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Hollywood's Blackest Hour

Fifty years ago, Congress began its hearings into communist influence in the movies; in their wake, careers were ruined, friendships were lost and studio films were changed forever.

October 19, 1997|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

One story claimed that Hollywood was "ruled" by three first families of film producers, including the three surviving Warner brothers and MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, "all of them born in Russia." Another charged that the Screen Writers Guild was controlled by communists and named nine top allegedly Red leaders. The series had instant effect--Jack Warner clipped every installment, while many of the unfriendly witnesses HUAC subpoenaed were writers named in the stories.

Hollywood was already a town in turmoil. Box office was down from wartime highs. In 1945, the studios had been racked by labor unrest. That October, police broke up a picket line on the Warner Bros. lot with tear gas, hoses and nightsticks. By 1947, the guilds had split into warring right- and left-wing camps. Even the trade papers were divided. The Hollywood Reporter warmly endorsed HUAC's mission, while Variety attacked the committee as "under-the-belt punchers," dismissing the first day of hearings with the headline: "Red Quiz Barnum Show."

"There was an acute polarization between the left and right in Hollywood," recalls Paul Jarrico, an 82-year-old blacklisted writer who was spared being subpoenaed in 1947 because he was one of the few communist writers with a war record. "The right-wingers were taking out these crazy ads in the trades, warning that Hollywood was being menaced by communism."

David Raksin remembers seeing a paramilitary motorcycle gang roar around town, led by beefy character actor Victor McLaglen. "They trained out in Los Feliz, wore black uniforms and acted like they were an army," he recalls. "There were lots of right-wing loonies around."

The industry had lots of prominent communists too who made no secret of their politics. When Harry Cohn first met Walter Bernstein, then working for director Robert Rossen, the Columbia Pictures chief said, "Who's that, Rossen, one of your Commie writers from New York?' " "Your politics were out in the open," Bernstein explains. "If you could make a buck for Harry Cohn, being a communist or a Republican didn't mean anything to him."

Sensing a new publicity opportunity, HUAC returned to Hollywood in May 1947, privately questioning industry conservatives, including actor Robert Taylor and Ginger Rogers' mother. Jack Warner, hoping to establish his anti-Red credentials, rattled off a list of writers he suspected as communists. In September, the committee issued 43 subpoenas. Twenty-four went to friendly witnesses like Taylor, Warner, Ronald Reagan and Gary Cooper; the rest to suspected communists, including many of the influential writers and director of the era.

Launched on Oct. 20, the hearings were high theater, making headlines coast to coast. "Communists Plot to Run Movies, Producer Says," blared the Minneapolis Star. The Des Moines Register proclaimed: "Hollywood Crawling With Reds." Ayn Rand testified that "Song of Russia," a wartime propaganda film co-written by Jarrico, was a Marxist whitewash, saying "there were never such well-dressed, happy people in Russia." Walt Disney claimed that communists had financed a 1937 strike against his studio.

Jack Warner provided comic relief. Embarrassed that he'd named so many subversives in his earlier testimony, he said, "I was rather emotional, being in a very emotional business." Asked why he hadn't fired the Reds he'd fingered earlier, he blustered: "I've never seen a communist and I wouldn't know one if I saw one." Soon he was delivering a fervent soliloquy about his studio's commitment to good citizenship, saying of one patriotic picture: "Every American should see it, not only every American but every foreigner who thinks he wants to be an American." When Warner came up for air, Rep. Richard Nixon dryly replied: "I think I can see why you're so successful in selling your pictures to the American public."

On Oct. 27 a planeload of Hollywood liberals, known as the Committee for the First Amendment, arrived in Washington. Formed by writer-directors Philip Dunne, John Huston and William Wyler to protest the hearings, the group included such stars as Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye and Gene Kelly. One of their first fund-raisers was at Ira Gershwin's house.

"The place was jammed with movie stars," Polonsky recalls. "People were writing letters, stars were serving coffee. It was very enthusiastic."

All did not go well. Accustomed to softball movie-magazine interviews, the stars were unprepared for a barrage of hostile queries from cold-eyed political reporters. Kaye bit his nails, Bogart chain-smoked. John Garfield stammered, "Why doesn't Congress make it illegal to belong to the Communist Party and clear the whole thing up?" Alluding to his current film, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Kaye said: "Maybe I should've had another dream scene in it about me being a hot lawyer. Then I'd know how to talk better here."

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