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Hollywood's Dark Days--and The Lingering Lessons

October 18, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Even to a reporter who came to town years after the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings were over and the Hollywood Ten had done their time in prison (remembered by Ring Lardner Jr., Page 5), those days were more than an echo in Hollywood.

The days of "The Hollywood Inquisition," as Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund called them in their book about the period, were--they are are even now--like boulders lying below the surface of a river, unseen but still affecting lives and relationships, reputations and behavior.

The past, as I kept learning, explained present matters that seemed otherwise puzzling.

A writer who had, it seemed to me, contributed significantly to the cultural life of the community, died curiously unsung by colleagues. The writer, I realized soon enough, had been a friendly witness before the committee. To those who stood their ground against the enormous pressure to inform on their associates, neither the memories nor the characterization of someone as a cooperative witness are subject to fading.

In the '60s, the late Carl Foreman returned in triumph to Hollywood from England where, during an exile that had begun in 1951, he produced such enormous hits as "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "The Guns of Navarone" and "Born Free." He was riding high but, he confessed one day at lunch in 1968, there were still those in town for whom he felt such contempt, more than 15 years later, that he would cross the street to avoid having to look at them. He couldn't be sure what he would say, or do.

In the long run, it might be argued that the cooperative witnesses chose a different form of punishment: guilt, even shame and an awareness that they might be permanently shunned by men and women who had been their closest associates and, often, close friends. A few have sought to expiate the guilt by good works. But the fact remained that the friendly witnesses worked and the uncooperative witnesses didn't. Those on the blacklist were forced into exile, to write under aliases at reduced prices, if they worked at all, and a few never did again.

In their disruption of friendships, the years of the hearings had the effect of a civil war. That was something of what Dalton Trumbo, another of the imprisoned Hollywood Ten, had in mind in his controversial speech at the Writers Guild banquet in 1970. "It will do no good to search for villains or heroes," Trumbo said. "There were only victims."

That seemed to minimize the sufferings of those who had not been able to re-establish themselves as successfully as Trumbo had (writing "Spartacus," "Exodus" and other major films), and there were long, bitter exchanges, some of them in the pages of Calendar, about his speech. Yet what was true was that no one was left unscarred.

It was not really until the John F. Kennedy years when, all too briefly, an ebullient self-confidence and optimism replaced the national paranoia of the Cold War, that the blacklist lost its force in Hollywood and in television and the theater in New York.

Recent books have shown that younger generations have appallingly little historical information about their country or much of anything else. Their past was yesterday afternoon, or perhaps only earlier this morning, and the Dave Clark Five is lost in the misty remoteness of time, along with Franklin Roosevelt, John Philip Sousa and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

It is a pity, and potentially a tragedy. The House Un-American Activities Committee hearings cannot possibly be understood fully without a sharp awareness of the climate of the American '30s, the Depression, the bread lines and Hoovervilles, the racial prejudice and the strike-breaking, the sympathetic domestic vibrations from the rise of Fascism in Europe.

The national uncertainties were like fault lines, full of danger, and they led men and women of social concern (and often with personal backgrounds in the failure of governments to protect the poor and the innocent) to see what could be done about the crises, and to join or support organizations--including the Communist Party--that seemed, however speciously, to have answers.

The irony, the blackest irony of all, was that no more rigorously and devoutly capitalist and patriotic endeavor exists than the Hollywood motion picture studio. From the start, the industry was a temple of rambunctious free enterprise (including efforts in the early days to secure a monopoly through patents, and efforts thereafter to keep out the unions and guilds).

The movies' economic life rests now as always on the consent of the entertained, and the wider and less disturbed the audience, the more solid the consent. Film's First Commandment is "Thou shalt not worry the customers."

The notion of even the subtlest treasonable ideas slipping past such watchdogs of public morality as Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner and Walt Disney was ludicrous, and it is ludicrous as applied to their heirs apparent.

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