Much has been made over the years of the 1950s practice of "blacklisting
" Hollywood screenwriters and directors linked to the Communist Party. While these events have been greatly exaggerated, not least by Hollywood itself, blacklisting was still immoral and wrong. However, one very important fact has been lost amid the mythology, which is that many of those victimized by blacklisting had themselves previously worked to suppress the free speech of others as members of the Communist Party. Before there was a Hollywood Blacklist, there was a Hollywood Redlist.
Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley has thoroughly described the Communist Party USA's (CPUSA's) role in 1930s and 40s Hollywood, in particular its ideological manipulation of art and intolerance of dissenting views, in a June 2000 piece
for Reason Magazine
. He summarizes it as follows:Communist cultural doctrine cast writers as "artists in uniform," producing works whose function was to transmit political messages and raise the consciousness of their audiences. Otherwise, movies were mere bourgeois decadence, a tool of capitalist distraction, and therefore subjugation. Party bosses V.J. Jerome and John Howard Lawson (a co-founder of the Screen Writers Guild and screenwriter of Algiers and Action in the North Atlantic) enforced this art-is-a-weapon creed in Hollywood, as they had done earlier among New York dramatists. Albert Maltz (Destination Tokyo) was to challenge the doctrine in a 1946 New Masses article, arguing that doctrinaire politics often resulted in poor writing. Responding to the notion that "art is a weapon," Maltz suggested, "An artist can be a great artist without being an integrated or logical or a progressive thinker on all matters."
As a result of such heresy, the party dragged him through a series of humiliating inquisitions and forced him to publish a retraction. Maltz trashed his original article as "a one-sided, nondialectical treatment of complex issues" that was "distinguished for its omissions" and which "succeeded in merging my comments with the unprincipled attacks upon the left that I have always repudiated and combated." Maltz was to defend that retraction until he died in 1985.
Billingsley goes on to discuss how Hollywood Communists sought to keep anti-communist viewpoints off the silver screen in the 1930s and 1940s:But if Comintern fantasies of a Soviet Hollywood were never realized, party functionaries nevertheless played a significant role: They were sometimes able to prevent the production of movies they opposed. The party had not only helped organize the Screen Writers Guild, it had organized the Story Analysts Guild as well. Story analysts judge scripts and film treatments early in the decision making process. A dismissive report often means that a studio will pass on a proposed production. The party was thus well positioned to quash scripts and treatments with anti-Soviet content, along with stories that portrayed business and religion in a favorable light. In The Worker, Dalton Trumbo openly bragged that the following works had not reached the screen: Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and The Yogi and the Commissar; Victor Kravchenko's I Chose Freedom; and Bernard Clare by James T. Farrell, also author of Studs Lonigan and vilified by party enforcer Mike Gold as "a vicious, voluble Trotskyite."
Even talent agents sometimes answered to Moscow. Party organizer Robert Weber landed with the William Morris agency, where he represented Communist writers and directors such as Ring Lardner Jr. and Bernard Gordon. Weber carried considerable clout regarding who worked and who didn't. So did George Willner, a Communist agent representing screenwriters, who sold out his noncommunist clients by deliberately neglecting to shop their stories. On a wider scale, the party launched smear campaigns and blacklists against noncommunists, targeting such figures as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, and Bette Davis.
Art Eckstein, in a June 2005 essay
for Frontpage Magazine
, describes just how far the CPUSA was prepared to go in attempting to impose ideological conformity on its members. In particular, he mentions the example of Robert Rossen, director of All the King's Men
, a film that the CPUSA interpreted as a veiled attack on Stalin:But unlike Maltz, Rossen refused to submit either intellectually or morally: his outraged response to the interrogation of his art was ÂStick the whole Party up your ass!Â A noble sentiment. The terrible fact, however, is that most Hollywood Party-members--artists though they were--DID submit to intellectual discipline, and usually voluntarily and without even the necessity of a gruesome Âtrial.Â The intellectual discipline included lists of books which Party-members were forbidden to read. It appears, in fact, that those who had once been suspect were the most eager to serve on the inquisition-boards. This was a way both of demonstrating their (suspect) purity andÂone imaginesÂa way of passing on the deep personal shame of the ÂtrialÂ experience by inflicting it on and abusing others. Whatever it was, the whole process strikes one as psychologically sick. But then, the Party forbade its members to consult psychiatrists.
Even the most famous victim of the blacklist, author and CPUSA member Dalton Trumbo, was more than willing
to help suppress "anti-party" views. In fact, Trumbo's actions even extended to informing on his own readers. His 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got his Gun
was quietly taken out of print after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, in accordance with the new party line. Apparently, being horrifically maimed on the battlefield was a small price to pay if it was in defense of Stalin and the Socialist Motherland. By 1944, Trumbo had embraced the CPUSA's pro-war position so completely that when some individuals wrote him to ask for copies of Johnny
, he responded by turning their names over to the FBI
as potential subversives.
Ironically, Trumbo himself would eventually run afoul of the party's ideological strictures, being accused of "white chauvinism"
in 1952. Ultimately, he would leave the CPUSA by the late 1950s.
In short, blacklisting was reprehensible and worthy of condemnation. However, as the actual record of the CPUSA in Hollywood shows, it was far from the beginning of political censorship in Hollywood. In the words of Ron Capshaw
, "Hollywood in both the New Deal and Blacklist era restricted free speech. Only the victims of it changed."