Red Channels / black listed African-American entertainer

Red Channels  The blacklist begins

In the 1940s and 1950s, the United States was in the grips of a “red scare.” Many prominent individuals suspected of sympathizing with liberal or humanitarian causes were branded a communist threat, and even accused of espionage. Hollywood was a major focus of the accusations, and after 10 actors refused to testify in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the blacklist was created. Hundreds of actors, actresses, directors, screenwriters and other entertainment professionals were barred from working. Here are some of the famous people who were on the Hollywood blacklist.


Red Channels

Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television is an anti-Communist tract published in the United States at the height of the Red Scare. Issued by the right-wing journal Counterattack on June 22, 1950, the pamphlet-style book names 151 actors, writers, musicians, broadcast journalists, and others in the context of purported Communist manipulation of the entertainment industry. Some of the 151 were already being denied employment because of their political beliefs, history, or mere association with suspected “subversives”. Red Channels effectively placed the rest on the industry blacklist.

The blacklist begins (1947) The 1947 HUAC hearings in session. On the right, standing with his hand raised, is committee chairman J. Parnell Thomas; 34-year-old congressman Richard Nixon is seated immediately to Thomas’s left.

In October 1947, a number of persons working in the Hollywood film industry were summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which had declared its intention to investigate whether Communist agents and sympathizers had been surreptitiously planting propaganda in U.S. films.[9] The hearings began with several Hollywood professionals, including Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild, testifying that the threat of Communists in the film industry was a serious one.[10] Actor Adolphe Menjou declared, “I am a witch hunter if the witches are Communists. I am a Red-baiter. I would like to see them all back in Russia.”[11] In contrast, several leading Hollywood figures, including director John Huston and actors Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Danny Kaye, organized the Committee for the First Amendment to protest the government targeting of their industry.[12]

Many of the film industry professionals in whom HUAC had expressed interest—primarily screenwriters, but actors, directors, producers, and others as well—were either known or alleged to have been members of the American Communist Party. Of the forty-three people put on the witness list, a total of nineteen declared that they would not give evidence. Eleven of these nineteen were called before the committee. Members of the Committee for the First Amendment flew to Washington ahead of this climactic phase of the hearing, which commenced on Monday, October 27.[13] Of the eleven “unfriendly witnesses”, one, émigré playwright Bertolt Brecht, ultimately chose to answer the committee’s questions.[14][15] The other ten refused, citing their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The crucial question they refused to answer is now generally rendered as “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” In fact, each had at one time or another been a member; most still were, while a few had been in the past and only briefly. These ten were formally accused of contempt of Congress and proceedings against them began in the full House of Representatives.

In light of the “Hollywood Ten”‘s defiance of HUAC—in addition to refusing to testify, many had attempted to read statements decrying the committee’s investigation as unconstitutional—political pressure mounted on the film industry to demonstrate its “anti-subversive” bona fides. Late in the hearings, Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), declared to the committee that he would never “employ any proven or admitted Communist because they are just a disruptive force and I don’t want them around.”[14] On November 17, the Screen Actors Guild voted to make its officers swear to a non-Communist pledge. The following week, on November 24, the House of Representatives voted 346 to 17 to approve citations against the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress. The next day, following a meeting of film industry executives at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel, MPAA president Johnston issued a press release on the executives’ behalf that is today referred to as the Waldorf Statement.[b] The statement declared that the ten would be fired or suspended without pay and not reemployed until they were cleared of contempt charges and had sworn that they were not Communists. The first Hollywood blacklist was now in effect.

[edit] The list grows (1948–50)

The HUAC hearings had failed to turn up any evidence that Hollywood was secretly disseminating Communist propaganda, but the industry was nonetheless transformed. The fallout from the inquiry was a factor in the decision by Floyd Odlum, the primary owner of RKO Pictures, to get out of the business.[16] As a result, the studio would pass into the hands of Howard Hughes. Within weeks of taking over in May 1948, Hughes fired most of RKO’s employees and virtually shut the studio down for half a year as he had the political sympathies of the rest investigated. Then, just as RKO swung back into production, Hughes made the decision to settle a long-standing federal antitrust suit against the industry’s Big Five studios. This would be one of the crucial steps in the collapse of the studio system that had governed Hollywood, and ruled much of world cinema, for a quarter-century.

In early 1948, as well, all of the Hollywood Ten were convicted of contempt. Following a series of unsuccessful appeals, the cases arrived before the Supreme Court; among the submissions filed in defense of the ten was an amicus curiae brief signed by 204 Hollywood professionals. After the court denied review, the Hollywood Ten began serving one-year prison sentences in 1950. In September 1950, one of the ten, director Edward Dmytryk, publicly announced that he had once been a Communist and was prepared to give evidence against others who had been as well. He was released early from jail; following his 1951 HUAC appearance, in which he described his brief membership in the party and named names, his career recovered.[17]

The others remained silent and most were unable to obtain work in the American film and television industry for many years. Adrian Scott, who had produced four of Dmytryk’s films—Murder, My Sweet; Cornered; So Well Remembered; and Crossfire—was one of those named by his former friend. Scott’s next screen credit would not come until 1972 and he would never produce another feature film. Some of those blacklisted continued to write for Hollywood or the broadcasting industry surreptitiously, using pseudonyms or the names of friends who posed as the actual writers (those who allowed their names to be used in this fashion were called “fronts”). Of the 204 who signed the amicus brief, 84 would be blacklisted themselves.[18] There was a more general chilling effect: Humphrey Bogart, who had been one of the most prominent members of the Committee for the First Amendment, felt compelled to write an article for Photoplay magazine denying he was a Communist sympathizer.[19] The Tenney Committee, which had continued its state-level investigations, summoned songwriter Ira Gershwin to testify about his participation in the committee.[20]The May 7, 1948, issue of the Counterattack newsletter warned readers about a radio talk show that had recently expanded its audience by moving from the Mutual network to ABC: “Communist Party members and fellow-travelers have often been guests on [Arthur] Gaeth’s program.”

A number of nongovernmental organizations participated in enforcing and expanding the blacklist; in particular, the American Legion, the conservative war veterans’ group, was instrumental in pressuring the entertainment industry to exclude those of political sympathies it disagreed with. In 1949, the Americanism Division of the Legion issued its own blacklist—a roster of 128 people whom it claimed were participants in the “Communist Conspiracy.” Among the names on the Legion’s list was that of well-known playwright Lillian Hellman.[21] Hellman had written or contributed to the screenplays of approximately ten motion pictures up to that point; she would not be employed again by a Hollywood studio until 1966.

Another influential group was American Business Consultants Inc., founded in 1947. In the subscription information for its weekly publication Counterattack, “The Newsletter of Facts to Combat Communism”, it declared that it was run by “a group of former FBI men. It has no affiliation whatsoever with any government agency.” Notwithstanding that claim, it seems the editors of Counterattack had direct access to the files of both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and HUAC; the results of that access became widely apparent with the June 1950 publication of Red Channels. This Counterattack spinoff listed 151 people in entertainment and broadcast journalism, along with records of their involvement in what the pamphlet meant to be taken as Communist or pro-Communist activities.[22] A few of those named, such as Hellman, were already being denied employment in the motion picture, TV, and radio fields; the publication of Red Channels meant that scores more would be placed on the blacklist. That year, CBS instituted a loyalty oath which it required of all its employees.[23]

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