Remembering the Witch Hunts
This year marks 50 years since the height of the Hollywwod witch hunts. From today’s perspective it is difficult to imagine that the USA once had a powerful progressive and left-wing movement and a strong Communist Party that attracted numerous prominent figures to it. Before the poisonous paranoia spread by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), followed by McCarthyism had infected the country with its deadly fever, the United States was widely respected for its political freedom and progressive spirit.
Despite the rise of fascism in Europe and right-wing gangsterism in the USA, the period during the thirties and early forties, shortly before the blacklist, was also a time of left-wing optimism and successes. Although Hollywood was not dominated by left-wingers, they were not without clout. The Communist Party had, at an estimate, around 300 members and at least double that in terms of sympathisers, many in well-paid and respected positions. But, it wasn’t all serious politics; the parties and fun that was had by these Lefties is perhaps surprising under the circumstances, and the invitation lists read like a Who’s Who of Hollywood celebrities.
The leadership provided by the Communist Party of the USA in combating fascism, its commitment to anti-racism and minority rights and success in building the trade union movement unleashed the hatred of the capitalist class and right-wing politicians. The infamous HUAC hearings were used to suppress and make illegal not just the Communist Party but anyone associated with it as well as any organisations in which it avowedly had influence. As a result, tens of thousands were blacklisted, careers and lives were destroyed and families broken. The country was plunged into a nightmare of fear, hysteria and red-baiting from which it never properly recovered. Party officials were, under the Smith Act, deemed to be foreign agents and subject to draconian sentences; in Texas they even faced the death penalty.
Because of their prominence, celebrity status and ability to articulate ideas, those film workers in Hollywood who became the focus of attention for the witch hunters are the ones most talked about. Many books have been written about the Hollywood blacklist, but Tender Comrades by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle is one of the best. Such books are a chilling reminder of just how neo-fascism and the emergence of a totalitarian security apparatus can lurk just below the surface in an apparently open and democratic society.
Many of those who became leading figures in the motion picture industry in Hollywood during the thirties and forties and were also members of the Communist Party or fellow travellers, came from poor, immigrant Jewish backgrounds. This experience gave them an understanding of ordinary people, of their struggles and of life as lived ‘at the bottom of the pile’. It gave many a strong sense of solidarity, of sympathy with the underdog and with discriminated minorities. It is also one of the chief reasons why such people were so sought after in Hollywood as writers, because they could turn in believable dialogue that encapsulated the tragedies, humour and resilience of ordinary people. They were able to endow what were often banal original stories with the necessary human interest, drama and social relevance that would make them successful box office hits.
Most of the big picture moguls of the time – who ruled their studios with the iron fist of feudal lords – had little idea of how to make films, but had the money to hire those that did. They invariably had clichéd outlooks, right-wing politics and strong Puritanical moral pretensions, but ironically, they employed many Communists or left-wingers who knew how to write and create the films that made them their money.
The well-known character actor Lionel Stander, commenting on life in thirties America, said: ‘To paraphrase Dickens, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times – the best of times because you were young, and the worst of times because of the actions of Hitler and Mussolini, etc. Hollywood was the Mecca for nearly every worthwhile intellectual in the 1930s from all over the word. You saw a lot of what was happening through the eyes of the German refugees – actors, writers, directors, technicians, and artists – who came here and through the activity of mass organisations like the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, etc. The power of the left existed because it said all the things that everybody believed in and wanted to hear; it represented every person who believed in human decency, justice, and equality and was against racism and bigotry. And the Communist Party always took the frontal position.’
Betsy Blair Reisz, a dancer and actress, married first to Gene Kelly and later to the British film director, Karel Reisz, has an unusual biography in that she tried to join the US Communist Party after the war but was told by the leadership that she could be more effective outside, and if she were to join it could harm Gene’s career. Gene Kelly was, and remained a solid left-winger, who supported many progressive causes - a ‘social democrat’ Betsy called him. She won critical acclaim for her film roles and a Best Actress Award at Cannes. Once blacklisted she left the USA first to France and then the UK. In Europe, she acted in films made by leading progressive directors like Antonioni, Tony Richardson and Costa-Gavras.
One interesting tit-bit revealed in the book – which has resonances with the surveillance being carried now - is how the FBI used psychotherapists. Many Americans, even at that time, used psychotherapists the way Catholics use the confessional or others use the bus, so the Party insisted that anyone visiting a psychotherapist leave the Party. One of the chief FBI informers was a ‘lefty’ psychotherapist called Phil Cohen to whom many left-wingers in Hollywood turned.
Many of those black-listed were talented, humane and fascinating individuals. Their life stories provide a depiction of the Hollywood ‘dream factory’ in its heyday and a historical narrative very different from the mainstream one. They also offer fascinating little vignettes of many of the famous celebrities and villains of that time from John Wayne, James Cagney, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney and Sam Goldwyn among many others.
Norma Barzman, another Hollywood blacklistee who found refuge in France and Britain wrote the book, The Red and the Blacklist (2003), about that period of blacklisting and exile, also reveals the comic side. Her friend, the blacklisted writer John Barry, responding to her query how things were: ‘It's hell,’ the communist director said of exile. ‘I live in Paris, meet beautiful women and go out to dinner with Jean-Paul Sartre.’ For actors, of course, it was much more difficult than for writers who could use pseudonyms and ‘Fronts’ The actor Zero Mostel noted that, unlike scriptwriters, he couldn't hide from the blacklist by adopting pseudonyms: ‘I am a man of a thousand faces, all of them blacklisted,’ he said.
Through the words and stories of these individuals it also becomes clear how different the United States could have been if the right-wing had not been successful in suppressing the left-wing and creating such a climate of fear of all things communist or associated with it. It managed to achieve a ‘brain-washing’ of generations of US citizens, imbuing them with an irrational fear and a distorted ideology that enabled capitalism to run rampant and imperialism to wage wars unhindered. Those of us elsewhere in the world who lived through those oppressive decades at the height of the Cold War also paid the costs.