75 years ago, Hollywood entered one of its darkest periods. In 1947, 10 Hollywood writers and directors famously refused to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and were held in contempt of Congress.
In response, Hollywood’s top studio heads turned their backs on these filmmakers. It became common practice to fire and/or deny employment to anyone who held Communist political views or were, in any way, deemed Communist sympathizers by their peers and the government. These artists were blacklisted from the film industry and were sentenced by the government to serve a year in federal prison.
The 10 individuals were Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Robert Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo.
The persecution and blacklisting of these 10 filmmakers — who later became known as the "Hollywood Ten" — was years in the making. In the years prior, the U.S. government had already made its interest in Hollywood and the left-wing views held by many within the industry known. The blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten was, therefore, merely the commencement of a battle that had already been brewing for years. The Hollywood blacklist would, sadly, go on to last for over a decade.
Earlier this year, the Academy Museum's official podcast, And The Oscar Goes To…, released an extensive episode discussing the Hollywood blacklist and its many ramifications. Jacqueline Stewart, Director and President of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, is the host of the podcast, which premiered in March.
During the episode, Howard Rodman, a screenwriter, USC professor, and former president of the WGA West, sagely noted, "The world in which these people had been allowed to write, direct, and act freely is a world with better films in it and better television and a world which, sadly, we can only imagine." Acclaimed producer and director Irwin Winkler similarly told Stewart, "[It] was a very, very black chapter in American history."
The Hollywood blacklist began to crumble near the end of the 1950s when several blacklisted artists — namely, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo — began to receive recognition for the films on which they had worked under pseudonyms. Trumbo’s Best Writing Oscar win for 1956's The Brave One, in particular, kickstarted a process that eventually led to the dissolution of the Hollywood blacklist. Three years earlier, Trumbo's screenplay for 1953's Roman Holiday had already won an Oscar for Best Writing. As Howard Rodman noted on And The Oscar Goes To…, Trumbo’s second Oscar win was "a very significant event in the history of the Hollywood blacklist. It was really the first kind of crack in the wall."
In 1970, when Trumbo received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writers Guild, which is a lifetime achievement award, the esteemed writer reflected back on life during the Hollywood blacklist. On that night, the two-time Oscar winner told his fellow writers, "It will do no good to search for villains or heroes, or saints or devils. Because there were none. There were only victims."
Now, 75 years after the Hollywood blacklist officially began, the period’s lessons remain strikingly relevant and timely. Indeed, while Rodman noted during his appearance on And The Oscar Goes To… that the Hollywood blacklist remains a troubling reminder of "the cowardice of our institutions," there are more hopeful lessons to be learned from the entertainment industry's darkest period. As Rodman himself observed during his conversation with Stewart, the dissolution of the Hollywood blacklist proves that "speaking truth to power can be far more powerful most of the time than we realize or let ourselves realize."
You can listen to And The Oscar Goes To… full episode about the Hollywood blacklist here.
By Alex Welch