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Movie at 10: Communists Invade Hollywood!

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Much of the American public supported the Hollywood witchhunt. This mural is in Van Nuys, CA.
Imagine this horrifying scenario: a world without Leonardo DiCaprio's dreamy smile in "Titanic." A world where "ET," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List" had never been made. Imagine Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise not making another movie. Think it's impossible? Think again. From 1947 till the end of the 50s, anti-Communist paranoia was running full steam ahead. Teachers, lawyers, labor workers, businessmen, and everyone else who had any sort of power was a target for investigation. But no industry attracted greater attention than the glamorous world of Hollywood. Their images and words enthralled millions of Americans while scaring the heck out of the government, who feared that Communist propaganda in the films would start infiltrating the minds of unsuspecting Americans. The result was one of the greatest assaults on the Bill of Rights in US history.

When I was growing up, I knew all about the evils of Communism. My mom had escaped Communist China after all. I knew that Communist countries allowed no freedom of speech or thought. I had been taught by my teachers that our first amendment guarantees freedom of speech and assembly and that those rights are precious and necessary for a democracy to function. Totalitarian dictatorships, like in China and Russia, led to millions of people dying because anyone who disagreed with the government was murdered. In it's purest form, Communism sounded nice, with its emphasis on the working people and its vision of everyone sharing everything so that hunger and poverty would never exist. But the Communism that was actually put into practice broke people's souls by denying them a chance to express their deepest convictions. I shuddered at the thought of having to live in such a repressive society.

So imagine my shock and dismay to learn that the US government had destroyed a generation of gifted filmmakers, actors and screenwriters' careers by employing the same anti-democratic tactics that were used in Communist countries, ironically all in the name of combating Communism! It sounded like some sick comedy to me, but I discovered it was no joke to the people whose lives and careers were ruined by relentless persecution from the government and FBI. It's a subject that haunts Hollywood to this day. Even though many of us young people haven't heard about the "Hollywood Blacklist," its victims have not forgotten.

In 1946, 90 million movie tickets were sold every week. Hollywood enjoyed unparalleled prosperity and its power to influences the masses was unrivalled. But Hollywood also frightened some politicians. It was a hotbed of liberalism and luxury lifestyles and had a lot of Jewish and foreign workers. That terrified some Congressmen who believed that Hollywood could poison the minds of Americans by tainting them with Communist propaganda.

In 1999, the University of Southern California unveiled this monument in tribute to the Hollywood Blacklist. The raised seats represent the Hollywood 10.
The Depression had radicalized Hollywood in many ways. Before the stock market crash in 1929, Hollywood cared only about profits and little for social justice. That started to change when an influx of talent, highly educated and mostly from New York, created some of the most memorable films during the 30s and 40s. A lot of the films had a humanist and progressive edge, showcasing the starvation of farm workers during the Depression and exposing the horrors of Hitler's Germany through anti-fascist films. Hollywood was becoming more politically and socially conscious for a number of reasons.

The Depression had revealed a crisis within capitalism. Seeing people so desperate they had to pick food out of the garbage made many in Hollywood want to consider alternatives to the established economic order. Many of the new screenwriters and directors had parents who were socialists and radical idealists though a few hailed from Middle America. Quite a few had Russian Jewish ancestry. It was fascinating to read about the political journeys of so many of the blacklisted who from a young age had been exposed to anarchist speakers and union organizing. The Hollywood community was thus receptive to Communist ideas and during World War II, with Russia as an ally, produced several pro-Stalin films. But contrary to later accusations, most in Hollywood always thought of themselves as proud Americans and believed in America's promise. The films they produced were only meant to prick our conscience at failing to fulfill certain aspects of American democracy. Some of the progressive causes Hollywood took up in the 30s and 40s were FDR's New Deal, socialist muckracker Upton Sinclair's campaign for governor in 1934, the Scottsboro trial where nine blacks were unjustly accused of raping a white girl, and later the Zoot Suiters. Hollywood's political activism rarely went beyond domestic involvement, but it was deeply concerned by international events. Many Hollywood people joined the American Communist Party because of fascist atrocities during the Spanish Civil War. Alvah Bessie, one of the famous "Hollywood 10," spoke for many in Hollywood when he said, "I thought that this was the only organization that was actually fighting Fascism in the world, that was…fighting unemployment, racial discrimination, national chauvinism."

The monument has quotes from both persecuted writers, actors and directors and supporters of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
It was comments like these that lead the government on its hunt to find the Communist infiltrators in Hollywood. Proceeding by suspicion alone, they began arresting people, accusing them of being Communist. To be let off the hook, the accused had to name others they knew to be Communists. This "ratting on your friends" demand tore Hollywood apart. The raw emotions of having to decide whether to keep your career or risk losing it by refusing to cooperate still torment Hollywood. Witness the 1999 protest at the Academy Awards when Elia Kazan, the director of "Splendor in the Grass" and "On the Waterfront," was given a lifetime achievement award. Kazan had been a Communist Party member and had turned several of his friends in to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. To those who remember Kazan as a "Benedict Arnold" sell-out, his award was an insult and some in the audience refused to stand or clap.


Eminem: Genius or Satan? / The debate goes on…

Some actors, like Cary Grant and Ronald Reagan, pledged their anti-Communist beliefs when testifying. But to a group of screenwriters and directors, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was violating their basic civil liberties by posing such demands. Ten of Hollywood's writers and directors refused to answer the question "Are you a member of the Communist Party" on the grounds of the First Amendment and the Fifth Amendment. They were all imprisoned for contempt of Congress and their case became a cause cèlebre as many posters read, "Free the Hollywood 10." Their acts of defiance, instead of marking them as anti-American, seem now to be distinctly patriotic in upholding the sacred rights of free speech and association. They paid a heavy price in doing so.

Only a small number of named Communists actually testified before the House Committee. Some fled the country and never returned. Most however, had their careers ruined with the introduction of blacklisting. If it was suspected that you were Communist, or a Communist sympathizer then you might be blacklisted. The Hollywood guilds, studio bosses, and producers, who tended to be conservative and supportive of the Committee's work, instituted the blacklist. All those with Communist ties, either real or imagined could not get work directing, acting or screenwriting. Some liberals, though not Communists, had supported the Hollywood 10's civil rights. They became blacklisted by association. With their careers in shambles, some wrote under alias names. Others gave up and moved into different careers. A tragic few committed suicide.

A student in a USC screenwriting class 13 years ago was so moved by learning about the Hollywood 10 that he got the idea to build this monument as a tribute to the people who stood up for the First Amendment.
Was there any evidence of Communist propaganda in the movies? Blacklisted screenwriter Norma Barzman strongly disagrees. "The [Conservatives] have always tried to show that we poisoned American filmmaking, that we tried to get Communist propaganda into films, when what we tried to do was support the democratic tradition and neutralize the most racist and stereotypical characters." Barzman's husband wrote the screenplay for "Back to Bataan" which was the first Hollywood film to have an interracial romance between a Filipina and a white male. This was considered "Communist propaganda." The most notorious line to be used as evidence of Communist thinking was from the 1943 Ginger Rogers film "Tender Comrades." It went "Share and share alike-that's democracy!" I laughed out loud at that one.

It has taken five decades for the scars to heal from the Hollywood Blacklist and for some, the scars have yet to heal. In 1997, all four Hollywood trade guilds apologized for their role in supporting the House Un-American Activities Committee. That same year, the Writers Guild restored some credits to movies that had used either an alias or never acknowledged the work of the blacklistees. Many still await to be credited for their contributions. But it wasn't just the Hollywood workers who lost out because of the government inquisition. We, the American people, lost out too, because who knows what awesome movies would have been made if the best and the brightest people in Hollywood had not been so savagely silenced? Some of my friends joke that we're the last group to be born before Star Wars came out. We cannot imagine our childhood without Luke, Hans Solo, Boba Fett , Yoda and Darth Vader. I mourn for all the lost treasures we never knew and the movies that could have changed and enriched lives in much the same way that the Star Wars movies did mine.

Americans have always cast themselves as beacons of democracy and freedom, in contrast to the repressive evils of Communist dictatorships. But the hunting down of American citizens all on the basis of their political beliefs smacks of hypocrisy. True, we didn't slaughter millions of people for their beliefs as occurred in Russia, but ruining livelihoods and stomping on people's dreams is a sin we shouldn't overlook if we believe in our democracy. Actor Gregory Peck during the Red Scare said, "There is more than one way to lose your liberty-it can be torn out of your hands by a tyrant-but it can also slip away, day by day, while you're too busy to notice; or too confused or too scared. " So next time you're at the theater enjoying "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," or "Traffic," remember Peck's words. Appreciate that we not only have the freedom to watch these great movies, but that Hollywood has the freedom to make them.


Please email me at:irene@ustrek.org


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