Tinseltown’s traitors

Dalton Trumbo

We’ve devoted a good deal of attention on this website to Dalton Trumbo (1905-76), the blacklisted Communist screenwriter who was celebrated in a 2015 movie, Trumbo, in which he was played by Bryan Cranston. But it occurs to us that some of the other leading figures on the Blacklist – the members of the Hollywood Ten, as they were known – deserve equal time. Or at least a mention.

Let’s begin with the cardinal issue: they were all Communists. They were all unswerving admirers of Josef Stalin – and this at a time when his record as a bloodthirsty dictator and mass murderer of his own people had already been well established. And yet in later years – from the 1970s onward – they were hailed as heroes of free speech and the individual conscience (two things that Stalin himself was determined to crush). And, as illustrated by Trumbo, the idealization of these champions of totalitarianism continues into our own time. Witness a November 2015 article in the Hollywood Reporter entitled “The Hollywood Ten: The Men Who Refused to Name Names.”

Josef Stalin

Written by David L. Dunbar, the article bore the subhead: “When the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed filmmakers to testify about communism in the industry, a few held their ground – and for a time, lost their livelihood.” Of course, if they’d been stubborn supporters of democratic capitalism living in Stalin’s Russia, they’d have lost not only their livelihoods but their lives – but that’s a detail that the fans of the Hollywood Ten prefer not to think about.

As Dunbar observed, the committee, known as HUAC, subpoenaed 41 screenwriters, directors, and producers to testify at a 1947 hearing to probe “subversive activities in the entertainment industry.” Most of those summoned proved to be “friendly” witnesses – meaning that they agreed to say whether or not they were or ever had been members of the Communist Party. Those who answered yes were invited to name fellow Communists – and, if they did, were sent back to work with their reputations intact.

Nine of the Hollywood Ten

But then there were the Ten. They refused to answer the committee’s questions. In return, the committee held them in contempt, fined them $1000 apiece, and ordered them sent to prison for up to a year. Back in Hollywood, their studios fired them.

The logic behind HUAC’s decisions, of course, was that these were unrepentant servants of a foreign power that, while having been a wartime ally, was quickly metamorphosing into an enemy. Under the Constitution, to be sure, they had a right to their opinions, a right to express them, and a right to gather freely and discuss them. Then again, they didn’t have the right to be traitors. Whether they crossed the line into treason is a question that has been discussed ever since.

As for their being fired – well, that’s another issue. The studios were private employers. They had a right to hire or fire whomever they wished. No one has a right to a lucrative job writing movies. Whether it was morally defensible to fire them for their Communist sympathies, is again, a matter for discussion and debate.

One point, however, is crystal clear: these men who publicly took the moral high ground, condemning a system in which they were punished for their political views, themselves were ardent believers in a system that routinely executed dissident artists such as themselves.

Who were these men? We’ll start in on them tomorrow.

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