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.
"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.
Perhaps the most interesting take on the subject is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which the sleepy California town of Santa Mira is taken over by alien pods, who duplicate and then replace the human inhabitants. Critics have long debated whether the mindless "pod people" are symbolic of those toeing the Communist Party line or rabid anti-communist witch hunters.
Blacklisted writers began returning to work in 1960, when Otto Preminger hired Dalton Trumbo to adapt Leon Uris's novel about the founding of Israel, Exodus, and gave him an onscreen credit, his first in more than a decade.
It wasn't yet time to make a movie directly about the blacklist, however. The film that might have been the breakthrough was one of the romantic hits of the decade: The Way We Were (1973) is remembered for the passionate, if ill-fated, relationship between WASP Robert Redford and Jewish radical Barbra Streisand. Largely left on the cutting-room floor was a subplot in which the characters were confronted with their political pasts. Hollywood wasn't ready to focus on people who name others so that they could keep working themselves.
A landmark blacklist film was the adaptation for television of the memoirs of radio personality John Henry Faulk, Fear on Trial (1975).
Faulk (played by William Devane) was the ideal plaintiff against the blacklist: He had no Communist connections and was listed because of his involvement in a dispute within his own union. CBS took him off the air, but attorney Louis Nizer (George C. Scott) won the case against the blacklisters by showing their irresponsible and slipshod methods.
The following year, director Martin Ritt and screenwriter Walter Bernstein, both blacklistees, made The Front, with Woody Allen. It was part of the charade of the blacklist era, when producers who wanted the work of forbidden writers pretended to believe that the scripts came from someone else.
Although many books would be written on the blacklisting era, by the 1990s the subject had become passé. There had been documentaries like 1976's Hollywood on Trial. The independently made Salt of the Earth (a 1954 production made by several blacklistees, including filmmaker Herbert Biberman) had been entered on the Library of Congress's list of America's film treasures.
However, Guilty by Suspicion (1991), with Robert De Niro as an unjustly accused screenwriter, would prove to be a box-office flop. And the more recent One of the Hollywood Ten (2000), with Jeff Goldblum portraying Biberman, went directly to cable.
In recent years, most of the activity has taken place offscreen. The Writers Guild of America has begun the process of giving blacklisted members the credit they were denied for films they worked on during the 1950s.
In one of the more notorious examples, Pierre Bouelle had been awarded the Oscar for writing the screen adaptation of his novel The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), although he couldn't speak English. The script was actually penned by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, both blacklisted writers.
The film industry plans to sponsor a comprehensive exhibition on the blacklist, opening in Los Angeles in January and curated by Larry Ceplair, co-author of one of the major histories on the subject, "The Inquisition in Hollywood."
Mr. Ceplair says that movies about the blacklist have missed the boat, leaving out "the whole context of what was going on." The stories are inevitably about the investigations and hearings, he says, and not about why some people in Hollywood were attracted to communism in the first place.
"The Majestic" seems to move to a new stage of dealing with the subject: The blacklist is no longer the primary focus of the film, but is an important part of the background.
"We're using the era as a point of departure," Sloane says. "It was a dark and divisive chapter that changed everything thereafter. It's amazing to me that we have not explored it [in film]."
Daniel M. Kimmel, a Boston-based film critic, is co-author of the play 'The Waldorf Conference,' about the birth of the Hollywood blacklist.