Monday, September 15, 2008

Hollywood on Trial by Gordon Kahn

Gordon Kahn. Hollywood on Trial. New York: Bon & Gaer, 1948.

This book begins with a statement from Thomas Mann that includes “I’ve seen a great many Hollywood films. if community propaganda had been smuggled into any of them. It must have been thoroughly hidden. I for one never noticed anything of the sort.”

This book describes the House Un-Americans Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation into Communist influences in movies. The author argues “no such films have been made” and notes that when Rep. J. Parnell Thomas claimed that the movies “Best Years of Our Lives” and “Margie” were communist influenced films that the suggestion was widely ridiculed. The author concludes, since there were no communist subverted movies that HUAC was not investigating films but there were investigating people. They were investigating what people did in their private lives; not what they did while working on films. HUAC sought to drive people out of the film industry, not for what they did, but for who they were.

Eric Johnson, President of the Motion Picture Association of America, during the hearings state “I will never be a party to anything as un-American as a blacklist”. At the time, 19 “unfriendly” witnesses had been named and their careers were at stake. Ten eventually would be blacklisted.

Prior to the hearing, there was a strike of film industry employees. Warner Brothers and its fire department turned their water hoses on picketers, injuring some. Warner then called for police reserves. These police reserves tear-gassed and clubbed picketers. At the HUAC hearing, Jack Warner was a leading witness who claimed “Communist propaganda” had been placed into movies in other studios and that he had stopped any such propaganda finding its way into any Warner Brothers film. Warner testified “anyone whom I thought was a Communist, or read in the paper that he was, I dismissed at the expiration of his contract” and later even re-admitted he fired people based on “hearsay”. Warner provided HUAC with a list of people he thought had “attacked the Government with violence and overthrowing” it. Later Warner returned before HUAC to amend his testimony by removing the names of Guy Endore, Sheridan Gilney, Julius Epstein, and Philip Epstein from the list he previously provided them, adding the Epstein made “very good American films”. Warner later added the name of Clifford Odets to the list.

Rep. J. Parnell Thomas wanted to embarrass New Deal democrats over the movie “Mission to Moscow”. Jack Warner first testified that former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union requested on behalf of the Roosevelt Administration that Warner Brothers make the movie to appease Soviet Union officials. Warner later corrected this testimony and claimed his brother came up with the idea of making the movie after reading the book.

Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) testified he was born in Russia and he denounced Communism. He claimed MGM vigilantly saw that no subversive script ever was filmed at MGM. He defended requesting a deferment from military service for Robert Taylor until he was finished completing the movie “Song of Russia”. Taylor had been quoted in the press claiming “Roosevelt aides” had delayed his desire to be a wartime soldier. Mayer also testified he heard rumors from unnamed people that screenwriters Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, and Donald Ogden Stewart were communists, but stated he couldn’t fire them, noting “I have asked counsel. They claim unless you can prove they are Communists they can hold you for damages.” Mayer further testified that MGM not only made no subversive films but had in fact created two anti-communist films, “Ninotchka” and “Comrade X”.

Actor Robert Taylor testified and denied he had been forced to appear in the movie “Song of Russia” as others had claimed. He also stated he “did not believe that anyone in the Roosevelt Administration had asked the movie to be made, noting the script had been written long before anyone from the government began discussing the movie. Robert Taylor did testify he saw “signs of Communist activity in Hollywood” but he did not personally know any.

Author Ayn Rand testified that films showing happy Russians living in clean cottages “is one of the stock propaganda tricks of the Communists.”

James McGuiness, a candidate for President of the Screenwriters Guild, testified the Guild then was controlled by “Communist and the boys who play with them.”

Lela Rogers, mother of actress Ginger Rogers, testified that her daughter had to deliver a line “share and share alike—that’s democracy” in a movie. She thought that line was Communist propaganda.

Ronald Reagan, President of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) testified that were some Communists in his Guild. George Murphy, a previous SAG President, estimated that 1% of SAG members were Communists.

HUAC called witnesses and inquired if they were or ever had been Communist Party members. Most of those accused were denied requests to make statements. John Howard Lawson, as did others accused, stated he had a constitutional right not to answer that question. Rep. Thomas ordered officers to take Lawson away. He and others were later cited for contempt of Congress.

Roy Brewer of the International Alliance of Stage Employees testified that Communists were trying to gain control of the film industry’s unions.

Screenwriter Samuel Ornitz testified and accused HUAC of bigotry against Jews.

Writer and theater director Berthold Brecht testified how he fled Nazi Germany for America. He testified he had never been a member of the Communist Party. HUAC members quoted writings of his that called for overthrowing the government. Brecht testified those writing referred to Hitler and not the U.S.

Louis J. Russell, an FBI agent, testified that Tovarisch Kalatozov, a Soviet agent, lived near Hollywood stars and had been spotted at a Hollywood cocktail party. Russell further testified that George Eltenton, a Shell Development employee who previously had been a screenwriter, asked Haakon Chevalier, a University of California Professor, to approach atom bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer to relay information to the Soviets. Oppenheimer replied that was treason and refused. HUAC noted that this Soviet activity had been initiated by a Hollywood screenwriter.

The Committee for the First Amendment was created. Most of its members felt HUAC had denied civil liberties to witnesses. In opposition, William Randolph Hearst helped created the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The Hearst newspaper editorials called for Federal censorship of movies.

Congress voted to cite screenwriter Albert Matz for contempt of Congress by 346 to 17. This was the first of ten similar votes. Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, wife of actor Melvyn Douglas, was one of the 17 “no” votes. She stated HUAC had no right to tell the film industry the type of movies that should be produced.

Columnist Ed Sullivan of the New York Post wrote that Wall Street financiers of the film industry sought to have the ten people who were cited for contempt of Congress banned from the industry.

The film industry created a censorship program that met William Randolph Heart’s criteria.

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