The so-called Hollywood Ten – Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Larson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo – were summarily fired by their studios.
HUAC was concerned that Communists and their sympathizers had infiltrated Hollywood and were incorporating the Communist philosophy in their screenplays. Although the primary focus was on screenwriters, actors and directors were also targets. Those under suspicion were called to testify before HUAC and subjected to intense, and sometimes hostile, questioning. HUAC would demand that the witness provide names of friends and associates who were or might be communists. Failure to do so would place the witness, himself, under suspicion, or, even worse, result in him being blacklisted. This was your classic “witch hunt.”
Eventually, hundreds were blacklisted, many of which were household names. These people were deprived of earning a livelihood without due process. They suffered through defamation and harassment, particularly from the FBI. They were ostracized by their friends and associates as well as by the public. Some writers were able to earn a living by “ghost writing.” Many industry insiders were aware of the practice, but it continued nonetheless (“don’t ask don’t tell”). The practice was portrayed in the movie, “The Front” in which Woody Allen, in a serious role, plays a modestly-talented writer who “fronts” for blacklisted writers. Some were able to clear their names and resume working. Many of them were never able to work in the industry again.
The reputations and livelihoods of hundreds of blacklisted individuals were irreparably damaged. The blacklist effectively ended in 1960 when Dalton Trumbo, one of the original “Ten,” with the strong support of Producer Otto Preminger and film star Kirk Douglas, received credit publicly for being the screenwriter for both “Exodus” and “Spartacus,” two blockbuster hits. In addition, it was disclosed that Trumbo had written the screenplays for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One,” both of which had won Oscars.
The blacklist period is ably portrayed in the movie, “Trumbo,” starring Bryan Cranston, which is currently in theatres. The movie focuses on the experiences of Dalton Trumbo, who was probably one of the foremost screen writers of the period.