Virulent committee given new life

For all intents and purposes the October 1947 HUAC hearings, held with all the glitter of a premier, according to People’s Daily World, came to a crashing halt after only one week of testimony. With 68 more witness yet to be heard, committee chairman, New Jersey congressmen J. Parnell Thomas suddenly announced that the first phase of the hearings had concluded. Thomas floated a story in the press about shutting down the hearings for fear of massive Communist demonstrations. The truth was the hearings which the committee thought would make them stars had bombed. In spite of the bellicose performance of the so–called unfriendly witnesses, and due to the antics of the cigar–chomping chairman Thomas, and the bitter anti–Semitism of Mississippi congressman John Rankin, the hearings about Communist subversion in Hollywood films was an abomination, even among conservatives.

The genesis of the Hollywood Blacklist

In the late summer, and early autumn of 1947 Hollywood moguls were overheard saying that they would be dammed if a few silly half–assed congressman were going to tell them how to run their business. However, after a meeting of the studio heads at New York’s Waldorf–Astoria in late November of that year, a much different tone emerged. The following statement was made on behalf of the major Hollywood studios.

“Members of the Association of Motion Picture Producers deplore the action of the 10 Hollywood men who have been cited for contempt by the House of Representatives. We do not desire to pre–judge their legal rights, but their actions have been a disservice to their employers and impaired their usefulness to the industry. We will forthwith discharge and suspend without compensation those in our employ, and we will not reemploy any of the 10 until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt, and declares under oath that he not a Communist.

On the broader issue of alleged subversive and disloyal elements in Hollywood, our members are likewise prepared to take positive action. We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group that advocates the overthrow of the government of the United Sates by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods. In pursing this policy, we are not going to be swayed by intimidation or hysteria from any source. We are frank to recognize that such a policy involves dangers and risks, there is the danger of hurting innocent people. There is at the risk of creating an atmosphere of fear. Creative work at its best cannot be carried on in an atmosphere of fear[sic]. We will guard against this danger, this risk, and this fear. To this end we will invite the Hollywood talent guilds to work with us to eliminate any subversives, to protect the innocent; and to safeguard free speech and a free screen wherever threatened.

The absence of a national policy, established by Congress, with respect to the employment of Communists in private industry makes our task difficult. Ours is a nation of laws, we request Congress to enact legislation of assist American industry to rid itself of subversive, disloyal elements. Nothing subversive or un–American has appeared on the screen, nor can any number of Hollywood investigations obscure the patriotic services of the 30,000 loyal Americans employed in Hollywood who have given our government invaluable aid in war and peace.”

“This was the birth of the Hollywood Blacklist. Started not by McCarthy, or Nixon, or any of the villains on the right, usually held responsible, but by the heads of the major Hollywood studios.”

Had the Committee won after all?

That same month, Congress held a special session concerning the need for funds to help block Stalinist expansion in Europe, and at that time HUAC chairman Thomas asked for a citation of contempt of Congress for Albert Maltz. In the last speech before the vote California congressman Richard Nixon said that the only two relevant issues were whether the Committee had the right to ask questions and whether the witnesses had refused to answer such questions. The vote to cite Maltz with contempt passed 347 to 17. Within days the remaining nine were also cited, their fates sealed by similar lopsided majorities. HUAC, it appeared had won?

The significance of Albert Maltz

Albert maltz

The fifth witness to appear before HUAC during the 1947 Congressional hearing was screenwriter Albert Maltz, widely believed to hold the best literary credentials of any member of the Hollywood Ten. Educated at Columbia University and the Yale School of Drama, Maltz worked as a playwright for the left–leaning Theatre Union during the early 1930s. He also published several short–stories. He earned a name for himself during that period as a protest writer with The Way Things Are, Seasons of Celebration, and Man on a Road, which some critics believe exemplified his best work. In addition, his tale The Happiest Man on Earth won the O. Henry Memorial Award as the best short story in 1938. Many of Maltz’s novels are also grounded in historical events The Underground Stream, The Cross and the Arrow, and A Tale of One January. Maltz’s essay, What Shall We Ask of Writers? originally published in New Masses on February 12, 1946, in which he takes the notion of didactic art to task, and for which he was harshly criticized is he subject of this essay.

Albert Maltz moved to Hollywood in 1941 to write screenplays primarily for Warner Brothers and Paramount studios. During WW II, he wrote patriotic scripts for such films as Destination Tokyo (1944), Pride of the Marines (1945), and Cloak and Dagger (1946) His 1942 script for Moscow Strikes Back, won him an Oscar for best documentary. His endeavor for The House I Live In, won a special Academy Award in 1945.

“What Shall We Ask of Writers?"

By 1945 Albert Maltz was a man on the rise both inside and outside of the Communist Party. He followed the O. Henry award he received 1n 1938 with his 1944 novel “The Cross and the Arrow”, and the war movies he had written were making him a rich man.

The Academy Award winning, “The House I Live In”, was given to theaters free of charge, with Maltz donating the proceeds to the war effort. Frank Sinatra sang two songs for the film and is seen lecturing three would–be hoodlums about brotherhood and religious tolerance. But in spite of his commercial and critical success, Maltz remained troubled.

The Communist party doctrine, of “art–is–a–weapon”, had long weighed heavily on the mind of Maltz, just how conflicted he was became apparent with his February 1946 article in the New Masses, “What Shall We Ask of Writers.”

“It has been my conclusion for some time that much of the left–wing artistic activity—both creative and critical—has been restricted, narrowed, tuned away from life, sometimes made sterile—because the atmosphere and thinking of the literary left–wing had been based upon a shallow approach," wrote Maltz. "I have come to believe that the accepted understanding of art as a weapon is not a useful guide, but a straitjacket. I have felt this in my own works and viewed it in the works or others. In order to write at all, it has long since become necessary for me repudiate it and abandon it”.

Maltz called the art–is–a–weapon approach vulgar and disastrous. He blamed the intellectual atmosphere of the left wing for what he termed wasted writing and bad art. “I know of at least a dozen plays and novels discarded in the process of writing because the political scene altered, Maltz complained. I even know a historian who read Duclos and announced that he would have to revise completely the book he was working on at the time". He was talking of course, of fellow Communist and member of the Hollywood Ten, screenwriter John Howard Lawson, who was in the process of writing a bon on U. S. History, a particularity tough task for a Party member in the late 1940s. Maltz felt that there was no direct connection between the correct politics of a writer and his or her art. “Writers, he remarked, must be judged by their work and not by the committees they join.”

If Maltz had written those words with some trepidation, and he surely had, the first reviews of his New Masses article gave him some reassurance. He discovered he wasn't alone in his thinking. Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott, both fellow Hollywood Ten'ers, welcomed the article as a breath or fresh air, a veritable breakthrough. Screenwriter Leopold Atlas, also a Party member, congratulated him for taking an independent stance. Arnold Manoff, a writer Maltz had named in his piece told him he agreed with his position. But the response from higher circles in the Party proved otherwise. And what happened as a result would change the rationale of Albert Maltz, and many of the so–called enlightened left.

m mills
Michael Mills