Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities

Larry Holzwarth - May 2, 2021

In the late 1930s, faced with economic uncertainties and political unrest in Europe, the US House of Representatives established the House Un-American Activities Committee. Known as HUAC, the committee took upon itself the protection of America from subversives, especially communists. Any citizen could find himself or herself under investigation. Any citizen could be brought before the committee and forced to testify. Constitutional protections from the First and Fifth Amendments bore no weight with the committee. Those who exercised them before the committee could be, and many were, cited for contempt of Congress. A contempt finding carried with it financial penalties as well as jail time.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Dalton Trumbo and his wife Cleo at the House Un-American Activities hearings in 1947. Library of Congress

When the HUAC turned its attention to the entertainment industry in the 1940s, it drew many famous names into its activities. Walt Disney published a letter in Variety Magazine, blaming communist agitators for a strike which impacted his studio. Subsequent investigations by Los Angeles prosecutors named Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, James Cagney, and other stars of equal stature as possible communist sympathizers. Their names, and the potential press exposure generated by calling such luminaries to testify before the committee proved irresistible to grandstanding politicians in Congress. Later, television enhanced the spotlight on the intrepid congressmen rooting out communist subversives in Hollywood. Reputations, careers, fortunes, and lives were ruined. Here is the story of Hollywood and the HUAC.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Committee Chairman Martin Dies (seated, gesturing) and members in the late 1930s. Library of Congress

1. Martin Dies Jr. used the committee to further his political agenda

The first chairman of the HUAC, then called the Dies Committee, was an anti-New Deal Democrat named Martin Dies Jr. In the mid-to-late 1930s he led the committee to focus on American pro-Nazi groups, as well as the Ku Klux Klan. When the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union became known, he expanded the committee’s work into American support of communism, particularly in labor unions. He received a list of Hollywood stars who had sent messages of support to a French newspaper, Ce Soir (This Evening). Dies issued a statement which identified Ce Soir as being wholly owned by the Communist Party in France. He released a list of names famous to Americans, identifying them as having sent “greetings” to the newspaper, implying they were communist sympathizers.

Among the names on the list were James Cagney, Robert Taylor, and Hollywood’s leading male star at the time, Clark Gable. This took place the year before Gable appeared in his most famous role as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. Another name on the list was the girl known as America’s “sweetheart” at the time, Shirley Temple. Temple was all of ten years of age when her name first appeared in the context of being a communist sympathizer. Dies gained public attention, which helped him push his ant-New Deal agenda in Congress, in particular his opposition to Roosevelt’s labor programs. The Roosevelt administration responded with a statement ridiculing the Dies Committee’s findings regarding Hollywood. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes said, “They (the committee) have found dangerous radicals there led by little Shirley Temple”. A three-decade conflict involving Hollywood and HUAC began.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Walt Disney opposed labor unions in his studio and blamed labor strife on communist agitation. Wikimedia

2. The HUAC began its activities in earnest following World War II

In 1941 Walt Disney, his studio struggling with a strike by animators, published his beliefs that the labor unions in Hollywood were incited by communist agitators. Disney refused to accept the truth that his own managerial style led to the strike. This followed the Dies Committee’s findings of 1938, which were that communism pervaded Hollywood’s film industry. As the year came to an end the United States entered World War II. Suddenly the Americans were on the same side as the Soviet Union in the war against fascism. Anti-communist hysteria disappeared for a time as America went to war. As World War II drew to a close, reports of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe replaced the stories of massive Soviet victories in battle. Soviet-style communism again became the greatest threat to the security of the United States.

In 1945, with America still at war with Japan, the HUAC began renewed efforts to root out communists in American society. Democratic Congressman John Rankin of Mississippi recalled the public’s attention to Hollywood as a base of communist activity and propaganda. Rankin, during a press conference, identified Hollywood as, “the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States”. Most Democrats did not generally support his views. In the 1946 mid-term elections the Republicans gained control of both Houses of Congress, something they had not enjoyed since 1932. Then in 1947, Walt Disney’s Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAI) denounced communist influences in Hollywood productions. Disney provided a list of steps for film producers, which included, “don’t deify the common man”. He also warned against depicting industrialists in a negative manner.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Ronald Reagan testified before the HUAC as a friendly witness in 1947. Library of Congress

3. The beginning of the Hollywood Blacklist

The series of events which led to the Hollywood Blacklist started with an editorial column in The Hollywood Reporter in 1946. Titled, A Vote for Joe Stalin, and written by published William Wilkerson, it listed several prominent writers, identifying them as communists. Among the writers were Dalton Trumbo and Ring Lardner Jr. The article drew the attention of the Republicans in Congress and the HUAC. In 1947, with the new Congress in session, Congressman J. Parnell Thomas traveled to Hollywood to meet with executives. Among those he met with were Walt Disney and actor Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG). Upon returning to Washington Wilkerson announced the HUAC would investigate the presence and influence of “subversives” in Hollywood and the film industry, with open hearings beginning in the fall.

Having been assured in private that communists prevailed in Hollywood, Wilkerson opened the hearings with “friendly” witnesses. Friendly meant the witness would admit the presence of communists and hopefully name them under oath. Having thus established a case, those named were then to be subpoenaed to testify. Among the friendly witnesses appearing early before the committee were Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan. Disney named several former employees of his as communists. Most of them had been involved with attempts to unionize his company. Reagan admitted several members of his union, the SAG, were “…following the tactics that we associated with the Communist Party”. He also stated he did not believe communists had been able to use Hollywood as a “sounding board for their philosophy or ideology”.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Hollywood actor and director John Huston, one of the founders of the Committee for the First Amendment. Wikimedia

4. Hollywood stars formed the Committee for the First Amendment in response to the HUAC

In 1947 film directors John Huston and William Wyler joined with actress Myrna Loy and Philip Dunne, a screenwriter, to create the Committee for the First Amendment. Among its many members were Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, Henry Fonda, Groucho Marx, Danny Kaye, and Katherine Hepburn. Others included Ira Gershwin, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Lena Horne. The Committee declared its opposition to the investigations into the political beliefs of members of the Hollywood community as well as the tactics employed by the HUAC. In the fall of 1947, the HUAC released a list of 43 Hollywood luminaries it wished to interrogate. Nineteen persons on the list announced they would not testify.

In response, the HUAC issued subpoenas for 11 of the reluctant 19, with the threat of incarceration for contempt of Congress hanging over them. The hearings were to begin on October 27, 1947. A contingent from the Committee for the First Amendment, led by Bogart and Bacall, flew to Washington to protest the hearings. Increased scrutiny of the group revealed that several of its members were former members of the Communist Party. Though the Communist Party was a legal political entity in the United States, its motives and thus its members were generally regarded with suspicion. The Committee for the First Amendment’s credibility was shattered. Its protest in Washington did little, other than to cast suspicions upon those who had never been communists, including Bogart, Bacall, and John Garfield.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
J. Parnell Thomas chaired the committee which cited the Hollywood Ten with contempt of Congress. Library of Congress

5. The Hollywood 11 became the Hollywood 10

The eleven subpoenaed to testify in 1947 included among them Bertolt Brecht, a German-born poet and playwright. Brecht decided to forego his initial position and testify before the HUAC, appearing on October 30, 1947. In reply to questions from the committee, he offered inside jokes, spoke in a heavy accent, and often uttered complete nonsense. The committee relied on translators in some cases. They merely added to the confusion and lack of communication when Brecht claimed their translations did not match his answers. When he finished, the Committee thanked him for his co-operation and the information he provided. The following day Brecht, who had lived in exile in the United States since 1941, returned to Europe. He never returned to America.

The remaining ten witnesses refused to answer the committee’s questions. Through their attorney’s they cited their rights protected by the First Amendment. Some, including Dalton Trumbo, attempted to read a statement prior to questioning; the committee gaveled them into silence. The question, often shouted repeatedly, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party”, became the catchphrase from the hearings. The HUAC cited the ten as in contempt of Congress, initiating a trial for the charge before the full House of Representatives. In all, the HUAC interviewed over 40 witnesses during the hearings prior to the Hollywood Ten, as they came to be called. Nearly all were co-operative, becoming friendly witnesses, which protected their stature in Hollywood with their employers.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Louis B. Mayer, with actress Joan Crawford, in 1953. Wikimedia

6. The Hollywood Ten become unemployable in November 1947

Being a member of the Communist Party did not constitute a crime in 1947. The party itself held recognition as a valid political entity. The steadily emerging “Red Scare” of the time though indicated anti-American interests, especially to right-wing conservatives. With friendly witnesses providing the HUAC with lists of names of Hollywood personnel being members of, or in sympathy with, the Communist Party the entertainment moved into damage control. In late autumn 1947, 48 key Hollywood executives convened a meeting at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. They included Louis B. Mayer, arguably the most powerful studio head in the film industry. Eric Johnson, head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPA) led the meeting.

In a statement issued following the meeting, the group denounced the Hollywood Ten, fired them (many had already been fired by individual studios) and denied them future employment. It announced they would “not re-employ any of the Ten until such time he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist”. It further announced, “We will not knowingly employ a Communist”. They asked the “Hollywood talent guilds to work with us to eliminate any subversives”. And they stated clearly, “In pursuing this policy, we are not going to be swayed by hysteria or intimidation from any source”. Meanwhile, the Hollywood Ten pursued their right to appeal their conviction by Congress for contempt.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Nine of the Hollywood Ten in December 1947. Missing is writer Dalton Trumbo. Wikimedia

7. The Hollywood Ten appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States

Unemployed and without the means to support themselves, some of the Hollywood Ten began to serve the sentences imposed by Congress. Edward Dmytryk, one of the Ten, fled to England, though he later returned and served his sentence. Dalton Trumbo and John Lawson filed appeals. The other eight signed agreements that the findings of the Court regarding Trumbo and Lawson would apply to their cases. The appeal claimed the First Amendment of the United States protected them from the action taken by the HUAC. As the cases worked their way through the appellate courts’ they all disagreed with the Ten’s interpretation of the First Amendment. In April 1950, the Supreme Court received the appeals. It declined, by a vote of 6-2, to hear them.

Ring Lardner Jr, served a sentence of 12 months in the Federal Correctional Institution, Danbury, Connecticut. There he had a fellow inmate, J. Parnell Thomas. Following his pursuit of the Hollywood Ten, and findings of them in contempt, Thomas ran into legal problems of his own. He placed people on his congressional staff, including his niece, assigned them no work, and received their salaries as kickbacks. When investigated he declined to answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment rights. The fraud occurred throughout the period he led the HUAC investigation of the Hollywood Ten. Convicted of fraud and tax evasion, he received an 18-month sentence in Danbury. Along with Ring Lardner, another member of the Ten, Lester Cole, served the sentence Thomas imposed in the same prison, at the same time.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Dalton Trumbo later agreed with the contempt finding as being reflective of his feelings toward Congress. PBS

8. Dalton Trumbo admitted his contempt for Congress

After serving a sentence of 11 months in prison Dalton Trumbo returned to screenwriting, through the use of subterfuge. He wrote under pseudonyms, producing an astonishing number of scripts. He lived in Mexico, in semi-exile, while he worked on B-movies. Often when adapting books for the screen, he persuaded the book’s author to accept the screenwriter’s credit. The caution proved prudent, the blacklist did not end with the Hollywood Ten. Instead, the pursuit of communists and other “subversives” continued in Hollywood following the initial HUAC investigations. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI joined in wholeheartedly, as did other government agencies, newspapers, and magazines.

Many years later, Dalton Trumbo reflected on his conviction and expressed his views with dripping sarcasm. In a documentary film about the Hollywood Ten in 1976, Trumbo said, “As far as I was concerned, it was a completely just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress, and have had contempt for it ever since”. In 1951 Edward Dmytryk, who had returned to America and was serving his sentence, admitted he was a former communist and offered to testify before the HUAC, naming others. In April 1951, Dmytryk testified naming several members of the Communist Party in Hollywood. His testimony and denunciation of communism allowed him to return to work in Hollywood, while his former codefendants remained in Federal custody.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
A HUAC investigator, Edward Sullivan (right), presents committee members with “evidence” of communist influence in Hollywood. Library of Congress

9. The American Legion joined the blacklist in 1949

In 1949, the American Legion boasted about 2.8 million members, nearly all of them politically conservative. That year it began publishing movies produced with the assistance of communist sympathizers, including writers, actors and directors, as well as other members of the films’ crews. It urged its members to boycott such films. That year it also released a list of over 125 people as members of a communist conspiracy in the entertainment industry. The American Legion appeared as one of many organizations which pursued blacklisting Hollywood performers and creative artists, as well as some of the more mundane worker’s unions and guilds in the entertainment industry.

For many years the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover conducted covert and overt investigations into communist infiltration of American society. Much of the information was funneled to the HUAC. In 1947 a non-government entity was formed under the control of John Keenan, Kenneth Bierly, and Theodore Kirkpatrick. All three were described as former FBI agents. They launched a newsletter they named Counterattack, edited by Francis McNamara. McNamara served in US Army intelligence during World War II. Though all of the four claimed to no longer be in the employ of the US government, they retained access to classified files in the FBI and other agencies. In June 1950, Counterattack published a pamphlet titled Red Channels, in which they identified 151 entertainment industry employees they accused of promoting communism through their work.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Numerous right-wing groups contributed to the growth of the blacklist in the 1950s. Library of Congress

10. Red Channels alleged over forty women in Hollywood promoted communism

While the HUAC hearings which led to the Hollywood Ten focused largely on male communists, Red Channels identified women on a large scale. Out of the 151 they accused of promoting communism, 41 were women. Many almost immediately found themselves unemployable in their chosen profession. Lena Horne appeared on the list, largely due to her long dedication to improving civil rights. Writer Dorothy Parker, founder of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, appeared on the list. Immediately blacklisted, Parker’s lucrative screenwriting career came to a sudden end. Judy Holliday, singer, actor, and comedienne, also found her name on the list. It attracted notice in Washington.

Not to be outdone by their Congressional colleagues in the House, in 1951 the Senate established the Senate Internal Security Committee. Having given themselves the authority to issue subpoenas for witnesses and documents, the committee, often referred to as the McCarran Committee, also went after communists in Hollywood. In 1952 they subpoenaed Judy Holliday to answer questions regarding her communist sympathies. Judy channeled her stereotypical role as a less-than-sharp blonde during her testimony, to the amusement of the audiences and reporters, as well as many of the Senators. She refused to name others, and in the end, was cleared of any involvement with communist activities or propaganda. Her Hollywood career continued unscathed until her unfortunate early death in 1965, from recurring breast cancer.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Edward G. Robinson saw his status as a leading star in Hollywood wane while on the gray list. Wikimedia

11. The HUAC resumed under Democratic control in 1951

In the 1950s mid-term elections the Democratic Party gained control of both houses of Congress. Congressmen John Wood assumed the Chair of the HUAC. Wood found witnesses appearing before the committee had changed their legal tactics. Rather than relying on their First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly they turned to the Fifth Amendment. The latter protected them from being forced to present testimony which could be self-incriminating. While it protected them from further legal action by the committee, it did not ensure they would remain off the Hollywood Blacklist. A new group of Hollywood professionals emerged, not definitively labeled as Communists, but finding difficulty gaining employment.

Called the gray list, its members often found their careers stalled. Edward G. Robinson found himself unable to find roles equivalent to those he starred in before the hearings. The HUAC fed the gray list by calling on friendly witnesses to testify, such as noted Hollywood director Elia Kazan. Kazan readily named names, identifying them as communists or communist sympathizers. When those persons were called to testify and heard the question over their own communist leanings, most claimed their Fifth Amendment rights. When word reached the studio heads or union and guild leadership, the unfortunate entertainers found their services no longer desired in the industry.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Senator Joseph McCarthy during his investigation into communists in the US Army. Wikimedia

12. Hollywood began to fight back in the early 1950s

In the Cold War environment of the 1950s, the anti-communist hysteria reached its peak during and shortly after the Korean War. It produced the hearings led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (who had no relationship with the HUAC) and investigations into the US Army, State Department, Treasury Department, and other government offices. McCarthy relied on the extant anti-communist hysteria, much of it fed by the publicity generated by the HUAC and the Hollywood Blacklist. America First, the American Legion, the Catholic Legion of Decency, and other organizations argued Hollywood-based communists used film and the new medium of television to surreptitiously shape the morals and beliefs of American society.

Faced with the accusations from the conservative right, and the Southern Democrats, called Dixiecrats, in their own party, Democratic congressional leaders continued to investigate the entertainment industry. Yet very little, if any, evidence of communist influence shaping American films and television shows emerged. Hollywood fought back. Performers and scriptwriters appeared before the HUAC and attacked their methods as Un-American. Actor Lionel Stander, one of the busiest in Hollywood in 1951, blithely referred to the committee as a “group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the Constitution of the United States…” in his testimony before the HUAC. He found few producers willing to hire him in Hollywood following his comments before the committee.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Hedda Hopper (center), with Lisabeth Scott and Mark Stevens. Wikimedia

13. Hoover’s FBI and the American Legion swung into full gear in the mid-1950s

American Legion members picketed films which their leadership found offensive to true American sensibilities. Among the films picketed were Moulin Rouge, On the Waterfront, and High Noon, all considered classics today. Attorneys who represented actors and others before the HUAC found themselves the targets of surveillance by the FBI. In 1952 the Screen Writer’s Guild directed producers of films to remove the screenwriting credits for writers who refused to testify before the HUAC. The classic film The Robe, a tale of a Roman Centurion who witnessed the death of Christ had been written by Albert Maltz. Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten, wrote the screenplay in the late 1940s. Upon release in 1953, his name did not appear in the credits.

Hoover’s FBI provided information to the American Business Consultant’s newsletter Counterattack, and to newspaper and magazine columnists covering the entertainment industry. Several of these columnists, including Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell, exposed those suspected of communist leanings in their writing. Hopper openly urged some performers be placed on the blacklist. Hopper, who at her peak could boast of 35 million readers, openly attacked performers including Charles Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor, Joseph Cotton, and Kirk Douglas, as well as director Otto Preminger. She served as one of the primary sources of information to the HUAC concerning Dalton Trumbo and Ring Lardner Jr. She also published her suspicions of Trumbo returning to screenwriting, under pseudonyms, in the 1950s. The FBI investigated and found them correct.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Humphrey Bogart penned an article in Photoplay denying he had ever been a communist. Wikimedia

14. The Hollywood community divided socially over the blacklist

During the early 1950s, the blacklist divided friends and even led to the breakup of some marriages. Several eminent stars, including Orson Welles, left for exile in Europe, though in Welles’ case problems with the IRS also contributed to his departure. Some leading stars of film, including Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Lee J. Cobb, and the director Elia Kazan openly supported the HUAC and the blacklist. Others, including Humphrey Bogart, were forced to tone down their opposition. Bogart found himself under suspicion for his vocal support of the Hollywood Ten. In order to return to the good graces of the studio heads at Warner Brothers, he penned an article for Photoplay Magazine. Bogart denied defending the Hollywood Ten in his piece, citing instead his defense of the 1st Amendment.

Edward G. Robinson, who finally testified before the HUAC and confirmed some previously named as communists (including Dalton Trumbo) found himself ostracized by both sides. Having formerly allowed his home to be used for meetings of several of the Hollywood Ten in his absence, he remained under suspicion of having communist sympathies. As a prominent member of the so-called gray list, his roles in films dropped. Formerly one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, he found work only in B films for several years. Often his appearances were in supporting roles. Actress Barbara Bel Geddes also found her film career ended for several years after being named a communist before the HUAC. She went years without appearing in a major film. Years later she gained fame in the television prime time soap opera Dallas, starring as the matron of the Ewing clan, Miss Ellie.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Senator Joseph McCarthy’s style, similar to those of the HUAC, generated revulsion from most Americans in the mid-1950s. Wikimedia

15. Joseph McCarthy’s televised hearings helped cripple the HUAC and the blacklist

In 1952, the United States Army drafted a dentist from New York, commissioned as a Captain. In 1953 he received a promotion to Major. The dentist, Irving Peress, refused to answer certain questions regarding his political affiliations on a security form. He did reveal he belonged to the leftist American Labor Party. Senator McCarthy subpoenaed Peress to appear and testify before his committee in January 1954. Peress appeared, but refused to answer questions, citing the 5th Amendment. McCarthy then demanded the Army charge Peress and court-martial him. Instead, the Army granted the dentist an honorable discharge. To McCarthy, the promotion of a man obviously sympathetic to communists and the gentle manner in which the Army dismissed him meant one thing. Obviously, communists had infiltrated the US Army.

The subsequent televised hearings of McCarthy’s investigation of communism in the US Army proved his undoing. After 36 days of hearings, televised live and viewed by up to 20 million Americans, McCarthy’s approval ratings dropped from a high of 50% to about 34%. He appeared as bullying, arrogant, ill-informed, and petty. Senator Stuart Symington, a member of the investigating committee, replied to a jibe from McCarthy with a devastating assessment of his fellow Senator. “Senator”, he said, “the American people have had a look at you now for six weeks. You’re not fooling anyone, either”. The exposure of McCarthy’s demagoguery led to public distrust of such tactics, and similar procedures long used by the HUAC fell into disfavor. McCarthy had nothing to do with the work of the HUAC, but his behavior helped weaken both the HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Joseph Nye Welch challenged McCarthy and drew the applause of the gallery. He later appeared in a major film. PBS

16. A link between McCarthy and the Hollywood blacklist

When McCarthy received his dressing down during the Army investigation hearings, it came from Joseph Nye Welch, the Army’s chief counsel. It was Welch who famously addressed McCarthy with the question, “Have you no decency sir, at long last?”. When Welch cut off another McCarthy diatribe by addressing himself to the Chairman, Karl Mundt, he drew applause from the crowded gallery, which drowned out McCarthy’s shouting. In 1959, Welch appeared in another role, this one in a major Hollywood film. He portrayed the judge in a murder trial, in Anatomy of a Murder, which starred James Stewart and Ben Gazzara. Welch later quipped the role, “…was the only way I’d ever get to be a judge”. The film was directed by Otto Preminger, a longtime critic of the Hollywood blacklist.

Preminger at the time planned to produce and direct a film based on the Leon Uris novel Exodus. Having read the novel, he recognized the difficulties in adapting it to the screen. Long defiant of censorship of any type, he determined there were serious problems with the script’s content. Preminger knew of Dalton Trumbo’s ongoing work as a screenwriter, though using pseudonyms, or receiving no credit at all for his contributions. Otto Preminger decided to approach Trumbo to write the screenplay for Exodus, offering both a substantial retainer and a screen credit as Dalton Trumbo, defying the blacklist. Trumbo accepted. When Exodus appeared in 1960 it included his name in the opening credits. Preminger though, was considered a Hollywood outsider. The same year another film, produced by and starring a Hollywood insider, struck another blow against the Hollywood blacklist.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Kirk Douglas helped end the blacklist which his longtime friend, Ronald Reagan, helped to create.The White House

17. Kirk Douglas and Spartacus helped end the Hollywood blacklist

Two parties vied to be the first to bring Howard Fast’s novel, Spartacus, to the screen. One, led by Kirk Douglas, secured Fast’s services to write the screenplay. The other, driven by Yul Brynner, raced to produce the film for United Artists. When it became evident that Fast’s script required extensive rewrites, a time-consuming process, Douglas turned to Dalton Trumbo. Initially, the writer did not receive a guarantee of screen credit. After Trumbo satisfactorily completed the rewrite in just two weeks the production team, including Douglas and director Stanley Kubrick, discussed how the scriptwriter should be credited. Trumbo suggested the pseudonym, Sam Jackson. Stanley Kubrick suggested he credit himself as screenwriter. Douglas, disgusted with Kubrick’s suggestion, and aware of Preminger’s hiring of Trumbo, suggested giving the writer the credit with his real name.

During the months of production, Walter Winchell learned of Trumbo’s involvement, and reported it in his column. The subject immediately generated controversy. Numerous supporters of the blacklist, including among the Hollywood community, condemned the use of the writer. Douglas informed Trumbo that his name would remain in the credits. In August 1960, Universal announced the film would list Dalton Trumbo as screenwriter. Several conservative groups announced they would boycott the film, including the American Legion. Nonetheless, when the film was released, Trumbo’s name appeared in the credits, and Kirk Douglas later claimed to have broken the blacklist. In 2012, in an article appearing in the Jewish Chronicle, Douglas told a reporter, “the thing I am most proud of is breaking the blacklist”.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Otto Preminger (right, next to actress Caroll Baker), in 1965. Wikimedia

18. The blacklist supporters fought back as Spartacus and Exodus were released

“That story was sold to Universal from a book written by a Commie and the screen script was written by a Commie, so don’t go to see it”. Hedda Hopper so described Spartacus in her column, warning her readers of the film’s violence. “It has acres of dead people…” she went on. She was not alone. As the film went into release it received condemnation on the far right, much of it centered on its themes. The American Legion demanded its members boycott the film, and theaters which ran it, even when they showed other films. In multiple cities across the country, the American Legion set up picket lines outside theaters where the film played. One of the cities where the Legion picketed theaters was Washington, DC, in the shadow of the Capitol.

The White House had (and has) its own theater, and the President of the United States can request first-run films for private screenings at his discretion. When Spartacus was released, the President could have avoided the controversy over its creation and content with just such a private screening. In February, 1961, with the far-right screaming over its communist associations, and with the American Legion picketing the theaters, the President went to the movies. On February 4, 1961, President John F. Kennedy left the White House and crossed the American Legion picket lines to view Spartacus, later giving the film a favorable review. Though his endorsement probably had little impact on the film’s box office take, it was a major blow against the Hollywood blacklist.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Big Jim McLain told the story of fictional HUAC investigators fighting communism in Hawaii. Wikimedia

19. Hollywood made films for the benefit of the HUAC in the 1950s

While some in Hollywood opposed the HUAC and its methods, others used them to make films. Several anti-communist films appeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in part to appease the committee. Among them were films such as I Married a Communist. Its attendance figures were so low that the producers changed its name to The Woman on Pier 13, which didn’t help much. Other films which depicted Soviet communism in a manner intended to please the HUAC included The Red Menace, The Red Danube, and I Was a Communist for the FBI. Yet one film not only appeared to appease the HUAC, but to depict its work in a dramatic and heroic manner. In the film, HUAC agents hunt communists in Hawaiian labor unions, insurance companies, and sabotage activities against the United States Navy.

The film, Big Jim McLain, co-produced by and starring John Wayne, was filmed in Hawaii in 1952. Wayne, an ardent anti-communist and long-time supporter of the blacklist, depicted the communists as racists in the film. Wayne supported deporting communists, but for those who had recanted, supported welcoming them back. For example, once Edward Dmytryk announced he had rejected communism (and named names before the HUAC), Wayne helped him find work in Hollywood. Hedda Hopper blistered Wayne for his “betrayal” in her column. Big Jim McLain is the only film in which HUAC agents were depicted, as they sought out communist cells similar to those Hopper and others believed existed in Hollywood. In reality, the HUAC sought out communists using more insidious tactics.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
When the Trumbo penned Roman Holiday was first released it was credited to Ian McLellan Hunter. Wikimedia

20. The Hollywood Blacklist began to collapse after Spartacus and Exodus appeared

With the release of Spartacus, Exodus, and the revelation both were written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood blacklist began to collapse. Trumbo admitted he had written Roman Holiday and The Brave One, both of which had been awarded Academy Awards for Best Story. Both credited the story to fictitious writers at the time. Trumbo returned to screenwriting using his own name and was reinstated to the Writer’s Guild of America, to the outrage of Hedda Hopper. Others returned to the good graces of filmmakers and producers. Edward G. Robinson, who had wallowed in low-budget productions while on the gray list, returned to stardom, including with The Cincinnati Kid in 1965.

Many of the actors, writers, directors, and film production experts blacklisted during the period were in fact communists, some proudly so. Not all claimed to have been used or duped. Lionel Stander, whose career stalled for many years after being blacklisted, served as an example of such. Stander (and others) argued that membership in the Communist Party or holding communist political ideals did not break American law. His position was that the techniques of the HUAC and the actions of the studio heads in Hollywood did. “My estimation of this committee is that this committee arrogates judicial and punitive powers which it does not possess”, he told the HUAC. He remained on the blacklist for nearly 25 years, before returning to a major role on television, in the series Hart to Hart.

Hollywood’s Witch Hunt Created a Communist Blacklist for these Celebrities
Singer, actor, and athlete Paul Robeson told the HUAC they were the real threat to American freedom. Wikimedia

21. Some of Hollywood’s most famous performers and creative artists appeared on the blacklist

Besides those already noted, many noted names of screen and literature were blacklisted, with a detrimental effect on their reputations and careers. Dashiell Hammett, the creator of Sam Spade and the Thin Man, appeared on the blacklist. So did writer Lillian Hellmann. Eddie Albert, who gained widespread fame as Oliver Douglas in the rural sitcom Green Acres did so after recovering from years on the blacklist. Blacklisted, Charles Chaplin was refused a visa to return to the United States after a trip to Europe and spent the rest of his life in exile in Switzerland. The noted animator Bill Melendez, a former Disney employee and later responsible for bringing Peanuts to television, spent years on the blacklist.

The Hollywood Blacklist both denied people the right to work in their chosen profession, and drove the careers of many who exploited it. Hedda Hopper used the fear of the blacklist to blackmail studio executives and crush celebrities of whom she disapproved. Politicians labeled those suspected of communist leanings as agents of the Soviets, reporting directly to Moscow. Investigations by the FBI, the NSA, HUAC, and other agencies both in federal and state governments never produced any evidence of such a relationship. American singer and actor Paul Robeson appeared before the HUAC in 1956, and subsequently was blacklisted for many years. During his testimony, Robeson told the committee, “You are the non-patriots, you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves”. The House of Representatives finally disbanded the HUAC in 1975.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Un-Americans”. Frank J. Donner. 1967

“Ex-Rep Martin Dies, 71, Is Dead; Led Un-American Activities Unit”. Obituary, The New York Times. November 15, 1972

“The cruel reality of Disney’s world”. Paul Harris, The Observer. November 26, 2006

“Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, and the Fear of Hollywood Communism”. Jennifer Latson, TIME Magazine. October 20, 2014

“Statement of the Committee for the First Amendment”. National Archives. October 21, 1947. Online

“Bertolt Brecht Testifies Before the House Un-American Affairs Committee”. Josh Jones, Open Culture. November 12, 2012. Online

“The Hollywood Brass Who Endorsed the Blacklist”. Gary Baum, Daniel Miller, The Hollywood Reporter. November 19, 2012.

“J. Parnell Thomas, Anti-Red Crusader, is Dead”. Robert D. McFadden, The New York Times. November 19, 1970.

“Dalton Trumbo”. Article, Biography. Internet Archive. June 18, 2015

“‘We Ask You Not to Condone This’: How the Blacklist Saved Hollywood”. Jon Lewis, Cinema Journal. Winter, 2000

“Reliving the Scare: Looking Back On ‘Red Channels'”. John McDonough, All Things Considered, NPR. June 22, 2010

“Hollywood and Anti-Communism: HUAC and the Evolution of the Red Menace 1935-1950”. John Gladchuk. 2006

“Hedda Hopper: the woman who scared Hollywood”. Article. The Telegraph. Online

“I’m No Communist”. Humphrey Bogart, Photoplay Magazine. May, 1948

“No Sense of Decency: The Army – McCarthy Hearings”. Robert Shogan. 2009

“Kirk Douglas helped end the Hollywood blacklist, but he wasn’t alone”. Phil Helsel, NBC News. February 5, 2020

“Hollywood gladiator Kirk Douglas has his eyes set on a third bar mitzvah”. Barbara Paskin, Jewish Chronicle. September 20, 2012

“Spartacus: The anti-slave film that helped free cinema”. Peter Howell, Toronto Star. August 11, 2011