“We’re going back to some pretty dark days in Hollywood, Sherman My Boy.”
Following the end of World War II, the fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union caused many organizations to buckle down on what they considered to be American values. In Hollywood, it was no different. In 1944, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (or “MPA” for short) was created. Any screenwriter, director, or actor who was even suspected of being involved with the Communist party was blacklisted from the industry.
10. Fair Wage Protests
After the Great Depression, many people feared that they could lose their jobs, and many workers were being underpaid. This led many of the workers to form unions. In 1933, a union called the American Federation of Actors was formed, and the Screen Guild extended to technicians who worked in the film industry. Most of these organizations were created by members of the American Communist Party. Over 6,000 workers picketed for their rights in the 1930s, and it forced the Hollywood executives to give in to the demands for a livable wage.
Many of the screenwriters and directors who showed their support for cameramen, set builders, and those in the technical professions of Hollywood were duly noted, and later targeted for their Communist philosophy of giving everyone a wage they can actually survive on. Today, it’s normal for the Screen Actors Guild and the Writer’s Guild to go on strike when they feel as though they are not getting paid enough. Strikes in Hollywood are no longer associated with Communist ideas.
9. The Wrath of Hedda Hopper
Hedda Hopper was a former actress who spent her later years writing a gossip column called “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood” for the Los Angeles Times. She was extremely conservative, and wrote negatively about anyone she did not like, which of course included anyone who was suspected of being a Communist. Her work spread to radio and TV, and she used her influence in the media to frighten people into conforming, for fear of having their reputation ruined.
Hopper pretended that this crusade against the “Red Menace” was because of her loyalty as an American, but she was singlehandedly responsible for ruining the reputations of hundreds, if not thousands of people, whether it was due to being a ‘Communist’, gay, or generally “immoral.” In multiple cases, the people she humiliated actually committed suicide. A British actress named Merle Oberon once asked Hopper why she enjoyed ruining people’s lives so much, to which she replied, “Bitchery, dear. Sheer bitchery.”
Hedda was such an over-the-top character that has been dramatized in a few films: RKO 291 (1999), Trumbo (2015), and inspired Tilda Swinton’s character in Hail Caesar! (2016). The FX series Feud: Bette and Joan from 2017 also showcases a scene (which you can watch above) where Hopper threatens to ruin her friend’s reputation with old nude photos from her youth, and she revels in the lives she had destroyed.
8. The Hollywood Ten
It was a truly Catch-22 situation, because if one denied being a Communist, they would only be questioned more. If they admitted to being a Communist, they were constantly asked who else they knew in the party. The House Un-American Activities Committee asked all of the suspected Communists to admit that they were part of the party, and the only way they could free themselves was to betray their friends and give the names of other party members.
A group of 10 screenwriters refused to answer the questions, which was their right under the Fifth Amendment. One of the most famous among them was Dalton Trumbo. None of these men actually committed any crimes, since they had every right to express their thoughts under the First Amendment, and yet they were all sent to jail for Contempt of Court and blacklisted from ever working in Hollywood again. Many of these writers, especially Trumbo, continued to work as a writer, only under fake names or by ghostwriting for friends.
7. The Company Man
In a 1936 movie called The President’s Mystery (the whole thing is available on YouTube and embedded above), the wealthy owners of a factory decide to shut it down after the Great Depression, but it wasn’t because the company went bankrupt. They just wanted to save money by cutting jobs that they felt were unnecessary. People lost their livelihood by getting laid off. That movie was written by Lester Cole as an adaptation of a novel originally written by Sinclair Lewis. Cole would later become one of the Hollywood Ten.
Companies do, in fact, lay off their employees in order to save money. However, if a screenwriter ever portrayed corporations as being “the bad guys” or showed men who were unhappy with their job, it was considered to be Un-American and punishable by blacklisting. This is why, in the 1940s and beyond, male characters were always portrayed as happy with their 9-to-5 jobs, and that attitude influenced the general public. It became part of “The American Dream” to find a job, stay loyal, and keep working until retirement. By these standards, the movie Office Space would have been the most “Communist” movie ever.
In the 1980s, laying off employees for budget cuts became far more common. By the early 2000s nearly everyone knew someone who had experienced this. Once the Great Recession hit in 2008, there was no denying that corporations were filled with corruption. Rather than suppressing that truth, Hollywood began coming out with movies like The Big Short that portrayed the real greed of Corporate America.
6. Killing Feminism
One common thread among “red” filmmakers was that they put a lot of feminism in their films. In fact, most of the films that were released inside of the Soviet Union had strong female lead characters, usually played by a beautiful brunette named Tatyana Samoylova, who is best known for her performance in The Cranes are Flying.
The 1940s had wonderful feminist movies in Hollywood, but they began to disappear after the end of World War II. When husbands came back from war, they had a hard time convincing their wives to give up their income in exchange for being a full-time housewife. The MPA was frightened that this could mean the end of the traditional American way of life. In the movies released by the Soviet Union, women worked hard and still somehow managed to raise their children. The MPA considered anything along these lines to be Communist propaganda.
In 1951, a movie called I Can Get It For You Wholesale premiered. It was about a woman named Harriet who turns down a marriage proposal in favor of advancing her career as a fashion designer in New York City. In the end, Harriet realizes that friends, family, and love are far more important than money. While the movie had so many pro-Capitalism messages and celebrates the All-American entrepreneurial spirit, the fact that the character who succeeded the most was a woman, and the final moral of the story was deemed far too “un-American.” The movie was banned from theaters, for fear that it would “brainwash” the masses.
Abraham Polonsky wrote and directed I Can Get It For You Wholesale and was brought in for questioning, and he was also blacklisted from the film industry. After that point, writers were afraid to portray feminism in their scripts, because they did not want to accused of being a Communist. It took decades for Hollywood to rebound from the blacklist on feminism. This is why, during the 1950s, in nearly every single film, we see the perfect image of a stay-at-home mom who has dinner ready by 5:00 p.m.
5. John Wayne Supported The Witch Hunt
John Wayne was an actor who is most remembered for his portrayal in movies about the Old West. One of the movies that John Wayne had a huge issue with was High Noon. There is a scene where the people in the town are disrespectful towards a corrupt sheriff. He believed that this was very un-American, and reported it as potential “Communist Propaganda.”
According to Vanity Fair, the screenwriter Carl Foreman actually wrote High Noon as an allegory for the witch hunts of the McCarthy era. Despite the fact that he won an Oscar for the movie, Foreman was sent a subpoena to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He admitted to being involved in the Communist party when he was young, but he quit. When he refused to give up names of other Communists, he was blacklisted from the industry, and forced to become a ghostwriter and let other people get credit for his Oscar-worthy work.
In 1974, John Wayne was asked during an interview if he regretted his participation in the witch hunt, in retrospect. He responded that he believed it was necessary, and that they wanted to stop “radical liberals” from taking over the film industry.
4. Walt Disney and the MPA
During World War II, Walt Disney released several propaganda films for the US Government. In those films, it was easy to see that he was obviously against the oppression caused by Nazi Fascism. So, it only made sense for him to become the Vice-President of the MPA. In their mission statement, the MPA claimed to remove hidden Fascists and Communists from the movie industry, which would lead Walt Disney to believe that the fight against Nazism wasn’t over just yet.
As a beacon of wholesome, American family entertainment, Disney wanted to help the organization identify potentially dangerous content in Hollywood. However, Disney was not as vocal in the over-zealous identification and persecution of Communists as Sam Wood, the president. There is very little record of Disney’s participation in the MPA, except that he got into many disagreements with Wood about how they were running the organization.
Not long after, Disney was removed from his position as vice president. In the late 1940s, during a labor strike by the artists at one of his studios, Disney blamed the Communists for orchestrating it. However, he never tried to identify or fire any individuals he thought may be Communist. He just believed that some of the Communist ideals were beginning to change the younger generation.
3. Ronald Reagan Took a Stand
Long before he became President of the United States, Ronald Reagan began one of his first leadership roles in the Screen Actor’s Guild. In 1946, he mediated a dispute between two different Hollywood unions. One of the groups was a lot more unruly, and it was led by a member of the Communist party. He saw this as proof that all Communists really were trying to take over Hollywood and destroy the American way of life.
In 1947, Ronald Reagan became an informant for the FBI, and began giving names of known Communists in Hollywood. His first wife, Jane Wyman, asked for a divorce the next year. Despite the fact that Reagan was on a crusade against Communism, he agreed to remove Nancy Davis from the list, and married her. These experiences are what began Reagan’s interest in politics, and he eventually went on to become Governor of California, and then the President of the United States.
2. The Committee for the First Amendment
After the persecution of the Hollywood Ten, a lot of people in Hollywood began to stand up for their rights. A lot of famous actors and actresses like Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, and Humphrey Bogart became part of the Committee for the First Amendment. The vast majority of these people were liberal Democrats. Despite the fact that they were not Communists themselves, they could see the corruption and the total disregard for the Hollywood Ten’s Constitutional rights.
However, all of these people who tried to speak up for the rights of Hollywood Communists became targets themselves. In 1948, Humphrey Bogart wrote a piece called “I’m No Communist,” explaining how his involvement in the Committee for the First Amendment caused friends to turn against him, calling him a Communist. He was getting letters in the mail, and harassed out in public. Just like the members of the Hollywood Ten who were asked to only answer in “yes” or “no” statements, Bogart compared this onslaught of accusations to someone asking, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” and the only option for answers being “yes” or “no.” You’re doomed either way. The pressure was enough for many of these actors to buckle under.
1. Breaking the Blacklist
For years, blacklisted screenwriters continued to work as ghost writers. Dalton Trumbo actually wrote the incredibly popular movie Roman Holiday and gave it to his friend Ian McClellan Hunter. The script won an Academy Award. Decades later, his credit was finally restored.
King Brothers Productions was willing to hire Trumbo for low wages to B-movies at a fraction of the pay he was used to earning for his screenplays before being blacklisted. He eventually wrote an Academy Award-winning movie called The Brave One in 1957 under the pseudonym “Robert Rich.” In 1960, Kirk Douglas was the star of the movie Spartacus, and he used his influence to make sure Trumbo’s real name was included in the credits for the screenplay. The events of Trumbo’s life were so inspiring that in 2015, the movie Trumbo was made based on his life, starring Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston.
Even though Spartacus was the symbolic gesture that the Hollywood Blacklist was over, the House Un-American Activities Committee continued to exist until 1975.