A political free-for-all involving the White House, the FBI, Congress, the media, and Russia — sound familiar? Those groups have dominated the headlines for the past month in the Donald Trump-James Comey battle, but they were also the players nearly 70 years ago, as Hollywood dealt with the blacklist.
Back then, as now, there were questions of patriotism, American loyalty, and sincerity — whether some participants were genuinely searching for truth, or whether it was all showboating.
On June 8, 1949, an FBI report stated flatly that many show-business celebrities were communists, including Fredric March (already a two-time Oscar winner), Edward G. Robinson, and singer-actor-activist Paul Robeson. The names were provided by unnamed sources.
But two weeks later, Variety declared that this “explosive” news was backfiring: “Hollywood — and showbiz in general — feels it has won a notable victory during the past 10 days in its war against the ‘Red’ label.” Variety said editorial writers, columnists, and interviews with man-on-the-street citizens agreed that the names on the FBI reports “were used indiscriminately.” What’s more, President Harry S. Truman held a press conference saying that this list was just hysteria.
Back in 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee — apparently nicknamed HUAC because HCUAA was unpronounceable — began a series of hearings to determine how much communists had infiltrated Hollywood.
On Oct. 20, 1947, Variety ran a long setup piece, saying the hearings would be covered by an unprecedented 90 reporters representing print, TV, radio, newsreels, and photos. A news commentator with the single name Flannery wrote in Variety that he doubted whether “the scarlet brethren” had actually introduced much propaganda into movie scripts; he raised the question whether the hearings were just political grandstanding.
Among the first witnesses was director Sam Wood (“A Night at the Opera,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”) who testified that there were indeed many communists in Hollywood. Asked if one group needed to be monitored more than others, he said, “writers.”
A week later, Variety ran a one-page ad under the headline “Hollywood Fights Back.” More than 200 Hollywood notables signed a brief statement saying they were “disgusted and outraged” at HUAC’s attempts to smear the motion picture industry. The statement said, “Any investigation into the political beliefs of the individual is contrary to the basic principles of our democracy; any attempt to curb freedom of expression and to set arbitrary standards of Americanism is in itself disloyal to both the spirit and the letter of our Constitution.”
Among the many showbiz heavyweights who signed this were Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, George S. Kaufman, Gene Kelly, Groucho Marx, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles, William Wyler, and Billy Wilder. Also among the signers: March and Robinson.
Two years later, a woman named Judith Coplon was on trial for espionage and a list of Hollywood names was found in her purse; the FBI (under J. Edgar Hoover) said they were communists. These were big names in 1949, while many of the other folks who had been named in the two years of hearings were writers, i.e., had much lower profiles in American households.
However, in the days that followed the explosive June 8 revelation of the Hollywood names, many media members pooh-poohed it. For example, they wrote that March had tried to raise funds for Russia, which was a one-time ally of the U.S. and had been devastated during World War II. Russian sympathy was not the same as being a communist, they reminded. Truman’s press statement seemed to put an end to the June 8 FBI “evidence.” But still, the HUAC investigations continued.
Some, like writer Dalton Trumbo, were imprisoned after refusing to testify or to renounce accusations. Many other individuals were blacklisted — or “graylisted,” meaning they weren’t officially nixed, but Hollywood just didn’t hire them. Some moved to New York or Europe to work there.
On Sept. 19, 1951, Paramount executive Frank Freeman addressed the L.A. Ad Club, lamenting the fact that Hollywood was giving full cooperation to HUAC. At that point, the House group was conducting its fifth hearing into the film industry. “Why don’t other industries get the same treatment?” asked Freeman. “Is it because the names in Hollywood will provide headlines?”