PBS documentary recalls era of film industry blacklisting
Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist PBS, Wednesday, 10-11 p.m. Host: Burt Lancaster. Producer/director: Judy Chaikin. Presented by KCET, Los Angeles. October marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of what some observers have called ``the American Inquisition'' - the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigation of communist activities in Hollywood.
Ten targets of those hearings - writers, agents, directors, producers, etc. - were sentenced to prison terms for contempt of Congress when they refused to reveal their political affiliations or the affiliations of contemporaries. They claimed it was a matter of conscience as well as their constitutional right to keep their personal beliefs private.
The documentary wisely does not delve deeply into their personal political affiliations, either - on the theory that whether or not they were communists or had once belonged to the Communist Party was really irrelevant in the framework of the greater constitutional question of the right of privacy.
``Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist'' is a passionate, compassionate, yet nonpolitical study of the long-term effects of the hearings on the people involved. It is a searing but sensitive investigation of the times, as observed by the wives and families of the ``Hollywood Ten,'' their defenders, and their accusers. The price of indiscriminate blacklisting is considered soberly as producer/director Judy Chaikin parades posters of the teeny-bopper beach-party films which, to a great extent, replaced the more meaningful work of blacklisted artists, until the era of creative ``fronts'' allowed some of the accused, like Dalton Trumbo, to work under pseudonyms. As host Burt Lancaster says: By preventing many talented people from working in films, the world was ``deprived of a whole generation of screen creativity.''
Through five of the wives, Miss Chaikin illustrates how the battle affected the Hollywood Ten. Some gave up, some fought back, some came back creatively, some never forgave the informers in the Hollywood community. All of the families remember the period as a painful one, its major satisfaction being the knowledge that those involved were standing up for what they believed.
Sadie Ornitz, the 95-year-old surviving wife of screenwriter Sam Ornitz, sums up the basic message of this brave, incisive, heartbreaker of a film: ``Please, never let this happen again.''
In an interview, Chaikin said she is disturbed that somany young people don't know the story of the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee), Red Channels (the blacklisters' ``bible''), and ``the Hollywood Ten.''
``Almost everybody I know in Hollywood had been touched in some way by this, and that's what allowed me to make this documentary, because I found a lot of support there. But I am distressed that so many people under the age of 25 don't know anything about it at all.'' She said a major purpose of the film was to inform young people that sometimes you must fight for creative freedom.
Chaikin says, ``I had been one of those Saturday-matinee kids who had been affected mostly by films with some sort of social consciousness - films like `Body and Soul' - which told me there was a world out there which I could conquer. But when I began acting in the late 1950s, the film industry was in a disastrous way, with little but teen-age bikini beach films - nothing I related to. The people whose work I had so admired as a child had basically all left Hollywood by the time I got there as an actress. People were still suffering the aftereffects of the blacklist.''
She insists that it doesn't matter that most of the Hollywood Ten had at one time been members of the Communist Party. They resisted detailing their connections because ``it was against the Constitution. They insisted they were protecting their rights. Mr. Trumbo made the point that when they were asked the questions, they were really being asked, `Are you now or have you ever been in favor of peace?' They saw themselves as part of an early peace movement.''
The idea for the film stemmed from a chance meeting in 1982 with Tiba Willner, the wife of a blacklisted agent, who confided details about the high price they had paid for their political beliefs. Chaikin returned with a video camera and began taping. Eventually funding came from a variety of sources: the American Film Institute, and the National Endowment for the Arts through the Rocky Mountain Film Center. ``The rest was raised from private individuals and a few other foundations. PBS gave me completion money.''
Chaikin believes that Hollywood never recovered politically from the HUAC years. ``I don't believe it ever will, either. They [HUAC] did a masterful job. They won hands down. They completely silenced dissent in the motion picture industry. There is now a complete veering away from any kind of film that speaks about the human condition except in archaic terms - as they were forced to do in `Spartacus.' But to talk about the real discontent within our society or the real striving of minorities, you don't see much of that in films today.''
How can we prevent a recurrence of the hysteria of the blacklisting days?
``I made the film to do my part. I wanted to say that eternal vigilance is what is necessary on everybody's part. We mustn't all become so complacent in our lives that we forget these things can happen - are bound to happen. Even today you can see behavior in Hollywood based on the effects of the past blacklisting. There is a lack of social consciousness based on fears that came up during the HUAC period. There was a time when they were doing socially conscious films.
``That's not to say that everything was wonderful before and now it's not, because there's always been a trashy, exploitative side to Hollywood. But there once was another side that is missing now. How it went away is what's important to me. I hope it forces other people to remember, too.''