The Cold War was a new term defining the animosity between the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II. Under Joseph McCarthy, in October 1947, the nation’s fear of Communism spread to Hollywood, as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held a series of hearings intended to probe subversive communism in the film industry.
The hearings resulted in contempt of Congress charges against the Hollywood Ten, a group of filmmakers who refused to cooperate with the committee and were ultimately jailed and banned from working for all of the major studios.
The Hollywood Ten believed their interment violated their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech. However, all ten were convicted of obstructing the investigation. Hollywood then started a blacklist policy, banning the work of about 325 screenwriters, directors and actors who the committee thought were either communists or had communist affiliations. Some people were able to keep working, whether it was through pseudonyms or crediting their friends
In 1960, thirteen years after the witch hunt had begun, Kirk Douglas was widely credited for helping lift the stigmatism surrounded The Hollywood Ten. His production company which was making Spartacus employed writer Dalton Trumbo under the pseudonym of Sam Jackson who was considered one of the ring leaders of the Hollywood Ten.
Douglas was sickened by the hypocrisy Hollywood showed. Everyone in Hollywood knew that pseudonyms were being used by those blacklisted including all the big studio heads. They just turned a blind eye to the practice, using a “don’t’ ask, don’t tell” policy.
Douglas wanted to make Spartacus so badly that he formed his own production company named Bryna, after his mother. He was also one of the first Hollywood stars to follow in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin to become an independent producer.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the ban began to lift, and finally, in 1997, the Writers’ Guild of America unanimously voted to change the writing credits of 23 films made during the blacklist period.
Today, some are making comparisons to the actors backlisted today and the MeToo movement, the actors and the producers who are accused of rape and sexual harassment. However, that’s a fundamental difference and the two time periods.
At the same time, Hollywood seems to be caught again in a rush-to-judgment atmosphere where a single accusation can deep-six a career and render a performer persona non grata in the time it takes to hit the retweet button. This type of mob behaviour can be destructive, whether we see it in Hollywood or other places.
One of the lessons of 1947 is that, especially in times of extreme political passions, you’ve got to maintain a respect for rational dialogue and due process. Read and absorb information with healthy skepticism.