WGBH Morning Stories/Flickr. Some rights reservedAfter the end of World War II in 1945 when the US and its allies triumphed over the Axis Powers, ardent patriotic feelings overwhelmed US citizens. These feelings were compounded with the US’ engagement in the wars to follow, mainly the Korean War that broke out in the early 1950s. The US became the most powerful country in the world in the face of the Soviet Union.
While the US and the Soviet Union were in a proxy war, Americans were also fighting an internal ideological war, believing themselves defenders of liberal American thought in the face of communist evils.This was not only limited to politicians; politicains and artists alike were involved in this war.
Republican politicians considered Russians, or more specifically communists, an imminent threat to the US nation. Consequently, each US citizen espousing communism became an enemy. This frenzy reached a point where General Dwight Eisenhower and his partner Richard Nixon launched a presidential campaign in 1952 with the slogan “Let’s clean house with Ike and Dick”.
Walt Disney, a prominent Hollywood figure at the time, established an organization called “Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals”. As the name indicated, this alliance aimed at preserving American ideals in cinema and belittling communist values through motion pictures. One of the alliance’s publications read: “Do not undermine the free market system, capitalists, wealth or profit motive, and do not laud the common people or praise collectiveness”.
William Wilkerson, founder of The Hollywood Reporter, wrote several articles in which he mentioned the names of many Hollywood artists who advocated communist thought. These articles later spawned “The Hollywood Blacklist” - a blacklist including actors like Charlie Chaplin, among many other scriptwriters and directors.
The story started with ten scriptwriters and directors known as “The Hollywood Ten”, then it expanded with time to include every artist espousing communism or sympathizing with it. Ultimately, 150 names figured on the list, and the names were published in a book entitled “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television”.
These artists were held accountable in congress and each was asked, “Are you a member of the Communist Party?” They did not deny or confirm the accusations, and were thus considered communists. Remarkably, some artists summoned said that they were inveigled to join the party and were asked to name the people who were with them.
Former US President Ronald Reagan was a member of the American Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and he believed, like Disney, that the threat of communists in the film industry was a serious one. However, he thought they were a minority and that the union had them under control.
The SAG took certain measures to protect itself against the communist threat and asked its new members to take an oath to prove they were not communists. Naturally, the proven communists were completely banned from working, and when they tried to resist, several pressure methods were used. Contracts with artists would be terminated and they would be forbidden to produce any future work.
These practices went on for several years until Hollywood filmmakers discovered that many of the artists, specifically scriptwriters, worked under pseudonyms and their work won prizes, like Dalton Trumbo who won two Oscars for his movies “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One”.
Many Hollywood artists and directors started cooperating with their blacklisted fellows. For instance, British director Alfred Hitchcock cooperated with actor and producer Norman Lloyd in the famous television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”.
Other major Hollywood stars cooperated with blacklisted names, like Kirk Douglas who asked Trumbo to write the script for the classic film Spartacus that was directed by Stanley Kubrick. Trumbo’s name was in the movie credits.
Eventually, those on the blacklist became less outcast, and its dismissal ended publicly in the early 1960s. But its residue remains. Perhaps the best example would be the famous moment during the Oscars in 1999, when the big director Elia Kazan was honored for his cinematic achievements. During the ceremony, several actors did not applaud when Kazan entered the hall because they still held his anti-communist testimony during the Hollywood Blacklist era against him.