Hollywood, HUAC and the Birth of the Blacklist
Film and Culture Series
New York: Columbia University Press, 2018
Hardcover xi + 406 p. ISBN 9780231187787. $29.95/£24
Reviewed by Ian Scott
University of Manchester
We live in chastened times. Institutions are being rocked at every turn, and questions are asked about the foundations of our societies. So it is with some interest that Thomas Doherty reminds us in his new book Show Trial, that even the most intense and divisive periods in history are festooned with the ordinary and mundane. At one point during the 1947 HUAC inquisition into Hollywood, Doherty remarks on how a bunch of schoolchildren found their way into the Capitol building one day to observe the goings-on of the most notorious committee hearings in the history of American democracy. Their presence becomes a metaphor for much that Doherty’s book purports to represent; repressive tactics and contempt for constitutional rights buffeting against a strange kind of freedom in action at one and the same time.
Tom Doherty’s longstanding research on Hollywood’s studio era has thrown up definitive portraits of figures like Joseph Breen, fascinating analyses of the propaganda movies that helped win World War II, and intriguing investigations of the way Adolf Hitler’s Germany influenced the output and philosophy of Hollywood in the 1930s. Having already alluded to McCarthy in his 2003 book, Cold War, Cool Medium, it was perhaps inevitable that Doherty would sooner or later turn his attention to that most rabid of Hollywood periods, the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ investigations into the film industry during the late 1940s.
But, unlike other exposés of American cinema’s darkest period, Doherty’s agenda in this new book is driven exclusively by character portrayals. In Hollywood’s most crowded historical field, he opts for a timeline style that brings each player to the stage as and when the narrative requires it, accounts for their significance and begins drawing out the anecdotes and quirky personas that make everyone from Bogart to Bacall, John Howard Lawson to Howard Hughes tick. But Doherty’s pursuit is no idle nod to a showy circus parade of the glamourous, the good and the gratuitous. It is the minutiae that he is good at regaling which really begins to retell the story of alleged communist infiltration into Hollywood; and retell it in ways that so many of the political, social and historical treatises on this subject – good though they are – have often failed to do.
Doherty is not so keen to simply write off the inquisitors as maniacal zealots, only intent on making a name for themselves; less enamoured by the conventional idea of painting each of the Hollywood unfriendly witnesses as ideological crusaders desperate to protect their rights and save America from fascism. As he puts it: ‘I wanted to stay clear of the partisan narrative of stand-up guys on the one hand, and craven finks on the other’ . And likewise the press are not so easily pigeonholed either. On the left, New Masses and the Daily Worker made typical ‘predictions of Götterdämmerung’ in their reports . But the trade papers perceived the industry as ‘nervous and vacillating, split between compliance and resistance’, while moderate Republican papers like the New York Herald Tribune were much more bullish about the ‘witch hunt’ at work and the ‘self-aggrandisement’ on offer from committee chair, J. Parnell Thomas . These positions complicate the surface agenda, but it is the personal testimonies that give such weight and purpose to Show Trial, and which gives it a contemporaneity our modern politics would do well to reflect upon.
Indeed, if one could make a claim for Doherty’s book appearing at an apposite moment in today’s fevered political atmosphere, it is in the similar rhetorical pyrotechnics on display then as now. Such diction masks hidden dangers for society not just in the jettisoning of rights, but in the chase for power and the rejection of anything that smacks of alternative belief or position.
What Doherty cleverly moves towards with so much of that bluster and bravado on show, is the placement of industry bosses into a classic quandary. The performance of some Hollywood luminaries left the public and press suspicious of the film colony. The trade paper Harrison’s Reports, while critical like many of HUAC, nevertheless stated that ‘the American public has received the impression that there are numerous Communists in Hollywood, and they exercise a great influence’ . Not completely subverted by Communist ideology then, but nevertheless sympathetic to some of its conditions. The result was an industry that genuinely felt – rightly or wrongly – that it faced the dilemma of either purging the agitators or else itself being eviscerated. That Hollywood might be boycotted by the public and even face the prospect of falling into abeyance was too much to bear for the studios. They chose instead that which their head, MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) Chair Eric Johnston, had vowed would never happen: they opted for a blacklist.
The coming into being and institution of the blacklist that prevented actors, writers and directors from working in Hollywood, is hardly a new story for film scholars. Recent fine books on the subject such as Michael Freedland’s Witch-Hunt in Hollywood tell some of Doherty’s tale. But, contrary to Freedland’s sub-title – McCarthyism’s War on Tinseltown – Doherty’s agenda is intent on portioning off the McCarthy moniker and singling out 1947 as a pivotal year. Most of what engendered fear and resentment had already been instilled by the time McCarthy appeared in 1950, in other words, and although the renewed hearings in 1951 and ’52 saw more film people labelled and/or discredited, in a way, as Doherty observes, the seed had been sown and the damage done. Hollywood was changing post-war: the vertically integrated studio system was being challenged for its monopoly practice and television was starting to become a threat also. The industry felt it had its leading man in the form of Johnston and the MPAA – a successor to Will Hays’ MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) cartel of the 1920s and ‘30s – and the one with the strength of will to resist HUAC. But, representing the industry as best he could, Doherty is still at pains to assert that Johnston’s public resistance to HUAC was met with private pragmatism. The closed door, post-hearings meeting with industry figures that led to the Waldorf Statement in November 1947 was an exercise in ‘risk aversion’ says Doherty , one designed to allay fears and end the disputes with Congress once and for all by throwing the ‘Hollywood Ten’ to the anti-communist wolves. Instead, it bred resentment and recrimination that lasted for years.
Show Trial returns to a story many might think they already knew. As all great revisionary tracts do however, Doherty breathes new life into a familiar tale. In doing so, he tells an evolving, underhand and never-as-preordained-as-one-thought story that is utterly absorbing. That he manages so well to showcase the themes and ideas that unveiled the coming McCarthy era in all its lurid detail is testimony to a writer at the top of his game. Doherty’s new take on the 43 witnesses that became the ‘unfriendly 19’ that then achieved notoriety as the ‘Hollywood Ten’ pertains to a public discourse and debate that, as with the accused eventually chained to that tag, crept up on Hollywood patrons and public quietly and stealth-like. Just like today’s political factionalism, it was a descent into accusation and vitriol that was blind to reason, good sense, and conscience. Show Trial casts new light on old debates, but it also shines a beam on our own world, and there can be no better recommendation of this tremendous book than that.
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