Monday, 22 August 2011

City of Angels: The Studios - The Studio Era, Part 7, Witch-Hunt In Hollywood

Among the friendly witnesses called up to testify were Gary Cooper, Jack Warner and novelist Ayn Rand, who was Russian by birth, but who had moved to the US in 1926, and whose subsequent commercial success as a writer turned her into a staunch anti-Communist, leading her to heavily attack MGM’s film Song of Russia (1944), which was in fact nothing but a harmless romance between an American soldier and a Russian peasant girl. Song of Russia was filmed in the light of the two countries’ short lived alliance in their war against Nazi Germany, which had prompted President Roosevelt to encourage the studios to paint a somewhat friendlier picture of Russia to make Americans feel more at ease with their erstwhile enemy-turned ally.

Ayn Rand

The studio heads, always willing to comply with the Government’s requests, produced a number of pictures between 1943 and 1945 that were indeed pro-Russian, such as Mission to Moscow (1943), The North Star (1943), and Tender Comrade (1943) as well as the abovementioned Song Of Russia. Little did they know, however, that once the war was over, they would find themselves under attack for something they merely did at the Government’s instigation.

MGM’s Louis B. Mayer himself was summoned before the Committee to justify the making of Song Of Russia, which was deemed Communist propaganda by the Committee, a view ardently shared by Ayn Rand. Ronald Reagan, once a member of the Democratic Party, was also asked to testify in his position as President of the Screen Actors Guild. His disgust with Communism made him one of HUAC’s keenest supporters, and subsequently turned him into a Republican.

Of the nineteen unfriendly witnesses, eleven were called up to take the stand. However, only one of them, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, did. Making a brief appearance before the Committee, during which he denied all ties to the Communist Party, he boarded a plane back to Europe shortly after and based himself in East Berlin, where he went on to become the pride and joy of East Germany’s Communist Government. The remaining ten (writers Alvah Bessie, Dalton Trumbo, Samuel Orvitz, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Adrian Scott, John Howard Lawson, Ring Lardner Jr., Albert Maltz, and director Edward Dmytryk) refused to testify and claimed their Fifth Amendment Rights. They were held in contempt and had to serve prison terms between six and eight months. Their studio contracts were suspended, and after being released from prison they found themselves blacklisted.

Herbert Biberman

Ring Lardner

Alvah Bessie

Edward Dmytryk

Bertolt Brecht

Dalton Trumbo

John Howard Lawson

Alarmed by the Committee’s findings, and fearful of the damage it could do to Hollywood’s reputation, not to mention the already unstable box-office returns, all studio heads and some executives gathered in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel on November 24, 1947, to discuss the situation and think about a unified response. The following statement was released to the press:

“We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force, or by any illegal or unconstitutional method”.

Read today, the moguls’ response seems ridiculous and unfathomable. Yet, the hysterical fear of Communism led to a fanatical witch hunt which made red baiting the new National Religion.

To read more on HUAC and the witch-hunt in Hollywood, log on again to FILM-TALK this Saturday!