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Free Film School #52: The Hollywood Black List Sucked

One of the biggest scandals of the 20th Century still lingers in the industry's subconscious. Find out why. 

 

In previous installments of the Free Film School, right here in the cyber-ivied halls of CraveOnline U, I have spent many breathless hours enthusiastically hying some great filmmakers, discussing the importance of great films, intellectually dissecting various cinematic facets (to the best of my abilities), and walking you through some of the chapters in filmmaking history that have dictated the way we exploit certain film trends today. On the whole, it has been a very up-with-film positive experience. Even my lecture on the philosophy of bad movies was positive on bad movies.

This week, however, we're going to be looking briefly at a hurtful and shameful chapter in Hollywood history. Not all of the filmmaking world's actions are positive, and some of the personalities in the biz are downright mean (joke: insert the name of your least favorite director here). This week we're going to be tying Hollywood history to political history, and trudging lightly through that touchy period of American post-war paranoia known as The Red Scare.

This is going to gloss over a lot of details. This is, after all, only a brief history. Please don't leave comments mentioning what I omitted, or how I forgot to stress the importance of, or perhaps oversimplified, a certain historical moment. I encourage you to go to a library to find more information, should you be inclined; portions of this lecture will only serve as an introduction.

For those of you youngsters who haven't yet been required to read Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and who didn't grow up during the Cold War and vague anti-Communist sentiment, let me give a brief rundown on two American institutions well known today for their intolerant anti-Communist stance: The House Un-American Activities Committee (or HUAC) and one Senator Joseph McCarthy. The two were not involved with one another, but they both seem to have a similar agenda. Even before World War II, America had a fearful, combative view of the Communist governments in China and Russia. In Asia, Americans saw certain nations take up Communist governments, and began to see Communism as a form of political disease that could be passed into unsuspecting nations. Thoughts of America becoming insidiously “infected” with Communism began to circulate through the American consciousness. This battle of ideologies would remain tense all the way through the early 1990s when Russia finally underwent a coup.

In 1947, HUAC was formed to investigate (among other things) the potential Communist takeover of America through secretive means. HUAC investigated any and all organizations in the U.S. looking for secret Commies hidden in the woodwork. It was following in the footsteps of other similar committees that would look for, well, un-American activity in the government-sponsored Works Progress Administration (or WPA) which was part of Roosevelt's New Deal. To see some of the WPA attacks in action, I highly recommend that you watch Tim Robbins' excellent 1999 theater history film Cradle Will Rock, which dramatizes the role that the production of a protest-themed 1937 musical played in anti-Communist investigations, and how mere fear of Reds tore so much freedom asunder. I like Cradle Will Rock a lot.

HUAC eventually started looking at Hollywood. The Hollywood community had notoriously rumored to have been peopled with ultra-liberal arty types and (gasp) homosexuals who, in the mind of HUAC, were ripe for Communist thinking. There was, in the late 1940s, a somewhat strong (or at least very visible) American Communist Party, and this scared many people, both in the government and out. Many people reacted accusatorily. All labor strikes, even within the entertainment industries, had been blamed on Communist infection. Any whiff of anti-government sentiment was seen as a blackened cloud of Communist evil creeping into the purity of America. Yes, it was a time of paranoia.

Around the same time as HUAC's formation and their investigations into the entertainment industry (to be specific, 1950), a Senator named Joseph McCarthy came to prominence with a strict and vocal anticommunist stance. He famously made angry speeches, while holding lists in his hand which, he claimed, contained a number of confirmed Communist party members. McCarthy's base fear tactic may seem transparent by today's standards, but he did gain a goodly amount of infamy by fanning the Red Scare flames. His “lists,” however, did not hold up to much scrutiny, as the number of names on his list bounced around a lot. McCarthy was eventually (and rather famously) ousted on national TV for his clear fear-mongering. Have you no decency, sir? Even though his accusations were unfounded, the damage was done, and anticommunist sentiment was left to grow.

Which all leads me, finally, to the Hollywood Blacklist. The HUAC began putting Hollywood workers on trial for their suspected Communist leanings. Screenwriters and actors and a few directors were actually called to trial. The infamous question “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” comes from these trials. People were asked not only to confess to the sin of being a Communist, but would be granted a lenient punishment if they led the HUAC to other suspected Communists. Um… seriously, read or watch The Crucible. The people on trial were often very staunch, and refused to co-operate with the HUAC, risking censure, in order to express their outrage over the HUAC's largely unconsitutional scare-tactic investigations. At the end, a group of ten people refused to co-operate. They were nicknamed The Hollywood Ten. Eventually, the MPAA responded to these HUAC attacks by essentially rejecting anyone with Communist leanings, or who had been accused. A list started to form of anyone the MPAA refused to touch thanks to their controversial association with the iffy trials. Hence, the Blacklist began.

Over the next few years, dozens of hardworking and talented filmmakers were brought to trial. Were any of them criminals? Perhaps. But their treatment is now most certainly considered to be unfair and unconstitutional. The very act of accusing someone was enough to damn them. Many filmmakers had to flee the country to avoid prosecution, or, more basically, to find work. Jobs dried up for the accused. In some cases, screenwriters had their names excised from their projects. It also didn't help that it was in the early 1950s that the famed Studio System began to crumble thanks to some high-profile antitrust trials conducted by Howard Hughes (which I talked about in my lecture on The Studio System). It looked like the film industry was entirely breaking down.

Many high profile stars did speak out against the unfair actions of HUAC , but those who refused to speak at trial, and who specifically refused to accuse other Communists were put on The Blacklist. Elmer Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, Dalton Trumbo, and Jules Dassin were only a few of the people whose careers suffered (and sometimes ceased for many years) as a result of the Blacklist. Those who weren't forced into exile were forced into poverty or jail. Anticommunist sentiment was so strong, newspapers started to get published on the topic, each with their own personal blacklist. After a while, it seemed like anyone who had ever worked with a camera in any capacity was secretly a Communist.

Elia Kazan, the director of such great Oscar-winning American classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and Gentleman's Agreement has, thanks to the HUAC witch-hunt, a dubious legacy. Kazan, you see, was one of the filmmakers put on trial who very openly named names, and turned in his colleagues rather than accept punishment. It cannot be argued that he has made some great films, nor that Kazan is perhaps the one responsible for introducing a new generation of great method actors to Hollywood, but it could be argued that he did a horrible and petty thing. He later said in interviews that he did not regret what he did. If you watched the 1999 Academy Awards telecast, you'll see Kazan receiving an Honorary Award for an amazing film career. You'll also notice that many of the people in the audience openly refused to applaud for the guy. The Red Scare was long over, but we're still raw about it.

In the mid 1950s, the Blacklist was at its longest, even though actual Communist propaganda was still difficult to locate. Any film with a political-leaning slant is, today, accused of having “an agenda.” The left-leaning films still have a whiff of the HUAC accusation on it. Even if a film does have a political agenda, labeling any of them to be actual propaganda is an iffy proposition at best, and can rarely be proven. Only certain films (the films of, say Michael Moore, or perhaps Atlas Shrugged, Part I) really do have an open political agenda, and such films that are so open cannot be accused of sneaking in a liberal message. Remember when certain pundits accused The Muppets of taking on a political, anti-right-wing stance, merely because it featured a wicked rich man? This sort of talk traces a direct line back to the HUAC investigations.

Eventually, Hollywood began to speak out strongly and in earnest against the HUAC. If you can track down a 1956 Bette Davis film called Storm Center, you'll see that it was a very pointed anti-HUAC film about a strong librarian who refuses to censor a particular book about Communism. By 1957, the Blacklist started to lose its power. Defiant producers would hire blacklisted directors and writers less out of sympathy for their politics, and more as a razz to the HUAC. Some directors began openly and defiantly re-inserting the credits of blacklisted writers. Most famously, Dalton Trumbo, the writer of famous Hollywood epics like Exodus and Spartacus, and one of the original Hollywood Ten, was granted his screenwriting credits back. Trumbo's story is detailed in a rather fascinating 2007 documentary called Trumbo. You'll find that many Hollywood actors, to this day, are sore about the HUAC's hunt.

And it is ridiculous, to offer an editorial. Censorship, especially political censorship, stands in direct contrast to our constitutionally protected right to express our political concerns and redress grievances. If a screenwriter decides to criticize the government with a screenplay, and a studio decides that the criticism is both salient and bankable, then they all have a right to express that. The political hunting and investigations is unfortunate and shameful.

An Important Thing to Remember: Films, however, do not exist in a political vacuum, and any film with a clear (or even subtle) political agenda is ripe for the picking apart. If you're going to make a film that expressed an extreme political viewpoint, be prepared to bear the wrath of anyone who doesn't agree with your agenda. Also, as a critic, if I sense a political agenda in a film, I will have to point it out. I can't just criticize a film's technical artistry; I also have to address what seems to be on the filmmaker's mind. If I were moved to bring my own personal political views into the review (which some would say is unwise), I have to state that that is my subjective opinion. Films can be political animals. The politics and agenda is something we have to acknowledge.

But no filmmaker should be censured merely for having a political agenda. Or, indeed, for merely having any sort of personal politics. The actions of the HUAC were a sad time in Hollywood history that smacked of suspicion and prejudice.

Eventually the HUAC's power waned so much, it was eventually dismantled, and absorbed into other government agencies. It wasn't until the 1960s that the Red Scare died out entirely. The threat of Communist writers and actors is now never talked about. Although, one could argue that the rhetoric remains with us. Political pundits, critics, and people of all stripes are often given to accusatory language when it comes to political discussions. Words like “Commie” and “Nazi” are thrown about with all the casualness of a game of angry hacky-sack.

So when you sense that a film or filmmaker doesn't share your personal agenda, you can point that out. You can even get outraged. You can write angry essays as to why certain political viewpoints are “right” and others are “wrong” or how a very particular mixture of viewpoints may be the best way to go, or the opposite of all that. But it's not our job to censure or to censor. It's our job to keep the political conversation constantly open.

 

Homework for the Week:

Watch a film written by Dalton Trumbo. Then watch a film by Elia Kazan. Do you think they had a political agenda? Watch Cradle Will Rock, or Frank Darabont's Frank Capra tribute The Majestic, which talks about the blacklist. Learn about HUAC, and suss out what their motivations were. When you see a film, do you think about the politics of the filmmaker? Should politics be considered when looking at a movie? If so, how much? If you disagree with a film's politics, does that make it better or worse? Do you often feel that filmmakers have an agenda? Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?