Busting heads and blaming Reds

How movie producers used the blacklist to crack down on Hollywood unions.


William Triplett
January 11, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

About halfway through "Cradle Will Rock," Tim Robbins' movie about the making of a 1937 Broadway musical, there's a foreboding scene involving an early hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The musical, the committee has learned, sings the praises of American workers and labor unions. The politicos suspect Communist subversion in disguise.

The question that would later wreck careers, friendships and, in some cases, lives -- "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" -- is never asked in the film. Robbins knows that historically it's about 10 years too soon. But you can feel it looming in the air, waiting to materialize and pounce.

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In this and other scenes, Robbins is none-too-subtly adding his own voice to a debate that has raged for more than 50 years. Was it American or un-American, as the film implies, to support anti-communism and its most lethal manifestation, HUAC? Was it right or wrong to cooperate with HUAC? And if other people suffered because you cooperated, whose fault was it ultimately?

The controversy won't go away. Just ask Elia Kazan.

Beneath it, however, lies a more significant problem, one that has gotten much less attention. If you were in the entertainment industry and you refused to answer HUAC's questions -- as some people did on principle -- you were blacklisted. But the blacklist was a voluntary creation of Hollywood studio producers, not the government. Why did producers do it?

They always maintained that the blacklist was essentially forced on them by a powerful one-two punch of politics and public opinion. True enough. But it's also true that the Hollywood blacklist descended directly -- perhaps even more so than previously thought -- from a virulent strain of anti-union sentiment. New interviews, access to internal Hollywood memoranda and a review of the existing but largely forgotten record all suggest that unions -- one in particular -- threatened to cut into studio control and profits. And the studios would do anything, even ruin lives, to keep that from happening.

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The original Hollywood moguls -- Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, the brothers Warner et al. -- built their industry as a patrician system in which they, the dads, would always look out for their kin, the people who worked for them. And, as Nancy Lynn Schwartz noted in her book "The Hollywood Writers' Wars," "Few industries resorted to the intimate, familial forms of economic and psychological manipulation used to retain absolute control in Hollywood."

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To create the illusion, appropriately enough, of a union, the studios founded in 1927 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, essentially a professional club for directors, writers, actors and technicians -- and producers -- to resolve any disputes among members. How effective was it? "Looking to the Academy for representation was like trying to get laid in your mother's house," Dorothy Parker observed. "Somebody was always in the parlor, watching."

But four years into the Depression, and shortly after Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933, the studios said they couldn't meet payroll. Contracts notwithstanding, everyone in the industry making more than $50 a week would have to take a 50 percent pay cut, producers said. Mayer literally performed for the employees of MGM, dramatically invoking the need for their sacrifice in order to save the company. ("Oh, that L.B. Mayer," one insider said. "He created more communists than Karl Marx.")

As writers, directors and actors swallowed hard and went along with the cut, the one union independent of the academy -- the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees -- refused. This typically producer-friendly confederation of grips, electricians, engineers, musicians and, most important, film projectionists, threatened a strike in retaliation. The producers backed off. The rest of Hollywood, particularly the writers, took note.

A few months after the wage-cut incident the Screen Writers Guild was born -- to the producers' enormous displeasure. At stake was their total control of content, credits and wages. Worse, other talent groups, like actors and directors, might get similar ideas.

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But the producers really only had themselves to blame. In the words of the late Lester Cole, a founding member of the Screen Writers Guild, the moguls considered writers "the niggers of the studio system." A number of producers even delighted in sometimes cattle-prodding their stable of scribes, who had the least control over their work in Hollywood. No surprise then that writers became the most activist, determined group of artists to organize. But because they also provided the very source material for movies, they were also the most despised and feared by the studios.

The moguls retaliated against the new union by trying to insert rules into the Motion Picture Industry Code that would have nullified the Screen Writers Guild's demands, among other things. Thanks to intervention by Roosevelt, the move ultimately failed. But the battle was just beginning. As Schwartz noted, "The movement of writers to unionize was met with opposition so violent that it contained the seeds of a struggle lasting more than fifteen years, one that became part of a larger battle ending in destroyed careers and ruined lives."

The record shows no mention yet of studio concern about Communist subversion. It was strictly, from the outset, about unionizing.

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The rise of unions in Hollywood was only one scene in a nationwide drama taking place largely as a result of the New Deal, which gave American workers unprecedented rights -- and American bosses unprecedented heartburn. Like the studio producers, American financial and business elites everywhere were willing to do almost anything to undermine the growing strength of unions.

The truncheon was an outstanding management tool, but nowhere near as effective as the smear. The American Communist Party was, after all, very much alive. It was also very much legal, but by the 1930s the term "communist" had acquired deadly, symbolic freight. As "Cradle Will Rock" points out, you were either American (good) or Communist (bad); the two did not intersect, according to arch conservatives, among whom you could count the above-mentioned elites. Any type of reformist activism or criticism was labeled as either directed, inspired by or at the very least welcomed by Communists -- and therefore really bad.

Southern California was hardly immune to the phenomenon. In his book "Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Movie Makers," Leo Rosten recorded how there was a time "when the charge of 'communism' was hurled against anyone in Hollywood who held that Nazi Germany was a threat to America, that labor unions were legal organizations, or that civil liberties should be protected." The Communist Party certainly had a Hollywood presence. Its effectiveness, however, within the film industry in the 1930s was almost nil. Producers made sure of that. But it didn't stop them from smearing union activists as either Communists or fellow travelers whenever it suited them. And by the 1940s, it suited them a lot.

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Take, for example, Herb Sorrell, who'd been a boxer before becoming a Hollywood labor organizer. It was good training. After coordinating a successful strike by painters against Walt Disney Studios, he founded the Conference of Studio Unions in 1941. Originally a loose collection of craftsmen either overlooked or ignored by the stage employees, the Conference of Studio Unions steadily grew during the war years to more than 10,000 -- a sizable threat to the roughly 15,000-strong stage employees.

Most conference members were looking for an alternative to the then-corrupt stage employees: Willie Bioff, erstwhile pimp and burglar and an associate of Chicago mobster Frank Nitti, had gotten control of the stage employees mostly by strategically distributing his calling card -- a stick of dynamite nailed to the front door of anyone who opposed him.

The studios were certainly willing to do business with Bioff; he accepted bribes in exchange for keeping union demands low. Sorrell, however, was known as a leader committed to representing his membership. Even after a federal investigation sent Bioff and his cronies to jail in 1943, the studios preferred working with the stage employees. Bioff's eventual replacement, Roy Brewer, was as pro-producer as he was anti-anything-that-even-smacked-of-communism. To Brewer's mind, the rival Conference of Studio Unions was about as Red as they came.

According to the first volume of John Cogley's "Report on Blacklisting," the Conference of Studio Unions often hewed closely to the line laid down by the Hollywood Communist Party, but charges that Sorrell was Red were, at best, exaggerated. Brewer's stage employees led the initial smear campaign -- primarily a massive and relentless distribution of leaflets painting Sorrell and the first conference strike (in April 1945) as Red-influenced.

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Omitted from the leaflets was the fact that the Hollywood Communist Party, which had pledged a no-strike agreement during the war as a show of patriotic support, was refusing to back the strike. Regardless, the Los Angeles Central Labor Council accused Sorrell of being a Communist; his prosecutor was one of Brewer's lieutenants in the leaflet campaign.

The trial ended inconclusively, but it weakened Sorrell's strength and credibility. Well aware of this, the producers met repeatedly -- with Brewer often in attendance -- to discuss options for the next Conference of Studio Unions strike that Sorrell was planning. According to a later congressional investigation, Brewer assured studio bosses that the stage employees would not honor the strike and would be available as scabs. Unaware of this collusion, the conference went out on strike -- for the last time.

As stage employees members filled their jobs, conference members abandoned the strike and went back to work. By autumn of 1947 the Conference of Studio Unions, recognized by historians ever since as the only truly democratic union in Hollywood history to that point, was broken. But a major consequence of the affair, nasty even by Hollywood standards, was that it further embittered producers toward the Screen Writers Guild.

Why? Because the more radical members of the guild -- Lester Cole, John Lawson and Ring Lardner Jr. -- had tried to rally their colleagues in support of the Conference of Studio Unions. They even tried to raise money for them. They were the only members of any talent guild to do anything like this. To some in Hollywood, it looked like the Screen Writers Guild -- originators of unionizing -- had been behind the conference's activities all along. Fortunately for producers and every other Hollywood reactionary, the House Un-American Activities Committee was back at work.

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HUAC had sniffed around in Hollywood before the war, but failed to turn up much subversion. At the time, the committee was led by Martin Dies, a Texas Democrat who, as described by Ronald Brownstein in his book "The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection," believed that "liberal" and "Communist" were interchangeable terms.

"Dies was not the only one to make that strange and politically convenient conceptual leap," Brownstein elaborated. "Once blood was in the water, a legion of successor sleuths ... began splattering outspoken Hollywood liberals with red. With all the patriotic indignation they could muster, the studio heads told anyone who would listen that Communists inspired their labor troubles."

Still, producers liked the idea of government investigators in Hollywood even less than Red agitators and thus gave Dies no help. The studios had the same sentiment after the war, but by 1946 others in town were decrying Communist infiltration of the movie industry. The single most important and powerful group of denouncers was the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, or MPA, as it was called. And more than any other single group, the MPA contributed most to creating the atmosphere necessary for the blacklist and, indirectly, the blacklist itself.

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As militantly anti-communist/unionist as it was pro-capitalist, the MPA was composed primarily of elite actors, directors and even some writers very happy with the original patrician system that unionizing had begun to displace. Most producers kept away from the MPA, suspicious of its intense right-wing slant, but the rabid Red-baiter and union-hater Walt Disney was a founding vice president. (Disney Studios, incidentally, is parent company of the studio releasing the overwhelmingly pro-union "Cradle Will Rock.")

Other MPA members included King Vidor, Victor Fleming, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Ward Bond, Ayn Rand, Hedda Hopper and, eventually, the stage employees' Roy Brewer. The first MPA president was Eric Johnston, previously the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he worked closely with business titans in their fight against unions.

According to Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund in their exhaustive study, "The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960," the MPA redefined the strategy and agenda of Red-baiting in Hollywood. "The MPA exemplified a new genus -- one which was out for blood and which exhibited an anti-communist zeal and tenacity greatly overshadowing its members' loyalty to the film industry." Its goal: no longer simply to expose but "to purge the studios of everyone with a strong left-wing viewpoint and history of [leftist] activism."

In 1947 the MPA invited HUAC to return to Hollywood, this time with the full cooperation of some of the industry's most influential members. The MPA's first welcoming gift was a list of 41 industry artists it felt the committee should question on the subject of Communist activity in Hollywood.

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On a parallel track that year, a conservative-controlled Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, intended to gut labor of all its gains under the New Deal. A clause of the act required all board members of a union -- movie guilds included -- to sign an affidavit certifying their non-Communist pedigree.

The wheels of the blacklist were now in motion.

Twenty-two of the names the MPA gave to HUAC were known to be friendly or sympathetic to the committee's investigation. The remaining 19 -- the industry's most outspoken and active reformists -- were clearly targets. After receiving subpoenas, the 19 immediately declared the committee unconstitutional and refused to answer any questions.

For reasons still unclear, HUAC only called 10 of the 19 to testify. Some have speculated that the 10, later infamous as the "Hollywood 10," were the most vulnerable: Some were Communist Party members; not one was a military veteran (who were still national heroes at the time). More significantly, however, nine were screenwriters. And not just any screenwriters. Many of the 10 had been either founding members of the Screen Writers Guild or involved with it from its inception. Worse, they had also been the most vocal supporters of the Conference of Studio Unions. Thus Lester Cole, John Lawson, Ring Lardner Jr. and six of their guild colleagues along with one director, who also wrote screenplays, found themselves in HUAC's crosshairs.

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"No coincidence," says author Ceplair, who now teaches history at Santa Monica College in Southern California.

At this point, irony took the spotlight. Being a Communist was still not illegal. HUAC's ostensible purpose was to root out Communist subversion of the movies, specifically in the form of Red propaganda flickering on screens across the country. The evidence? Ayn Rand cited an image of smiling Russians in a then-contemporary movie, and she, a Russian immigrant, knew that Russians had no reason to smile under communism. Lela Rogers pointed out that in a script by one of the 10, later filmed with her daughter Ginger in it, there appeared the shockingly devious line "Share and share alike, that's democracy."

Even the studio heads, who despised the Hollywood 10 as much as anyone else, testified repeatedly to the committee that despite an infrequent "pro-Communist" passage turning up in a script, no such material ever made it past the editing hatchet of the producer, who still wielded control over content.

But the most damage to the 10 was done, in a way, by the 10 themselves. Obnoxiously attacking the committee's lack of authority, sometimes to the point of being ejected from the hearing room, the 10 created a public-relations disaster, which, in turn, led to a professional-relations disaster. Capitalizing on the perception that these men were at the very least undesirable, if not dangerous, HUAC cited them with contempt. More extreme measures might now be necessary, such as legislation regulating film content.

With the threat of censorship on one side and the possibility of a public boycott of movies on the other, and with New York banks, which lent heavily to the studios during the Depression, pressuring them to avoid anything that might impair their ability to repay the loans, the producers were in a corner. A blacklist seemed like the best, if not only, way out.

Other forces were certainly pushing the producers. While television was in its infancy, the threat it posed to stealing movie audiences could not be underestimated. Also, still pending, but looking bad for Hollywood, was a federal antitrust suit against the studios for their monopoly of production, distribution and exhibition; execs feared, rightly as it turned out, that the Supreme Court would force a breakup, thus weakening the studios' market dominance even more.

Moreover, not to be discounted was, as Neal Gabler noted in his book "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," the producers' fear of a new round of anti-Semitism. Most of the studios were run by Jews; most of the Hollywood activists and Communists were Jews. If the public linked the two camps together, a boycott would be the least of producers' worries.

In November 1947 the studio heads issued the "Waldorf Statement," named after the New York hotel where they drafted it, which announced, among other things, their intention to no longer employ the Hollywood 10, nor anyone else who refused to cooperate with the HUAC investigation, nor any Communist.

Given the poisonous atmosphere of the time, a blacklist of some sort was probably inevitable. The fact still remains that this particular blacklist began with 10 men fed to HUAC because their labor activism had initially outraged some of the industry's most powerful and virulent labor-haters.

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As the political clouds darkened over Hollywood, producers actually thought the skies were clearing. Less than two weeks after issuing the Waldorf Statement, studio heads met with officers of the three talent guilds "to further explain [the studios'] future policy with regard to the employment of communists," according to minutes of the meeting kept by the Screen Actors Guild.

The producers essentially argued that they were not starting a blacklist, that, instead, by getting rid of the Hollywood 10, they were preventing the need for any similar future action. It appears the producers genuinely believed that the worst of the troubles were over. "But this means they did not read well at all the political climate and had no insight into what was coming," Ceplair says. Indeed. Not only a blacklist but an even more insidious weapon, the graylist, certainly did develop and expand.

The blacklist was essentially compiled from HUAC, which released names of uncooperative witnesses as well as names of people identified as Communists by cooperative witnesses. The graylist was primarily the work of a pamphlet called Red Channels, a privately published organ that identified either suspected Communists or sympathizers. Frequently, though, the named were simply people the right wing despised, feared or both. Historians estimate as many as 500 people in the entertainment industry were either black- or graylisted.

As those lists were growing, the studios found they fit rather nicely with their longstanding hatred of unions -- in particular, of course, the Screen Writers Guild. For example, the blacklist did the job that the studios couldn't do by other means -- bringing the dreaded screenwriters to heel. "If you purge a union of its radical elements, which the blacklist very effectively did, you don't need to break it anymore," Ceplair notes. The Screen Writers Guild was anything but an activist union now. In fact, writers from the patrician era who'd left the guild in its activist days to join the reactionary MPA had come back. Some even made it onto the guild board.

Furthermore, while making certain concessions in the annual collective bargaining negotiations throughout the blacklist years, the studios actively used the blacklist to control the Screen Writers Guild's most important concern -- screen credit. A movie writer's career depends heavily on credits, as much then as it does today, and when the guild first organized, gaining control over credits was one of its biggest victories. The blacklist, however, enabled producers to impose an eviscerating clause in the studio-guild contract that returned control to them.

"We tried for years to get that clause removed," says Michael Franklin, executive director of the Screen Writers Guild from 1958 to 1978. "We didn't succeed until the early '60s," when the blacklist was beginning to fade.

Also, because of the Taft-Hartley Act, a slightly less evil cousin of the blacklist, the studios were able to hire non-Screen Actors Guild talent -- which was cheaper and easier to fire. Screen Actors Guild internal records show that as late as 1954 the guild was fighting to close this loophole that the studios routinely exploited.

The studios had certainly started out furious at the MPA for having brought HUAC back. By 1950, however, with the studios very much enjoying the upper hand with the guilds and unions, the fury had cooled into a loving warmth. That year the Sept. 17 edition of the New York Times quoted producer Walter Wanger as saying, "I recognize that time and history have proven the correctness of the judgment of the MPA and its foresight."

It's long been said in the producers' defense that they were not the ones who brought HUAC into Hollywood and that the stage employees union, not the studios, delivered the death blows to the liberal Conference of Studio Unions. But there's a consistent pattern of others doing the actual dirty work that ultimately benefited the studio heads and that they never protested. Indeed, in the case of destroying the Conference of Studio Unions, they worked directly with the stage employees.

It's also long been said, and repeated increasingly since the end of the Cold War, that there certainly were Communists and Communist subversion and espionage in America at the time (Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, et al.). And that hatred and fear of communism (on the march in Korea, exploding atomic weapons in Siberia) were real. Anti-communist sentiment, in short, was in its own way honest.

Perhaps, but not in Hollywood. In the above meeting between studio heads and members of the three talent guilds following the Waldorf Statement, director George Stevens made a wry and telling observation -- that "the people to be sacrificed ... are among the [unions]; there has been no talk of sacrificing heads of motion picture companies ... if they were found to be communists." The minutes of the meeting record no response from the producers.

Moreover, communism in America and communism in Hollywood weren't the same thing. Hollywood's branch, for example, was almost incompetent. As early as 1954, studies showed that most Communist interest in movies was focused on attempts -- unsuccessful, for the most part -- to keep anti-Communist propaganda out of films, not to put pro-Communist propaganda in. As for the threat elsewhere in the country, it's recently been disclosed that the FBI, which worked with HUAC, scored a huge gain when a top Soviet spy defected in 1945 and divulged all major Red networks across the United States. Hollywood was not among them.

As for the reality of hating and fearing communism, Hitler's hatred and fear of Jews was real, too. The Klan's is still real. Still, the sincerity of anti-Communist sentiment might carry more weight if it didn't, in Hollywood's case, have as its antecedent and subtext a longstanding hatred and fear of unionism and liberalism, for which "anti-communism" provided respectable, patriotic cover.

Marsha Hunt, a popular young actress in the '30s and '40s, had never been a Communist or a sympathizer. She was, however, a committed and outspoken liberal. At a 1947 Screen Actors Guild board meeting she contradicted president Robert Montgomery, a founding member who liked the old patrician system, on a matter concerning the viability of officially excluding Communists from all the guilds. "I was listened to, but the board moved on to other business," Hunt recalls. "No one said anything, no one commented, I was totally erased."

Shortly thereafter, her career ended.


William Triplett

William Triplett is an associate editor of Capital Style magazine and a theater critic for the Washington Post.

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