Voices, Banished but Not Silent ; Two Film Series Show the Influence of the Hollywood Blacklist

By Hoberman, J | International New York Times, August 9, 2014 | Go to article overview

Voices, Banished but Not Silent ; Two Film Series Show the Influence of the Hollywood Blacklist


Hoberman, J, International New York Times


"Screenwriters and the Blacklist: Before, During and After," at Anthology Film Archives, and "Red Hollywood and the Blacklist," at Lincoln Center, honor writers punished for their politics.

The close-up, the big screen, the eternal klieg light of unending media coverage: Motion pictures, especially those made in Hollywood, are a technology of magnification. How else to explain that the tale of the 300 or so movie studio employees whose political associations cost them their jobs has come to dramatize the repressive hysteria of the McCarthy era?

A real-life film noir featuring danger, betrayal, selflessness and close encounters with movie stars, the Hollywood blacklist is a juicy narrative and remains an enduring object of fascination. New scholarly histories roll off academic presses, most recently "Hollywood Exiles in Europe" by Rebecca Prime and "Film Criticism, the Cold War and the Blacklist" by Jeff Smith, with more on the way. This month, Anthology Film Archives and Cineaste magazine will initiate an ambitious three-part series, "Screenwriters and the Blacklist: Before, During and After." And on Friday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center revives "Red Hollywood," the 1996 documentary by Thom Andersen and Noel Burch, giving it context with screenings of eight features chosen by Mr. Andersen that were directed or written by blacklisted artists.

"A policy of nonemployment for known Communists," as it was characterized by The New York Times when it was implemented in November 1947, following the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings on Communist influence in the movie industry, began with the contractual termination of the "unfriendly witnesses" -- eight writers, one director and one producer -- known as the Hollywood 10. Political theater of the highest order, the hearings directly involved and furthered the careers of two future presidents, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, even as nonemployment accelerated in Hollywood with additional committee hearings in the early 1950s.

Blacklisting had a pronounced effect on movie content and was not restricted to Communists. Progressives like Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles were effectively driven out of the country. Although the ban ended in 1960 when the credit for Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood 10, flashed on the screen in two liberal-minded superproductions, "Exodus" and "Spartacus," some on the blacklist would not work in Hollywood for another decade or more, and others would never return.

Conventional wisdom has it that they were a marginal and mediocre lot. "Only two had talent," Billy Wilder claimed of the 10. "The rest were just unfriendly."

The Anthology series, which features a number of credible movies written by members of the 10, means to dispel that assertion as well as another that is directly addressed by "Red Hollywood": the argument advanced, for different reasons, by both blacklisted screenwriters and their blacklisting bosses, that politically minded progressives had little effect on the content of Hollywood movies.

This wasn't the F.B.I.'s initial assumption. The bureau not only burglarized the offices of the Los Angeles Communist Party, during World War II and afterward, but also received reports from confidential informants (Ayn Rand apparently among them) who monitored movies for possible propaganda. "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "It's a Wonderful Life" were two such subversive films. Still, as the F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover realized, his agents were not film critics. The most efficient way to purge and discipline Hollywood would not be to attack individual movies but rather to stigmatize individual moviemakers. As the committee, privy to F.B.I. files, investigated successive waves of known and suspected Communists, studios stopped employing those who refused to acknowledge their political history or identify erstwhile comrades (and even some of those who did admit party membership and inform on others). …

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