McCarthyism in Hollywood (Part Three)


Biskind argues that in the McCarthy period, ‘every movie that was produced, no matter how trivial or apparently escapist, was made in the shadow of the anti-communist witch hunt’ (1983: 4). This applied even to films such as the seemingly non-related On the Waterfront (Kazan, 1954) and High Noon (Zinnemann, 1952); with an understanding of the historical events that surrounded the production of these two films it becomes clear that they both reflected the process of being a friendly witness (Director Elia Kazan) or an unfriendly witness (Screenwriter Carl Foreman) to HUAC. While Kazan made On the Waterfront to act as a justification for his testimony to the committee, Foreman made High Noon for the opposite reasons: to give a filmic portrayal of the alienation that came with opposing the committee.

During the depression years of the 1930s the film director Elia Kazan, like many directors at the time, joined the communist party for a year and a half. At a time when poverty ruled the country, ‘it was about belonging to a fraternity of like-minded individuals who perceived flaws in the American capitalist system’ (Gladchuck, 2007: 113). In January of 1952 he confessed these actions to HUAC but refused to give up names of the individuals he was in the party with. However, in an interview published in 1999 Kazan explained that after this he became concerned about the political atmosphere surrounding communism, he claimed that his future actions had to be judged by the fact that in April 1952, "The Korean war was still going on and Russia was a monolithic power... I thought that if I don’t talk then nobody will know about it" (Quoted in Young, 1999: 118).

Consequently, he took the decision in April of the same year to voluntarily return to HUAC and inform the committee of the names of those whom he knew when a member of the party. In contrast to the response to the Hollywood Ten, which was to ensure they would find it almost impossible to find employment within America for the next decade, HUAC responded to Kazan with the following statement:

"We appreciate your cooperation with our committee. It is only through the assistance of people such as you that we have been able to make the progress that has been made in bringing the attention of the American people to the machinations of this Communist conspiracy for world domination" - Frances Walter, 1953

Kazan probably was in a better position than perhaps anyone to criticise the Communist regime; having spent time in the party himself he had first-hand experience which helped to vindicate his decision for wanting to take a stand against it. However, Kazan’s actions in this instance placed an ineradicable black mark against him. He evidently felt the repercussions immediately following this testimony, as two days later he published an article in the New York Times entitled Elia Kazan: A Statement in which he explained the reasons for testifying. The article itself stated how his own experience in the party left him with "an abiding hatred of the Communist philosophy", the only way to combat such a "dangerous and alien conspiracy" he stated was to present authorities with ‘hard and exact facts.’ 

His regard for his reputation, his genuine disdain for communism and desire for others to speak out to conquer it led him to write such an article. It can be fair to argue that his decision to reverse his political sentiments did not stem out of cowardice, which is what many believed characterised friendly witnesses. His political thinking at the time was already firmly established when he made the film Viva Zapata! (1952), a film about a Mexican rebellion which had already been completed before Kazan’s testimony. This was promoted by Kazan himself as yet another (metaphorical) anti-communist picture that used the concept of a Mexican revolutionary to represent the ‘apotheosis of the communist party commissar - a man who could use and betray the people's demands to achieve power’ (Quart 2002, 45). Eldridge, similar to Kazan, states that the Korean war prompted a reconsideration of what was at stake and thus a film such as this was ‘not just a case of self-censorship but instead reflected a genuine change in attitudes’ (2006: 99). Kazan’s turn from unfriendly to friendly informer helps to legitimise the fear that communism held over people.

Despite doing his best to justify his decision, Kazan’s testimony cast a shadow over his career that was to continue until his death. As Freedman notes, ‘the mere mention of the name Elia Kazan provokes little short of hatred in the dwindling blacklist community’ (2009: 221). While Kazan evidentially gained the admiration of HUAC, he faced opposition from not just the left but also those on the right who worked in Hollywood. Because of his previous affiliations he was attacked for being both a former communist as well as a friendly witness. While he was unable to adequately justify his actions in his newspaper article, he would attempt to reconcile this with his film On the Waterfront.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) plays a dockworker employed by mob-connected corrupt union bosses led by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who unwittingly leads another worker, Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner) into the fatal ambush of Friendly. Doyle was about to testify to the Waterfront Crime Commission but was killed to prevent this. Malloy is soon pressured into informing against the bosses himself by priest Berry (Karl Malden), who also convinces dockworker Tim Dugan (Pat Henning) to testify, but Friendly has him killed before he can do so in a staged crushing. Although initially torn between the idea of losing his steady job, being labeled as a "snitch" and on the other hand wanting to punish corruption, Malloy eventually testifies. After receiving a severe beating in a fistfight between Friendly and his thugs, he returns to the docks with the support of his fellow workers.

Biskind states that On the Waterfront ‘bears the marks of its historical context and cannot be fully understood outside the passionate political controversies of which it was a part of’ (1974: 26). When looking at the journey that Terry Malloy undergoes, it is overwhelmingly evident that the film speaks out eloquently in favour of testifying. Malloy is essentially intended to represent Kazan and the film represents the bravery it took to partake in what he did. Hey argues that ‘the stages of Kazan’s testimony became the major steps of Terry Malloy’s conversion’ (1983: 169). Malloy’s transformation from a man willing to help Friendly into deploring what he stands for to the extent that he is willing to testify against him shadows Kazan’s shift from a supporter to an opponent of communism.

After the staged murder of Dugan, father Berry berates the workers for not opening their mouths and standing up to Friendly. Standing over Dugan’s body he speaks to the workers, saying: “Anyone who keeps silent about something he knows is happening shares the guilt of it (Dugan’s murder)”. While Berry is claiming that silence is just empowering the union bosses, Kazan similarly stated in his article that "secrecy only serves the communists". As argued with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, silence was a concept that was characteristic of much of society in the McCarthy period because of those who were scared of incriminating themselves or others. Schrecker notes that this concern contributed to the 1950s being a period ‘not of fear but of silence’ (1998: xi). Not only is Kazan justifying his actions, he is sending a message to Americans about the dangers of not speaking out; by keeping quiet they are merely helping the enemy, to say nothing is to be as dangerous as the communists, or dock bosses themselves.

Upon his return to work, surrounded by all of those employed in the docks, Malloy responds to the cries of Friendly's taunts of him being a rat, shouting to everyone: “I’m glad of what I done to you, you hear that? I’m glad of what I done.” If there is one moment that encapsulates Elia Kazan’s opinions, it is the moment in which he declares his pride in testifying to the commission. Kazan himself, like Malloy, did not regret what he did. In his autobiography he stated that ‘the truth is that within a year I stopped feeling embarrassed about what I had done,’ (1988: 465). The film’s message was crystal clear: ‘It’s not only okay to inform but those who do are the real heroes’ (Belton, 1994: 251).

If On the Waterfront exists to document the alienating process of being a friendly witness, High Noon exists for the opposite reasons; to critique those in Hollywood that did not stand up to the committee. Krutnik argues that like science fiction, the western genre seemed ‘particularly suited to efforts to make contemporary political allusions' (2007: 7). In 1951, Carl Foreman was called to inform to the committee after a screenwriter, Martin Berkeley, gave several names, including that of Foreman. Foreman invoked the first amendment and refused to comment, pointing out that his Americanism was reflected in his work, referring to the picture The Men (Zinnemann, 1950) which he wrote. This was a film about war veterans, which culminated in him becoming an honorary member of the Paralysed War Veterans of America. However, in opposition to the praise that Kazan received, HUAC responded to Foreman with the following statement: "In deference to the paraplegic men so honoured by you, I am afraid they are disappointed by your testimony today". Foreman was labeled an unfriendly witness, was promptly given his summons and fled to England before the premier of High Noon.

These events occurred during the filming of the picture, which followed sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who asks the townspeople whom he has protected for years to help him fend off several criminals who are returning to town with the intention to murder him. However, no one is prepared to stand by the sheriff and he is soon forced to face the outlaws alone. Murphy states that the ‘fear, anger, desperation and grim determination of Foreman’s experience is embodied in Will Kane’ (1999: 254). High Noon therefore acts as a ‘western film about Hollywood’ (Girgus, 1998: 139).

The picture demonstrated the alienating experience that characterised the process of defying the committee. Once it is established that the threatening criminals represent HUAC, the townspeople who refuse to fight the outlaws can be equated to Hollywood’s friendly witnesses who chose not to join a conflict, thus saving themselves. Drummond argues that ‘a strong projection of individual moral integrity appears to be favoured’ (1997: 82) within the film. Kane is a loner who believes that to die fighting the outlaws is more admirable than fleeing from them and surviving with his life. In the case of Foreman and indeed many who opposed HUAC, this can be read as a metaphor, that facing the blacklist or losing a job is better that turning on colleagues and naming names (the townspeople are presented as backstabbers with no loyalty). Monaco agrees that the main theme of the film is that it presents ‘how it feels to be deserted by friends and left alone to fight enemies’ (2010: 130). This is a process that characterised, for example, the relationship between Elia Kazan and playwright and unfriendly witness Arthur Miller, both of whom fell out with each other after Kazan named names.

Buhl says that with these two pictures, ‘the filmmakers were essentially creating a narrative alibi for their own roles as informers’ (2003: 166), this is an incredibly valid statement. HUAC had influenced these two individuals, who went through two completely different experiences to the point that they created pictures that shadowed their experiences. It also justifies the view that the McCarthy period resulted in the creation of films that would not have existed outside the historical context of which they were a part of.


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