On Nov. 25, 1947, studio executives released a statement declaring that they would not employ 10 prominent writers and directors who had been held in contempt of Congress for refusing to confirm or deny that they were communists.
HUAC and the “Hollywood Ten”
The House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) held hearings in 1947 to determine whether communists had infiltrated Hollywood and infused movies with communist propaganda. It called Hollywood screenwriters, actors, producers and directors to testify: 24 “friendly” witnesses and 11 alleged communists.
The 24 friendly witnesses, including Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan, Ayn Rand and Walt Disney, testified that there were many communists in Hollywood, and some named people they believed to be communists.
George Mason University provides the testimony of Reagan and Disney, and Jack Warner, Louis Mayer and Rand.
The 11 alleged communists, or “unfriendly” witnesses, were asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Just one, playwright Bertolt Brecht, answered the question, saying that he had never been a member of the party.
The other 10—screenwriters Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Ring Lardner Jr., Samuel Ornitz and Dalton Trumbo, directors Herbert Biberman and Edward Dmytryk, and producer Adrian Scott—refused to answer, citing their First Amendment rights. The “Hollywood Ten” were held in contempt of Congress and given prison sentences of six months to a year.
The following day, members of the Association of Motion Picture Producers met secretly at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York and issued what is now known as the “Waldorf Statement.” It read, “We will forthwith discharge or suspend without compensation those in our employ and we will not re-employ any of the 10 until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist.”
The Waldorf Statement effectively established the “Hollywood Blacklist” that would exist over the next decade. Many in Hollywood who had belonged to communist organizations or held communist or socialist sympathies would be called before HUAC. They faced a difficult choice; they could either cooperate with the committee and inform on their colleagues or they could refuse to testify, effectively ending their careers.
“Don’t present me with the choice of either being in contempt of this Committee and going to jail or forcing me to really crawl through the mud to be an informer,” said actor Larry Parks before HUAC’s second round of hearings in 1951. Parks would agree to testify, admitting that he once belonged to a communist organization and naming former colleagues. Others, most notably director Elia Kazan, would make the same choice, earning the scorn of others in Hollywood.
Those who refused to testify would join the Hollywood Ten in being blacklisted, forced to work in theatre or move to Europe. Others worked under assumed names, like the Ten’s Dalton Trumbo, who won an Academy Award in 1956 under the name “Robert Rich.”
The power of the blacklist began to deteriorate in the late 1950s, as there was a backlash to the rabid anti-communist actions of HUAC and Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Blacklisted writers slowly began to be hired, and in 1960 Trumbo became the first of the Ten to receive a writer’s credit since being blacklisted.
Key Players: The Hollywood Ten
The University of California-Berkeley provides biographies of each member of the Hollywood Ten.
Historical Context: HUAC and McCarthyism
Sources in this Story
- BNet (St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture): Blacklisting
- Florida International University: How the Film and Television Blacklists Worked
- PBS: American Masters: Elia Kazan
- San Francisco Chronicle: He was blacklisted in a national witch hunt. Yet writer Dalton Trumbo never lost his integrity
- University of Houston: Digital History: The Second Red Scare
- The Hollywood Renegades Archive (National Screen Actor): SAG Remembers the Blacklist
- The Ayn Rand Institute: The Big Lie in Hollywood: The Hollywood Ten Were Not Victims But Villains
- Slate: Blacklist and Backstory
- Modern Times: Blacklist: A Different Look at the 1947 HUAC Hearings
Following World War II, as the Soviet Union installed communist governments in Eastern Europe, many feared that communism could spread into the United States. HUAC began to focus on the infiltration of communism in government and society.
In 1948, a HUAC investigation led to charges against former State Department official Alger Hiss, an accused communist spy. He would be convicted two years later of perjury.
In 1950, Sen. McCarthy claimed that he had a list of 205 communists in the State Department. Over the next four years, he accused many in the government of being communists with little evidence to support his claim. His overzealous and sometimes unconstitutional tactics soon caused a backlash against Congress’ anti-communist investigations and contributed to the demise of the Hollywood Blacklist.
HUAC would continue investigating un-American activities through the 1960s, but its influence was diminished as it encountered defendants who were proud of their anti-establishment credentials. As a consequence, HUAC became less effective, and was dissolved in 1975.
Opinion & Analysis: Victims or Villains?
Today, most Americans consider the blacklisted to be victims of overzealous anti-communism and consider the Hollywood Blacklist to be a shameful time in American history.
“The blacklist era was like a cancer that reached out crablike to taint both the motion picture industry and the country,” wrote Larry Ceplair, author of “The Inquisition in Hollywood,” in National Screen Actor. “It constrained creativity and thought, weakened civil liberties, and debased culture.”
Michael Berliner, former executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, disputes this notion, believing that the Hollywood Ten were “not victims, but villains.” He writes that, “The Hollywood Ten littered their movie scripts with Soviet propaganda” and rebukes them for believing in an evil idealogy. “Far from being pitiable victims, the Hollywood Ten and their followers have the blood of millions on their hands,” he concludes.
Slate’s Jacob Weisberg dismisses the idea that “Hollywood Communism was a significant threat to democracy.” He writes, “The Hollywood Communists, most of them screenwriters, were overpaid hacks, not dangerous revolutionaries. The examples of ‘propaganda’ they slipped into scripts are few and laughable.”
Ceplair defends any errors in judgment made by the Hollywood Ten. “Despite any mistakes they committed along the way,” he said, “those blacklisted did much less harm to the U.S. than the blacklisters, who introduced fear and police-state tactics into our society and political system.”
Michael Mills, writing in Modern Times, believes that the Hollywood Ten themselves were not treated unjustly. It was not until later hearings that accused communists were forced to name names, that the government overstepped its bounds.
“As a result of the 1947 hearings only the Ten unfriendly witnesses were sentenced; and only then for their refusal to admit and then disavow their affiliation with the Communist Party, however sophomoric and foreign that sounds today,” he writes. “The tenor of the times must be taken into consideration here. None can now say that in the late 1940s there was not a genuine Communist peril.”