“Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten
every line? …
“Memories may be beautiful, and yet what’s too painful to remember, we
simply choose to forget.”
- — “Memories,” from the soundtrack of the movie “The Way We
A week from Sunday, Hollywood is set to pay tribute to legendary
film director Elia Kazan, not for his politics, but for his artistry.
Yet, many leftists in the entertainment industry are crying foul because
Kazan, the director of “On the Waterfront” and “A Streetcar Named
Desire,” took a principled stand against Communism in his industry in
the 1950s. In other words, they would like to blacklist him.
What an irony. Throughout the last decade or so, Hollywood has
honored many of the industry’s Communists and former Communists who
backed Josef Stalin during his bloodthirstiest days in the Kremlin.
These chosen artists have been lionized as heroes, social activists,
“progressives” — none more so than the Hollywood 10.
They were honored not so much for their artistry, but for their
politics. In tributes to Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner and other Hollywood
10 members, it was always clear that the main reason for their
celebration was their refusal to answer one straightforward question
from the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947: “Are you now
or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
Many in Hollywood today cling to the belief that their collective
refusal to answer was based on a bold principled stand against an
inquisition into artists’ personal political convictions. Almost no one
understands that the refusal had nothing to do with principles and
everything to do with Communist Party politics and self-preservation for
the Hollywood 10.
Some of the brightest and most well-educated people working in
Hollywood today don’t grasp the truth of what has become romantically
known in the industry as “the blacklist era.” And that truth, like it or
not, begins with the fact that every single member of the Hollywood 10
had indeed been members, or past members, of the Communist Party.
That fact was established during the committee hearings. As each
member of the Hollywood 10 — Ring Lardner, Adrian Scott, Edward
Dmytryk, Lester Cole, Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz,
Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz and Herbert Biberman — refused to answer
the key question, committee investigator Louis J. Russell, a former FBI
agent, was called to the stand to produce the number of that person’s
Communist Party registration card for the year 1944. And, yes, each and
every one had been a card-carrying member of the party.
Some might ask: So what? What difference does it make that there were
Communist Party members writing and directing motion pictures? It isn’t
now and wasn’t then a crime to be a member of the party?
Why not tell the truth and defend your beliefs and associations? Why
didn’t they avoid contempt of Congress charges and jail terms by simply
admitting they were party members? What were they ashamed of? What were
Well, as it turns out, the refusal to answer was merely a tactical
ploy, a matter of political expediency. You see, unlike today, when most
in Hollywood and even many average Americans don’t see Communism or
totalitarianism as particularly threatening to our national security or
way of life, the situation was much different in 1947. Americans had
just fought a world war with one brand of evil totalitarianism
represented by Adolph Hitler and were prepared to fight another one with
the evil represented by Josef Stalin. Everyone understood the Communist
Party in the United States was an active agent of Soviet policy.
So, why did the 10 refuse to talk? Listen to what Ring Lardner
himself said in an interview with Film Comment magazine in 1988: “We
decided it was not a good idea to deny membership in the Communist
Party, although some of our colleagues had done that before the
California State Un-American Activities Committee. We just felt that
there were too many stool pigeons and various other ways to find out,
and you could get yourself in a much worse situation for perjury; it
would be very hard to organize any sympathy around that.”
Notice there was no discussion of simply telling the truth. The
Communist Party was a secret subversive organization. Revealing yourself
was not an option. The purpose of membership was to advance the cause of
international socialist revolution in America by whatever means
necessary. Hollywood, because of its wealth and influence, was a prime
While many in Hollywood today decry the effort to root out the
Communists as “censorship” and the unfairness of the blacklisting that
followed, they conveniently overlook the fact that the Communists
instituted those practices in the movie industry. The challenge to the
party arose principally because anti-Communist writers, actors and
directors of the late 1940s were infuriated by the highly secretive
clique of Communists systematically discriminating against their work.
Lardner, for instance, was among those who circulated a petition at
MGM to halt production on a film he didn’t like for political reasons.
Trumbo, for example, boasted in a bylined article in the Communist
Worker that, while Hollywood produced few “provocative” or “progressive”
films, agents within the industry were able to spike “reactionary” and
Ronald Reagan, Adolphe Menjou, Roy Brewer, Morrie Ryskind and others
charged that the Communists conspired to create opportunities in the
industry for their political allies and to destroy them for their
Screenwriter John C. Moffit, for instance, commended the House
committee for “taking steps to end the most dangerous censorship that
has ever occurred in the history of the motion-picture industry and in
the history of American thought.”
But the tactics of the Hollywood 10 paid off in the long run. Yes,
it’s true that they served brief jail terms for contempt and that those
with studio contracts were fired. But most managed to continue writing
for the silver screen under pseudonyms. And just over a decade later,
the forgetful and forgiving nature of the American people had allowed
them to receive screen credits again. Now they are heroes. All except
for Dymtryk, who was sincere in his denunciation of Communism. He served
the longest prison term of the bunch even though he had left the party
before the committee hearing.
The record shows those, like Kazan, who cooperated with the committee
— the ones who chose to fight censorship, blacklisting and domination
of their industry by agents of foreign totalitarianism — suffered, in
some cases, worse fates than the exposed Communists. Ryskind, Menjou and
screenwriter Richard Macauley are examples of highly successful artists
who scarcely worked again following their explosive testimony.
Meanwhile, the hazy specter of the “blacklist” hangs like an
imaginary dark cloud over Hollywood, still haunting the fashionably
leftist industry with paranoid delusions of an imminent revisit.