Some people in the 21st century think “Hollywood blacklist” refers to hot-but-unproduced screenplays. Others have vague notions that the “Unfriendly 10” screenwriters were denied work because they were Communists.
Many misperceptions or forgotten facts are clarified in Bleecker Street’s film “Trumbo,” which screens Saturday at the Toronto Film Festival and opens nationwide Nov. 6. Adding to those details are five other points worth remembering.
1. It didn’t start in the 1940s.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities (later known as HUAC), was formed in 1938 under Martin Dies Jr., who said Hollywood was filled with Communists. Two years later, the mainstream press printed 42 names under investigation, including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Katharine Hepburn. On Feb. 16, 1940, Daily Variety editor Al Unger mocked the senator, saying Dies was just seeking publicity and had no facts, just suspicions. In a short time, Dies concluded that he had met with the 42 and they were fine, with the possible exception of actor Lionel Stander.
2. A lot of big names were involved.
World War II silenced HUAC but in 1946, a Hollywood trade paper fueled the country’s anti-Communist feelings with a series of editorials, and the HUAC hearings began Oct. 20, 1947. The first week included testimony by Walt Disney, SAG president Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand (who answered questions but didn’t name names), plus Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer. Sam Wood, who directed “A Night at the Opera” and “Goodbye Mr Chips,” among many others, did name names. Asked what group must be watched more carefully than the rest, Wood replied: “Writers.”
3. Some people did speak up against it.
Fearing bad publicity, studio heads vowed to hire no Communists and pressured employees to remain silent. But on Oct. 29, 1947, a week into the hearings, Variety ran an ad signed by 116 individuals who said they were “disgusted and outraged” by the attempts to smear the industry. Headlined “Who’s Un-American?” the ad included the names Leonard Bernstein, Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, John Huston, George S. Kaufman, Arthur Miller, Gregory Peck, S.J. Perelman, Otto Preminger, William Wyler — and writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan, who both later testified before the committee. Four years later, on Sept. 18, 1951, Paramount head Y. Frank Freeman spoke to the Los Angeles Press Club blasting HUAC for its fifth set of hearings into Hollywood. “We would like to know why other fields, other industries don’t get the same treatment? Is it because the ‘names’ in Hollywood will provide headlines?” He also criticized Hollywood for cooperating. But these protests were the exceptions.
4. Joseph McCarthy wasn’t involved.
His name is synonymous with blacklist hearings, but he wasn’t involved in Hollywood. In 1950, more than two years after the HUAC hearings began, he claimed the U.S. government and military had been infested with people who were Communists and/or homosexuals. Finally, at a televised hearing on June 9, 1954, an outraged Joseph Welch demanded of McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” The confrontation signaled an end to all the hearings.
5. It took a long time to make reparations.
Hundreds of people were blacklisted, just for being suspicious. During the blacklist, some screenplays were attributed to “fronts,” and those credits remained in place for decades. In the late 1960s, the Writers Guild of America created a Blacklist Credits Committee to investigate the true authorship of many scripts. The committee became particularly active in the 1990s. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences changed its records based on WGA findings. Between 1975 and 1992, the Acad corrected the Oscar records for “The Brave One,” “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Roman Holiday.” In 1999, Daily Variety’s Army Archerd talked with Budd Schulberg, who scripted “On the Waterfront,” about the honorary Oscar being given to Elia Kazan. Schulberg predicted (correctly) that Kazan would not apologize for naming names. When Archerd reminded him of the lives and careers destroyed, Schulberg admitted that many innocent people suffered, “along with the real ones.”