McCarthyism in Hollywood (Part Five)


goodnight and good luck mccarthyism
Giglio says that ‘the truth of the matter is that the film industry succumbed to the Red Scare hysteria’ (2010: 95). The McCarthy period created a large stream of pictures that would not have existed had it not been for the political atmosphere in which they belonged; it provides an example of the influence that government had over creative expression within the motion picture industry. HUAC imposed censorship to the extent that studios created anti-communist films, which Christensen says 'almost always lost money' (2005: 45). Even with an industry as big as Hollywood, reducing controversy seemed more important than making a profit during this period. 

As stated, the genre of science fiction depicted the human race as being at the mercy of a powerful threat. Schrecker states that the perception of the typical communist was that it was both ‘subhuman and superhuman’ (1998: 135), a being that was inferior to everyone else while simultaneously being able to exert great strength. Invasion of the Body Snatchers achieved such an analogy, yet as explained, because of the nature and creativity of the genre it simultaneously criticised the conformity of American suburbia living under McCarthyism. Regardless of what reading is adopted, the picture was just one of many that reflected the fears and realities of the United States in the 1950s.

The pressures brought on by testifying were immense, those called had to make the agonising choice between ‘losing their careers or harming their friends’ (Bresler, 2004: 52). The relationship between Elia Kazan and his working partner, playwright Arthur Miller for example was severely hampered by Kazan’s testimony. An unfriendly witness himself, he countered the heroic depiction of the informer character of On the Waterfront with his play about the Salem witch trials: The Crucible. While simultaneously equating the events of the 17th century to that of the modern day trials in America, the play also criticised those who snitched as ‘villains whose actions support and encourage wrong doing’ (Giglio, 2010: 111). When comparing the experiences of friendly and unfriendly witnesses, the long and short term repercussions for both of them strongly support the claim that ‘all involved in the process were victims’ (Gladchuck, 2007: 16).

It is obvious that the blacklistees were the clearest examples, they lost their jobs, were exiled and some even suffered premature deaths simply from the stress of their experiences, yet it is not unfair to also say that friendly witnesses suffered too. The guilt of testifying was sometimes overwhelming, the aforementioned actor Sterling Hayden was too a friendly witness, who soon regretted his decision and ‘was widely believed to have drunk himself to into a near suicidal depression’ (Buhl, 2003: 151). He referred to the 1950s in his autobiography as ‘those dreadful years of the blacklist’ (1963: 391), believing that it was not right to deprive those whom he named of their livelihood. He was just one in a long line of individuals who would be affected long after the testimonies themselves had ended. Shaw agrees that 'the wounds left by HUACs inquisition would be felt across Hollywood for decades’ (2010: 19).

the crucible arthur miller communismIndeed, over 50 years after HUACs first investigations of Hollywood, the blacklist’s influence still permeated the industry strongly. In 1999 Elia Kazan received an honorary Academy Award, many of the people in attendance refused to stand up or even applaud the director. The New York Times stated that no Academy Award has generated as much debate as the one for Mr Kazan and while the Academy agreed to honor him, the American Film Institute had refused to offer him a similar lifetime achievement award solely because of what he did in 1952. Bitterness is what still occupies the mind of many unfriendly witnesses; Martin Ritt stated that he knows of several people who, if they saw certain people on the street would spit in their faces. No one truly escaped the events of the 1950s unscathed.

The infamy of the period is such because of the way in which the blacklist was carried out as well as the questionable motives of the process. Ceplair denies the need for the investigations, arguing that the Communist Party of America ‘had never been large or influential enough that its opponents could convince a large segment of the populace that it represented a menace to American security or freedom' (2003: 202), and yet the blacklist period provides one of the best examples of the effects of the Cold War upon American society. While the threat of communism from abroad was real, looking at the events of the 1950s shows that trying to contain the domestic danger simply ‘weakened the legacy of civil liberties and tarnished the very image of a democracy’ (1996: 4). Even Elia Kazan, who had a first-hand experience and genuine distain of communism remarked that it was "embarrassing" to be on the same side as McCarthy, he simply found it hard to reconcile both anti communism and anti McCarthyism.

To this day Hollywood pictures still reproduce the McCarthy period, presenting those who stood up to the senator as brave advocates of civil liberties. Good Night, and Good Luck (Clooney, 2005) depicted Edward R Murrow’s encounter with McCarthy on his CBS television series See It Now, demonstrating how it contributed to his political downfall. It similarly represented the senator as someone who exploited the situation of fear and wanted to simply further his political agenda, with Murrow himself proclaiming in the film that: “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home”. It commented on how the raging fight against domestic communism was rendering the pursuit for liberty overseas hypocritical. Filmed in black and white using footage from the Army-McCarthy hearings it helped to ‘historically reposition' (Clute, 2011: 103) the spectators, portraying the chilling impact of the Red Scare upon American media. 

goodnight and good luck communism mccarthyism huac

Just after the first investigations took place, Eleanor Roosevelt expressed her concern about HUAC:

"What’s going on in the Un-American Activities Committee worries me primarily because little people have become frightened, we find ourselves living in the atmosphere of a police state, where people close doors before they state what they think or look over their shoulders apprehensively before expressing an opinion." - Eleanor Roosevelt, 1947

Her prophetic foresight adequately summarised what America in the 1950s would be characterised by. One could argue that she condemned the committee since her husband was the president who sanctioned the pro-Soviet films that came under attack, but nonetheless it demonstrates how events in the 1950s can be regarded as one of the best examples of the conflict between the need for American security and American freedom.


Bresler, R. 2004. Freedom of Association: Rights and Liberties Under the Law. California: ABC-CLIO.

Buhl, P. & Wagner, D. 2003. Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950–2002. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ceplair, L. 2003. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-60. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Christensen, Terry, and Haas, Peter, Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films (New York, 2005)

Cute, Shannon and Edwards, Richard, The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism (Hampshire, 2011)

Giglio, Ernest, Here's Looking at You: Hollywood, Film & Politics (New York, 2010)

Gladchuck, J. 2009. Hollywood and Anticommunism: HUAC and the Evolution of the Red Menace, 1935–1950. New York: Routledge.

Hayden, S. 1963. Wanderer. New York: Sheridan House.

McGilligan, P. & Buhle, P. 2012. Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

Roosevelt, E. ‘Hollywood and HUAC, My Day Column’. Washington Daily News. October 29 1947.

Schrecker, E. 1998. Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. New York: Little Brown Adult Books.

Shaw, T. & Youngblood, D. 2010. Cinematic Cold War: The American and Soviet Struggle for Hearts and Minds. Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Whitfield, S. 1996. The Culture of the Cold War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Young, J. 2001. Kazan on Film: The Master Director Discusses His Films. New York: Newmarket Press.


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