There was a period in American cinema history that stands out as one of the great acts of censorship of our time. The effects of this censorship will be discussed below, but I will also investigate the effect that this has had on the industry both as it occurred and in the aftermath of its legacy, by looking in particular at a film that deals with the period in question. It is imperative for the modern reader however to be able to contextualise this essay, and as such a detailed look at this period is history is required.
“Although the year 1947, when HUAC descended on the film industry, is widely regarded as the starting point of the blacklist, the real roots of that scoundrel time-in Lillian Hellman’s apt phrase-can probably be found in two decades earlier, in the Wall Street crash of 1929, which ushered in the Depression that paralysed America”. (McGilligan)
It is important in the discussion and understanding of this period of history, to take a moment to understand the context. The Wall Street crash of 1929, stagnant markets or worse the world over, followed quickly by the great drought on 1930, left America falling into, “The Great Depression”. Hoover was President at the time and he felt that the recession would soon be over and targeted businesses and banks as the focus of his attention. There were calls from the people for aid but he was quick to instruct the American public that to hand out aid, while being helpful in the short-term would only lead to the demise of American society in the future and would instil a sense of socialism into the country.
The public did not agree and when they were given the opportunity to change their leader they did so with gusto and Franklin D. Roosevelt became the new President of the United States. He ran on a platform of helping the average American to get out of the depression, focusing on what he termed the “New Deal“. The basis of this plan was the giving of subsidies to those who needed it and the creation of jobs and unions for all. While there had been unions prior to this, they were mostly associated with organised crime. These new unions would allow employees to be given a fair fight, allowing them to stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow workers and seek justice.
Hollywood became a beacon of hope at this time in American History. While the rest of the country wallowed in the recession, Hollywood was booming and it was one of the few places in the country that was hiring. The people that were attracted to Hollywood were mostly intellectuals, from all over the world, but most of whom were Americans, mostly from New York, and mostly Jewish.
These men and women were the descendants of immigrants from Europe and Russia who had come to live the American dream, and their progeny relished in their ability to live as free Americans. They considered themselves American. Their upbringing and politics however were greatly influenced by their lifestyles and backgrounds, which resulted in their connections with counter-culture, liberalism, socialism and communism: a situation common to many of the creative and artistic of society.
Meanwhile, the growing concerns of the public as to the evils of European and Russian outlooks on life had manifested itself in the creation of a committee into the permeation of Un-American activities in their own country. Senator Martin Dies was given responsibility into researching and investigating these activities through the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) which later changed to the House Un-American Activities Committee(HUAC).
This committee was charged with the investigation of various different societies and associations around America, whose focus was not in keeping with the social norms of democracy as dictated by Congress, and particularly Senator Dies. These subversive organisations were investigated as to their members and the content of their meetings. Senator Dies went about the investigations with some vigour and was rewarded by becoming one of the most prominent men in American politics in the late 1930’s.
Dies’ rise to prominence was aided significantly by his relaxed nature with the Newspapers, which allowed him to take up a substantial amount of columns and inches. These articles on the crusade were not always popular however, with many early reports on the committee and their activities, most certainly from the liberal media, being quite scathing of his approaches. His constantly appearing in the newspapers meant that any association with fascism or communism levelled at an individual or institution by Dies resulted in a very strong backlash of public opinion.
In a survey carried out on a study group in 1938 it was clear that the constant newspaper reports were having an effect on the public.
“The results for these experimental groups indicate that the effect of the Dies Committee’s campaign against what it calls “Un-Americanism” may have been less than some observers have supposed. Nevertheless, the study indicates that pinning the label of “Communism” on anyone or anything disliked is quite effective. According to the present results, the Dies Committee of 1938 was probably successful in damning at least two well-known liberal organizations and one outstanding labour leader.” (Henderson Britt)
His first crusade was to oust any Fascists Societies within America but even from the get go, it was clear that the main target was Communism.
From the impending War with the Nazis in Germany, and the horror of the war stories of returning troops, Americans were encouraged under the war-time propaganda to make sure that they stayed American and anyone who did not agree with their opinion should be considered subversive. The HUAC provided a vehicle for this sort of rhetoric, and people were actively encouraged to speak out against their neighbour should they suspect them of anything untoward.
But the real threat as the Americans saw it in the late 1940’s was Communism. The “Red Scare” took over all of America as the two superpowers entered the Cold War. This state of tension lasted for a considerable period of time, with little let off in the propaganda. Anyone who was considered “a bit Pink” was circumspect, and to let known any favourable opinions on Communism, was to be ostracised.
Though the Red Scare and the anti-communist oppression of the Government are mostly associated with Senator Joseph McCarthy, the events of the later do not relate to the subject matter for this essay. The McCarthy hearings focused on Government infiltration and while there were overlaps with the film industry, it was the HUAC and not the McCarthy hearings that impacted Hollywood the most and implemented the blacklist.
The HUAC realised that should they focus their attention on an existing body, mostly compromised of known liberals, they would be able to get more Americans on their side and use the press in their attempts to erase Communism from America. Hollywood was an obvious choice for this focus. It contained liberal, artistic people, all of whom had diverse backgrounds, employed foreign workers and was involved in the creation of performance pieces that blurred the lines of all issues and boundaries in an attempt to educate.
“Soon after “HUAC”…was formed in 1938, it acquired the reputation of a witch-hunting body targeted against the American Left… In subsequent years the committee’s questionable tactics, which involved guilt by association and smear brought it considerable notoriety. Soon after the beginning of the Cold War in 1946 it had begun to investigate charges that communists had infiltrated Hollywood and that the motion picture industry had put subversive doctrine on the screen. Closed hearings held in Los Angeles in the spring of 1947 sent a few ripples throughout the film community, but when public hearings in Washington were announced in September 1947, major shock waves were generated in Hollywood. Denials of subversive messages in films and a request to the committee to name films in which they occurred were met with silence…There was widespread fear by liberals and conservatives alike that the governments inordinate interest in the content of films was the first step toward control of the industry, and that a witch-hunt was about to begin.”(Lyon)
When HUAC began subpoenaing people before them it sent a very clear message to anyone who differentiated themselves from the expressed views of government: they were watching.
“It is difficult today to comprehend the emotions and fears such a summons could invoke in individuals and organisation…As a congressional committee, it still possessed the awesome power of an agency of the state to command headlines, cast suspicions, and by labelling individuals as subversives, to destroy careers, lives and organisations.”(Ruíz)
The first “list” that came to the public’s attention was published the day after 10 people refused to give testimony to congress in November of 1947. Though there was never actually any physical list as such, it was clear to those who were in positions of power who they could and could not hire for work. The “Red channels” list was published in June of 1950 and contained 151 names of people in the entertainment industry.
The people mentioned in these lists were ostracised, ignored and no longer employed by anyone in Hollywood. There was an all-out ban on any involvement with anyone who was involved with HUAC or the Blacklist, as it became known. Those who were named, even if they did not have to appear before the committee, were dealt a savage blow to their careers. They were no longer hired by the studios in any capacity. This was felt hardest by the actors, with the screenwriters mostly able to continue to work under pseudonyms and “fronts”.
The idea behind a front was the use of a person, who had no connections with any of those under investigation by HUAC, as a public face for those who were unable to write themselves. Several writers were able to continue to write throughout the Blacklisting, by using these individuals to pose for them and present their work as their own.
There were many famous writers of note who carried out this subterfuge throughout the Blacklist era and it was a crucial factor in what ultimately dealt the HUAC it’s fatal blow, when Kirk Douglas announced that his movie, “Spartacus“(1960) had been written by then Blacklisted author, Dalton Trumbo.
This practice so captured people attention that it was later used as the main plot for a movie called “The Front“(1976)
There are several things of note about this particular film and its production. Firstly it was one of the only movies that dealt with the specifics of The Blacklist and the effect that it had on writers. Secondly, the reason that so much of the movie is so realistic and deals with such strong issues is that it is a fictional biopic. The central characters within the film are fictitious but they represent the real life decisions, exploits and troubles of several people who were involved in its production.
It is quite clear from the way in which the movie is put together that this was clearly something that was of significant importance to all involved. The very clear, even-handed way of dealing with the subject matter allows for the audience to be taken on the journey that the “Front”, played by Woody Allen is taken on. His character, Howard Prince, is a “bit of a bum” who jumps at the opportunity his old friend Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) presents him with. Miller is a screenwriter who has been blacklisted. He offers Howard a percentage of his fees if he poses as the writer of the pieces so that he can continue to work.
The most interesting thing about this journey for the audience is an inability of, or reluctance by, the central character to get involved with the political overtones that are clearly driving everyone around him. His non-committal means that he is able to focus purely on the fiscal rewards and not get bogged down in either side of the divide, though it stretches out around him as the film develops.
This a very clever way through which an unknowing audience could be introduced to the world in which the film is set. Through this non-committal, we slowly uncover the world of paranoia, deceit, principles, propaganda and destruction that affected all sides of society, from the self-confessed Communist Writer to the Studio Executive who was simply following orders.
How the character develops, is rather expected, with the development of ideals and an appreciation for the injustice of the situation, culminating in a backlash against the powers that be and his internment for speaking out against the HUAC.
What strikes the audience most about this film is that it is unapologetic in its criticism for the HUAC. The comedy involved in the protagonist’s simplistic outlook on life in contrast to how those around him deal with their situation is clear and well presented.
“Howard Prince: What are you Blacklisted for?
Alfred Miller: I’m a Communist Sympathiser.
Howard Prince: Well you always were…
Alfred Miller: Well it’s not so popular any more.”(The Front, 1976)
This film is a testament to those people who were affected by the blacklist, and all forms of censorship. The arts have often been censored by society but it is through the arts that these barriers are destroyed. Those involved in the arts are people who find themselves interested in the makeup of what it is to be human, people with a need to question society and authority. It is no surprise therefore that the backlash of society and authority would be to silence the dissenters. There were some very specific series of events that brought about the censorship of American Cinema by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but it was the arts that were first attacked and the artist that first stood up against it.
The following is the final scene from the movie discussed above. If you have not seen it, then you should not watch this scene as it contains SPOILERS.
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