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Hollywood Blacklist Stemming from McCarthyism

By Edited Apr 11, 2016 2 3

The roots of the Hollywood blacklist are steeped in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1938 the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) under then Chairman Martin Dies, Jr, released a report claiming communism was prevalent in Hollywood.  In 1940, John Leech, a former member of the Communist Party gave testimony naming 42 movie industry professionals who were Communists.  Leech again reported the names to a Los Angeles grand jury, believing it was in confidence.  However, the information was leaked to the press who reported the list which included actors James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and other well-known Hollywood figures.  Dies said he would “clear” all those who met with him in what he called “executive session.”   Within two weeks all had met with him except Jean Muir and all had been cleared with the exception of Lionel Stander.  Stander was under contract with Republic Pictures which subsequently fired him.

In 1941 Walt Disney addressed a strike by animators and cartoonists by taking out an ad in the industry trade magazine, Variety, in which he claimed the strike was prompted by communist agitation.  When the United States was allied with the Soviet Union in World War II, the Communist Party (CPUSA) saw a resurgent in the U.S. and peaked at about 50,000 members.[1]

After the war when the fears of the Red Scare once again surfaced, Hollywood was again targeted.  John Rankin, a Mississippi Congressman and member of the HUAC  held a press conference to declare that "one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this Government has its headquarters in Hollywood...the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States."[1]  In 1947, a political group co-founded by Disney, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), sent out a pamphlet advising producers to avoid subtle communist nuances in their films.

The Beginning of the Hollywood Blacklist

Mid-1946 publisher and founder of The Hollywood Reporter, William Wilerson, published a column and named several people as Communist sympathizers.  A few months later, he expanded the list and it became known as “Billy’s List” and “Billy’s Blacklist.”[1] The following year, the HUCA used this list to summon professionals from the movie industry to appear before the committee.   Walt Disney and actor Ronald Reagan (who was president of the Screen Actors Guild at the time) were two of the initial professionals called to appear and testified there was a serious Communist threat in the film industry.[1]  Other well-known Hollywood figures, including actors Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Danny Kaye and director John Houston organized the Committee for the First Amendment in protest of the government’s actions in targeting the industry.

Robert Taylor HUAC Testimony Excerpt, 1947

The HUCA had 43 witnesses on their first list and of those, 19 declared they would not give evidence.  Of the 19, eleven were subpoenaed by the HUCA.  One of the eleven, Bertolt Brecht eventually decided to answer the committee’s questions.    The question the committee asked which was of grave importance was “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"  The other ten refused, citing their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly.  They were charged with contempt of Congress and proceedings began against them in the House of Representatives. .”  The Hollywood Ten were:

  • Alvah Bessie, screenwriter
  • Herbert Biberman, screenwriter and director
  • Lester Cole, screenwriter
  • Edward Dmytryk, director
  • Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriter
  • John Howard Lawson, screenwriter
  • Albert Maltz, screenwriter
  • Samuel Ornitz, screenwriter
  • Adrian Scott, producer and screenwriter
  • Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter

The Hollywood Ten;  Source: Wikimedia Commons

In later years, director John Houston explained their reasons for refusing to answer the question:

“It seems that some of them had already testified in California, and that their testimony had been false. They had said they were not Communists and now, to have admitted it to the press would have been to lay themselves open to charges of perjury ... An so, when I believed them to have engaged to defend the freedom of the individual, they were really looking after their own skins. Had I so much as suspected such a thing, you may be sure I would have washed my hands of them instantly. But, as I said before, the revelation was a long time coming."[18] William Phillips, editor of Partisan Review and an ex-Communist himself, said "Some were Communists, and what one was asked to defend was their right to lie about it."[19] Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten, indicated that he was not above lying under oath. In 1956 he wrote to his son “The important thing about a lie is not that it be interesting, fanciful, graceful, or even pleasant, but that it be believed … Let the lie be delivered full-face, eye to eye, and without scratching of the scalp. Let it be blunt and forthright and so simple that you can repeat it in detail and under oath ten years hence.”[1]

The Hollywood Ten Hearing

Future witnesses who chose not to cooperate claimed the Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination and while this kept them from being charged with contempt of Congress, it was considered grounds for dismissal by many employers both in government and the private sectors.  Still, this put many professionals in a “pickle.”  The legal requirement of claiming the Fifth meant the person couldn’t testify about his or her own association with the Communist Party and then refuse to name colleagues with Communist affiliations.  Senator McCarthy often referred to these witnesses as “Fifth Amendment Communists.”[2]  Some called before the Committee named names reluctantly; others not with as much reluctance.   A few of the more well-known figures to give names to the Committee are actor Lee J. Cobb, director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg.[1]

As pressure increased on the film industry to prove its loyalty, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Eric Johnston took action.  The president of MPAA declared to HUAC he wouldn’t employ anyone who was proven or admitted to being a Communist.  On November 17, 1947, the Screen Actors Guild voted to make its officers swear to a non-Communist pledge.  On the 24th the House approved citations against the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress and they were sentenced to six months to one year in prison.  On November 25, Johnston declared the ten would be fired or suspended without pay and reemployed until they cleared themselves of the charges and swore they were not Communists.  Johnston made this declaration at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York following a meeting of film industry executives and thus, it is known as the Waldorf Statement. [2]

The Hollywood Blacklist (1948-1956)

Despite all the hearings, the HUAC did not find any evidence Hollywood was secretly a “hot bed” for Communist activity.  Regardless, the film industry had been turned upside down.  The primary owner of RKO Pictures, Floyd Odlum decided to leave the business and the studio was turned over to Howard Hughes.  He immediately fired most of the employees and had the remaining employees investigated.  He then settled a long-standing federal antitrust suit against the Big Five studios (Fox Film Corporation (later 20th Century-Fox), Loew’s Incorporated (owner of America's largest theater circuit and parent company to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, and Warner Brothers) which resulted in the beginning of the collapse of the studio system at the time.

When the Hollywood Ten

Hollywood Blacklist Figure Director Edward Dmytryk;  Source: Wikimedia Commons
had unsuccessfully appealed their convictions, among the submissions filed in their defense was an amicus curiae brief signed by 204 Hollywood professionals.   Of those, 84 later found themselves on the blacklist.  After the ten started serving their sentences, director Eward Dmytryk publically announced he had once been a Communist and was ready to “name names.”  He was released early and after his subsequent appearance before the HUCA, his career recovered.

"Naming Names"

Naming Names
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Naming Names, reissued here with a new afterword by the author, is the definitive account of the hearings, a National Book Award winner widely hailed as a classic. Victor S. Navasky adroitly dissects the motivations for the investigation and offers a poignant analysis of its consequences.

Others who were black listed were not so fortunate; producer Adrian Scott, who had produced four of Dmytryk’s films, didn’t get another screen credit until 1972 and he never produced another feature film.[1]  Some writers used pseudonyms or their friends “fronted” for them by posing as the actual writers in order to continue working. 

Some nongovernmental agencies participated in enforcing and adding to the blacklist.  The American Legion created its own list of 128 people it claimed were Communist sympathizers.  Another organization was American Business Consultants, Inc. which published a weekly newsletter called

Red Channels Cover;  Source: Wikimedia Commons
Counterattack.  In June 1950, it published the Red Channels which listed 151 people in the entertainment and broadcast journalism businesses and listed their involvement in what it claimed was Communist or pro-Communist activity.[1]   That same year, CBS began to require a loyalty oath from all its employees.

In 1952, the Screen Writers Guild authorized the movie studios to leave off credits of the names of any individuals who had not been cleared before Congress.  Also during the early 1950s some influential newspaper columnists covering the entertainment world routinely suggested names they believed should be on the blacklist.  Some of the more well-known columnists include Hedda Hopper and Jack O’Brien. [1]


During the blacklist years, numerous movies were made which metaphorically portrayed the struggles; among those, The Crucible, High Noon and On the Waterfront.  Many professionals in the film industry, among them Charlie Chaplin,  as well as professors from universities left the United States to find work in Europe.

"On the Waterfront"

On The Waterfront
Amazon Price: $9.99 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 11, 2016)
"On the Waterfront" is said to metaphorically depict the hearings of the HUAC and the Hollywood Blacklist.


Putting the Blacklist to Rest

John Henry Faulk is credited with bringing about the close of the blacklist.  He was the host of a comedy radio show and was investigated by AWARE, a private firm who was investigating individuals for disloyalty.  AWARE signaled him out as “unfit” which prompted CBS Radio to fire him.  In 1957 Faulk sued AWARE and though the case was stalled in the courts for years, it was a symbol of resistance to the blacklist and inspired others.

Professionals working on projects for CBS started to insist on hiring those on the blacklist; notably Alfred Hitchcock hired blacklisted  actor Norman Lloyd for his series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Faulk finally won his suit in 1962 and that turned the tide for many blacklisted professionals. The court decision put an end to Counterattack and other publications of its kind. 

Some stayed on the blacklist while others were able to find work.  Some who named names, like Kazan and Schulberg claimed they had made an ethically proper decision; while others like actor Cobb, and director Michael Gordon who had suffered on the blacklist before testifying admitted to doing so in order to get back to work.[1]

Some of the notable figures blacklisted after 1950 included: Charlie Chaplin, Eddie Albert, Orson Bean, Richard Attenborough, Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lee Grant, Kim Hunter, Jane Wyatt (mother in  Father Knows Best) and Michael Uris.   Notable figures on the Red Channel list included:  Lee J. Cobb, Will Geer (known later for his role as Grandpa Walton), Gypsy Rose Lee, Edward G. Robinson, Pete Seeger, Irwin Shaw, and Orson Wells.    Over 300 professionals from the film industry were blacklisted and thousands more were included from universities, law firms, and other professional organizations.

In the 21st century, the Screen Writer’s Guild corrected many films, adding previously blacklisted writers’ names to give them screen credit for their work in the 1950s and 1960s.  In 2011 the Writer’s Guild announced Dalton Trumbo would get full credit for his work on the screenplay for the 1953 film Roman Holiday after Trumbo’s son Christopher made a request for investigation.  Decades later it is still acknowldeged McCarthyism, especially through the "blacklists," ruined many people's careers and reputation.


The copyright of the article Hollywood Blacklist Stemming from McCarthyism is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

Victims of the Hollywood Blacklist



Mar 21, 2013 3:01pm
this is an extremely well done article: I have always resented the witch hunts that McCarthy instigated were such a fantism that one wonders about a system who went along with it. I understand that comunism was in someways a threat to America during the 1930s especially but being a threat is not a cause to to create a politic of against anyone in a free country. Anyway 2 big thumbs from me and a rating.
Mar 21, 2013 3:05pm
Thank you for the kind words. There are so many times when a "witch hunt" has happened in history and yet we never seem to learn.
Mar 21, 2013 3:27pm
Good article. People should never forget McCarthyism. However as you say, we never seem to learn. It has been shown that in times of threat, people and nations tend to become much more conservative and begin to look for scapegoats; this has been happening since ancient times. Anyone who is different from the core group, is targeted and blamed, they may think differently or simply be foreigners. I don't think Communism in itself is a threat, it is ideologies which are totalitarian and based on dogma.
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  1. "Hollywood Blacklist." Wikipedia. 17/03/2013 <Web >
  2. "McCarthyism." Wikipedia. 17/03/2013 <Web >
  3. "Hollywood Blacklist: The Hollywood Ten." Wikipedia. 17/03/2013 <Web >
  4. "McCarthyism." Spartacus Educational. 17/03/2013 <Web >
  5. "McCarthyism." U.S. History. 17/03/2013 <Web >
  6. "Hollywood Blacklist (CA. 1950s)." Archive of American Television. 17/03/2013 <Web >

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