Hollywood’s Blackest Hour

Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

Hollywood legends Abraham Polonsky and David Raksin both teach at USC; Raksin in the School of Music, Polonsky in the School of Cinema-Television. They’ve known each other for 50 years, but don’t expect to see them strolling together on campus. If Polonsky spots Raksin, he walks the other way. In faculty meetings, they don’t speak. When asked about each other, they respond with acerbic dismissals.

The two men, now in their mid-80s but energetic and opinionated, met when they were rising stars in Hollywood. Polonsky had just won an Oscar nomination for writing the boxing drama “Body and Soul”; Raksin had been nominated for his score for “Forever Amber,” a romance set in the court of Charles II. One night Raksin had Polonsky to dinner at his farm in Northridge. Within months, he would be scoring Polonsky’s “Force of Evil,” a brooding drama about the numbers racket in New York that Martin Scorsese has called “a classic of the American cinema.”

The rift between the two men derives from one of the most traumatic events in movieland history--the Hollywood blacklist. Fifty years ago this week, the House Committee on Un-American Activities began a series of clamorous hearings in Washington that sparked a campaign of anti-communist hysteria that swept through Hollywood, then the State Department, labor unions, academia and the armed forces.

It was the age of loyalty oaths and McCarthyism, a chilling time in which free speech and the 1st Amendment were tossed out the window. Lives and careers were also ruined in other fields, but it was Hollywood, the incubator for America’s popular culture, that became center ring for the Red Scare circus.

HUAC began its hearings on Oct. 20, 1947, with its rotund committee chairman, J. Parnell Thomas, perched on two telephone books and a red silk cushion so he could be seen by the swarm of newsreel and TV cameras. Two future presidents were on hand, Richard Nixon as a member of HUAC, Ronald Reagan as a friendly witness. Nineteen unfriendly witnesses were subpoenaed, mostly suspected communist writers and directors. Ten eventually testified, refusing to discuss their party affiliations or name party members. Known as the Hollywood 10, they were found in contempt of Congress, fired from their jobs and eventually sent to prison.


In 1951, when HUAC held a new round of hearings, Polonsky and Raksin were called to testify. Polonsky refused to answer questions and was blacklisted for 18 years, not directing another movie until 1969, when he made “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.” Raksin admitted to having been a communist, reluctantly named 13 names and was able to return to work.

Polonsky says that Raksin visited him before the hearings and asked permission to give his name to the committee. Polonsky refused. He says that on his way out, Raksin said, “If you ever need any money, just ask for it.”

Raksin insists that the incident never happened and that there is no evidence that he ever informed on Polonsky. Nevertheless, the two men haven’t spoken since the hearings. “We see each other at USC, but we never talk,” says Polonsky. “If you want to be a friend of mine, you can’t be a stool pigeon. He’s never apologized, in public or to me personally.”

Raksin says he doesn’t recall running into Polonsky at USC. “But if I did, I’d walk the other way. I have no respect for him whatsoever. What I did was a major sin. I’ve never forgiven myself for not doing what morally I should have done. But it’s good that Abe’s smart enough not to talk to me, because if he did, I’d tell him he’s a miserable SOB whose achievements don’t measure up to his own high opinion of himself.”

Raksin says he is amazed that the memories of his informing have not faded as the years have passed. He recalls being seated at a recent dinner party near a man he knew quite well. “After he’d had a drink or two, I heard him stage-whisper to his wife, ‘But he was an informer, wasn’t he?’ It’s one of the reasons I look forward to going to hell, so I can tell people like him what I think about them.”

Fifty years after the blacklist’s beginnings, the scars are still visible; wounds that should have healed are still fresh. Forgiveness is not in the air.

As recently as January, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. voted against giving its life achievement award to Elia Kazan, citing his HUAC testimony, in which he informed on eight friends who had been fellow members of the Communist Party. Kazan was arguably the greatest director of his time, the man who made stars of Marlon Brando (“Streetcar Named Desire”), James Dean (“East of Eden”) and Warren Beatty (“Splendor in the Grass”). Rather than honor Kazan, the critics association gave its award to Roger Corman, director of “Attack of the Crab Monsters” and “The Wild Angels.” Several years before, the American Film Institute refused Kazan its prestigious life achievement award for similar reasons, his most vocal adversary being producer Gale Anne Hurd, who was not yet born when the blacklist began.

In today’s Hollywood, honors are going only to those who were blacklisted. With a 50th-anniversary date here, the movie business is soothing its conscience with a flurry of commemorative events (see box, Page 78). Much of this activity has been spurred by the industry’s sense of complicity in the blacklist. The blacklist was not government-imposed--it was created by the Hollywood studio chiefs themselves. For anyone with a fascination for human frailty, blacklist misdeeds cover the political spectrum. The industry’s communist activists were dogmatic and sanctimonious; liberals easily bullied; conservatives guilty of redbaiting and anti-Semitism.

“It was a cultural holocaust, a tragedy from which the industry has never fully recovered,” says Hollywood biographer Patrick McGilligan, whose new book “Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Blacklist” offers interviews with 36 blacklist survivors. “It’s still a live issue because the survivors, and their children, haven’t forgotten. And because it dramatically altered the climate of movie making. Even today, there are still risky political subjects that Hollywood won’t take on.”

It is not difficult to find unsettling parallels between Hollywood’s self-imposed blacklist and industrywide self-censorship today. In response to attacks by government and religious right forces, the entertainment business has established parental-warning stickers for CDs and NC-17 labels for films--which allow retailers to take controversial records and movies off the shelves--and family-guidance ratings for TV programs.

Historians now view the blacklist as a critical event in American postwar history, a symbolic turning point in the seismic shift from the progressive ideals of the New Deal to the anti-communist paranoia of the Cold War. If nothing else, it spawned enough compelling drama and tragicomedy to stock a host of feature films. Friends turned on one another, informing on colleagues and writing partners; blacklisted writers created multiple fictitious identities; movie stars were forced to admit they’d been duped by Reds to save their careers.

Yet Hollywood, having obsessively chronicled the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, has for the most part shied away from the blacklist. Among the few feature films to directly confront the issue have been “The Front,” written by Walter Bernstein, a blacklisted screenwriter, and “Guilty by Suspicion,” a 1991 Irwin Winkler film that was based on a script by Polonsky, who took his name off the film when Winkler changed the film’s hero, a Hollywood director played by Robert De Niro, from a communist to an unsuspecting liberal.

“If there is anything Hollywood should remember, it’s the blacklist,” says Frank Tarloff, an 82-year-old blacklisted writer who is chairman of the First Amendment-Blacklist Project, which is funding a work of public art by Jenny Holzer that will be on display at USC. “It’s like having been in a war--it’s one of those life experiences you can’t shut out. It’s something you can’t put aside and forget, whether you lived through it or you just don’t want to see it happen again.”

The Hollywood Red Scare was not an overnight phenomenon. The House Un-American Activities Committee, formed in 1934, toured the industry capital several times before the infamous 1947 hearings. HUAC’s madcap investigating style made for as many punch lines as headlines. In 1938, it interrogated the 10-year-old Shirley Temple after one witness accused her of being a communist dupe.

HUAC uncovered no Red plots, but got plenty of ink.

“The committee went after Hollywood early because they knew it had such high visibility,” says Neal Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own,” an influential social history of the industry’s pioneering Jewish moguls. “Getting Hollywood was the spearhead for getting everyone else. It’s where the headlines were.”

When fears of communist influence resurfaced after World War II, the climate was ripe for another round of Hollywood investigations. The Republicans had wrested control of Congress in November 1946, eager to curb what they saw as the New Deal’s liberal excesses. Shortly after, the Chicago Tribune ran a breathless two-week series designed, as one Tribune headline put it, to “Bare Grip of Reds on Film Industry.” The stories’ inflammatory tone offers a glimpse of the hysteria to come: “A hard little corps of revolutionaries who are pledged to spill the blood of American capitalists in every street have taken over the Hollywood movie writers union . . . carrying out a conspiracy hatched in Moscow, controlled by the Kremlin, feeding propaganda to the 95 million Americans who pay money every week to see movies.”

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.”

The return home was less than triumphant. Polonsky says that when Gershwin had a party to welcome everyone back, none of the stars showed up.

“We were so naive it was ridiculous,” Bacall later recalled. “When the press started to ask us questions, they had a field day.”

The hearings ended abruptly on Oct. 30, with the committee quizzing only 10 of the original 19 people it had subpoenaed. Politics gave way to pandemonium. The unfriendly witnesses refused to answer any questions, even ones about their Writers Guild membership, citing the 1st Amendment. Their attempts at impassioned oratory were silenced by Thomas, the committee’s gavel-pounding chairman. The most vocal members of the 10, John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo, were physically dragged away from the witness stand. Ring Lardner Jr. supplied the only writerly wit. Asked the famous question--"Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party"--he replied, “I could answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.”

To save face, Thomas said the hearings had been halted to prevent communists from staging a massive Washington rally. It seems more likely that he wanted to avoid more bad reviews. Variety brought down the curtain with the headline: “Commie Carnival Closes: An Egg Is Laid.” But if HUAC ended up with egg on its face, so did the Hollywood 10, whose blustery speechifying cast them as ill-mannered ideologues.

“It was a sorry performance,” complained John Huston, a onetime supporter. “They lost a chance to defend a most important principle.”

On Nov. 5, the American Legion threatened to boycott films made with the involvement of party members. On Nov. 17, the Screen Actors Guild voted to make its officers take a non-communist pledge. 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck had assured his writers that he wouldn’t fire them unless ordered to by his board of directors. On Nov. 21, the board met and gave the order.

On Nov. 25, the House voted overwhelmingly to cite the Hollywood 10 for contempt of Congress. Anti-communism gave way to thinly veiled anti-Semitism. Saying his committee was there to protect the “Christian people of America,” HUAC member John Rankin read a list of Hollywood 10 supporters, saying “Another one was Danny Kaye, we found out his real name was David Daniel Kaminsky. . . . One calls himself Edward G. Robinson. His real name is Emmanuel Goldenberg. Another one here calls himself Melvyn Douglas, whose real name is Melvyn Hesselberg.” (Douglas’ wife, California congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, was one of only 17 House members to vote against the contempt citations.)

News of the citations came as 50 industry leaders met behind closed doors at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. All the legendary moguls were there: Louis B. Mayer, Loews’ Nicholas Schenck, Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn, RKO’s Dore Schary, Paramount’s Barney Balaban, 20th Century Fox’s Joe Schenck. Also on hand, significantly, was the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s new special counsel, former Secretary of State James Byrnes, who assured the studio brass that the government wouldn’t stand in their way if they fired the 10.

“They were under the gun,” says Neal Gabler. “They were being forced to give up their theaters. TV was on the horizon. The whole studio system was unraveling. Now their Jewish origins were under attack by blatant anti-Semites. In the past, they’d always managed to co-opt their opposition. But this time, they gave them everything they wanted. It’s too easy to say they were cowards. Is it cowardice if someone points a gun at your head and you say, ‘I give in’?”

Despite the misgivings of Goldwyn and Schary, the group unanimously adopted a resolution, known as the Waldorf Statement, which deplored the actions of the 10 and said that the studios would no longer knowingly employ any communists.

It was the official beginning of the blacklist. Within days, all studio-employed members of the Hollywood 10 were fired. Everyone ran for cover. Jack Warner telegrammed his distribution chief, eager to know how Danny Kaye and John Garfield’s theater bookings were holding up. Then he turned his attention to Bogart. Feeling the heat, Hollywood’s best-known tough guy held a Dec. 3 news conference in Chicago, saying he detested communism and that his protest trip to Washington had been “ill-advised, even foolish.”

The 10 took their case to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear their appeal. In 1950, they went to prison, to serve one-year sentences. Two of the writers, Lardner and Lester Cole, were sent to Danbury Prison, where they were joined by HUAC Chairman Thomas, serving time on a payroll-padding charge. “When the studios capitulated, people started to batten down the hatches,” recalls screenwriter Walter Bernstein, who recently published “Inside Out,” a memoir of his blacklist experiences. “At first, I thought, ‘What would they get me on?’ I’d been in the Army during World War II, I was from New York--I felt outside of it. But they got to me too.”

Eventually hundreds of film and TV writers, directors and actors suffered the same fate, forced to leave the country or work under false names. Except for some film noir and low-budget thrillers, many penned by blacklisted writers, 1950s-era Hollywood movies were noticeably bland and inoffensive.

“The spirit went out of the system,” says Jarrico, who was blacklisted for 17 years and moved to Europe. “It was the difference between films like ‘Casablanca’ in the ‘40s versus ‘Pillow Talk’ in the ‘50s. There was a pall of fear over Hollywood; people were scared to make movies that said something.”

Some film historians believe that legacy remains today.

“At Oscar time, everyone tries to name five topical, socially conscious films and comes up empty,” says Patrick McGilligan. “If you look at films of the ‘40s, you can find dozens. The blacklist dramatically altered the types of films the industry made. Look at the HBO movie ‘Miss Evers’ Boys’ that Walter Bernstein wrote, that just won all those Emmys. It’s a perfect example of the kind of film people aspired to make in 1947 that no one aspires to make in Hollywood today, which is why it was on cable TV.”

For blacklist survivors, the most difficult decision often involves whom to forgive and what to forget.

“For me, it’s enough to hear someone [who informed] say he wants to apologize,” Polonsky says. “Everyone was desperate, everyone was under pressure to save themselves. Informing isn’t the moral issue here. I’d inform on a guy pushing dope in my neighborhood. But informing on your friends--that’s something you could never respect, then or now.”


Reliving the Blacklist

A number of events, films, books and resources will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hollywood blacklist:

Today: 6 to 8 p.m., KCRW-FM (89.9) airs “The Waldorf Conference,” a radio drama about the pivotal meeting in which industry leaders created the anti-communist hiring decree that resulted in the blacklist. The cast includes Ed Asner, Charles Durning and Shelley Berman.

Oct. 27: 8 p.m., Turner Classic Movies shows “Salt of the Earth,” a rarely seen 1954 documentary about striking Mexican American miners produced by Paul Jarrico and other blacklisted writers. Also: “The Front” airs at 6 p.m., the documentary “Hollywood on Trial” at 10 p.m.

Oct. 27: The four major entertainment talent guilds present “Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist,” a 50th-anniversary commemoration at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The event features period film clips and newsreel footage, plus dramatic re-creations of HUAC testimony performed by Kevin Spacey, James Woods, Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell and others.

Nov. 21: The Los Angeles County Art Museum begins “Red Hollywood,” a monthlong series of movies written by and featuring blacklisted artists, including such films as “Body and Soul,” “Force of Evil,” “The Front,” “The Prowler” and “The Big Night.”

Newly Published: “Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Blacklist,” by Patrick McGilligan, St. Martin’s Press; and “Force of Evil: The Critical Edition,” the Abraham Polonsky-Ira Wolfert script and critical essays, Center for Telecommunication Studies, Cal State Northridge.


On Monday: Firsthand accounts of the careers and friendships that were damaged or destroyed.