For one week in October 1947, the town was enthralled not with a movie opening or a celebrity scandal but with an unfolding drama in Washington, D.C.
The hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee on Communist infiltration of Hollywood imprinted on the nation’s political consciousness. In the days before C-SPAN, CNN and the Internet, it was mostly radio and newspapers that captured the proceedings for posterity.
Variety was there, too. Front-page articles detailed the testimony and the hearings’ impact on the biz.
Flinging the most mud in early testimony were Esquire film critic John Moffitt, novelist-scriptwriter Rupert Hughes and producer Sam Wood. Other “friendly” witnesses included Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan and Gary Cooper.
Moffitt created a sensation Oct. 21 with a veiled charge that several alleged Communists in Hollywood were implicated in an attempt to get restricted military information. He also attacked the Story Analysts Guild, charging that readers “gave poor reports on stories not submitted by their commie friends.”
And Moffitt named names — everyone from Robert Rossen to Ring Lardner — saying they used “the drop of water” technique in injecting propaganda to gradually condition the minds of Americans along communist lines.
Objecting to the insinuations, lawyer Charles Katz, who repped some of the 19 supposed commies subpoenaed to testify the following week, “got up from his front row seat and called out, ‘Mr. Chairman, I represent a number of persons…”
Committee chairman J. Parnell Thomas (R-N.J.) rapped his gavel and ordered him to sit down. When he didn’t, Katz was dragged out of the committee room “on the arms of a couple of policemen.”
It got worse.
Screenwriter Hughes bitterly attacked Communists whom he declared too cowardly to reveal themselves. He said producers were lax in cleaning Communists out of Hollywood and instead paid them lavish salaries. The “roughest” testimony, Variety opined, was from Wood, who rattled off a long list of supposed subversives, including directors John Cromwell and Edward Dmytryk and writers Dalton Trumbo and Donald Ogden Stewart.
Wood, said Variety, was “most emphatic about writer John Howard Lawson, and occasionally cracked scornfully about the group of Hollywood writers and directors seated in the room who are slated as ‘unfriendly witnesses’ for hearings next week.”
Also in the early sessions, thesp Adolphe Menjou and novelist Ayn Rand “performed” for the committee, offering some of the more colorful testimony.
The actor alternated pithy putdowns with fuzzy logic. Said Variety: “Menjou contradicted himself several times by stating over and over that alleged Communists should not be deprived of their right to work but should be brought out into the open and carefully watched. On the other hand, he told the committee that he approved of legislation to outlaw Communism.”
Rand, a refugee from the Soviet regime, had been asked by the committee to critique the MGM movie “Song of Russia,” and she did so with apparent relish.
Said the paper: “She ripped into the picture and its angles as though she were trying to prove that Louis Mayer’s views of its purity were vapid and that he wouldn’t know a Communist angle if he fell over it.” Rather, she went on, the clean streets, the lack of bread lines and homeless children, the abundance of radios and tractors were there to suggest “how favorable life was under a totalitarian Soviet.”
In short, she concluded, it all “made me sick.”
Those accused by the committee and their showbiz colleagues didn’t take it lying down, however.
Variety published a statement Lawson made in response to attacks against him that he was not allowed to make publicly. It suggested that the attacks “gain significance only because it opens the way to similar destruction of any citizen whom the committee selects for annihilation.”
In late November the House moved to approve citations against a clutch of Hollywood luminaries for not responding to the question “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” They included not only Trumbo, Dmytryk, Lawson and Lardner but also screenwriters Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Lester Cole and Alvah Bessie as well as directors Herbert Biberman and Adrian Scott. They became known as the Hollywood Ten.
And, in what Variety called one of the most significant film industry meetings ever, the Motion Picture Assn. also voted “to fire or suspend” the 10 and “to not in future knowingly employ a Communist.”