Film history: Focus on “The Hollywood Ten”

In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held a first series of hearings into alleged communist propaganda and its influence in the Hollywood motion picture industry, marking the beginning of a long period often referred to as ‘the dark ages’ in Hollywood. Ten people were cited for contempt of Congress and were blacklisted after refusing to answer questions about their alleged involvement with the Communist Party or so-called ‘red channels’, and for refusing to name names of other potential and political bystanders. They are, listed alphabetically, screenwriter Alvah Besssie (1904-1985), screenwriter and director Herbert Biberman (1901-1971), screenwriter Lester Cole (1904-1985), director Edward Dmytryk (1908-1999), screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. (1915-2000), screenwriter John Howard Lawson (1894-1977), screenwriter Albert Maltz (1908-1985), screenwriter Samuel Ornitz (1890-1957), screenwriter and producer Adrian Scott (1911-1972) and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976). They were all sentenced to serving time in prison, often followed by years of blacklisting.

In the foreword of his autobiography ‘Hollywood Red’ (1981), Lester Cole – for many years a highly productive and successful screenwriter – writes: ‘Those on the outside, the historians and investigative reporters whose works compromise most of the literature on the Hollywood Ten, could not have known (although some pretend to) the feelings and thoughts of those who were cited for contempt, fought the convictions all the way to the Supreme Court, and went to prison after a three-year struggle. Outsiders could not convey to the reader the conflicts we experienced – with others, with our families, and within ourselves – as we held fast to principle and firmly held convictions, only partly aware at the time of the pain, humiliation, heartache and punishment that lay ahead.” Or when two-time Academy Award winner Ring Lardner, Jr. says in his autobiography that it would have been so easy to give names to the HUAC, but if he did, ‘I’d hate myself in the morning.” In other words, this is their story.

In all, hundreds of other artists were blacklisted for a number of years. The HUAC declined in the late 1950s – being denounced by former President Harry S. Truman (33rd US President from 1945 until 1953) as the “most un-American thing in the country today” – until it was officially dismantled in 1975.