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Hollywood’s new McCarthyism: the worrying return of the blacklist

Gary Cooper takes the stand at the House Un-American Activities Committee, 1947 - APA
Gary Cooper takes the stand at the House Un-American Activities Committee, 1947 - APA

In October 1947, the ‘Hollywood Ten’ were summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington DC – part of an investigation into the influence of communism in the movie business. Ahead of the hearings, 41 filmmakers had been subpoenaed; the Hollywood Ten were among the “unfriendly witnesses” who refused to answer the big question – “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” – or snitch on friends and colleagues.

Well-meaning liberals from the Hollywood elite – including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Edward G. Robinson, Groucho Marx, and Frank Sinatra – banded together to form the Committee for the First Amendment, to protest what they saw as an affront to free speech and thought. Members of the group, led by Bogart and Bacall, flew to DC to attend the hearings.

Afterwards, the stars secured time on ABC Radio to address the situation and what they’d witnessed from the HUAC and its chairman, J. Parnell Thomas.

“We saw American citizens denied the right to speak by elected representatives of the people,” said Humphrey Bogart on ABC. “We saw police take citizens from the stand like criminals after they’d been refused the right to defend themselves. We saw the gavel of the committee chairman cutting off the words of free Americans. The sound of that gavel, Mr. Thomas, rings across America. Because every time your gavel struck, it hit the First Amendment to the constitution of the United States.”

But Bogie soon backtracked. The Committee for the First Amendment had been perilously naive. “Within weeks, the group was flying for cover as the Red smear threatened to tinge their own careers,” wrote Griffin Fariello in his book, Red Scare. Bogart later said the trip to Washington was “ill-advised”. In May 1948, he published an article in Photoplay magazine to distance himself from the Hollywood Ten and reiterate “I’m no communist”.

The Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt of congress, fined $1,000 each, and given prison sentences between six months and a year. Among the Ten were screenwriters Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr, and Lester Cole, and the director Edward Dmytryk.

Then came the notorious Hollywood blacklist – a decade-long banishment of industry players with communist affiliations or sympathies (whether those affiliations were real or imagined) – which preceded the communist witch hunts by Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy.

In 2021, Hollywood could be practicing a new form of McCarthyism by purging itself of outspoken conservative voices – voices that don't fit the industry’s alleged left agenda.

Gina Carano, former star of The Mandalorian - AFP
Gina Carano, former star of The Mandalorian - AFP

Last month, Mandalorian star Gina Carano was dropped by Lucasfilm/Disney. It followed Carano's increasingly controversial social media activity, which included anti-mask and election fraud tweets, and a bio which mocked trans-friendly pronouns. Carano was dumped following an Instagram post which compared Republicans to persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany – though she denied that's what she meant in a sitdown interview with Ben Shapiro.

Carano joins a list of stars who have been “cancelled” after upsetting the left. Chris Pratt has been singled out for his association with an allegedly anti-LGBT church (which Pratt denied). Black Panther star Letitia Wright left Twitter after she shared an anti-vax video. The Republican comedian Tim Allen had his sitcom Last Man Standing cancelled in 2017, despite healthy ratings. Vince Vaughan received a huge backlash when he was spotted being "chummy" with Donald Tump in 2020. That same year, the actor Antonio Sabato, Jr. told Variety that his support for Trump ended his acting career: “I had to sell everything … I had to pay all my debts. I was blacklisted," he said.

And there had already been calls across social media to fire Carano. A recent report in The Hollywood Reporter detailed how movie publicists are now warning clients to avoid right-leaning politics for fear of reprisals.

“I don’t know what people at Disney personally believe or don’t believe with regard to politics, but as a corporate entity, they want to stay as trouble-free as possible. And anything that’s going to offend the left is a problem,” said a crisis PR rep. “I have clients who are making an extraordinary effort to post what the social left wants to see.”

Is Gina Carano really the victim of cancel culture? Or is it more consequence culture? Surely it should be a case of either believing or not believing in free speech – even if you don't agree with these controversial stars, or think that Carano's post was abhorrent by any reasonable metric.

Nine of the 'Hollywood 10' in 1947: (L-R) obert Adrian Scott, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, John Howard Lawson, Ring Lardner - AP
Nine of the 'Hollywood 10' in 1947: (L-R) obert Adrian Scott, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, John Howard Lawson, Ring Lardner - AP

In 1947, free speech and freedom of thought was at the heart of the communist investigations into Hollywood – the original cancel culture. Back then, not all the Hollywood players were against the investigations. In the first week of the HUAC’s hearings, there were testimonies from “friendly” anti-communist stars and filmmakers, many from the Motion Picture Alliance for Preservation of American Ideals. They included Gary Cooper, Walt Disney, Adolphe Menjou, and Ronald Reagan – then the president of the Screen Actors Guild. Some testified that they believed the red menace was trying to infiltrate the movies.

Uncle Walt – foreshadowing the controversy of the modern Disney stance – described communist attempts to subvert Mickey Mouse through the Cartoonists Guild. Reagan testified that a minority group had made efforts to infiltrate the Screen Actors Guild but had been thwarted. Afterwards, Reagan publicly opposed the concept of a blacklist while he privately informed for the FBI. In later years, Reagan said “there was no such thing as a blacklist” and claimed it was determined by honest-to-goodness Americans not wanting to spend their cash on commie film stars.

One of the star names subpoenaed by the HUAC was Charlie Chaplin. His star was fading by that time, and he was never called to testify. But Chaplin protested in defence of the Hollywood Ten, and his liberal politics were well known. During the war, Chaplin had interactions with Soviet artists and diplomats and supported American-Soviet friendship causes.

As described in the book Chaplin and American Culture by Charles J. Maland, his most damning moment was “the Siminov incident”, when Chaplin attended a party on a Soviet boat at Long Beach Harbor in May 1946. Coming back ashore, Chaplin was met by US customs officers and called them “American gestapo” – possibly as a joke, though possibly not – which was splashed over newspapers as a slur against Americana.

Joseph McCarthy during a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing - Bettmann
Joseph McCarthy during a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing - Bettmann

When the HUAC subpoenaed him, Chaplin sent a snarky telegram to J. Parnell Thomas. He referenced his most recent film, Monsieur Verdoux – a socially-sharp black comedy in which Chaplin played a bigamist and (literal) lady killer. “It is against war and the futile slaughter of our youth,” Chaplin wrote about the film. “I trust you will find its humane message distasteful. I will give you a hint on where I stand. I am not a communist. I am a peace monger.”

Chaplin signed an amicus curiae in support of the Hollywood Ten, and his name continued to crop up in HUAC investigations. (Amusingly, J. Parnell Thomas was later convicted for corruption and spent time in prison with some of the Hollywood Ten.) In 1952, Chaplin left the US to make Limelight. When he tried to return, his permit for reentry was revoked. He chose not to pursue reentry and instead settled in Switzerland. He only returned to the US in 1972, to receive an honourary Oscar, for which he received a still-legendary 12-minute standing ovation.

Orson Welles was another star under suspicion for his progressive politics, and his association with left-wing theatre and radio. In 1941, Welles’s Citizen Kane had been an audacious swipe at American capitalism, and infuriated the man whom Kane was based on: newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

Ronald Reagan (with actress Jane Wyman) in 1947 - Getty
Ronald Reagan (with actress Jane Wyman) in 1947 - Getty

According to Joseph McBride – film historian and author of What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? – Hearst was a close friend of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and “sicced the FBI” onto Welles. The FBI had a 222-page file on Welles (though nothing compared to the 2,000-plus pages it had on Chaplin) and despite no evidence that Welles was a communist, the FBI still placed him on a security index of subversives.

Though he's not always identified as a victim of the blacklist, Welles left the US for Europe in November 1947 – the same month the Hollywood Ten were called to Washington. His name also showed up in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, a 213-page booklet published in 1950, which listed 151 entertainment industry names with supposed communist connections or sympathies. It was essentially a Who’s Who of the Hollywood blacklist.

Joseph McBride noted that Welles did have films shown in the US during the blacklist period and continued to work for American studios in Europe. But he didn’t return to Hollywood until 1956; even then, his stay was brief.

Jean Muir was the first performer to lose work from being listed in Red Channels. Muir was Broadway and movie actress, and starred in numerous films for Warner Bros. Muir had a role in the NBC sitcom, The Aldrich Family. Following her listing in Red Channels, a number of complaints were made to the network and she was dropped from the show. The show’s sponsor, General Foods, issued a statement saying its advertising “avoids the use of material and personalities which in its judgment are controversial”. Muir denied the accusation. “I am not a communist,” she said, “have never been one and believe that the communists represent a vicious and destructive force, and I am opposed to them.”

Orson Welles in 1951 - Jane Bown/TopFoto
Orson Welles in 1951 - Jane Bown/TopFoto

Red Channels had accused Muir of being involved with numerous subversive groups. They included the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, which – as Muir pointed out – also counted Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of former president Franklin D. Roosevelt) among its members. “I’m very proud to have been a member of the conference,” said Muir in defence. “The conference was a sincere effort to improve the lot of all people in the south, white and negro.”

Speaking out against the blacklisting didn’t work. Rather, Muir plunged into a battle with alcoholism. She didn’t appear on TV again until 1958 and had just a handful of further roles.

One star who made a startling comeback was the singer and actress Lena Horne. Horne got her start singing in New York clubs and became the highest paid black movie star in the US. She was also the definitive pin-up for African-American soldiers in the Forties.

Horne was notable for her history-making firsts and strong-willed refusals: she was the first black singer to tour with an all-white band and the first African American star signed to a long-term studio contract; she also refused to sing in front of segregated audiences or play the low-status characters usually reserved for black actresses.

Lena Horne in the 1950s - AFP
Lena Horne in the 1950s - AFP

Horne was named in Red Channels for her association with activist groups and controversial figures, including the actor, singer, and Soviet sympathiser Paul Robeson. Some of the activist groups did have a secret communist core – such as the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions – and Horne also sang at a fundraiser for the Hollywood Ten.

As detailed by journalist and author John Meroney, Horne later felt that she’d been manipulated by Robeson and others – a glamorous face coerced into boosting their political cause. But Horne’s daughter said her mother knew about the communist elements within the causes she supported, but “never felt she was aiding communism, she felt that communism was aiding her.”

Horne was shunned by networks, advertisers, and parts of the black community. She returned to singing in nightclubs and appealed to Roy Brewer, a union official and “clearance man” who helped rehabilitate the industry rep of repentant blacklisted stars. Brewer was staunchly anti-communist and gave up the names 13 actors, writers, and directors at the UHAC hearings in October 1947.

According to John Meroney, Horne drafted a 12-page letter which Brewer sent to film and TV executives, and even J. Edgar Hoover’s assistant. In 1957, she recorded Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria, a huge seller that's regarded as some of her finest work. Horne returned to both the limelight and political activism. She attended the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream” speech.

Other stars were broken by the HUAC and became informants. When the second hearings began in 1951, Larry Parks – who starred in The Jolson Story in 1946 – was the first witness. He pleaded with the HUAC but was forced to name names. One of the names he gave up was Oscar-winning actress Gale Sondergaard, whose husband Herbert Biberman was one of the Hollywood Ten.

“I wish he had been stronger, but the people who called him a rat or a fink were unfair,” Sondergaard said about Parks in 1975. “The man suffered deeply. It was horrible to see him break.” Indeed, Larry Parks was still blacklisted.

Parks also named Lee J. Cobb, who later appeared on On the Waterfront and 12 Angry Men. Cobb was also forced to turn informer. One of the names he gave up was Lloyd Bridges, star of High Noon and later Airplane. Bridges had originally volunteered information about a brief association with a communist group during the war, but still found himself on the blacklist. Bridges later recalled that a group of actors, led by John Wayne, had been unsatisfied with his testimony because he hadn’t snitched on anyone.

Lloyd Bridges with his sons Beau and Jeff in 1980 - AP
Lloyd Bridges with his sons Beau and Jeff in 1980 - AP

“I went and saw them and persuaded them that I didn't have any knowledge of who was communist and who wasn't,” Bridges later said. The star – father of Jeff Bridges – insisted that he never named names, but would get ignored by blacklisted actors in the street. To them, the fact he was working meant he'd informed.

According to Hollywood history, the most significant reaction to the blacklist came from Kirk Douglas, who insisted that Dalton Trumbo was credited as the writer of Spartacus. Douglas took credit for effectively breaking the blacklist. Until then, the blacklisted writers were forced to write uncredited or under assumed names. The Defiant Ones, Bridge over the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia were all written by blacklisted writers.

Dalton Trumbo’s pseudonym Robert Rich won an Oscar for The Brave One. Trumbo’s family later insisted that Kirk Douglas was not alone in breaking the blacklist, and credited the writers themselves for fighting against it.

Looking back, the words of actress Marsha Hunt, a member of Bogart's Committee for the First Amendment, will likely strike a chord with critics of the current situation. Speaking in 1995 about the anti-communist sentiment and persecution, Hunt said: “Movies came first, then it spread to the media. It spread to every opinion shaping branch across society – the press, the broadcast media, education, and even religion. This matter of loyalty or disloyalty… of conformity. That’s what they were after, this conformity. And if you didn’t [conform], you were expendable.”