Hollywood and the Red Scare: A Brief History

The Red Scare’s largest impact was the scars it left on Hollywood.  

Hollywood and the Red Scare: A Brief History

Films can inform, and they can also entertain. During the 1950s, however, there was a growing fear in many that communist ideals were being worked into films. Through the work of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities Committee, accusations spread throughout the film community. Many films that did not support those ideals were falsely accused of spreading bad vibes and teaching their viewers to embrace communism.

Some of the films that tackled these issues were very explicit in their denouncing certain ideas. Others wove narratives so eloquently that unless you pay very close attention to the political context, you wouldn’t notice what the big deal is. Hollywood was in danger (especially since they would soon need to compete against television, which told stories differently than film, and offered more up-to-date news than the newsreels featured before films).

Overall, the growing fear of communism creeped into the entertainment industry, and people were scared more than ever.

via IMDb

The political landscape after WWII was not what America hoped for.

In fact, it was a lot worse.

In every era of history, it is important to remember that the political context shapes the content of popular culture. This is what made the Hollywood Red Scare the most prolific time in film history. Hundreds of people were affected by the accusations, trials, and blacklists published. Many had a widespread perception that most screenwriters and actors leaned left politically.

During WWII, many films were pro-Soviet Union due to the mutual anti-Nazi mindset. Films promoted ties with Russia, and unified these allies on the silver screen. Films such as Mission to Moscow spoke of Stalin in a positive fashion; some even implicitly pardoned his purges. There was very little need for films that presented themes about conspiracy theories. All Hollywood was concerned with was pro-American propaganda films.

After WWII, films fueled Red Scare politics as fears of conspiracy moved to the forefront. A new perspective was born, since people were not satisfied with how certain political parties and countries were portrayed in film. Depending on how viewers and filmmakers leaned, genres were either highly praised or highly criticized. Films were clouded with conspiracy theory themes, and the silver screen showing this kind of content reflected the politics of America, which were manifested in film.

via Wikipedia

The Hollywood Ten was the most notorious of those blacklisted.

Perhaps the most famous victims in the filmmaking world of HUAC’s actions were the members of the infamous Hollywood Ten. They were called this because of the 79 requested to speak in front of HUAC, they were the only ones who decided to testify. The FBI drew up these lists and then HUAC decided who they would request to testify.

These trials were incredibly ritualistic, as there was a theatrical element to the public hearings and confessions. Arthur Miller compared the notions to the Salem Witch Trials in his play “The Crucible.”

Long before this friction became apparent and filmmakers became the object of the witch hunt, there was lots of tension between the Hollywood producers and the unions. Strikes broke out during the Great Depression and WWII. Many people turned to support communist ideals due to the economic state America was put in during the Depression. One of the biggest lies that spread through the industry were made by “Red-baiting journalists at the expense of Hollywood’s communists concerned the huge salaries of some of them...implicit in these attacks, which smack of jealousy, is the notion that workers should not share the vast profits made by their employers” (29 in Humphries). Basically, the communist sentiment carrying over after World War II was identified as a Russian ideal, which was frowned upon.

Hearings that led up to that of the Hollywood ten began with Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan testifying. They gave names of those they believed to be probable communists. Disney’s involvement with the Red Scare and rounding up communists was kept secretive, in order to prevent any tarnishing of his name or the movies his company made.

The Hollywood Ten hearing ended on November 25, 1947 with the Waldorf Statement. It made sure that the Hollywood Ten would be fired and suspended without pay and would never become reemployed until they were cleared of charges of contempt against Congress. This was decided by MPAA president Eric Johnson.

The Hollywood Ten (1950) documentary film was made three years after the Waldorf Statement, in which each member of the Hollywood Ten denounces any loyalty to communism. Ironically enough, none of the chosen ten were major communists. Rather, their roles in the trial would be a great vehicle to further publicize the hearings. With screenwriters on trial and under interrogation, there would be more value to the media, and it also raised the stakes for anyone trying to get Hollywood.

The following people were on the blacklist as the Hollywood Ten: Alvah Bessie (screenwriter), Herbert Biberman (screenwriter and director), Lester Cole (screenwriter), Edward Dmytryk (director), Ring Lardner Jr (screenwriter), John Howard Lawson (screenwriter), Albert Maltz (screenwriter), Samuel Ornitz (screenwriter), Adrian Scott (producer and screenwriter) and Dalton Trumbo (screenwriter). They refused to answer questions, and some even continued working in Hollywood during their time on the blacklist and under trial.

Their hearings, arrests, and proceedings were highly publicized, as everyone wanted to point them out as

via Bleecker Street Films

The most notorious of those blacklisted was Dalton Trumbo

The most notorious of the ten was screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. After being accused of being a communist and serving jail time, Trumbo worked from his home (he was known for working from his bathtub) and his use of pseudonyms made it easier for him to exist during the Red Scare and continue to write screenplays and get work.

His screenwriting credits include Spartacus and Roman Holiday. He received a posthumous Oscar for writing the latter in 1993, and received two others while he was blacklisted. One of his most famous communist articles was his Russian Menace article, published in Script Magazine.

Trumbo stated “the blacklist will not be broken by the triumph of morality over immorality...it will be broken by the sheer excellence of two or three blacklisted writers” GET LINK He wrote films under the identity of Robert Rich (another screenwriter who was away on military leave), and even won an Academy Award for Best Original Story for The Brave One. Not long after, it was revealed who Trumbo really was, and Variety made him the cover story as an effort to coerce a confession out of him. Ultimately, the real Robert Rich was sued for plagiarism from the King Brothers Production company, but the King Brothers settled for $750,000 as a form of blackmail.

In the end, the Hollywood Ten went down in infamy. Some still tried writing and finding work under alternate names, but it was incredibly difficult. Jobs were lost, families were ruined, and some even took their own lives due to the strain that the Red Scare cast upon Hollywood.

Many screenwriters, directors, producers, and actors suffered from HUAAC pointing fingers and deciding that certain film content promoted communism.

The impact the Red Scare had on entertainment was incredible.

It is definitely not uncommon for culture to reflect politics, and for politics to reflect culture. Film is an excellent vehicle to get these thoughts out, and tell stories that revolve around major issues in today’s world. American culture was forever changed, as people’s personal and professional lives were affected by HUAAC’s actions.

Ultimately, the Red Scare had a chilling effect on movies, books, TV content, and free speech. Many films were not made and dissented due to their questionable content. Personal lives were ruined, and many lost jobs and the opportunities to work, due to suspicion of a secret alliance as a Russian spy. Government, the news, and media were major influences on American culture; more importantly, it shaped what people thought. Anti-communism became the main focus of the 1950s.

People still make films that have political undertones if you read closely enough into them (The Dark Knight regarding terrorism, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace on dictatorship, etc). Implicit or explicit, for entertainment or to each, movies will always have a place in politics.

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Marina Caitlin Watts
Marina Caitlin Watts
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Marina Caitlin Watts

Marina loves Frank Sinatra and hates decaf coffee. The native New Yorker and Cornell grad knows every word to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and thinks Shakespeare is cool. If you need her, she's waiting for Godot. Twitter: @marina_caitlin

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