Among the first and most visible victims of the post–World War II wave of anticommunist paranoia, the Hollywood Ten were a group of leftist filmmakers—producer Adrian Scott, directors Edward Dmytryk and Herbert Biberman, and screenwriters Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, and Dalton Trumbo—who were blacklisted by the film industry and ultimately sentenced to a year in federal prison for contempt of Congress after refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947.
For Hollywood conservatives, the postwar surge of social problem films, the presence of known Communists in the leadership of the Screen Writers Guild, and a series of violent strikes in 1945 and 1946 by the leftist Conference of Studio Unions, were all evidence of a vast Communist conspiracy to control the film industry and undermine U.S. democratic values.
Their greatest outrage was directed at the pro-Soviet films produced during the war—Song of Russia, Mission to Moscow, The North Star—but they also detected Marxist propaganda in a wide variety of progressive films including Crossfire, The Farmer’s Daughter, and The Best Years of Our Lives.
In 1944, Hollywood reactionaries had formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA); early in 1947, the MPA issued an open invitation to the HUAC to investigate Communist influence in the film industry.
The HUAC eagerly accepted. Hollywood, with its twin threats of Jewish domination and Communist infiltration, had long been an irresistible target for conspiracy theorists, and the film industry had weathered innumerable attacks by both federal and state investigating committees since the 1930s. In the postwar period, however, the political landscape had considerably altered as the emerging cold war abroad profoundly raised the stakes in the anticommunist crusade at home.
In the spring and summer of 1947, FBI agents swarmed over the film colony while HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas himself held a series of closed-door interviews at the Biltmore Hotel with “friendly” witnesses. In September, the HUAC issued subpoenas to forty-three members of the film community, including nineteen who would become known as the “unfriendlies” for their vocal opposition to the HUAC.
The “unfriendlies” were a diverse group in terms of age, ethnicity, class background, status, and experience within the film industry, and even political commitment. Although all were linked with the Communist Party at some point in their lives, their individual commitments to the party line or to political activism diverged wildly.
Nonetheless, there was common ground: all were fierce (even “premature”) antifascists, and all were committed to integrating their politics into their creative work. Rejecting the studio moguls’ contention that movies were simply entertainment, they believed that movies could and should reflect the diversity of the body politic and represent U.S. values of democracy, social justice, and tolerance.
Rallying around the slogan “freedom of the screen,” the Hollywood radicals and their supporters (which initially included an impressive coalition of leading liberals and the studio heads) clearly understood that the HUAC’s investigation was intended not simply to smear individual film radicals but to discredit the very values that underlay their cultural politics. For them, the HUAC investigation was the opening salvo in a reactionary conspiracy to destroy civil liberties, indeed, a harbinger of fascism in the United States.
To a certain extent, both sides were right. Hollywood radicals did try, within the confines of a profoundly conservative studio system, to produce antifascist, antiracist, internationalist, progressive films. And the HUAC members, recognizing the power of film to shape public consciousness and to reflect the nation to the world, did want to ensure that Hollywood films reflected their own conservative version of Americanism.
At the hearings in Washington in late October, only eleven of the nineteen unfriendlies were called to testify. One, Bertolt Brecht, fled for Europe as soon as the hearings had ended. The remaining ten were charged with contempt of Congress and fired from their positions at the studios. Blacklisted, they left Hollywood for New York, Europe, and even Mexico in search of work, while their lawyers unsuccessfully appealed the contempt convictions.
The Hollywood Ten entered federal prison in 1950; when released the following year, the HUAC had returned to Hollywood with a vengeance, and hundreds of radicals joined the Ten on the blacklist while dozens more named names to save themselves and their careers. One of those was director Edward Dmytryk, the only member of the Ten to recant and return to work at the studios.
The remainder of the Ten continued to work haphazardly, writing behind fronts for both film and television. In the late 1950s, the first chinks appeared in the blacklist when Dalton Trumbo, writing under the pseudonym “Robert Rich,” won the screenwriting Oscar for The Brave One; in 1960, the blacklist was officially broken when Otto Preminger hired Trumbo to adapt Exodus.
Ultimately, however, the blacklist affected not only people but ideas. The climate of fear created by the anticommunist crusade stifled dissent and encouraged political and cultural conformity in ways that powerfully shaped the film industry and the larger culture of postwar America.