H is for The Hollywood Ten

by RS on April 9, 2012

My intention was to write a very long post that would encompass the history of the Hollywood Left, the Hollywood Ten, and the Hollywood Blacklist.  Unfortunately, I realized that this would be better as a three part post rather than one. Now I am returning to my original plan and write about the Hollywood Ten. Well, sort of. I’m going to cheat a bit here because I’ve fallen behind and post a video with the actual members of the Hollywood Ten who explain what they were up against. At the end of the post, I’ll have my usual list of references if you want to read more about the Hollywood Ten, but also the historical roots of the Hollywood Left and about the Blacklist.

How is it relevant to Julius? When Corinne wasn’t trying to organize agricultural laborers to strike and when she wasn’t in the throes of researching Estranged Labor, she would spend her free time at the movie theater. Later, when she finds herself increasingly shut out from most of the editorial decision-making at Julius, she finds herself at the movies and having long discussions about art and Marxism, and about the blacklist with Alvah…and that’s all I’m saying.

So you have some context before you watch the video, the hearings were conducted by the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1947 and later in 1951 in Washington D.C. However, they were originally kicked off during the late 1930s and early 1940s by the Dies Committee and State Senator Jack Tenney’s California Joint Fact-finding Committee on Un-American Activities, which countered that Communism had established a strong base within mass culture, mainly the film industry.

Those who appeared in front of  HUAC were primarily screenwriters, but also actors, directors, producers, and they were either members of the Communist Party or alleged to be members. Of the forty-three people put on the witness list, a total of nineteen refused to give evidence. Eleven of these nineteen were called before the committee on Monday, October 27. Of the eleven “unfriendly witnesses,” the German playwriter Bertolt Brecht, ultimately chose to answer the committee’s questions and shortly thereafter left for East Germany and never returned to the United States. The other ten refused, citing their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The crucial question they refused to answer is now generally rendered as “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” These ten were accused of contempt of Congress and proceedings against them began in the full House of Representatives.

And now to the video:

To read more about the Hollywood Left and the Blacklist the best book is The The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-60 by Larry Ceplair and Steve Englund. As a treat, I’ve provided a review of the book written by Alvah Bessie.

 

The Inquisition in Hollywood
by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund

Reviewed by Alvah Bessie

In These Times, April 23-29, 1980

Thirty years after HUAC’s “investigation of the motion picture industry and the incarceration of the Hollywood 10(1950), their case has finally been recognized for what it was: a frontal attack on thought-control in the U.S. A case that was “lost,” it initiated the so-called McCarthy Era.

Following The 10, hundreds of workers in film, theater, radio and TV, in education and medicine, on newspapers and magazines, in federal, state and local administrations followed them into blacklist ostracism and unemployment, although they escaped prison terms by invoking the Fifth Amendment instead of the First.

The First was the considered choice of The 10 — or rather the 19 motion picture writers, directors, producers and actors who received the original subpoenas in 1947. They and their attorneys decided that the correct way to attack the House Committee on Un-American Activities was to strike at its right to exist at all.

If Congress, they argued, can make no law about opinion or association, neither can it investigate those areas. Their position was supported by the Supreme Court itself in a notable decision: West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette (1943).

In ringing language upholding the First Amendment as a shield against any attempt by the state to force a citizen to declare his “loyalty” or punish him for remaining silent, Justice Jackson’s majority opinion seemed to have “destroyed the whole super-patriotic cable. . . including the proponents of the House Un-American Activities Committee.” (Charles Katz, one of the lawyers for The 10.)

The very same Justice Jckson was still on the high court and concurred with his colleagues when they refused in 1950 to grant a hearing to the case of The 10.

What had happened between 1942 and 1950? The Cold War, carried in the womb of World War II, was born and flourished mightily. Our glorious ally, the USSR, became our enemy; our enemies — Germany, Italy and Japan — became our client states and shortly our allies. And — irony of fate — two liberal justices — Murphy and Rutledge — who would most certainly have voted for certiorari — died within two months of each other in 1949.

Yet the 1947-1950 fight of The 10 was a major factor in giving the quietus to HUAC and its Senate counterpart in 1975.

There have been a handful of books devoted to the case, or touching on it. The late Gordon Kahn, one of the original 19, was a journalist who practically wrote Hollywood on Trial (1948) as the 1947 hearings were in process. There are three smart-ass books: Walter Goodman’s The Committee (1969), Eric Bentley’s shameless paste-up of HUAC testimony called Thirty Years of Treason (1971) and Stefan Kanfer’s A Journal of the Plague Years (1973) which share a common point of view: the Committee was disgusting but so were those who fought it. Serious books like The American Inquisition (1973) and my Inquisition in Eden (1965) achieved no circulation at all.

But this new book by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund is the most ambitious and the most successful to date. It is a definitive study of the case and the period that gave it birth, and the story will probably not have to be told again.

Both young writers have benefitted by training in sociology and history. There is scarcely a detail of the elaborate and complicated scene from 1930 to 1960 that has escaped their meticulous and exhaustive attention and their solid analysis.

Their examination of the subject is based soundly in an understanding of the political history of World War II, both abroad and at home. They start even earlier, in the Depression that created labor and radical militancy in our country. That period also saw the development of the first American “Popular Front,” which was almost destroyed by the original Dies Committee and its unremitting attack on the reforms of Roosevelt’s four administrations.

The case of the Hollywood 10, Englund and Ceplair make plain, was something more than a successful attempt to control the content of film and dictate who could and who could not work in the industry. it was a flanking attack on the American people and it sparked a nationwide assault on progressive ideas and organizations.

We have not yet recovered from the McCarthy period, which could be repeated any time Peanut Carter and those who run him decide that they will brook no opposition to their endless maximization of profits and their drive toward World War III.

The Ceplair-Englund book is therefore crucial to our time. It has already created resentment in certain literary and industrial circles, notably in Hollywood, because it puts the finger on who, what, when, where and why. It displays uncommon objectivity that can both praise the role of the Communist Party during that period, and point out the errors of judgement committed by Communists, The 10 and the liberal organizations that supported them.

If it misses a point, it cannot be faulted for that fact. The decision in West Virginia etc. vs. Barnette on which The 10 had relied, had been brought by parents who belonged to Jehovah’s Witness and had told their young son not to salute the flag because it was a “graven image.”

In New Hampshire a few years ago another member of that contentious sect was arrested for covering the state slogan on his car license plate: “Life Free or Die.” He didn’t object to the slogan, but saw no reason to advertise New Hampshire on his car.

He took his case to the Supreme Court, which in April 1977 handed down its decision, written by Nixon’s Chief Justice Burger. He said that the First Amendment “includes the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all . . . [both are] complementary components of the broader concept of ‘individual freedom of mind.’.”

This decision made a two-paragraph item in some newspapers but the ever-alert Carey McWilliams, writing in The Nation (July 23, 1977) said: “That, of course, was precisely the contention of the Hollywood 10 . . . now, nearly three decades later, a majority of the Court has confirmed their contention. . . The experiences suggests that New Hampshire’s motto. . . should, in pragmatic terms, be interpreted to mean “live free or somehow manage to survive until the Supreme Court, in the fullness of time, changes its mind.”

Perhaps Ceplair and Englund will add this victory as a footnote in the next edition of their invaluable book.

 

Another book to read that has a personal bent is Alvah Bessie’s memoir, Inquisition in Eden. Below is  a review written by me for Alvah’s Books:

Part screenplay and part narrative, Inquisition in Eden opens with a Cast of Characters that include  the book’s leading man and narrator Alvah Bessie and his leading lady Helen Clare, his second wife.  Supporting characters are the other nine blacklisted writers, producers and directors, Mr. McDonald, the warden of U.S. Federal Correctional Institute in Texarkana, Texas; a slew of cameos by actors including Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Lee J. Cobb; and bit players from inmates to guards, FBI agents, Ayn Rand, Richard M. Nixon, Jack Warner, Ernest Hemingway and “various varieties of ass kissers”.

Fade in. It’s July 1951, Texarkana Federal Correctional Institute. Bessie provides enough detail to put the reader right into the scene. We learn that he’s in prison to serve a year’s sentence “for a misdemeanor called contempt of Congress,” and is sitting with his parole official’s office. The conversation is as follows:

Huber: This where I get your side of the story; why you think you’re here.

Huber pauses, lights a cigarette, nods when the inmate gestures toward the pocket of his blue-denim shirt. Inmate, seated in a chair across from Huber, lights his own cigarette.

Huber (continuing): But before you start, let me tell you that in twenty years of custodial work, I have yet to meet an inmates who wasn’t here on a bum rap.

Narrator (all officers are “sir”): Sir, in my opinion, I’m a political prisoner.

Huber (deadpan): Bessie, we don’t have any political prisoners in the United States.

(glances at dossier on his desk, points with finger)

You’re here for violation of Section 192, Title 2, U.S. Code, which means refusal to testify before a duly constituted committee of Congress . . .

The likelihood that these sections of dialogue are remembered verbatim almost 20 years after the fact really doesn’t matter because Bessie has a natural ear for dialogue and he’s written several scenes that are both funny and biting.  However, Inquisition is not entirely a prison memoir.  Bessie writes about his early acting ambitions as a young man on the New York stage, life in during the Depression in Vermont with his first wife Mary Burnett and their children Dan and David, his first novel Dwell in the Wilderness and Spain.

It’s after his return from Spain that he writes Men in Battle, which is well-reviewed in Time, but Bessie explains, “…it never sold. For it appeared the week that Hitler invaded Poland, and people had other things to read—the newspapers.” But his luck changed when he was offered the drama critic position at the New Masses, where he remained for four years as the drama, book, film critic and feature writer until Hollywood beckoned.

Gossip mongers of old Hollywood will be disappointed because Bessie doesn’t dish any dirt. Instead, he writes of studio politics, haggling with producers and studio executives over stories and scripts. He intercuts these scenes with life in prison and his friendships with a handful of the inmates. Yet it’s the road to HUAC, that Bessie documents so well. When the pink subpoena comes, the jobs peter out. As for the charges against the Hollywood Ten, Bessie provides a reader-friendly legal explanation of why the Hollywood Ten chose to plead the First Amendment rather than the Fifth. Although the book’s pace slows down at this juncture, it immediately picks up after his release from prison and life as a blacklisted writer.

Of the many books and articles written about the Hollywood Blacklist, Inquisition in Eden is told with wry wit of life before, during, and after the blacklist.

 

On the web, check the following articles:

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 comments
bluebethley
bluebethley

I remember asking my mother if she was a Communist. I was maybe 11. She was bent over in the fridge, trying to make dinner. She gave me an unforgettable look. Dinner was late. She asked me what they were teaching in school, and then I learned the family lesson for survival. Don't tell anyone anything. We were in Seattle then, but she had been in Hollywood in the 1940s. Thank you for posting this invaluable history. 

writerbeverly
writerbeverly

Wow. Incredible video, incredible look at the Hollywood 10. Thank you, Rebecca, for posting this.

RebecaSchiller
RebecaSchiller moderator

 @bluebethley Thanks for stopping by, Beth, and for sharing your story. Sometimes it's best to keep mum about certain opinions and beliefs. 

 

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