Hollywood's dark days
A new movie recalls era when suspicion and betrayal reigned.
The Majestic," which stars Jim Carrey and opens Dec. 21, is the first major Hollywood film in a decade to directly touch on one of the most sensitive eras in Hollywood history: blacklisting.Skip to next paragraph
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"I'm amazed that there are so few movies that deal with the blacklist in any way at all," says Michael Sloane, screenwriter for "The Majestic."
Whether there should be limits on political debate in a crisis is a heated topic today, with Attorney General John Ashcroft suggesting to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that those who criticize government actions against terrorism could, in fact, be helping the terrorists.
Fifty years ago, it was the specter of international Communism that haunted America. Dissent and patriotism were thought to be incompatible. The blacklisting of Communists and suspected Communist sympathizers in a variety of fields ruined lives and careers.
As the controversy in 1999 over a special Oscar awarded to director Elia Kazan demonstrated, those who were blacklisted never forgave those who, like Kazan, named others' names to save themselves.
The blacklist began in November 1947, following a meeting of the heads of the major studios at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel. It was their response to charges that the industry was riddled with Communists.
In fact, there had been little onscreen pro-Communist propaganda - three World War II films about Russia had been made at the behest of the United States government - and membership in the Communist Party wasn't illegal.
The investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were, in part, led by a newly Republican Congress seeking to embarrass a Democratic administration that had been in power since 1933. While there were certainly would-be Stalinists among the Hollywood Communists, many others were more interested in issues of social justice or in fighting Nazi Germany.
After the war, studio heads (mostly Jewish immigrants) were worried not only about anti-Semitism, but also a declining postwar box office and a pending Justice Department antitrust suit against their theater operations. The studio chiefs saw the blacklist as an opportunity to show the country that Hollywood could police itself. Throughout the 1950s, people involved with the "wrong" causes or who refused to "name names" (by testifying before one or another investigative group) found themselves unemployable.
In The Majestic, Jim Carrey plays a screenwriter who attended a meeting several years earlier of a Communist "front" organization - to impress a girl. Now he's blacklisted and facing a congressional inquiry. Although the film's story is much more complicated (Carrey's character develops amnesia and winds up being confused with someone else), its use of the blacklist follows an established pattern.
Radio host and producer Tony Kahn, son of blacklisted screenwriter Gordon Kahn, was executive producer of the radio series "Blacklist." Mr. Kahn says most cinematic renditions oversimplify the blacklisting era. "[The movies are] all about a hero standing up before a committee," he says. "All it [takes is] a heroic gesture on the part of one person."
Of course, even showing that much was a step forward. The first films to deal with the subject had to disguise the debate.
In the classic western High Noon (1952), Gary Cooper plays a marshal abandoned by his townspeople when facing his moment of truth - a metaphor for those put on the blacklist. Former friends would cross the street rather than risk being seen with a blacklistee. By the time the film was released, "High Noon" screenwriter Carl Foreman was no longer just interested in the issue metaphorically: He had been blacklisted himself.
On the Waterfront (1954) was directed and written by two "friendly" witnesses who had cooperated with the HUAC, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg. It tells the story of Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando in an Oscar-winning turn), who has to decide whether to testify against his brother and other corrupt union officials. The decision is made easy when his brother is murdered, but this tribute to the virtues of being a "rat" (as Terry is called) stands in stark contrast to a 1935 film on the same theme, "The Informer." There, the turncoat isn't a hero, but is likened to Judas.