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)
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.”
<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"> </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>
<li>The blacklist destroyed Cole financially and professionally. His unfinished script for<span class="Apple-converted-space"> </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"> </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"> </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"> </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> <li></li>
Edward Dmytryk (1908 – 1999)
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)