12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957)

McCarthyism In Hollywood (Part One)

The Hollywood blacklist of the late 1940s and 50s can be regarded as one of the most important and far reaching consequences of the Cold War climate that the United States emerged from after the Second World War. Maltby is in agreement with this assessment and claims that ‘no adequate history of the Cold War in the America can be written without reference to the blacklist’ (1981: 76).E vidently it is necessary to consider the implications of the communist witch hunts of the film industry when documenting the Cold War; to ignore it is to dismiss perhaps the best examples of the fear that communism had on America during the period. It's important to analyse the reasons for the establishment of the House of Un American Activities Committee (HUAC), how their pursuit of suspected communists, as well as the ‘Red Scare’ period in general, led to a change in Hollywood output, how the committee’s influence began to recede and ultimately to explore the various examples of why and how these events divided so many actors, directors and screenwriters; resulting in a period that has been described as ‘a dark watershed in American cultural history’ (McGilligan, 2012: xiii). 

Although Senator Joseph McCarthy was not in any way involved in the HUAC hearings themselves (Reynolds, 2010:2) , the word ‘McCarthyism’ can be said to be the term that epitomises the period under discussion. Existing historiography leans towards the view that what has been coined as the ‘McCarthy era’ encompasses many themes that are relevant to this dissertation and that also found their way into several Hollywood films of the time; tropes such as hysteria, paranoia and conformity to name just a few. Schrecker says that the ‘entertainment industry’s blacklist was one of the most visible sanctions of the McCarthy era’ (2001:93) while other film historians such as Fitzgerald observe that both HUAC and Senator McCarthy used similar tactics which consisted of ‘bullying witnesses and making charges without evidence to back up their statements’ (2007: 26) Quite simply, the definition of McCarthism: ‘the act of making accusations of disloyalty, especially of pro-communist activity’ (Oxford Dictionary) is relevant to any discussion involving HUAC or the Red Scare in general. The word does not just associate itself with the Wisconsin senator who gave it a name, but also the ‘most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in American history.’ (Schrecker, 1998: x).

As a result of the Wall Street crash in 1929, many on the left believed that capitalism, as the Soviets had predicted, was crumbling’ , consequently this ‘added to the appeal’ of communism. Certainly those in the film industry, many of whom grew up during the depression, were fascinated by the either the ‘aesthetic of Soviet films or by the cultural sophistication of Soviet politics’ (Buhle, 1999: xiv). The director Elia Kazan, arguably the individual most synonymous with the HUAC investigations, briefly joined the communist party at this time as he felt ‘menaced’ by both the crash and the ever growing power of Hitler; with the communist party itself claiming to ‘have a cure for depressions and Fascism’ (1952) it is evident that it appealed to young idealists who were suffering through poverty. Kazan himself commented on the prevalence of the party at this time, saying that communists were indeed in ‘a lot of organisations - unseen - unrecognised - unbeknownst to anybody’ (1952).

Ninotchka HUAC
Despite the appeal during the early depression years, Chafe argues that from a general western perspective, by the mid 1930s, suspicion and alienation of communism had once again prevailed when there seemed to be little basis for ‘distinguishing between Soviet tyranny and Nazi totalitarianism’ (1997: 31) after the purges carried out by Stalin. Hollywood too responded to the drab perception at the time, the film Ninotchka (Lubitsch, 1939) satirically ridiculed Stalinism’s ‘heartlessness and repression’ (Mindich, 1990: 11) and was consequently even banned in the Soviet Union. It depicted a group of Soviets visiting Paris who become allured by capitalism; surprised for example even at the fact that hotels have maids and waiters compared to their own evidently bleak experiences in Russia in which they have to settle for hotels “where you press for the hot water and cold water comes and when you press for cold water, nothing comes at all". At first the Soviet envoy (Greta Garbo) is depicted as cold, heartless and emotionally deprived person who even questions the “social injustice” of a porter being forced to carry other peoples bags, but she soon embraces the west and falls in love with a man, Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas) who when she first meets him describes him as a “unfortunate product of a doomed culture”. Strada states that Leon and Ninotchka share what the Soviets and westerners were never able to achieve in the 1930s: ‘a strong lasting relationship.’ (1997: 2).

Truman’s need to pursue a stand against a communist threat abroad was dictated by first clearing out the subversives that existed within America because it appeared to be the ‘logical parallel’ (Leffler, 1995: 55). HUAC ‘fed on the public anxiety regarding the condition of the postwar world’ (Stranda & Troper: 61) in their early investigations; the chairman J. Parnell Thomas definitely abided by this view when he explained the reasons why the committee was undertaking its investigation of the Hollywood film industry:

"The motion-picture industry represents what is probably the largest single vehicle of entertainment for the American public. It is the very magnitude of the scope of the motion-picture industry which makes this investigation so necessary. With such vast influence over the lives of American citizens as the motion-picture industry exerts, it is not unnatural that subversive and undemocratic forces should attempt to use this medium for Un-American purposes." 

Put simply; the cinema allowed the writers and directors of Hollywood to control a medium that reached millions of American people every day, they effectively had influence over a form of communication that they could easily infuse with communist propaganda in an effort to undermine American policy. Freedland points out that Thomas is, in this instance, taking advantage of the new television age that was occurring, claiming that ‘he had been given a valuable new present tied up with blue ribbon' (2009: 29). Which puts forth the question of whether Thomas is over estimating the risk of subversives within Hollywood to create a climate of fear since many of the testimonies themselves were televised and were thus able to scare those in the film industry who may have been watching.

Despite this, the status of HUAC was given justification by J. Edgar Hoover, who’s testimony to HUAC has been described as ‘unprecedented’ (Schrecker, 2001: 126) since he rarely appeared in front of such committees; in it he pointed out that in 1917 when the communists overthrew the Russian Government, there was one communist for every 2,277 persons in Russia, ‘but in the United States today there is one communist for every 1,814 persons in the country.’ (Hoover, 1947) Whatever the misgivings about the whole process under discussion, it is fair to say that Hoover is in this instance showing great skill in vindicating HUAC by using past events to portray the increased perils and simultaneous power of communism in the modern world. His stature and alleged expertise ensured that the views he expressed received wide circulation.

Regardless, what this source suggests is that HUAC wanted to simply stop anti- American messages finding their way into pictures, but this intention was to be attacked by Roffman who dismisses that this was ever the intention of HUAC, instead believing that ‘the committee was not so interested in the subversive content of movies as in the political affiliations and activities of the people who made the movies.’ (2010: 180). The extent of the paranoia that existed within the committee is evident in HUAC's assumption that being a former member of the communist party automatically meant that screenwriters and directors were ready and willing to infuse their pictures with pro-Soviet messages to undermine America.

According to Cauty, what most enraged the conservatives in congress was Hollywood’s unabashed ‘love affair’ with Russia during the war (1978: 490). The existence of world war propaganda pictures, that promoted Soviet relations, came under immediate attack in the first HUAC hearings since they became to look ‘more sinister than silly’ (Whitfield, 1996: 128) to the committee. One such picture that came under attack was Mission to Moscow (Curtiz, 1943); about a U.S ambassador sent to Russia and learning about the honourable methods of the Soviet system, the intention of which was to apparently ‘woo Stalin and the Soviet Union’ (Bennet, 2001: 490). In defense of himself and the film; Jack Warner assured the committee of the following:

"If making Mission to Moscow in 1912 was a subversive activity, then the American Liberty ships which carried food and guns to Russian allies were likewise engaged in subversive activities. The picture was made only to help a desperate war effort a nd not for posterity"

HUAC’s inability to take into account the historical context in which pictures were made is an early indication of their unjust methods of investigation. Despite the efforts of the Committee for the First Amendment to defend them, anti-communist fever had the American public ‘mesmerised’ (Gladchuck, 2009: 3) at this time and consequently HUAC emerged out of the first hearings with a list of ten ‘unfriendly witnesses’ consisting of writers, producers and directors - referred to as the ‘Hollywood ten’. Although they pleaded the First Amendment; their right to free association, they were found guilty of refusing to reveal their political affiliations, Sibley states that ‘the humiliation, prosecution and loss of employment they suffered far outweighed their crime’ (1998: 39). Critchlow states that the 1947 hearings were a shambles in terms of their treatment of witnesses yet HUAC was able to convince the American public who were listening on their radios and watching on their televisions, of the witnesses ‘repulsive’ (2013: 77) behaviour, yet again strengthening the position of the committee.

To accompany the blacklisting of the ten workers, HUAC produced the Waldorf Statement in which they stated that they ‘deplore’ the actions of the Hollywood Ten and the industry were not to re-employ them. Although they assured people in this statement that they were going to work in order to reduce creating a climate of fear in their future investigations, Roffman states that in fact ‘just an atmosphere was created’ (2010: 181) upon HUAC’s return to Hollywood in 1951; a year in which the Rosenbergs were put on trial, the Korean War was occurring and anti-communist feeling was ‘as strong as ever.’ (Freedland, 2009: 19) HUAC’s investigations were to have an overwhelming influence on individuals employed in Hollywood as well as impacting on the content of the pictures that were released after 1947 and into the 1950s. Gladchuck argues that this influence was not because of the committees ‘shared political acumen but because the atmosphere surrounding the investigation had become ripe for such a venture,’ (2009: 9) it was clear McCarthyism would have an intense hold upon one of the biggest and most influential film industries in the world.


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Kazan, Elia, A Statement, New York Times, 12 April 1952

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Johnson, Eric, ‘The Waldorf Statement December 4 1947’ in Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents, (Boston, 2001) 

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Hearings Regarding the Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry. Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress, First Session, Public law 601, October 20 1947

Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress, First Session, Public law 601, October 20 1947

Whitfield, Stephen, The Culture of the Cold War (Baltimore, 1996)