MacCarthyism’s Effect on Hollywood: Introduction

Lo terminé, se lo mandé al profesor y me puso un 8,1. Me da igual, yo he aprendido y he disfrutado más que nunca, lo publicaré en cuatro o cinco fragmentos, por si a alguien le interesa. Sed bienvenidos a mi dulce Practicum…

What is known as McCarthyism in Hollywood started before Senator Joseph McCarthy was elected in 1946. It is his name which was used to refer to the Hollywood Blacklist, where names of screenwriters, producers, directors, musicians and actors were inscribed with the pretext of association with the Communist Party. It was actually J. Edgar Hoover, FBI’s president from 1924 to 1972, who kept providing information about the supposedly red Americans. The term ‘hooverism’ was also used to refer to this event. According to Reynold Humphreis, McCarthy was the chair of the committee when it regarded Communism, but he never investigated Hollywood. After the Second World War, when the United States was starting to enrich cultural and economically, and as a consequence of the Cold War, the House of Un-American Activities Committee started the so-called witch hunt. Roosevelt’s period was over and social realism, progressive point of view and liberalism came to an end. The power then, belonged to more conservative and traditional ideas, these changes influenced Hollywood’s way of producing films.

Harry Warner, from the Warnerbros Pictures, made a speech in September 1938, attacking Fascism and Nazism, he stated “You might have heard that Communism is uncontrolled in Hollywood and in the film industry. I tell you that this industry has no sympathy with Communism, Fascism, Nazism and any other ‘-ism” that is not Americanism.” (Humphries 2009, 81) Warner made reference to a Troyan horse which would divide and weaker them, he was referring to Germany, but his comment was nevertheless prophetic. He was trying to defend Hollywood (and at the same time his empire), but with this speech, what he makes clear, is that for him, Nazism and Communism were to be equally condemned. It shows the ambiguity of the time and exposes the change of public mind of the post war period. Communism had been having negative propaganda over the 30s and 40s, as it supported racial equality, which was unacceptable at the time. Blacks and whites could not be mixed, much less be considered equals. Racial equality and racial integration was considered ideas directly related to Communism.

From 1930 until 1960, Catholic priests decided what would be shown on screen. Daniel Lord, a priest, wrote the Production Code which stated what was considered acceptable content in Hollywood movies. From 1934 until the beginning of the 50s, Lord’s Code was severely imposed in the Production Code Administration (PCA), without taking into account the protests of producers, writers, directors and the studios. The PCA represented the first step of the depuration process in which all Hollywood movies were put to the vote. When movies were approved, they were sent to New York, where copies were made and distributed, but before this happened the PCA and the Catholic Legion of Decency had to watch the final version. The PCA and the Legion worked side by side and very often joined forces to avoid the studios’ offending of Catholic sensitivity. But the Legion was always ready to condemn any film they considered immoral. Hollywood was angry and scared of them because, theoretically, Catholics were forbidden, threatened by mortal sin to go and watch the movie that had been condemned. And the Catholics were 20 million people, so Hollywood could not play against them because any movie theatre that would show an ‘undesirable’ film would become the target of Catholic organizations. The industry believed that the combination of negative publicity and Catholic boycott would make any movie condemned by the Legion to obtain profit. Producers preferred to yield to the Legion’s censorship before risking their studios to lose money. They edited the ‘offensive’ material in the copies that were sent around the Earth. It is this way that the Legion’s point of view reached the international market. But it was not only the Catholic Church that wanted to control and omit certain scenes and music from the cinema. The keepers of the moral virtue of all political and religious tendencies had been scared of the cinema for some years. They knew that it had the capacity of communicating not just a simple love story, but of spreading political beliefs and change people’s moral capacity.

The screenwriter’s trade union had some problems during the 1930s and this did not help its members. Most of them wanted the same thing, but by dividing themselves, they were only damaging their future. The House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had started investigating the Communism matter in 1940. Right before the Second World War ended, the MPA (Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals) was created in 1944, which was a rightwing expression of anticommunism. United States was convinced that they had to fight against the Soviet Union and its ideas, and so this is the reason why all those new pro-American groups were created. It was not until the end of the 40s when liberals concluded that HUAC and MPA could be dangerous. In the beginning very few people were against the HUAC. In February 1944, when MPA announced its beginning, they did it through The Hollywood Reporter and they said that they were against all forms of totalitarianism, but stated “We are uncomfortable with the urging feeling that this industry is composed, and rules by communists, radicals and nuts.” (Swartz, 1982, p.206) So, it was clearly about anticommunism and not totalitarianism as they wanted the readers to believe, with that statement they betrayed themselves. In 1947 the leaders of the trade unions were forced to sign a declaration due to the Taft-Hartley law affirming they were not communists. If they refused to do it, they could not attend the National Workplace Relations Committee, and not even be the judge if there was a problem between the employer and the employee. Anti-communism became the most important ideology and very soon it would become the ruling policy.

Martin Dies, a Democrat from Texas, who became famous when he said that Hollywood was a place of ‘premature anti-fascist’, which means he was not against fascism until it came knocking to his country’s door for war. Dies had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, as had the president of HUAC: J. P. Thomas in 1947. While they were looking for communist actors, the FBI was behind the HUAC looking for evidence inside the U.S.A. J. Edgar Hoover, was scared not of the cultural attacks coming from the outside, but the attacks originated in the inside. He was convinced that the movies against fascism and pro-Soviet stated that the Communist Party was influencing Hollywood. In 1943 FBI agents entered illegally the offices of the Communist Party in LA and made a copy of their members. For four years they kept breaking into the houses of the members to check if they were still supporting the party. In October 1947 (when the sessions began) they knew that “47 actors, 45 actresses, 127 screenwriters, 8 producers and 15 directors” were communists. (Theoharis, 2002, p.155)

The FBI made a list of who they thought would cooperate in Hollywood and who would not. There are several theories of why that list was composed with those names: one possible cause is because most of them were Jew, and hence, none had done a military service. It would not look good to reprimand a war veteran. The screenwriter Alvah Bessie was the only one who fought in the Spanish Civil War supporting the Republican party. The bottom line is that the federal government had given permission to Hollywood’s most relevant stars, directors and writers not to go to war, so they would still be creating commercial movies as a patriotic gesture. They had been trapped in their own freedom. When the filmmakers were called for the sessions of 1947, they were asked if they had joined the Communist party. Most of them did not answer, as they were protected by the first amendment. The director of the HUAC, Thomas, considered that answer Communist argumentation. During the trials, he favoured more the list of people who were cooperative – friendly witness-, than the list of unfavourable.

The sessions started to be out of control and a journalist wrote “the sessions resemble much more to the Russian courts of purge than to American legal procedure” (Toledo, Ohio, Blade, 28th October). In the Chicago Sun a prophetic quote was published “That is the least American of all things; the quiet intimidation, the deaf pressure to adapt oneself, the official persecution to control thoughts. Until recently a very basic feature of Americanism was that a man could think and say what he wanted. Someday, when all this hysteria will disappear, maybe I will believe in it again.” In the Times, in Ashville, North Carolina (29th October) they wrote that “it is probable that these investigations will lead into a witch hunt, aware of causing irreparable damage in completely innocent individuals.”

The Hollywood Ten (as later did some of their other colleagues who had been called by the HUAC) instead of relying on the First Amendment – which is about denying to speak about one’s political ideas – they evoked the Fifth Amendment – which consists on not answering on the grounds of not incriminating oneself. So, they all went to prison but not because they were – presumably – communists, but because they had committed contempt of the court by not answering the questions. It is true that they had all been part of the Communist Party, but it was because at the time, during the 1930s, Communism was the only political power that seemed to be doing something for the people and fought against Fascism.

In 1953, President Eisenhower said that all the employees of the administration who could take refuge in the Fifth Amendment, would be fired. If the accused was from Hollywood, he would go directly to the black list. And to be blacklisted did not only mean not receiving job offers, no matter how good and creative the person was, it meant the impossibility to work anywhere on the creative ground, where they knew what they were doing. Some screenwriters were fired from their jobs just because they had been called by the HUAC, as would happen to High Noon’s screenwriter.  Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter of On the Waterfront, stated that the blacklisted moviemakers could have find jobs as playwriters, book writers or book publishers and editors, because those were not blacklisted, but it was not exactly true as Angus Cameron, working for the publishing house Little, Brown & Co., was included in that list and could not find a job. Several men wrote to quite a few publishing houses, and none answered. It was a path with no happy ending.

The Waldorf statement declaring that communists had to be expelled from Hollywood said: “We will forthwith discharge or suspend without compensation those in our employ and we will not re-employ any of the Ten until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist. We will not employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or through any illegal or unconstitutional method.” Later on, J. Pegler said “Ten less, we’ve got a hundred more” (Citizent-News of Hollywood, 15th December 1947). After this period, even the liberals started to be scared about the repression the Ten were suffering, and began to distance themselves from them. The Hollywood Ten were convicted of contempt, forced to pay 1.000 dollars and spend one year in jail. They went to prison in 1950, and found freedom again in 1951 when the HUAC was having the second round of sessions. Those ten people had to start looking for another job, or start to write under another name, which was against the values of the country.

In the documentary of The Legacy of the Blacklist there is a part in which Humphrey Bogart explains his point of view. He had gone to see the trials and could not believe what he was witnessing: “This is Humphrey Bogart speaking. We have been sitting in the hall of the Committee and we have heard what happened. We have seen it. We said: this cannot be happening here. We watched how the representatives elected by the people denied the right to speak to American citizens. We watched the police remove citizens from the witness stand as if they were criminals after they had been denied the right to defend themselves. We watched the President of the Committee’s gavel interrupt the statements of free American citizens. The sound of that gavel, Mister Thomas, bangs all over the United States, because every time you bang it, you do it over the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”



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