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WATCH ME IF YOU CAN | Hollywood and the Blacklist

Photo Courtesy of Timeout

The 2015 biopic Trumbo depicts the struggle that many screenwriters faced during the Red Scare. Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston), along with nine other screenwriters, was tried and charged for contempt of Congress under the accusation of writing films promoting anti-American ideals.  As a consequence, he and many other writers faced blacklisting, forbidding them from writing and getting paid, wasting an enormous amount of talent. After his jail time, he decided to use the loopholes in his court orders to his advantage.

Trumbo wrote films under the identity of Robert Rich (another screenwriter who was away on military leave) and even won an Academy Award for Best Original Story for The Brave One. Not long after, Trumbo’s identity was revealed, and Variety made him the cover story in an effort to coerce a confession out of him.  Ultimately, the real Robert Rich was sued  by the King Brothers Production company for plagiarism, but the company  settled for $750,000 as a form of blackmail. Only years later did he receive an Academy Award for his work posthumously, along with one for Roman Holiday for best Original Screenplay.  Despite being ousted by HUAC, Trumbo kept writing.

HUAC, formally known as the House of Un-American Activities Committee, was in charge of weeding out anyone in the film industry who seemed to wield communist influence.  During WWII, their goal was to eradicate anyone who was Post WWII; films fueled Red Scare politics as fears of conspiracy moved to the forefront.  Fast-forward to the Cold War, politicians were looking for signs of loyalty.  The powerful were mainly targeted as potential communists.

Studios distributed “The Screen Guide for Americans” by Ayn Rand to their employees. It issued warnings regarding film content. Rules included “don’t mear industrialists for success” and “show the world and american kind of man for a change.”  They ensured that the content of American films reflected dominant American values. Because film was such an integral part of American culture by then, people feared that the industry’s influence  could potentially turn Americans against their country.

The blacklist consisted of actors, directors and screenwriters.  A list of 79 people who were thought to be the instigators of the alleged communist portrayals in film were asked to testify, but only ten showed up for the hearing. The infamous Hollywood Ten was composed of mostly screenwriters, some directors and producers.  Members of the Hollywood Ten were: Alvah Bessie (screenwriter), Herbert Biberman (screenwriter and director), Lester Cole (screenwriter), Edward Dmytryk (director), Ring Lardner Jr. (screenwriter), John Howard Lawson (screenwriter), Albert Maltz (screenwriter), Samuel Ornitz, (screenwriter), Adrian Scott (producer and screenwriter) and Dalton Trumbo (screenwriter).

The Hollywood Ten hearing ended on November 25, 1947 with the Waldorf Statement.  It made sure that the Hollywood Ten would be fired and suspended without pay and would never become reemployed until they were cleared of charges of contempt against Congress.  This was decided by MPAA president Eric Johnson.

The witch hunt of the Red Scare shaped America’s culture, as political themes were reflected in many works.  Those affected by the Hollywood Blacklist suffered economically and personally, and never saw their creative work come to life on the silver screen due to the rising, all-consuming fear of communism. Hollywood, in essence, accepted blacklists and adjusted the content of movies to make sure messages were safe.  Jobs were lost, families were ruined, and some even took their own lives under the shadow cast upon Hollywood by the Red Scare.

Marina Caitlin Watts is a senior studying Communication. In addition to writing for The Sun, she has also been published on various film websites along with The Daily Beast. She loves Frank Sinatra and hates decaf coffee. If you need her, she is waiting for Godot. Watch Me If You Can appears on alternate Fridays this semester. She can be reached at mwatts@cornellsun.com.

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