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Terror in Tinseltown

It's now 50 years since the height of the Hollywood witch hunts against communists and 'fellow travellers' in the film industry and its consequences have left a dark stain on US history, says John Green

From today's perspective it is difficult to imagine that the US once had a powerful progressive and left-wing movement and a strong Communist Party (CPUSA) that attracted numerous prominent figures to it.

Before the poisonous paranoia spread by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) followed by McCarthyism had infected the country with its deadly fever, the US was widely respected for its political freedom and progressive spirit.

Despite the rise of fascism in Europe and right-wing gangsterism in the US, the period during the 1930s and early '40s shortly before the blacklist was also a time of left-wing optimism and successes.

Although Hollywood was not dominated by left-wingers, they were not without clout. The Communist Party had around 300 members then and at least double that in terms of sympathisers, many in well-paid and respected positions.

But it wasn't all serious politics. The parties and fun had by these lefties is perhaps surprising under the circumstances. The invitation lists read like a Who's Who of Hollywood celebrities.

The leadership provided by the CPUSA in combating fascism, its commitment to anti-racism and minority rights and success in building the trade union movement unleashed the hatred of the capitalist class and right-wing politicians.

The infamous HUAC hearings were used to suppress and make illegal not just the Communist Party but anyone associated with it as well as any organisations in which it avowedly had influence.

As a result, tens of thousands were blacklisted, careers and lives were destroyed and families broken. The country was plunged into a nightmare of fear, hysteria and red-baiting from which it never properly recovered. Party officials were, under the Smith Act, deemed to be foreign agents and subject to draconian sentences and in Texas they even faced the death penalty.

Because of their prominence, celebrity status and ability to articulate ideas, those film workers in Hollywood who became the focus of attention for the witch hunters are the ones most talked about.

Many books have been written about the Hollywood blacklist but Tender Comrades by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle is one of the best. Such books are a chilling reminder of just how neo-fascism and the emergence of a totalitarian security apparatus can lurk just below the surface in an apparently open and democratic society.

Many of those who became leading figures in the Hollywood film industry during the '30s and '40s and were also members of the Communist Party or fellow travellers came from poor, immigrant Jewish backgrounds.

This experience gave them an understanding of ordinary people, their struggles and life as lived at the bottom of the pile. It gave many a strong sense of solidarity and sympathy with the underdog and discriminated minorities.

It is also one of the chief reasons why such people were so sought after in Hollywood as writers because they could turn out believable dialogue that encapsulated the tragedies, humour and resilience of ordinary people.

They were able to endow what were often banal original stories with the necessary human interest, drama and social relevance that would make them successful box office hits.

Most of the big picture moguls of the time - who ruled their studios with the iron fist of feudal lords - had little idea of how to make films but had the money to hire those that did. They invariably had cliched outlooks, right-wing politics and strongly puritanical moral pretensions.

But, ironically, they employed many communists or left-wingers who knew how to write and create the films that made them their money.

The well-known character actor Lionel Stander, commenting on life in the US in the '30s, said: "To paraphrase Dickens, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times - the best of times because you were young, and the worst of times because of the actions of Hitler and Mussolini, etc. Hollywood was the mecca for nearly every worthwhile intellectual in the 1930s from all over the word.

"You saw a lot of what was happening through the eyes of the German refugees - actors, writers, directors, technicians, and artists - who came here and through the activity of mass organisations like the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.

"The power of the left existed because it said all the things that everybody believed in and wanted to hear and it represented every person who believed in human decency, justice and equality and was against racism and bigotry.

"And the Communist Party always took the frontal position.'

Dancer and actress Betsy Blair Reisz, married first to Gene Kelly and later to the British film director Karel Reisz, has an unusual biography in that she tried to join the US Communist Party after the second world war but was told by the leadership that she could be more effective outside, and if she were to join it could harm Kelly's career. Kelly was, and remained a solid left-winger, who supported many progressive causes - he was a "social democrat" according to Reisz.

She won critical acclaim for her film roles and a best actress award at Cannes. Once blacklisted she left the US first for France and then Britain. In Europe, she acted in films made by leading progressive directors like Michelangelo Antonioni, Tony Richardson and Constantin Costa-Gavras.


One revelation in Tender Comrades that resonates with the surveillance being carried now is how the FBI used psychotherapists.

Many US citizens, even at that time, used them the way catholics use the confessional or others use the bus, so the CPUSA insisted that anyone visiting a psychotherapist leave the party.

One of the chief FBI informers was a "lefty" psychotherapist called Phil Cohen to whom many left-wingers in Hollywood turned.

Many of those blacklisted were talented, humane and fascinating individuals. Their life stories provide a depiction of the Hollywood dream factory in its heyday and a historical narrative very different from the mainstream one.

Norma Barzman, another who was blacklisted, found refuge in France and Britain and wrote a book about her experiences which reveals the comic side. Her friend, the blacklisted writer John Barry, responding to her query about how he was finding exile, explained: "It's hell. I live in Paris, meet beautiful women and go out to dinner with Jean-Paul Sartre."

For actors, of course, it was much more difficult than for writers who could use pseudonyms and "fronts." The actor Zero Mostel noted that, unlike scriptwriters, he couldn't hide from the blacklist by adopting pseudonyms. "I am a man of a thousand faces, all of them blacklisted," he said.

Through the words and stories of these individuals it also becomes clear how different the US could have been if the right-wing had not been successful in suppressing the left and creating such a climate of fear of all things communist or associated with it.

It brainwashed generations of US citizens, imbuing them with an irrational fear and a distorted ideology that enabled capitalism to run rampant and imperialism to wage wars unhindered.

Elsewhere in the world, those who lived through those oppressive decades at the height of the cold war also paid the price.


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