Thomas Doherty, the author of Show Trial, is professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, associate editor of Cineaste, as well as the film reviews editor for The Journal of American History. A cultural historian, Doherty’s special interest is Hollywood in the years 1930 to 1959, amply demonstrated across his publication record, which originates in his fervid Teenagers and Teenpics (1983; reprinted and updated in 2002), a study that could be seen as Doherty’s first chipping away at a wider – and still forming – interest in Hollywood’s influence on cultural history.
There have been other scholars before Doherty who have written on the House Un-American Activities Committee and HUAC’s investigation of Hollywood – even Doherty has touched on it previously – but Show Trial is the first scholarly work to be exclusively devoted to 1947; HUAC’s so-called Hollywood year.
Beyond Doherty’s juvenilia, Teenagers and Teenpics – covering 50s Teensploitation flicks – there’s a clear and common topos binding Doherty’s titles prior to Show Trial, one that contemplates, and, in seeking to expose, opposes the totalitarian mindset, wherever it is found, including Hollywood. 1.
1993’s Projections of War begins with Hollywood’s Great War pacifism from All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930), through the studios’ non-interventionist stance to the second world war in Europe, then the studios rapid about-face as required after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, and thence to jingoistic warhawkery, one that saw Hollywood training combat cameramen, producing amusing (but often racist) training films, making light-entertainments to buoy up the Homefront and sending name-directors into war service 2.
Where Projections of War is a study of Hollywood and Washington’s bi-partisanship and the harnessing of the incredible power of Hollywood for propaganda in the war effort, it also sets up the role of Hollywood as propaganda tool, something that will vex Cold War Washington and lead to the events covered in Show Trial.
Hollywood was not always aware of its power to lead or change hearts and minds, as Doherty’s 2013 book Hollywood and Hitler reveals. Many of the Hollywood studio heads – predominantly of Eastern European Jewish descent – chose to favour the operations of their European film markets by not offending Hitler (or the German American Bund that was sympathetic to the Nazis and funded from Berlin). While on the other hand, Jack Warner of Warner Bros. cut his studio’s ties with Germany and even set off a damp-squib; failing to change minds and making poor box office, with Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Anatole Litvak, 1939). Ultimately it took a “factual” newsreel from The March of Time series (with New Jersey standing in for German exteriors), to condemn Nazism, to sway and coalesce the American public’s will against totalitarian Germany – and thereby establishing the Nazi as Sisyphean cinematic cannon fodder.
With the war over, Hollywood’s capacity to influence, perhaps even control public opinion by addressing hearts and minds, now became suspect. This was especially the case when the new enemy was no longer Nazism, but rather one derived from older antagonisms reaching back to tensions of capital versus collective that had last come to a head during the Great Depression and were being re-enflamed by the Cold War.
Doherty does much to show that the hostility that fuelled the Hollywood fraternity of those called to testify in 1947, owed its origin to bitter battles that had occurred in the 1930s. This is history that Doherty is more than familiar with, as his earlier titles chronicle attempts to rein in Hollywood’s immoral excesses. While these jurisdictions are not specific to HUAC, they show how the motion picture industry was held responsible for setting fashion, behaviour and morality.
Pre-Code Hollywood (1993) examines the films of the risqué Twenties and Thirties that got the American public hot under the collar, serving to raise the ire of the National League of Decency, and leading to the Production Code (also known as the Hay’s Code), which was, for its first four years, largely ignored. That is, until 1934 when Joseph Ignatius Breen was appointed to enforce it: Doherty’s Hollywood’s Censor (2007) examines the puritanically devout Irish-Catholic and anti-communist, Breen, who in his role as head of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) became quite literally, the most powerful man in Hollywood. Breen wielded more power over what audiences saw than any writer, director, actor, editor, producer, or even, their bosses the studio moguls. Breen’s role went beyond censorship with the scalpel and his office was not just about excising offending frames from pre-release movies, but saw the studios seeking Breen’s guidance as early as the story’s treatment stage. And thus, Hollywood began to censor itself, making decisions to pre-empt what the censor might not pass.
Despite its Marshall McLuhanesque title, Cold War Cool Medium (2003) does not draw on McLuhan’s ideas except to say that television is the titular, cool medium occurring in the hot new nuclear age. Rather, Doherty chronicles the simultaneous rise of television and McCarthyism: showing how TV turned the belligerent, red-baiting, drunken Senator Joe McCarthy into perhaps, TV’s first celebrity.
All of these past titles can be taken together as a run-up to 2017’s Show Trial, where Doherty turns his full attention to the House of Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC (pronounced hue-ak), and the nine days in October, 1947, when J. Parnell Thomas chaired its “Hearings Regarding the Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry”.
These Washington DC hearings were a gala dramatic event attended by glamorous stars, colourful moguls, wherein emotional outbursts, maniacal gavel-banging and the demand to “name names” –as well as giving us the Sixty-Four Dollar Question: “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” – were all recorded under hot lights by newsreel cameras and broadcast live over the radiowaves.
Running in two blocks over the course of a fortnight, 41 witnesses – studio executives, producers, directors, actors, screenwriters, critics, investigators and lawyers – all took the stand. Week one called upon the so-called “Friendlies”, those considered sympathetic to HUAC, who were essentially being used by the committee in fishing for incriminating evidence.
Those deemed to be the “Unfriendlies” – people opposed to the hearings, liberals who felt either morally obliged to defend the right of free association, or those directly under attack for their beliefs and political affiliations – were held over until week two.
For believers in HUAC’s investigation, this would be a bringing of light into dark corners infested with communists, red-sympathisers, and “rodents”, “rats”, “tarantulas”, “termites”, boring from within to erode the healthy American body politic. At the very least they were men who lacked appropriate patriotism; worse were those who were guilty of anti-Americanism; and then there were the very worst – traitors working in tandem with the Russians to inject socialist, communist, and Soviet propaganda into Hollywood movies to brainwash the American public.
On the Left – just as hysterically – HUAC was compared to an Elizabethan Star Chamber, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials (Arthur Miller’s The Crucible ), a Kangaroo Court. Its instigators were likened to Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler; it was labelled fascist, anti-semitic, a Stalinist Purge, a Nazi bloodbath, one that presaged the coming of the American Reich, with these hearings claimed to be just one a step away from Gestapo-style thugs herding American dissidents into concentration camps.
Put simply – although polarised – both liberals and conservatives foresaw a totalitarian future, one that HUAC either held at bay, or anticipated.
It is worth a digression to consider that 1947 is the year the Cold War began in earnest, and while the committee’s hearings were being held, theoretical physicist Klaus Fuchs was handing US nuclear secrets to the Russians and the British, an action which led to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), a standoff whereby, should either Soviet or US forces strike the other or their allies, the world would be engulfed by nuclear annihilation.
In this atmosphere the seemingly foundational moral enmities of World War II, of good and evil, of the Allies and the Axis, became topsy-turvy.
In an early demonstration of American’s “my enemy’s enemy is my ally”, the Counter Intelligence Corps (later the CIA) recruited on-the-run Nazis as US spies, including those wanted for war crimes, even those who had had significant roles in the Holocaust. 3
The flames of paranoia were fanned in middle America: all institutions became suspect, with liberals especially so. Communists were thought to be preying upon the bleeding hearts of Hollywood, the “unwitting dupes” and “fellow travellers” like that of Hail, Caesar!’s (Ethan Cohen-Joel Coen, 2016) Baird Whitlock – too self-absorbed and too dumb to know they were being used in a conspiracy where only Mickey Mouse, Rin Tin Tin and Snow White were above suspicion.
1947 is also the year that George Orwell completed his visionary, speculative, dystopic fiction 1984. A warning against all totalitarian futures, this novel gave us the terms Newspeak, Doublespeak and Thought Crime. It was Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War that opened his eyes to Stalinism, Stalin, and totalitarianism, thereby establishing his deep and abiding distrust of Communists.
In 1939, the diametrically opposed ideologies of Nazism and Communism entered into the Hitler-Stalin Non-aggression Pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). Such an agreement might strike the liberal-minded as tragic hypocrisy – at least until it became farce when Hitler inevitably betrayed Stalin by invading Russia. Suddenly, all around the world, on the turn of a dime it seemed, Communists who followed the party line, including the CPUSA and their Hollywood membership, had to realign their politics to become outspokenly anti-Nazi.
1984 called just such a political volte-face, Doublespeak, and while 1984 also foresaw a near total surveillance of the individual – something that has come to pass – it is to 1984’s Unperson that we should turn.
An “unperson” is “a person who, usually for political misdemeanour, is deemed not to have existed and whose name is removed from all public records (OED).”
One of the strands of Show Trial is a study of the Blacklist that resulted out of the committee hearing that had appointed itself prosecutor, judge, and the individual as defendant. However, the HUAC hearings were not an actual court and nor was this an actual trial. Despite looking like a high-stakes criminal case with subpoenas, swearings-in, testimony from witnesses, the presence of lawyers and prosecutorial interrogations, there were none of the rules of evidence, due process, or protection of civil rights of the American court system. Worst of all, being a congressional hearing, the congressmen were immune from libel law, and they abused this power to accuse and name with impunity.
While it was individuals taking the stand, putting their livelihoods and reputations up for pillory by HUAC’s insinuations, it would be the motion picture industry, the studio heads and their bankers who saw themselves as the greatest victims especially when it came to irrevocable evidence that Communists were in their employment.
Further, the political contortions of Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, were far too subtle for the general public. As Ring Lardner Jnr. reported overhearing one member of the peanut gallery say: “[Humphrey Bogart’s] a Communist. I won’t be going to see any more of his movies.” Although she was corrected by her friend who pointed out that Bogart was in fact, an anti-communist, the first lady snapped back: “I don’t care what kinda Communist he is, I’m not going to see any more of his movies (p. 320).”
The committee held up three movies made during the Second World War as exemplary of Hollywood’s communist propaganda: MGM’s Song of Russia (Gregory Ratoff-Laslo Beneddek, 1944), Warners’ Mission to Moscow (Michael Curtiz, 1942) and the independently produced by Samuel Goldwyn, The North Star (Lewis Milestone, 1943). They were propaganda, definitely made in cahoots with the Franklin D. Roosevelt war-effort – guilty as charged! – but they were never intended to have a shelf life beyond the time in which they were made and shown.
Author of The Fountainhead (1943) and staunch anti-communist, the Russian-born Ayn Rand said that these films were shamelessly dishonest depictions of the communist system as she had herself experienced it. Which they undoubtedly were, but as Jack Warner pointed out, Mission to Moscow had been made to aid a desperate war effort, and vouched for by The Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry, the official wartime guide supplied to Hollywood: “Yes, we Americans reject Communism. But we do not reject our Russian ally.” (p. 31) Jack Warner fulminated that, “if making Mission to Moscow was a subversive activity, then the American Liberty ships [carrying] food and guns to Russian allies, and American naval vessels which convoyed them, were likewise engaged in subversive activities.” (p. 111) The crime was that while the world had changed, these films had simply stayed the same.
Finding that it could not attack the product, HUAC turned its attention to the men behind the productions. HUAC failed to make the actors look bad, after all, they were just speaking the lines written for them. So HUAC turned to the directors and the screenwriters, but it was with the screenwriters as defendants that HUAC struck gold.
Even though HUAC lost credibility through its ineptitude, name calling and unhinged gavel beating, it successfully claimed scalps by proving beyond a doubt that ten Hollywood employees were indeed card-carrying members of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA).
The Hollywood Ten were overwhelmingly writers, they were overwhelmingly Jewish (they were: Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dymytryk, Ring Lardner Jnr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Robert Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo). That HUAC had anti-semitic membership is well documented, that The Ten felt they were being targeted not for their political affiliations but their ethno-creed is borne out by Sam Ornitz, who declared that he wished to “address the committee as a Jew” and asking, “as a Jew”, and “based on the record, is bigotry this committee’s yardstick of Americanism, and its definition of subversive?” Further to this, Ornitz asked, “is it mere coincidence that you choose to subpoena and characterize as ‘unfriendly’ the men who produced, wrote, and directed or acted in (Hollywood films) which attacked anti-semitism or treated Jews and Negroes sympathetically?” (p. 254). All had stood their ground and refused to name names or incriminate themselves by declaring their political affiliations, but a turncoat in the CPUSA had supplied federal agents with photo-stats of their CPUSA cards, and it was on this photographic evidence that they were tarred and feathered. Then it fell to their studio bosses to light the match.
And for bringing the motion picture industry into disrepute with the American public (as felt through box office) these ten schmucks – who in an industry modelled on the Ford production line individually had about as much say over what ended up on the cinema screen, as the makeup department – were blacklisted.
This blackballing made The Hollywood Ten persona non grata, judged them untrustworthy, and marked them out for an unspoken exclusion, one that allowed them no recourse to counter-claim, clear or rehabilitate their names.
More Ryskind, who was also Jewish, and also a writer, had this to say: “Had the Hollywood Ten been advocating voodooism, blank verse or a return to the silver standard, I would have defended their right to privacy of association. But when it came to their support – their very active support –of a political party which had, as its stated objective, the overthrow of the American constitutional form of government, I couldn’t help but look at them as agents of a foreign power, nor could I keep myself from thinking they got off rather lightly by just being Blacklisted.” (p. 353)
The overthrow of the American constitution may well have been the stated aim of Cold War Soviet Russia – along with Stalin’s delusions of world domination – but the question that is left unanswered is whether or not this was also the stated aim of the Communist Party of the USA? Show Trial is not clear, Doherty doesn’t have the research to answer this question either way. Certainly the CPUSA was funded and took direction from Moscow. But were these ten card-carrying CPUSA members really the fifth-columnists, fomenting the revolution, ready to betray their country that HUAC wanted the American public to believe them to be? Were they simply, educated, liberal-minded writers who believed in fairness and had had an experience of a kind of socialism practiced in shtetl or in kibbutz and subsequently believed that some level of socialist or communist practice – such as welfare and a safety net – could leaven the worst excesses of the American capitalist system which they had personally experienced during the Great Depression? Doherty does not tell us.
It would take a decade before Stanley Kubrick broke the Blacklist – which by this time, had spread to other media including Network TV – by employing Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus (1960), but it was not until the liberal Seventies that those who had survived saw their careers rehabilitated when, in 1972, another blacklistee, Charlie Chaplin, the self-proclaimed “peace-monger” who had nailed his colours to the mast with his with anti-Hitler piece as far back as 1940 with The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940), was forgiven his perceived communist sympathies and invited out of exile in Europe to receive an honorary Academy Award.
At heart, Show Trial is a scholarly work and not what is considered a middle brow or trade offering – as it should be from an academic publisher of Columbia University Press’s prestige – however, Doherty knows this subject intimately. Doherty wants his subject to reach a wider audience, and so he stretches accordingly: adopting a method that seems to reach academics first and lay readers second. He does this by delivering with academic authority his freshly-sourced research, as accompanied by footnotes, then follows up with a summarised paragraph delivered in hardboiled-ese – echoing Baby, I Don’t Care, Lee Server’s brilliant 2001 biography of Robert Mitchum – which is amusing and even laugh-out-loud.
If the book has flaws, it is the repetitive formula required to cover all 41 who took the stand. Although the coverage of each is compressed to two pages, including background, testimonial highlights and any relevant summary, the formula – by its repetition – can not help but become onerous.
Show Trial may not be the final word on HUAC and Hollywood but it will be the must-cite source wherever academic research encounters the HUAC and Hollywood nexus, especially concerning the year of 1947.
I would yet like to see Thomas Doherty draw all his existing Blacklist material together, to see a book that leads from its Hollywood origins, pursuing its cultural influence through Hollywood’s tentacular roles in radio, print and even network TV. As well as those who became celebrated in the Seventies, perhaps such a book might make a cenotaph for those the Blacklist crushed.
Thomas Doherty, Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017)
- Scott Holleran, “Brandeis Prof. Thomas Doherty in Defense of Infidel Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali,” Capitalism Magazine, May 24, 2014. https://www.capitalismmagazine.com/2014/05/scott-holleran-interviews-professor-thomas-doherty-defense-infidel/ ↩
- John Ford, George Stevens, Frank Capra, William Wyler and John Huston for example. See: Mark Harris, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (New York: Penguin Group, 2014) ↩
- For example Otto von Wachter. See: Philippe Sands. Intrigue: The Rat Line. (London, BBC 4, 2018), https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04sj2pt ↩