Thursday, December 27, 2012

Hollywood Blacklist

In an undoubtedly belated if nevertheless welcome action, The Hollywood Reporter addresses its own less-than-honorable role is one of the dumbest rounds of political hysteria and mean-spirited injustice in US political history, the Hollywood blacklist.

Gary Baum and Daniel Miller authored the lead article of several discussing that period, The Hollywood Reporter, After 65 Years, Addresses Role in Blacklist 11/19/2012. The online article is accompanied by this video:

They write:
Nov. 25 marks the 65th anniversary of the inception of the infamous Hollywood Blacklist, when studio chiefs and the head of the Motion Picture Association of America gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York and decreed an employment ban on the 10 members of the film industry who'd chosen not to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which had launched an investigation into the supposed communist infiltration of the business. These days, when the phrase "black list" isn't mistaken (especially among younger members of the industry) for Franklin Leonard's highly anticipated annual survey of best unproduced screenplays, it's reduced to catchall history-class terms like "the Red Scare" and "McCarthyism." But it's alive in vivid detail among the dwindling number of surviving victims of the period. ... The Blacklist era is perhaps Hollywood's darkest chapter. Screenwriters, actors, directors, composers and others were, based on their alleged political beliefs, systematically rooted out and denied work. The lists -- there were several, including an informal tally known as the Graylist -- included both real and imagined communists. Careers were ended. Families fled the country. Lives were irrevocably changed. The first formalized Blacklist hit Hollywood on Nov. 25, 1947, two days before Thanksgiving, 65 years ago. The next day, THR ran a lengthy story emblazoned with the headline "Studios Will Fire 'Hostile 10' " on the front page. Wilkerson's column didn't appear that day. But his work was done: The release of the first list, which included the names of the famed Hollywood Ten, had been presaged by countless "Tradeviews" columns that attacked alleged communists.
This is an interesting case on several levels, including how to evaluate the objective political impact of artistic and pop culture productions on politics. There seem to be periods in which more artists have confidence in the power of art to change the world, other periods in which that faith is less. But one of the interesting aspects of the Hollywood Blacklist/Red Scare/Hollywood Ten complex of events is that the artists in question were, for the most part not targeted for their actions or even propaganda in their role as artists. They were targeted because of their membership or sympathetic affiliation to the Communist Party, or even to causes which were somehow associated in the minds of Very Serious People with the Communist cause. The were one type of "collateral damage" in the Cold War on the homefront - though the Cold War involved enough shooting wars that there were very many cases of actual military "collateral damage," as well. As BAum and M Miller write:
The release of the first Blacklist presaged the widely known McCarthy Era. If not for the first and subsequent blacklists, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy might have never had the ability to begin his four-year reign of often baseless accusation, which began in earnest in 1950. The so-called Hollywood Ten had been brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in November 1947 as part of an investigation into whether communists and communist sympathizers had been sneaking their propaganda into films. People like Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, then the head of the Screen Actors Guild, testified before the committee about the communist menace; others, like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who were members of the left-leaning Committee for the First Amendment, flew to Washington to stand up for their colleagues, though ultimately to no avail. After each of the Hollywood Ten refused to testify, they were then sentenced to a year in prison and named in the Waldorf Statement, which effectively banned them from Hollywood. (Four members of the Ten had been named in Wilkerson's pivotal July 29 column; four others would be blacklisted later.) The two-page Waldorf Statement, released Nov. 25 by MPAA president Eric Johnston on behalf of 48 movie executives, decreed that the 10 Hollywood men who had been cited for contempt by the House of Representatives would not be allowed to work in the business until each "purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a communist." None of the Ten, it should be noted, is known to have ever worked or advocated for the violent overthrow of the U.S. -- ostensibly the chief fear of anti-communist zealots. [bolding in original]
Their article provides a biographical sketch of Hollywood Reporterpublisher W.R. "Billy" Wilkerson and takes a look at the factors that made him so committed to the Red-baiting enterprise. Aside from being a loyal anti-labor flack for the movie studios, Wilkerson's particular brand of anti-Communism was influenced by his organized crime connections:
Another intriguing hypothesis pertains to Wilkerson's complex history with organized crime figures of the era, from Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen to union enforcers such as Willie Bioff and George E. Browne. Wilkerson welcomed them at his restaurants and clubs, and when he ran into financing trouble while developing the Flamingo in Las Vegas, it was Bugsy Siegel who became his business partner. Although Wilkerson occasionally found himself on the wrong side of the mob -- Siegel at one point threatened to kill him in a dispute over ownership rights to the Flamingo, prompting Wilkerson to hide out at Paris' Hotel George V for months -- some argue that his long acquaintanceship with the underworld might have further aligned him against the communist cause. "Communists had been at odds with gangsters since Poland in the late 19th century, when the gangsters were brought in as enforcers at the factories in the Jewish shtetls," says historian Dave Wagner, co-author of Blacklisted and Radical Hollywood. "These roles were pretty much recapitulated in New York and then in Hollywood. Gangsters were hired to break strikes by the guilds and put down left-wing union agitation. The studio bosses greeted Bioff and his guys as welcoming heroes." [bolding in original]
Whatever else people may have to say good or bad about the US Communist Party - and most will have a lot more bad than good to say - they were known in their union organizing efforts in the 1920s and 1930s to fight effectively against Mob influence in unions. (During the 1950s they managed to find some common cause with the Mob-connected national leadership of the Teamsters Union, which also faced hostile government investigations of their union business conduct.) They quote a column of Wilkerson's from 1947 expressing his toxic authoritarian view:
Any man or woman who, under the guise of freedom of speech, or the cloak of the Bill of Rights, or under the pseudo protection of being a liberal, says things, causes things to be said, or who actually is involved with many of the conspiracies that have now infested this great land of ours, has no place among us, be he commie or what. He or she should be rushed out of our business.
Their article also gives a good sense of how the resentments from the blacklist period linger on in the film industry to this day. Additional articles on the topic from The Hollywood Reporter include: Sean Penn, Sean Penn on His Blacklisted Dad: 'There Was No Loyalty' 11/19/2012 Tina Daunt, George McGovern's Presidential Run Helped Hollywood Shed Blacklist Fears (Analysis) 10/21/2012 Gary Baum and Daniel Miller, The Hollywood Brass Who Endorsed the Blacklist 11/19/2012 Scott Feinberg, Blacklist Profiles: 7 Writers and Actors Who Defied Hollywood 11/19/2012 W.R. Wilkerson III, An Apology: The Son of THR Founder Billy Wilkerson on the Publication's Dark Past 11/19/2012 Aaron Couch, Blacklist Victim Thanks THR Founder’s Son for Apology 11/21/2012 Tags: ,

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