The content of Hollywood films has always been regulated in one form or another, however between 1947 and 1954 the House Un–American Activities Committee (HUAC) became indirectly involved in this kind of regulation. After the Second World War the America’s alliance with the Soviet Union ended, the Cold War began, and the “Red Scare” moved into full force. The HUAC members considered it their duty to purge the country of any Communist influences. While numerous industries were investigated by HUAC, because of Hollywoods high profile, it became the best known target of this infamous committee.

In 1947 the committee’s purpose was threefold:

First, it intended to prove that the Screen Writer’s s guild had Communist members.

Second, it hoped to show that these writers were able to insert subversive propaganda into Hollywood films.

Third, J. Parnell Thomas, head of the committee, argued that President Roosevelt had encouraged pro–Soviet films during the war. Although none of these claims was ever substantiated, the committee’s tactics worked to force many talented and creative people to leave Hollywood.

During the initial hearings so–called friendly witnesses were asked to testify. These people were allowed to read prepared statements arid were treated with respect. They were not under suspicion, but, instead, were willing to testify about any Communist activity that they were aware of in Hollywood. Some of the best–known friendly witnesses were Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer, representing the studio heads, as well as Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor. Robert Montgomery, and Ronald Reagan, representing actors.

Nineteen “unfriendly” witnesses were subpoenaed. These were people whom the committee considered to be Communists. Although only eleven were called to testify, all their lives were deeply affected. German playwright Bertolt Brecht was the only one of the eleven to answer any questions on the stand. He claimed he was not a Communist, but after testifying he immediately left Hollywood to return to East Germany. The remaining ten became the famous so–called “Hollywood Ten”. One director (Edward Dmytryk) and nine screenwriters (John Howard Lawson, Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornintz, Herbert Biberman, Adrian Scott, Ring Lardner, Jr., and Lester Cole) took the stand and refused to answer any questions, claiming their Fifth Amendment rights.

These ten witnesses knew they had three options. They could claim they were not and never had been members of the Communist Party (this would have meant perjuring themselves); they could admit or claim membership and then be forced to name other members (and this would have meant losing their jobs both because of their former membership and their dubious position as informers); or they could refuse to answer any questions (which is the choice they made). Although most lawyers would agree today that the Fifth Amendment gave them tire right to choose this last option, the committee (and then the courts during appeals) did not agree. All ten were held in (contempt and subsequently served between six and twelve months in jail, although one, Edward Dmytryk, later agreed to cooperate with the committee and did not serve his entire sentence. The remaining nine were blacklisted by the Hollywood film community and found themselves forced to use pseudonyms in order to sell scripts. (“Robert Rich”, for instance, who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for “The Brave One” in 1956, was actually the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo.)

Immediately after these ten men went before the committee, fifty Hollywood executives gathered for a two–day secret meeting. Knowing that they could face huge losses at the box office no matter what the committee’s findings, they debated the best way to handle the situation. On November 24, 1947, they announced as a group that the Hollywood Ten were suspended without pay. Furthermore, they issued a statement that declared, “We, will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force, or by any illegal or unconstitutional method.”

While this statement was purposely worded ambiguously, in the end it served to encourage and condone a ten–year blacklist. From 1951 to 1954, HUAC, now directed by John S. Wood, again focused on Hollywood, compiling a list of 324 present and former Hollywood workers who supposedly were or had been members of the Communist Party. Whether or not these people admitted membership, they ended up on an unofficial blacklist. Even cooperative witnesses who named others or renounced their own former membership in the party were on the list. Of these 324 people, 212 were actively working in Hollywood during this time, and thus lost their jobs.

The production process was affected by these proceedings. Not only were the 212 workers lost at almost all levels of production (actors, writers, directors, technicians), but the content of the movies being made began to shift as well. Studios became even more cautious and aware of the public’s reception of their films. Between 1947 and 1954 almost forty explicitly propagandistic anti–Communist films were made in Hollywood. Despite the fact that nearly all lost money, the studios continued to put the products out, hoping to prevent boycotts. Furthermore, producers tended to shy away from films about social problems.

Pressure from banks also worked to limit the film industry during this period. During the war the banks were quick to lend money for film projects. The audiences were growing, while the products were becoming fewer as a result of the war. Simple supply and demand told the banks that just about any film would make a profit. However, after the war the audience began to turn to television in lieu of movies. Combined with the other changes, this meant that Hollywood films could not necessarily be assumed to turn a profit. Thus, as the banks became more cautious, they got more involved in monitoring the content of the films, pushing for conservative, safe ventures.

Yet, even as HUAC and the subsequent blacklist served to limit and control the content and system of production and financing of Hollywood films, other forces were working against censorship and tight studio control. Imported foreign films and independent productions distributed through Hollywood began to bypass the Production Code Administration.

In fact, foreign films never did go to the PCA. Instead, individual state censorship boards granted particular films licenses. As the number of foreign films being imported into the United States after World War 11 grew, more and more of their distributors ended up going to the courts to ensure their right to rent their films to exhibitors. The first and most important of these cases took place in 1952, when Roberto Rossellini’s “The Miracle” was initially banned by New York censors as “sacrilegious”.

Despite such contests, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA; formerly MPPDA) continued to enforce and rely on its production code. In fact, in 1951 new restrictions against mentioning abortion or drugs in films were introduced. Although most people either working in or distributing through Hollywood continued to shape their films to please the PCA, some did not. Otto Preminger was the best known independent producer to challenge the code. In 1953 United Artists released his “The Moon Is Blue”, a film that dealt with seduction and adultery, without code approval. Although a few states did ban the film, and the producers did in fact go all the way to the Supreme Court over the ban in Kansas, the film was a great success, earning more than $3 million.

In 1955 Preminger again bypassed the code, this time releasing (again through United Artists) “The Man with the Golden Arm”. The hero of the film (played by Frank Sinatra) was a drug addict, and this had been deemed an offence by the MPAA. Again, the film was a financial success. By this time, the PCA realized that if it wanted to maintain any control over Hollywood product, it would have to revise its code. Changing a little in 1953, a little more in 1954, and finally a great deal in 1956 the code came to reflect the kind of movies that were going to be produced anyway.

While the specifics of these censorship and self–censorship changes may not have led directly to specific production, distribution and/or exhibition changes, they helped to define the changes going on throughout the film industry during these years. As films seen in the United States increasingly were produced by non–Hollywood workers, the content of the films changed. Furthermore, distributors (whether they were the Hollywood studios or not) were forced to carry these films because they had fewer titles to choose from, and, perhaps more important, because they realized that these films would make a great deal of money. This in turn created new appetites and interests in the audience and tended to splinter it into smaller, more specialized groups. Lastly, exhibitors rented these films for the same reason distributors offered them. They needed to fill their screens and then to fill their seats.

The HUAC political investigations removed talented individuals from the system and affected the kinds of films being made while the new censorship systems began to splinter the audience from one mass group into smaller specialized groups. Although one was a repressive force that drove talent away (HUAC), and one was a non–repressive force that loosened censorship and created new audience interests, both contributed to the collapse.

Jeaaine Basinger, American Cinema: One Hundred Years of Filmmaking, 1994

For further reading see Blaklist: A different look at the 1947 HUAC hearings

Michael Mills