The most dangerous thing to come out of Hollywood these days is another big-budget flop or a tedious sequel. But in the years following the end of the Second World War, Tinsel Town was seen as a very dangerous place.
The House Un-American Activities Committee was charged with investigating subversive ideology on the silver screen. It had to stop socialist propaganda from being piped into American cinemas up and down the country. Communists were everywhere. Hollywood was infested with them – all they needed were names.
“There is no question that there are communists in Hollywood”, said committee chairman Parnell Thomas. “What the committee wants to know is the extent of their infiltration into the film industry.”
Over 40 actors, screen writers, directors and producers were ordered to appear before the committee for interrogation. However, ten refused, claiming their civil liberties were being trampled on – a damning indictment indeed.
At the end of November 1947, Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo were all cited with being in contempt of Congress. They were later fined and sentenced to a year in prison.
The next day, the ‘Hollywood Ten’ were blacklisted. No studio worth its salt would have anything to do with them – and their careers were effectively over.
Or so it was believed by the studio executives (and Dmytryk, one of the Hollywood Ten. He was released from prison early when he ratted out 20 ‘communists’). Dozens of names were added to the blacklist over the next few years, but many carried on working under different names.
Dalton Trumbo is perhaps the most famous example. Writing under the nom de plume Robert Rich, he won an Oscar for The Brave One in 1957. And when Trumbo was publically acknowledged as the writer of the highly acclaimed Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas in 1960, the witch hunt had run its course.