Jews, Hollywood, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities
The headline in the New York Times on 26 November 1947 was a date that many in Hollywood would remember for years to come, as the headline declared, “Movies to Oust Ten Cited for Contempt of Congress” leading to ten well-known Hollywood motion picture screenwriters and producers to be put behind bars. These ten men claimed they were being denied their rights, but the U.S House Committee on Un-American Activities turned a blind eye. As the years went on, from 1947 to the early 1950s, more and more prominent Hollywood figures were accused of being involved in Communist activities. The Hollywood blacklisting of communists began soon after the so-called ‘Hollywood Ten’ were charged with contempt by Congress. The blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten by HUAC was not only a persecution of communists, but a masked religious persecution that was used to economically transform Hollywood into the gargantuan money machine it is today.
The 1920s: Jews and Hollywood
The image of Jews as corrupters of popular culture began to grow in America’s imagination early on in American cinema. Jews had always been seen as economic parasites and as moral polluters, but now times were changing due to new forms of media. This new image of Jews was made possible in the nineteenth century through popular journalism with what Sander Gilman calls the “the secret language of the Jews.” Then, in the twentieth century, the cinema partially replaced popular journalism and contributed to the popular imagination of Jews as using the cinema to get their magical powers to keep hold on popular culture.
From the early 1930s and until the early 1940s, America’s involvement in World War II didn’t bring a stand still to attacks on Jewish Hollywood. Politically on the right, William Dudley Pelley, founder of the fascist Silver Shirts, claimed to have personal knowledge of correspondence in the film industry between Jewish involvement and immoral practices:
The fleshpots of Hollywood. Oriental custodians of adolescent entertainment. One short for it all– JEWS! Do you think me unduly incensed about them? I’ve seen too many Gentile maidens ravished and been unable to do anything about it. They have a concupiscent slogan in screendom, “Don’t hire till you see the whites of their thighs!” I know all about Jews. For six years I toiled in their galleys and got nothing but money.
During the prewar debate over U.S. isolation, the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities was a small, novice committee that took a political rather than a moral tack. It already held hearings that emphasized the changes in the movie industry that were caused by Jewish influence. These influences, they concluded, needed to be stopped. Charles Lindbergh of America First caused an uproar by saying that Jews’ “greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.” Unfortunately for Lindbergh, this claim was later largely ignored by the United States, which was just entering World War II. It was rather inevitable that an attempt to clean Hollywood from Jewish influence was coming, but it was only a matter of time before it could happen without it being seen as outright religious persecution.
House Committee on Un-American Activities
Congressman John Rankin of Mississippi accused Jewish filmmakers of “insidiously trying to spread subversive propaganda, poison the minds of your children, distort the history of our country and discredit Christianity” in the early Cold War. He claimed that Hollywood Jews were responsible for “one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of the government.” Also, Jews were a “hotbed of subversive activities in the United States”. Rankin greatly exploited communist fears and anti-Semitic prejudices by claiming that Christian American actors and actresses had been “virtually driven … from the film industry.”
The U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities was created partly as a response, making changes in a seemingly “Jewish” Hollywood and incriminating those with communist ties. It was formed on the basis of an earlier committee, the Thomas Committee that had had a similar agenda. HUAC convened in the fall of 1947 and served most of its subpoenas on September 23, 1947. From the year 1947 onward, HUAC began to provide the studios with lists of unionized writers, actors, and directors who could be fired without cause, without severance, and with concern for previously earned wages of option fees, despite the fact that they belonged to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which was supposed to protect them.
The blacklisting brought new changes to Hollywood, which causes two similar stories to emerge from different places who were affected. The first drama involves a “residual, pervasive, postwar anti-Semitism” that got HUAC interested in (Jewish) Hollywood initially. The committee focused largely on cleaning up the film business, which Jews had largely been a part of since 1920s and 1930s. They were thought to corrupt American culture and values and influence Americans through secret messages in films. HUAC could use a political stance on cleaning out Jews from Hollywood: by claiming certain Jews were communists.
The Hollywood Ten
HUAC made its first move in purging Hollywood by recommending to indict Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbio for contempt of Congress. The MPAA replied by saying that it would not follow the recommendation given by HUAC. Even the president of the MPAA, Eric Johnston claimed on 18 October 1947 that “the boys shouldn’t worry”, and that “there’ll never be a blacklist. We’re not going to go totalitarian to please this committee.” However, twelve days later Johnston changed his tune by publicly claiming not to defend them for their “tremendous disservice to the industry”. The blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten shows how HUAC was concerned with Jewish influence coming through movies due to screenwriters and producers having ties to Judaism (and therefore Communism).
The New York Times article on 26 November 1947 claims that the motion picture industry had voted unanimously to “refuse employment to Communists and to ‘discharge or suspend without compensation’ the ten Hollywood figures who have been cited for contempt of Congress.” The article continues to say that the entire industry was represented at a conference, where it was decided that Communists could be refused work or be fired for communist related activities. The President of the MPAA and the Association of Motion Picture Producers Eric Johnston, and Donald M. Nelson, President of the Independents, stated that the new policy was “not going to be swayed by hysteria or intimidation.”
The statement issued by the AMPP stated:
Members of the Association of Motion Picture Producers deplore the action of the ten Hollywood men who have been cited for contempt of the House of Representatives. We do not desire to prejudge their legal rights, but their employers have impaired their usefulness in the industry. We will forthwith discharge or suspend without compensation those in our employ, and we will not re-employ any of the ten until such time as he is acquitted or as purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist.
Six of the Hollywood Ten were Jewish: Lawson, Maltz, Bessie, Ornitz, Biberman, and Cole. Four of them were not Jews, and two (Scott and Dmytryk) were responsible for being the producer and director for the controversial Crossfire (1947) motion picture.
Crossfire was “an anti-racist, anti-anti-Semitic film” that was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay Oscars. It tells the story of a “vicious, racist serviceman who murders a Jew”. The film was provocative and political, and it foreshadowed to audiences the possible future of America. Even though not all of the Hollywood Ten were Jewish, they were involved in projects or were personally involved in activities which HUAC’s “friendly witnesses” deemed to be improper.
A number of the Hollywood Ten had been involved in the Communist Party (CP) during the early 1940s, mostly due to the fact that neither the Democratic nor Republican party stood for the issues that the Hollywood Ten men thought were important. For example, the Communist Party was strongly a civil rights party, offering hope for both African Americans and Jews that one day they would be considered equals with other Anglo-Saxon Americans. Scott and Dmytryk both wanted Crossfire to be the vocal piece of the CP and of civil rights, as Scott discloses in his memo, “Anti-Semitism is not declining as a result of Hitler’s defeat. …Anti-Semitism and Anti-Negroism will grow unless heroic measures can be undertaken to stop them. This picture is one such measure.”
There were almost no hearings held for the Hollywood Ten, and only two were allowed to give statements that could be used as evidence. Eight statements were suppressed, five of them explicitly identified antisemitism as the reason for the inquisition. The New York Times writes three years later, in 1950, that Lawson and Trumbo appealed to a news conference “at which they again declined to say if they were Communist party members. They have argued that this refusal to disclose their affiliations was guaranteed to them by the Constitution.” Both men also averred that their imprisonment was “the plan of big business and its political henchmen in Washington to start a third war.” The Hollywood Ten were prosecuted for their religion, political affiliation, and ideology; all for the necessary changes to be made in Hollywood for it to be able to to compete in new, complex markets.
While it seemed to many Americans that this blacklisting was a way of ensuring the country was safe from the hands of communists in the early years of the Cold War, the Hollywood blacklist served much more of a purpose than just naming names of employers with real, or imagined, ties to the communist front. The big studios of Hollywood benefited greatly from the blacklists—they were able to keep the government from interfering with movie production and change the physical structure of the studio business. The economic benefits were vast in themselves from blacklisting, but looking even deeper into the Hollywood Ten, shows that six out of the ten were Jews. Jews had been ‘wanted out’ of influencing popular culture and American cinema since the 1920s because they were thought to corrupt American morals and values with their polluted ways. Controversially, the blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten by HUAC was not only a persecution of communists, but a masked religious persecution that was used to economically transform Hollywood into the gargantuan money machine it is today.