“The Era of McCarthyism and the Hollywood Ten (1950) Communist in the Industry” Part I

When the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed filmmakers to testify about communism in the industry, a few held their ground — and for a time, lost their livelihood.


It was the casting call no one in Hollywood wanted to receive. In October 1947, when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) convened a hearing in Washington, D.C., to investigate subversive activities in the entertainment industry, 41 screenwriters, directors and producers were subpoenaed. Most witnesses were “friendly” — that is, willing to respond to the committee’s central question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” And those who confessed to membership were offered the opportunity to name “fellow travelers,” thereby regaining their good standing with the committee and, by extension, the American film industry.

Ten witnesses — all current or former party members — banded together in protest, refusing to cooperate on First Amendment grounds (freedom of speech, right of assembly, freedom of association) and affirming that HUAC disagreed: It found the so-called Hollywood Ten in contempt of Congress, fined them each $1,000 and sentenced them to up to a year in federal prison. All 10 artists also were fired by a group of studio executives — and the era of the Hollywood blacklist began.

Meet the Hollywood Ten

Alvah Bessie (1904 -1985)

Courtesy of Everett Collective

The son of a New York businessman, Bessie joined Eugene O’Neill’s Provincetown Players as an actor after graduating from Columbia University. In 1935 he published his first novel, Dwell in the Wilderness, while a staff writer at The New Yorker. In 1938, he went to Spain to serve with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting the Franco-led fascists. Hemingway praised Bessie’s 1939 memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Men in Battle, as a “true, honest, fine book.”

In 1943 Bessie moved to Hollywood, where he worked as a Warner Bros. contract writer on The Very Thought of You (1944), Hotel Berlin (1945), Objective, Burma! (1945) and other features. When called to testify before HUAC, Bessie refused to cooperate, saying, “I will never aid or abet such a committee in its patent attempt to foster the sort of intimidation and terror that is the inevitable precursor of a fascist regime.” Bessie served his 12-month sentence for contempt of Congress at the minimum-security federal lockup in Texarcana, Texas.

Prison marked the end of Bessie’s Hollywood career. He moved to the Bay Area, where he wrote novels, edited a union newspaper and worked as publicist for arts organizations. For seven years he was the stage manager and soundman at San Francisco’s Hungry I nightclub, earning $70 a week. 

Herbert J. Biberman (1900 – 1971)

AP images

Biberman began his career at age 28, directing plays and helping run the Theatre Guild in New York City. In 1935, he moved to Hollywood, where he graduated from dialogue director to writer to director of modest films, including Meet Nero Wolfe (1936), King of Chinatown (1939) and The Master Race (1944), an anti-Nazi film.

Three years later, the HUAC committee handed him the shortest sentence of the Hollywood Ten — six months in the minimum-security Texarcana, Texas, prison that housed fellow defendant Alvah Bessie. Biberman’s wife, Gale Sondergaard, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in Anthony Adverse (1936), also refused to testify before the HUAC and was blacklisted.

Biberman never worked in Hollywood again. In 1954 he teamed with other blacklisted artists, including screenwriter Michael Wilson and producer Paul Jarrico, to direct Salt of the Earth, an indie drama based on a miners’ strike in New Mexico. The House of Representatives formally denounced it, and the FBI investigated its financing. After a run of more than two months at about a dozen theaters, it was banned for 11 years. In 1993, the United States National Film Registry selected the film for preservation as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

  • Lester Cole – P 2015 AP Images
  • The child of Polish immigrants, Cole (ne Cohn) owed his political leanings to his Marxist father, who was a garment union organizer in New York City. In the eighth grade, Cole’s school principal denounced Lester as a traitor for opposing America’s entry into World War I. He dropped out of high school at age 16 and eventually became a stage director and playwright.
  • <li>In 1932 he moved to Hollywood to work with 17 other writers on one of Hollywood’s first all-star extravaganzas, the W.C. Fields comedy<span class="Apple-converted-space">&nbsp;</span><em style="box-sizing:border-box;margin:0;padding:0;border:0;font-size:16px;vertical-align:baseline;font-style:italic;">If I Had a Million</em>. The two successful plays Cole had written in New York landed him a five-year, $250-a-week contract with Paramount.In 1933, while writing B movies, including several in the Charlie Chan series, he co-founded the Screen Writers Guild (with future Hollywood Ten collaborators John Howard Lawson and Samuel Ornitz), the first of the Hollywood guilds. The following year Cole joined the Communist Party and remained a committed Marxist throughout his life.</li>
  • From 1932 through 1947, he churned out more than 40 produced scripts, most prominently for The House of the Seven Gables (1940) and the Errol Flynn war picture Objective Burma! (1945), which was based on an original story by another future blacklister, Alvah Bessie. In 1946, his career got a major boost when MGM put him under contract. It didn’t last long: The following year Cole refused to testify before HUAC. In 1949, before turning himself in at the federal prison in Danbury, Conn., to serve his sentence for contempt of Congress, he penned the story for the Humphrey Bogart aviator feature Chain Lightning (1950).
  • <li>The blacklist destroyed Cole financially and professionally. His unfinished script for<span class="Apple-converted-space">&nbsp;</span><em style="box-sizing:border-box;margin:0;padding:0;border:0;font-size:16px;vertical-align:baseline;font-style:italic;">Viva Zapata!</em><span class="Apple-converted-space">&nbsp;</span>(1952), directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando, was reassigned to John Steinbeck, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the picture (story and screenplay). In 1961 he emigrated to England, where he wrote the screen adaption, under the name Gerald L.C. Copley, of<span class="Apple-converted-space">&nbsp;</span><em style="box-sizing:border-box;margin:0;padding:0;border:0;font-size:16px;vertical-align:baseline;font-style:italic;">Born Free</em><span class="Apple-converted-space">&nbsp;</span>(1966), Joy Adamson’s book about raising a lioness in Kenya. In the last two decades of his life, he found a second career teaching film writing in San Francisco.</li>

    Edward Dmytryk (1908 – 1999)

  • AP images
  • Born in Grand Forks, British Columbia, Dmytryk was the second of four sons of Ukrainian immigrants. His father, a severe disciplinarian who bounced between jobs as truck driver, smelter worker and motorman, moved his family to San Francisco and then to Los Angeles. Dmytryk left his punitive home at age 14, becoming a messenger at Famous Players-Lasky (forerunner of Paramount Pictures) for $6 a week while attending Hollywood High School. He progressed to projectionist, film editor and, by age 31, director (and naturalized American citizen). His best-known picture from his early years was Murder, My Sweet (1944), adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel, Farewell, My Lovely. That same year he joined the Communist Party.

    In July 1947 RKO released Dmytryk’s thriller Crossfire, about an American soldier who kills a Jewish veteran and evades detection thanks to loyal Army buddies. Three months later, in Washington, D.C., Dmytryk and the rest of the Hollywood Ten snubbed the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although publicly blacklisted in November, he nevertheless received an Oscar nomination as best director for Crossfire.

    In 1948 Dmytryk fled to England, where he made two films in two years before returning to the U.S. He was arrested and imprisoned in the federal camp at Mill Point, West Virginia, where he served four and a half months. Behind bars, he decided that he’d been made a Commie dupe. On April 25, 1951, he returned to the HUAC hearings and admitted that he had been a party member from 1944 to 1945. He named 26 other party members, including Adrian Scott. By turning informer, he ended his own blacklisting.

    Independent American producer Stanley Kramer was the first to hire him again, first for a trio of low-budget films and then for The Caine Mutiny (1954), a World War II drama that received Oscar nominations for best picture, best actor and other awards.

    From the 1950s through the early 1970s, Dmytryk continued to direct studio films, including Raintree Country (1957), a remake of The Blue Angel (1959) and The Carpetbaggers (1964). After his film career tapered off, he taught film and directing at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California film school. In 1966 he published a book about his blacklist experiences, Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten.

  • Ring Lardner Jr. (1915 – 2000)

  • AP Images
  • The son of the noted Chicago humorist, baseball writer and playwright attended Andover and Princeton, where he joined the Socialist Club. In his sophomore year he enrolled at the Anglo-American Institute of the University of Moscow, which was established to familiarize young Britons and Americans with the wonders of the Soviet system. Lardner returned to New York and, in 1935, briefly worked at the Daily Mirror before signing on as publicity director with David O. Selznick’s start-up movie company. Lardner got his big break when Selznick partnered him with Budd Schulberg, a reader in the story department who would later cooperate with HUAC. The two rookies punched up a few scenes in A Star is Born, a 1937 feature starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor that became a critical and box-office success.
  • By 1937 Lardner had been recruited by the Communist Party in Hollywood and was attending a Marxist meetings four nights a week. In time he became a member of such groups as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Hollywood Writers Mobilization Against the War. He also served on the board of the Screen Writers Guild.
  • In 1942, he co-wrote Woman of the Yearwith Michael Kanin. The comedy marked the first onscreen collaboration between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and won Lardner and Kanin an Oscar for original screenplay. In 1947 he became one of the highest-paid writers in Hollywood when he signed a contract with 20th Century Fox at $2,000 a week. A few months later he stood by his fellow members of the Hollywood Ten in refusing to testify before HUAC. Lardner replied to the standard question — “Are you now or have you ever been …” — by noting, “I could answer the question exactly the way you want, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.” The aggressive committee chairman, J. Parnell Thomas, a Republican from New Jersey, angrily dismissed Lardner from the stand.
  • By the time Lardner began to serve his sentence for contempt of Congress in 1950, former Rep. Thomas was in the same federal penitentiary in Danbury, Conn., after his conviction of defrauding the government by putting fictitious workers on his payroll. Behind bars, the screenwriter and the HUAC chairman “became reacquainted,” as Lardner later wrote.
  • After his release, Lardner wrote a novel, The Ecstasy of Owen Muir (1954), and then moved to England where he wrote under several pseudonyms for television series such as The Adventures of Robin Hood. His blacklisting ended when producer Martin Ransohoff and director Norman Jewison gave him screen credit for writing The Cincinnati Kid (1965). Lardner’s later work included MAS*H (1970), for which he won the Academy Award for an adapted screenplay.
  • Although Lardner allowed his party membership to lapse in the 1950s, he said in an interview with
  • The New York Times that “I’ve never regretted my association with communism. I still think that some form of socialism is a more rational way to organize a society, but I recognize it hasn’t worked anywhere yet.” He died in Manhattan in 2000 at age 85, the last surviving member of the Hollywood Ten.
  • Source: http://www.wwwhollywoodreporter.com

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