Hollywood Looks Back

Half a century ago, red was a much different color. Red, some believed, had infiltrated the U.S. State Department, the American labor movement and the U.S. Army. It was seen as a threat to the "American way of life," endangering the livelihood of every red-blooded American citizen. Red had apparently even taken over portions of the American entertainment industry. Setting the tone for America's opposition to red was a Congressional committee called the House Un-American Activities Committee, which held its first hearings 50 years ago. HUAC's most celebrated target was the film and television industry, which it hunted for more than a decade, imposing strict censorship over it and driving hundreds of writers and actors suspected of being communists or communist sympathizers out of work -- and jailing those unwilling to testify against their peers. HUAC's great legacy from 1947-'62 was a "blacklist" of hundreds of suspected communists whom it prohibited the American entertainment industry from hiring. In conjunction with HUAC's dubious golden anniversary, the Northampton (Mass.) Film Festival recently sponsored two events to commemorate the committee hearings: a screening of the 1976 HUAC documentary Hollywood on Trial, introduced by the movie's screenwriter, Arnie Reisman, and a performance of the 1956 HUAC-inspired radio satire The Inspector by a cast that includes actor and activist Ed Asner. Both pieces represent an age that, to those born after its fade-out, seems like a fictional creation by the very writers who were most persecuted. Who else could have dreamed up a world in which left-baiting zealotry had reached such fevered intensity that the U.S. Army was actually suspected of harboring "communist subversives?" These days, the age that spawned the communist hunts is most often associated with the name McCarthy. But as Reisman points out, Senator Joe arrived at the party long after it began. "The code word for the age is 'McCarthy,' but McCarthy was late -- he started in the early '50s, and he was in the Senate," Reisman said. "It's inaccurate to suppose it started with him. People label the period the 'McCarthy era' because for better or for worse, he was the most colorful agitator of the period." Reisman has studied the history of the HUAC, blacklisting and, yes, the McCarthy era since he began writing stories on the subject for the magazine Boston After Dark in the late '60s. He first gained interest in the subject when he heard the family stories of his friend Tony Kahn, whose father, Gordon, was blacklisted in the '50s and had to move to Mexico to get work. (The elder Kahn's story is now a radio drama series on National Public Radio.) Through his work at Boston After Dark, Reisman attracted the attention of producer James Gutman and director David Helpern Jr., who, in the early '70s, asked him if he'd work on what eventually became Hollywood on Trial. When the three flew out to Hollywood 23 years ago to begin filming, they found an industry town mostly wanting to forget its dark secrets. "We got a call from someone from Variety," Reisman recalled, "and we figured his story on our documentary would be buried on page 72 somewhere. But the next day we were the banner headline on page one. It was so close to a modern-day version of the Salem Witch Trials. And back then, it was still very much an open wound." The team began making calls to see who would go on camera with their recollections. They quickly found that those who talked in the '50s weren't willing to talk two decades after the fact. Reisman recalled the story of one "friendly witness" -- a euphemism for anyone who sang for the committee -- who, under coercion, named names of other suspected communists. "She was about to be blacklisted, and she was going to have a child at the time," Reisman recalled. "The FBI came in and threatened to take her child away for her 'un-American' activities. So she named names." For fear that she'd be persecuted by the FBI again, she wouldn't talk with Reisman and crew. Quite to their surprise, however, Ronald Reagan was eager to tell all. "Reagan was the first person to say yes to our documentary," Reisman noted. Reagan was enthusiastic, Reisman admits, in part because he had just finished his term as governor of California and was preparing to run for president in the 1976 elections; he'd take any media exposure he could get. "Reagan was an interesting character during [the HUAC] period," Reisman said. "He was a New Deal Democrat married to another New Deal Democrat, Jane Wyman. And his main theme [in HUAC testimony] at the time was 'Get out. This is our business. We'll police ourselves.' By the end, though, he went toward turning in communists." One story of Reagan's that wasn't recorded -- he may have intentionally waited till the cameraman was changing rolls of film to spring this one -- was how the then-president of the Screen Actors Guild met his second wife, Nancy Davis: "He told us it was through blacklisting that they met," Reisman said. "He said, 'I had this young woman who had been in two films -- Nancy Davis -- who came to me and said, 'I'm being blacklisted.' So [Reagan] said, 'Tell me all about it.' He found out there was another Nancy Davis who was blacklisted because she fled a subpoena. So he started telling her she should go to the FBI and clear her name. After it was all over, though, she told him she didn't want to be an actor anymore. She wanted to be his wife." Hollywood on Trial captures the circus-like atmosphere of the HUAC hearings. But there were several acts that didn't make the final cut, simply because Reisman had so much "insanity," in his words, to choose from. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller was subpoenaed to appear before the committee but refused to testify against himself -- which, although ostensibly protected by the Fifth Amendment, was considered grounds for Contempt of Congress charges that could land a silent witness in prison. "He showed up at his contempt hearings with Marilyn Monroe -- who was his wife at the time -- on his arm," Reisman noted. "The committee melted like butter. They let him off. That was such a weird story that we couldn't fit it in. "We also wanted to include the story of Sterling Hayden," he continued. "His shrink told him to name names. But it turned out his shrink was on the FBI payroll. So Hayden ended up recanting his testimony and going on an ACLU lecture tour for two years." Blacklisted actor Zero Mostel, who later starred in the blacklist-inspired movie The Front, was brought before the committee, and one of the major pieces of evidence brought against him was a full-page New York Times ad he signed petitioning Major League Baseball to allow black Americans to play. He told the congressmen he had signed it, as accused. "Did you know this was a communist front?" They responded. "Oh -- so you're a communist now if you want black people in Major League Baseball," Reisman laughed. "You have to remember, these committees were made mostly of white Southerners. In fact, the first major chair of HUAC was Martin Dies from Texas -- who first got going against the Federal Theater Project before the War. Dies, it was later revealed, had friends in the KKK." After World War II, HUAC first gained public recognition by subpoenaing 19 suspected communists in Hollywood. Eleven were called to testify. Playwright Bertolt Brecht answered the committee's questions on the stand, denying his affiliation with the American Communist Party. (Soon after he testified, he emigrated to East Germany.) The remaining 10 pleaded the Fifth Amendment. They all were held in contempt of Congress and all served prison terms of up to one year. One of the "Hollywood Ten," Edward Dmytryk, later cooperated with the committee, which reduced his prison sentence. The remaining nine were blacklisted for more than a decade after their release from prison. Some used pseudonyms to sell their scripts -- Dalton Trumbo even won the 1956 Best Screenplay Academy Award for his script for The Brave One, which was credited to "Robert Rich." Ironically, Parnell Thomas -- the committee chairman who presided over the Hollywood Ten hearings -- ended up in prison on corruption charges, doing time at the same federal prison in Connecticut where two of the Hollywood Ten were serving out their sentences. By 1949, President Truman's secretary of defense, James Forrestal, had responded to the red hysteria by making the phrase "there's a communist under my bed" famous. "Forrestal is a curious footnote to all this," Reisman noted. "On a warm spring day in '49, he was found sitting in his office wearing earmuffs, gloves and a winter coat. He said he was afraid there were communists in his closet. They took him away to the Bethesda Naval Hospital for observation, and he jumped out of the window of his hospital room to his death. "At around the same time you have [Julius and Ethel] Rosenberg -- who were executed in June of 1953 -- which made a dark backdrop to the whole proceedings," Reisman said of the husband and wife who were convicted of selling atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets. "It was like saying, 'If you think all this committee stuff is just a parlor game, remember, we just fried two people on similar charges.'" The man who made his name from the red baiting had just as spectacular a rise and fall as Dies, Thomas and Forrestal. As Reisman recalled, "In January 1950, [Sen. Joe] McCarthy came to public attention for a famous speech he gave in West Virginia, saying, 'I have in my hands a list of communists in the U.S. State Department.' I think he saw this whole issue as his meal ticket." Standing in opposition to McCarthy during much of his prominence was CBS' Edward R. Murrow, who brought to the public's attention McCarthy's lies and deceptions. (For instance, the senator claimed he had earned a Purple Heart in World War II. In fact, it was later learned that McCarthy had only earned an injury medal he received for falling down drunk in a ship in a U.S. port.) "Imagine that today," Reisman said. "Imagine Dan Rather telling his bosses that he wants to look straight at the camera for a half an hour and meticulously tear apart a politician." As might be expected, McCarthy was outraged about CBS' charges, and he demanded equal time, which the network granted him. "He hung himself," Reisman noted. "First of all, he laughed like Beavis & Butt-head. -- It's like all of a sudden, television was a microscope. And you could sit at home and say, 'Oh, I see. I know where this guy is coming from.'" McCarthy reached his nadir in 1955 when he held his now-infamous Army-McCarthy hearings, wherein nearly everyone but Santa Claus was accused of harboring communist sympathizers. It was during those televised hearings that the defense counsel for the Army, Joseph Welch, made the now-famous remark: "Let us not assassinate this man further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" "After those hearings, McCarthy was censored by his colleagues in the Senate. And that's saying quite a bit," Reisman said. "Within two years, he was dead of alcohol poisoning." McCarthy's obituary was written in 1957. But three decades later he's still around. Actor Ed Asner can testify to that fact. Asner, who began his acting career in the '50s, can't say he was subject to Hollywood blacklisting in its original incarnation. However, come 1982, when he was known to most Americans as the irascible news division chief Lou Grant, he found his platform yanked out from under him. His acclaimed CBS series of the same name was canceled that year in the wake of Asner's publicized support of medical aid for Salvadoran rebels, against whom the Reagan administration was conducting a covert war at the time. "Had I been more sophisticated about it, I probably wouldn't have done it," Asner said. "I was totally naive, well-meaning and shooting from the heart. But I found that during certain 'scoundrel times' -- to quote Lillian Hellman -- it doesn't matter what kind of heart you're shooting from. If you're going against the grain, you'll be quashed. "It turned out," he added, "a monumental attempt was made to quash me, and some of it succeeded. My regrets are that not till you get your dick in the ringer do you realize that so many people who work on your show can be laid off. -- Your family can be put through hard times because of something you've never planned on. Some of these things became a revelation to me and caused me great angst and great guilt. At the same time, I was just very proud of the fact that what I spoke out for and what I stood for was most honorable." As Douglass K. Daniel's 1996 book Lou Grant: The Making of TV's Top Newspaper Drama details, Asner was facing scoundrel times with what turned out to be the wrong decision makers above him. "Numerous television critics, columnists and Lou Grant fans did not believe CBS when it claimed that Asner's politics and the controversy they stirred were not behind the cancellation," Daniel writes. "CBS's cancellation of 'Lou Grant' is a stupid, cowardly act that only makes sense if CBS was under extreme pressure," wrote the Chicago Tribune. The San Francisco Chronicle asked, "Does anybody really believe that Lou Grant is being dropped because of low ratings, rather than Ed Asner's political activities?" And the Oakland Tribune noted, "Joe McCarthy died a long time ago, but he's far from dead. A network that prides itself in having stood up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy might have tried harder to protect its reputation for courage." While other critics and columnists expressed their doubts that Asner had been subject to any blacklist, Asner responds that he knows censorship when he sees it. "I underwent some of it then, when I became controversial," he said. "Hopefully I don't undergo a lot of it now." His scrape with the networks hasn't kept Asner quiet, though. As an outspoken opponent of the death penalty and a supporter of the worldwide ban on anti-personnel landmines, his acting work sometimes takes back seat to the causes he supports. "I was on Howard Stern's radio program Friday morning [Oct. 24] -- arguing against the death penalty," Asner noted. "I had just come from losing a battle in Missouri, pleading to the governor to commute a sentence, which he didn't. And Howard was gloating; he even composed a little song to celebrate it. I responded as best I could. Then I listened to the tape today, and after I hung up on the ****, he said, 'Ed Asner, a very fine actor --' and so forth and so on, 'who's wrong on the death penalty. I don't know why. I guess maybe he's a communist.' "Granted, nobody takes it too seriously," Asner continued. "But -- I don't know what a communist is anymore. Because I'm against the death penalty, I must be a communist. It's an unbelievable flash word. Even though [communism] is dead, this country is so pussy-whipped that the country will still react to that word." Part of the problem, Asner finds, is that many Americans still hold to a belief that Hollywood -- home to some of the richest people and corporations in the world -- is a hotbed of left-wing radicalism. "There's a lullaby that's sung to that tune and believed by most," Asner said. "I think it puts you to sleep. But everybody tends to accept it. I would say Hollywood harbors a lot of leftists for various specific causes, but they're not all banded together following a party platform. "But the way the right wing -- who controls the press, as we all know -- talks it up, you'd think it's this blanket aspect of Hollywood industry that spews out all this stuff. But nobody talks about Charlton Heston being an officer of the NRA or the support that Schwarzenegger, Stallone or Bruce Willis gave to Bush's campaign. They never tend to bring these things up." The blacklist has a living legacy in the American entertainment industry, Asner added. "You only need one black list a century to intimidate anybody," he said. "Because it's like recessions and depressions. A lot of people get hurt in a depression -- i.e. the blacklist -- but along the way until the next depression, there will be recessions."


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