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The 'red menace' in Hollywood

Allegations that film stars and leading producers, directors and writers were Communists dated back at least to 1940, when the then chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), Martin Dies, claimed that Communists were in positions of influence in Hollywood.
        During the war years, when the country was meant to be unified in the common cause of fighting fascism and Japanese imperialism, Hollywood became politically polarised to a degree. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals presented a right-wing anti-Communist force balanced by the liberal Free World Association, of which independent producer Walter Wanger (educated at Dartmouth, Heidelberg and Oxford, and an attaché with President Woodrow Wilson's American Peace Mission at the post-WW1 Paris conference) was a leading activist. Other supporters included Orson Welles and James Cagney. Being at war focused attention on the principles for which the world was fighting. However, this showed up the divide between divergent definitions of 'freedom': those for whom it was indivisible and those who advocated restrictions to defend it. [The latter position perhaps anticipated the statement by an American military officer during the Vietnam war that 'to protect the village we had to destroy it'.]

Hollywood became even more the focus of allegations during the strike by members of the Conference of Studio Unions that began in Chronomedia linkMarch 1945. The strike arose from a dispute between the IATSE, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes (sic), and the breakaway Conference of Studio Unions, representing the Society of Motion Picture Interior Decorators (SMPID). Jack Tenney, himself a former trades union (best known as the composer of the 1938 hit Mexicali Rose but now a right-wing member of the California State Senate, was making inflationary claims about communist infiltration. He alleged that in 1934 the Communist Party had provided funds 'for the purpose of creating an entering wedge into the motion picture industry' and now had Ronald Reagan at HUAC hearingsfactions 'in nearly every Hollywood trade union'. The fear of communism—with an anti-semitic tinge in the paradoxical case of the Hollywood studio bosses—filled the vacuum left by removing the fear of the Japanese after the end of the war in the Pacific.
        Matters came to a head during 1947. Following 10 days of closed-session hearings in Los Angeles in May, HUAC held open sessions in Washington in October and November. Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan [right] were among those giving evidence.


HUAC chairman J Parnell Thomas (who was later convicted of corruption) administers the oath at a Committee hearing as a formidable battery of newsreel cameras behind him record the moment. Sitting on Thomas's left is Congressman Richard M Nixon (who was later...). The Ten, with Maltz and Lardner in the lead, were taken away from the hearings in handcuffs.

Eric Johnston, head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) since 1945, had appeared before the Committee in March 1947. He again gave evidence in October, seeking to defend the film community against indiscriminate and blanket accusations that were seen as a threat to the Hollywood studios' business. Hollywood TenAs Orson Welles had pointed out in a letter to Time magazine in 1944, Hollywood was an easy target for HUAC, which saw the potential of attaching the 'red menace' label to one of the country's most prominent and glamorous industries.

The Hollywood Ten
However, 11 writers and directors—Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo, who become known collectively as 'the Hollywood Ten', plus the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht—were charged with contempt of Congress for refusing to co-operate with the Committee's enquiries. Despite arguing that the First Amendment of the Constitution gave them that right and protection, the Ten were given jail sentences of six to 12 months each, Brecht having left the country the day after his appearance.
        The picture shows the Hollywood Ten with their attorneys: back row Lardner, Dmytryk, Scott; centre row Trumbo, Lawson, Bessie, Ornitz; front row Biberman, lawyers Martin Popper and Robert W Kenny, Maltz and Cole.
        A Committee for the First Amendment (CFA) was formed by Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, William Wyler, John Huston, Gene Kelly and others. They travelled to Washington to protest at the HUAC hearings.

The Committee for the First Amendment: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall lead a posse of Hollywood actors and film-makers to protest at HUAC's disregard of the Hollywood Ten's constitutional rights. Demonstrations followed the convictions.

Despite the statements of Johnston and efforts of the CFA, the Hollywood Ten were removed from their jobs and blacklisted. Their appeal against conviction was turned down by the Washington DC Court of Appeals in Chronomedia linkJune 1949 and in Chronomedia linkDecember the Supreme Court refused to hear a further appeal.
         Accusations continued to be made. In June 1950, a book called Red Channels named 151 actors, directors and writers who were said to have been members of 'subversive organisations' before the Second World War. On 25 April 1951 Dmytryk re-appeared before the Committee and named 26 left-wingers, claiming to have been pressured by Lawson, Scott and Maltz into presenting the communist line in his pictures.
        Eventually at least 320 people in the entertainment industry were blacklisted, among them Larry Adler, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Joseph Bromberg, Charlie Chaplin, Aaron Copland, Hanns Eisler, Edwin Rolfe, Carl Foreman, John Garfield, Howard Da Silva, Dashiell Hammett, E Y Harburg, Lillian Hellman, Burl Ives, Arthur Miller, Dorothy Parker, Philip Loeb, Joseph Losey, Anne Revere, Pete Seeger, Gale Sondergaard, Louis Untermeyer, Josh White, Zero Mostel, Clifford Odets, Michael Wilson, Orson Welles, Sidney Kingsley, Paul Robeson and Abraham Polonsky. A full list of the blacklist can be found on Wikipedia (opens in new window).
        Under assumed names Trumbo and Wilson won Academy Awards for screenplays, including Roman Holiday and Bridge On the River Kwai. Trumbo was the first of the Ten to regain screen credit in his own name in 1960 for his script for Spartacus (interestingly so, perhaps, in the light of the film's iconic 'I am Spartacus!' scene of solidarity).


Eric Johnston evidence to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)
Mr Justice Clark's comment in the Washington DC Court of Appeals
Dalton Trumbo's comment about the Washington DC Court of Appeals verdict
Orson Welles' letter to Time magazine about the Motion Picture Alliance and the Free World Association

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Page updated 19 March 2013