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When Hollywood caved to the House Un-American Activities Committee

“This is the beginning of an American concentration camp.”

Those words shook the Washington courtroom as Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo shouted over a slamming gavel. Trumbo was one of many who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation into communist influence in motion pictures.

The Hollywood blacklist is one of the most written about eras of film history but also one of the least understood. Thomas Doherty’s illuminating new “Show Trial” presents readers with the tumultuous state of labor relations in the American film industry that led to several investigations into Hollywood, culminating in 1947.

As Doherty explains, the relationship between labor and the studios was always strained. During the 1930s and early 1940s, the mob-run International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) kept relations tense. By the end of 1945, less-than-peaceful strikes organized by IATSE and the more radical Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) took center stage. Although Doherty notes that formal support for communism never held much of a base in America, time was ripe for speculation as to who was driving this growing agitation in Hollywood.

In the 1930s, House Democrats in Congress investigated radical influence in Hollywood. In 1941, the isolationist Gerald Nye (R-N.D.) accused Hollywood’s Jewish studio bosses of war propaganda. While the attack on Pearl Harbor put an end to Nye’s investigation, Congress targeted Hollywood again after World War II, this time focusing on possible communist influence in movies.

The HUAC examination of Hollywood was a complete media circus. However, as Doherty observes, “the congressional show trial was not a celebrity marriage, a scandalous divorce, or a shocking indiscretion; it was the serious stuff of Communism versus democracy, national security versus freedom of expression.”

The HUAC investigations split Hollywood into two camps. On one side, the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals found footing with the pro-defense crowd. On the other side, the anti-HUAC Committee for the First Amendment comprised naive yet well-intentioned fellow travelers who would quickly disband when subpoenas turned into jail sentences.

The hearings brought to the stand both friendly and unfriendly witnesses. Big names made up a long list of friendly witnesses with studio bosses like Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer and Walt Disney reading prepared statements. Stars such as Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan and Robert Montgomery also presented their patriotism to the committee. Unfriendly witnesses subpoenaed to the hearings were largely made up of writers like John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie and Trumbo. Ten of the unfriendly witnesses would be found in contempt of court, fined and sentenced to a year in prison before being blacklisted by the film industry. The Hollywood Ten, as they would be known, were the first of a long list of movie industry employees shut out of work for the coming decades.

The official blacklist originated from a meeting of powerful Hollywood moguls, producers and industry lawyers at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City in 1947. Motion Picture Association of America president Eric Johnston called the closed-door meeting to discuss the potential consequences of employing known communists. Doherty explains that Hollywood leaders felt they had only two options: “Continue to employ the men and risk the further alienation of the American public — or flat-out fire the ten liabilities.” By the end of the hearings, it was clear that most Americans were suspicious of Hollywood. Therefore, if Hollywood wouldn’t cut ties with the communists, then the moguls feared moviegoers would simply blacklist the industry.

There have been countless studies and articles on the Hollywood blacklist, but most undercut their research by standing against the Hollywood moguls and producers who were in the Waldorf meeting. Doherty is not so quick to throw Hollywood under the bus, as these men were responding to an impossible situation forced upon them by the government. With accessible prose and astute academic insight, Doherty shows us that both the studios and the Hollywood Ten were victims of HUAC. His “Show Trial” is likely to become the standard authority on the genesis of the Hollywood blacklist.


Author's note: This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post

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