241: Show Trial. HUAC and Hollywood

Archival Spaces 241 

Thomas Doherty’s  Show Trial. Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist (2019)

Uploaded 24 April 2020

Thomas Doherty’s Show Trial Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist relies on original historical evidence, including documents, newsreels, contemporary newspaper reports, and the official protocols of the HUAC Hearings of October 1947, to recreate a historical event that constituted on of this country’s  greatest violation of the Bill of Rights on a grand political stage. Doherty’s book on the HUAC’s hearings sifts through the insignificant to give weight to the consequential, vigorously cutting through the Committee’s noise. But make no mistake about it, just as today we have our dangerous and now deadly struggle with a President who believes he can rule by fiat, so too were Congressmen then willing to violate the rights of defendants to eliminate enemies and further their own political careers.

Doherty opens his book with “Backstories,” where he enumerates the numerous historical reasons why the House Un-American Activities Committee took such a lively interest in the film industry; an industry that had more or less faithfully toed the government’s line for decades. They included the founding of the Screenwriters Guild in the 1930s, and the cartoonist union strikes of 1941 against Disney, and 1945 against Warner Brothers, labor actions which constituted a direct threat to the absolute power of the studio bosses. Then, there was the issue of Hollywood’s premature anti-Fascism, leading to the first HUAC hearings in Hollywood in 1940 under Martin Dies, which was supposed to investigate the German-American Bund, but quickly pivoted to anti-Communism, but thanks to united industry resistance failed to generate any publicity.

Warner Brothers Strike, 1945

The Book’s next section, then, gives a detailed accounting of each Hearing’s nine days. Doherty emphasizes that these hearings are “show trials” constructed for their publicity value, as much as to eliminate any opposition, just as the Stalinist purges in Russia of the late 1930s had; caught, like HUAC’s hearings by the motion picture camera. Doherty described Committee Chairman,  J. Parnell Thomas, thus:

“(he) refused to permit lawyers to coach or advise their clients, although Consultations between attorneys and clients were usually permitted in congressional hearings. He allowed some witnesses, usually the Friendlies, to read opening statements, but denied the right to others, usually the Unfriendlies. The hearing was too public to be a star chamber and too open-ended to be a kangaroo court, but it was not a judicial proceeding either. It was a bastard hybrid, part show, part trial.”  (p. 105)

Lauren Becall, Humphrey Bogart, Committee for the First Amendment

Each witness receives a short biography before Doherty characterizes their testimony. Among the “friendly” witnesses were studio bosses Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, and Walt Disney, the actors, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Taylor, Robert Montgomery, George Murphy, and Ronald Reagan, the director’s Leo McCarey and Fred Niblo Jr., as well as an array of lesser industry lights. Many happily named names of supposed Communists in Hollywood, others were more reluctant, like, Gary Cooper, who just mumbled he “weren’t no friend of the Commies, … because it isn’t on the level.” (p. 171)

In subsequent chapters, Doherty describes the efforts of the Committee for the First Amendment, an ad hoc group of Hollywood liberals, who after one trip to Washington and rallies throughout the USA, caved in the face of the anti-Communist onslaught. Among them: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Becall, Edward G. Robinson, Danny Kaye, Marsha Hunt, and Paul Henreid. The actors staged events outside the HUAC Hearing rooms and dramatized the violation of human rights in the chambers. Most members recanted their participation to save their careers or ended like Marsha Hunt and Paul Henreid on the Blacklist.

The real war of words began with the testimony of John Howard Lawson, one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, and surreptitiously the acknowledged cell captain to the town’s Communists. Like his fellow accused, the so-called “Hollywood Ten,” e.g. Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz und Alvah Bessie, Howard was first gaveled into silence by the hammer of Committee Chair Thomas, and then forcibly removed from the room by D.C. Police when he continued to insist on reading his opening statement. They believed in their Constitution guaranteed the right to free speech, meaning they refused to answer the question of their membership in the CPUSA. Thomas destroyed numerous gavels during the hearings, especially when Samuel Ornitz noted the extremely high percentage of Jews among the Ten, accusing the Committee of Anti-Semitism. The efficiency with which the Committee asked the essential question, “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” increased daily, so by the time Lester Cole appeared, he was gaveled out of the room in less than six minutes.  

House Un-American Activities Committee Hearings, October 1947

The 1947 HUAC Hearings ended with a victory for the liberals, because HUAC was not able to make its case to the public that Hollywood brimmed with Communist propaganda, but that victory was turned into a defeat, when the major studios released “the Waldorf Statement,” which pledged to no longer hire known Communists, leading to the creation of the “Hollywood Blacklist.”  Fearing losses at the box office, just as they were relinquishing their monopoly power over film exhibition, due to the government’s Paramount Consent Decree, the studios betrayed some of their most productive and valuable artists, then turned around and hired them surreptitiously for pennies on the dollar of their previous wages. Dalton Trumbo won two Oscars for screening writing under fake names, while hundreds of film industry workers were unemployable for a decade or longer.   

Given the meticulous documentation of the events around the 1947 HUAC Hollywood Hearings, the book offers a superb introduction to the complexities of the era to a younger generation; many may not realize that the Trump presidency is not the first American government to ignore basic Constitutional rights.

Scott Feinberg, Thomas Doherty, JCH, Ross Melnick

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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