“Now all that youthful fervor for social justice, on behalf of labor’s right to organize, including the right to strike if need be…that has condemned me. Condemned us.”
Despite a longstanding love of film and the darkened theatre, I had never given much thought to the Hollywood blacklist until the 1999 Oscars when the Academy gave a special award to Elia Kazan, the legendary director. Outside of the event that night cameras caught sight of lots of people carrying signs protesting the honor to Kazan. Inside, cameras circuited throughout, and you could see, sense the palpable tensions rise as some of the celebrity-laden audience remained stoic, arms folded, refusing to rise or applaud. Others gave Mr. Kazan a standing ovation. No one contested that Kazan had contributed to the arts with On the Waterfront (1954), and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).These vivid conflicting reactions were based on his actions, his testimony nearly fifty years before.
In 1952 he was a cooperating witness to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). When questioned by the Committee about his membership, connection with the Communist party, Kazan and many others “named names” of their former comrades. These people were themselves subpoenaed.
People hauled up before the Committee were being asked to answer for their activities twenty years earlier. In the 1930’s there were consequential labor struggles, efforts to unionize, all sorts of workers, including writers, actors, people who worked at the studios. (Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, depicts this union struggle as a sub-plot.)
As Max Leslie tells Roxanne in the novel, “Now all that youthful fervor for social justice, on behalf of labor’s right to organize, including the right to strike if need be—oh yeah, there were heads and hearts broken over that twenty years ago too—that has condemned me. Condemned us.”
In this same era the Communists were the only ones fighting the Fascists in Germany, Italy and Spain. When, in 1939 Stalin made a pact with the Nazis, many Communists quit in disgust. And then, of course came the Second World War. Stalin was our ally. In support of the war effort many Hollywood types made propaganda pictures lauding the Soviets. These efforts would cost them dearly when HUAC got hold of them in the 1950’s.
Writers, actors, directors, producers, and lesser folk who refused the Committee’s request to name their old Commie compatriots were immediately fired. In 1947 all the major studio heads signed what became known as the Waldorf Agreement, vowing not to keep on anyone with the least Communist tinge. Once blacklisted, the men and women who defied Congress, could not work anywhere.
The blacklist era (1947–1960) is a complex, difficult subject with tangled roots and ramifications.
In 1947, the celebrated Hollywood Ten, a group of well-paid screenwriters, including Dalton Trumbo, refused to cooperate with HUAC, basing their refusal on their First Amendment rights. They were found in contempt of congress, and appealed. The courts found against them, time and again, until finally in 1950 their appeal was brought before the Supreme Court–who refused to hear their case. (To a modern eye this refusal seems inconceivable.) These men went to Federal prison for years. After that, HUAC steamrolled through the film community unchecked. Clearly, the First Amendment was no protection to people who were subpoenaed. Some took the Fifth. Some fled the country. For a time the government was revoking passports. Careers were ruined, lives wrecked, marriages crumbled, friendships and lucrative creative partnerships were destroyed forever. Fear ruled.