House Un-American Activities Committee Began Investigating Hollywood’s Communist Propaganda and Influence in Film and TV

On this day, members of the House Un-American Activities Committee began an investigation into alleged communist influences in the film industry as the post-World War II “Red Scare” ramped up towards its peak. (Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthythe namesake of an era marked by anti-communist paranoia, was not involved with the Congressional committee, although their aims overlapped.) Fearing a conspiracy that would inject propaganda into productions and recruit movie-going Americans to communist causes, the committee subpoenaed more than 40 actors, directors, writers and studio executives, whom they grilled about their political affiliations and asked to name names of other Hollywood communists.

And while 80 celebrities — including Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly and John Huston — signed a petition denouncing the committee as un-American itself for probing the politics of individual citizens, the anti-communist momentum of the day carried the hearings forward.

Some of those subpoenaed cooperated fully with the committee, confirming its fears that subversives were at work in Hollywood. These “friendly witnesses” included Ronald Reagan, who testified that a “small clique” of communists “have attempted to be a disruptive influence” within the Screen Actors Guild, and Walt Disney, who declared that they had been behind a strike at his studio. Disney felt particularly vulnerable to the Red Menace, according to his testimony, in which he alleged that one communist agitator, the union organizer Herbert Sorrell, swore “he would make a dust bowl out of my plant if he chose to.” Disney knew Sorrell was a communist, he said, because of “having seen his name appearing on a number of Commie front things,” which then went on to smear Disney’s name.

On the other hand, ten screenwriters and directors refused to testify, arguing that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the freedom to belong to any political organization they chose. Congress didn’t see it that way, and a month later the men were cited for contempt and ultimately sentenced to a year in prison each.

In prison, one of the Hollywood Ten, as they came to be known, discovered warmer feelings for the committee. Director Edward Dmytryk testified a second time in 1951, outdoing even Reagan and Disney in his friendliness. As TIME reported in its coverage of the hearing:

This time Dmytryk not only admitted membership in the party in 1944-45; he also gave the committee a longer list of party members (26) than any other witness to date and the best summary yet of the Communists’ ‘Operation Hollywood.’

Those names joined a blacklist that destroyed hundreds of film careers. Dmytryk, however, speaking “with the surprised air of a man discovering sin for the first time,” said he believed the names should be known, and communism routed.

“This is treason and it means the party is committing treason,” he testified. “For this reason, I am willing to talk today.”

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In September 1947, HUAC subpoenaed 41 witnesses to testify at formal hearings. Of these, 19 were considered “unfriendly” witnesses because they said they would not cooperate with the committee’s investigation. Eleven of the unfriendly witnesses eventually came to the hearings in October 1947. The unfriendly witnesses included John Howard Lawson, who had previously testified in 1940, plus fellow writers Alvah BessieLester ColeRing Lardner Jr.Albert MaltzSamuel Ornitz, andDalton Trumbo. Also called were writer/producer Adrian Scott, writer/director Herbert Biberman, and director Edward Dmytryk. These ten refused to answer questions, denounced the committee, and were held in contempt of Congress. The contempt citations led to brief prison terms for all ten when the Supreme Court refused to reverse their convictions. (The eleventh unfriendly witness, German-born writer Bertolt Brecht, testified he wasn’t a Communist. He then promptly went back to Europe, where he lived in Communist-controlled East Berlin.)

The witnesses who denounced the committee became known as the “Hollywood Ten.” They were blacklisted from the movie industry for many years afterward. The blacklist itself was not developed by HUAC, but by a group of studio executives. The executives met shortly after the hearings and adopted a resolution against employing Communists, including the Hollywood Ten. With the exception of Dmytryk, who later changed his position and cooperated with the committee, the Hollywood Ten either did not work on American movies or used pseudonyms for most of the 1950s.

In contrast, the “friendly” witnesses all agreed to testify about Communist influence on Hollywood movies. The friendly witnesses included studio heads Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer, and actors Gary CooperRobert MontgomeryRonald Reagan, and Robert Taylor. The friendly witnesses were called to testify first, followed by the unfriendly witnesses.

HUAC’s second round of investigations of Communists in Hollywood ended after the testimony of the Hollywood Ten. The committee began a new series of investigations of Communist influence on movies in the early 1950s and continued them for several years.

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