McCarthyism in Hollywood (Part Four)


Mccarthyism in hollywood Dr StrangeloveThis section briefly explains the long term impact of the McCarthy period on Hollywood politics, as well as looking at the various ways in which the undermining of the blacklist, from the shifting content of pictures to the increased prevalence of unfriendly witnesses, helped to contribute to the demise of HUAC. Finally, it will be considered to what extent there was a genuine risk posed to Hollywood by supposed subversives in the industry. Although they would not have gone so far as to bring down the committee, some testimonies from unfriendly witnesses provide an insight into everything that was unjust about HUAC, thus helping to at least contribute to the committee’s downfall by undermining their credibility. The actor Lionel Stander did just this, when asked whether he knew of subversive elements attempting to undermine America he responded with the following:

"I know of a group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the Constitution of the United States by depriving artists and others of life and liberty... I also know of a group of ex-fascists and anti-Semites, people who hate everybody including Negroes and minority groups" - Lionel Stander, 1953

Belton argues that he was of course ‘speaking about the committee themselves’ (1994: 243), they denied free speech and thinking which was meant to be part of the democratic environment that they were so adamant on creating with the hearings. Later in an interview he stated that the plan all along was to expose them as being the un-Americans, which is what he achieved; he effectively turned the inquisition-like nature of the hearings on its head and insulted HUAC, pointing out their hypocrisies and prejudices. Martin Ritt, the blacklisted director of the film The Front (1976) would later state that the country owes an "everlasting debt" to those who stood up to the committee, without whom McCarthy’s influence may have been exerted for a longer period. Schrecker says that the McCarthy period itself derived its power from the willingness of the men who ran the nation to ‘condone serious violations of civil liberties in order to eradicate what they believed was the far more serious danger of communism’ (1998: xiii), thus it was important for people such as Lionel Stander to point these actions out to the committee when testifying. Ironically, Elia Kazan stated that communists violated the daily practices of democracy and attempted to control thought & suppress personal opinion, while Maland points out that this approach could have equally well described the practices of HUAC (1982: 112), an assessment that appears fair when considering Stander's testimony. Consequently, it is evident that HUAC was undermined even during the prime of its influence. Lionel Stander stated that he defied the committee using every constitutional amendment there was to keep them from silencing  him, in so doing he contradicted almost every facet of the trials under the McCarthy period. This is not however, to detract from the large influence it had over Hollywood; it in fact helps exemplify why this was a contentious moment in Cold War history. The fact that such an unjust committee was able to create such a climate of fear which ‘ruined and changed lives forever’ (Lev, 2003: 85) is a testament to its importance.

The shift in the content of pictures that emerged from the 1960s is an indication of the start of the faltering influence of HUAC in the decade. For example it is extremely questionable whether Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick, 1964) would have been allowed to be released during the peak of HUAC’s influence. Despite being released just over a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War satire ridiculed not just Russians, but more importantly American ambassadors, military personal, advisors and the president as they futilely tried to prevent a nuclear disaster. At the time of the release of the picture, it came under attack by many who judged its lack of patriotism, it was even stated by a correspondent to the New York Times that ‘it is an anti-American tract unmatched in invective by even our declared enemies’ (Quoted in Godchild, 2004: 309). The New York Times themselves at the time stated how they were troubled at its ‘discredit and contempt for our whole defence establishment’ (Crowther, 1968).

Mccarthyism in hollywood Dr Strangelove

Strada points out that the Russian characters in the picture are ‘no worse’ (1997: 109) than any of the American ones, those in authority are depicted as inept at their important job and their short sightedness leads to a nuclear holocaust. By criticising both sides equally, Dr Strangelove acts as an attack on the whole apparent absurdity of the Cold War consensus. The character of General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has been described as a ‘caricature’ of the patriotic obsession that characterised the anti-communist rhetoric of many American policy makers. His speech in which he sates he will no longer accept “communist infiltration, communist doctrinarian or communist subversion” links Ripper with those who ‘continued to see a communist conspiracy everywhere’ (Mannix. 1993: 149), not least HUAC themselves who questioned unfriendly witnesses as to whether they were aware of the communist party’s conspiracy to apparently take over the world. While the novel on which it was based was a serious piece of work, the adaptation of the picture into a satire was a demonstration of how Hollywood directors were, in the 1960s, able to break free from the confinements of censoring imposed by HUAC. They could create pictures which no longer had to resort to metaphors to criticise aspects of American policy as was the case with High Noon, instead Dr Strangelove was able to literally ‘attack the entire American system and speak with the mordant spirit that signalled the cultural disaffection for American authority’ (Henriksen, 1997: 339).

Many blacklisted writers in the 1950s had to write under pseudonyms, using other screenwriters as a ‘front’ for their work. For example, an original member of the Hollywood ten, Albert Maltz, was  nominated for an Oscar in 1950 for Broken Arrow (Daves, 1950) under the name Michael Blankford. More famously, Dalton Trumbo even won screenwriting awards twice under false names for Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953) and The Brave One (Rapper, 1956). However, by the 1960s this was no longer necessary; the re-emergence of the unfriendly witness and original member of the Hollywood Ten, the aforementioned Dalton Trumbo, was marked by the fact that he was able to freely be acknowledged as being the screenwriter for the film Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960). John F. Kennedy himself crossed picket lines to attend, while the film itself alluded to the bravery of the unfriendly witnesses in its famous "I'm Spartacus" scene, in which the slaves heroically stood up to the Roman leaders and refused to incriminate Spartacus (Kirk Douglas). However, Bernstein states that this did not automatically crush the blacklist, rather it ‘dissolved more gradually’ (2000: 230). Although the existence and the events surrounding films such as Spartacus would have severely sabotaged HUAC, it is true that it was not until the 1980s when blacklisted screenwriters who used pseudonyms were finally credited with the films they had been involved in, consequently it is fair to view the 1960s as the beginning of the end of the blacklist rather than the killing blow.

The Front McCarthyismDespite it not being until the 1980s that writers got their proper credit, Hollywood was already directly criticising the events of the 1950s in the preceding decade, the aforementioned The Front was a film set in the 1950s with a cast largely made up of blacklisted workers themselves. It depicted the aforementioned process of screenwriters writing under pseudonyms where the character of Howard Prince (Woody Allen) agrees to put his names on the scripts of blacklisted television writers firstly for the money, but later on because his primary goal is to stop people from being hurt by McCarthy. Hall states that such revisionist texts existed to reflect the general consensus: 'that the tactics of the committee were wrong' (2000: 18). It emerged at a time in which there was a very public shift in opinion and re-emergence of free speech regarding the politics of the 1950s. Unlike the ‘guilty by association’ mentality that characterised the period, in which many were simply scared of pledging their support for alleged communists, the reassessing of friendly witnesses revealed that they were being freely regarded as heroes by the 1970s. An example of this occurred a year after the release of The Front, when blacklisted playwright Lillian Hellman received an Academy Award, Herzberg states that the standing ovation she received was not so much because of her work but because of her ‘courageous stand against HUAC during the McCarthy era’ (2001: 273).

Fried states that Cold War anxieties meant that America developed an obsession with domestic communism that outran the actual threat (1995: 77), the political climate of the post war years created a collection of individuals who became convinced that Hollywood offered one of the best chances for subversives within America to undermine democracy and reach out to the public. The motives of the committee are thus questionable when arguing whether the cinema really did offer a genuine threat through propaganda. There is an overwhelming amount of historiography to suggest that the investigations themselves were unnecessary and especially unjustified considering the damaging impact that it had for those who were condemned by the blacklist. Schrecker states that while the communist threat was not a total fantasy, it was nonetheless exaggerated (2001: 6), in addition to this, Lewis says that in 1947 only 10% of those polled in a gallup poll from the Audience Research Institute (unit formed to perform market research for the studios) believed there ‘were all that many communists in the film industry’ (2000: 8) and that the majority of those who supported the committee's contention were already ‘stridently’ anti-communist and thus adamant that there was a threat. The closest that the committee got to uncovering pro-Soviet leanings within films were the aforementioned World War Two propaganda pictures, although it is definitely true that HUAC rightly concluded that the overwhelming power of the cinema did have the ability to shape opinion and that there did exist communists within the motion picture industry. With hindsight it is easy to see that they overestimated the potential for Hollywood to shape American ideals to the extent that audiences watching films would be inclined to become subversives themselves. Indeed, Shaw agrees that ‘HUAC failed, both in the 1940s and 50s to uncover any hard proof of communist infiltration’ (2010, 19), even for individuals deemed ‘red’ by the committee. The closest their films came to constituting propaganda was that they contained vaguely liberal messages.

In 1953 Truman himself provided a summary that he believed characterised the period. The former president said that McCarthyism represented "the corruption of truth and the abandonment of our historical devotion to fair play... the use of the technique of the big lie and the unfounded accusation". An article from the Daily Worker in 1954 defined this ‘big lie’ that McCarthy had been propagating as the idea that the United States faced a menace from the communist party in the U.S.A. Truman’s quote suggested that the fear of communism was being manipulated in order to create a climate of hysteria, reasons for creating such a climate according to several historians was for politicians to simply increase their standing. Fried says that hunting reds was a ‘passport to fame’ (1995: 77) since it became the focal point for many politicians careers. Belton says the Army-McCarthy hearings exposed the senator as a ‘self-serving demagogue who would do anything to advance his own career’ (1994: 164), while Morgan says that McCarthy was capitalising on the fears in American society, ‘whipping a dead horse and exploiting the environment for political advantage’ (2004: xiii-xiv). What these sources suggest is that the threat posed by domestic communism was at least exaggerated; Gladchuck states that the nature, orientation and ideology of the domestic communist party at the time was ‘in no way comparable with what was being nurtured in Soviet Russia’ (2007: 32). Thus, not only was McCarthy apparently propagating a lie with regard to how many communists existed within America, but those that did exist were not even comparable to the reality of the threat within Russia. If, as suggested, the witch hunts of the 1950s were in any way simply an attempt for those in power to benefit their own careers, Truman was right when he proclaimed HUAC to be "the most un American thing in America today."


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