he House Committee on Un-American Affairs had a few blind spots. After all, it jailed the writer of Pride of the Marines but somehow missed the Rosenbergs. One of its co-chairmen was a world-class anti-Semite, while the other went to jail for financial corruption. So do we really need another account of the 1947 HUAC hearings, especially so soon after Glenn Frankel’s superb High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of An American Classic? Don’t we know enough already about the Beverly Hills Marxists who made up the Hollywood Ten? And HUAC’s essential claim—that the motion-picture industry was promoting subversive ideas before and during World War II—is preposterous. Tell it to Victor Lazlo. Casablanca and hundreds of other movies helped define the essential democratic values America was fighting for.
Yet Brandeis University historian Thomas Doherty proves there are still a few surprises, even after recent revisionist accounts exposed deeper ties than previously known between the Hollywood Ten and their Soviet controllers. In his fascinating Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist, Doherty doesn’t romanticize the Ten or try to justify the excesses of HUAC. Instead, he highlights a lesser-known aspect of the hearings: the dilemma of Hollywood centrists and liberals squeezed between the extremists on both sides. Like anti-Trump conservatives today, anti-Communist liberals in late 1940s Hollywood found that the middle could be a very lonely place.
In 1947, the Cold War had barely gotten started and the blacklist didn’t exist. Doherty shows how Hollywood’s top executives, too often painted as craven reactionaries, were fierce opponents of HUAC. And why wouldn’t they be? No self-respecting movie mogul wants to be told what films to make or whom to hire. And all the studio heads knew that many of the congressmen on the committee were publicity-hungry racists, former isolationists, and anti-Semites using Hollywood to tar the legacy of the New Deal. They were confident that they could handle Congress, just as they had in the past. (Six years earlier, a proto-version of HUAC dominated by isolationists accused Hollywood of un-American warmongering. Two months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.)
During the 1947 hearings, the studio chief Jack Warner confidently admitted before the committee that he employed Communist writers so long as they kept their politics out of his films. When challenged about Mission to Moscow, the pro-Soviet propaganda film he made at the behest of the Roosevelt administration, Warner was indignant. “If producing Mission to Moscow in 1942 was a subversive activity,” he replied, “then the Liberty ships which carried food and guns to Russian allies and the American naval vessels that convoyed them were likewise engaged in subversive activities.”
Directors William Wyler, John Huston, and Billy Wilder, along with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and other stars, organized the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA) to oppose HUAC. Emboldened by a 1942 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed no government official “can proscribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion,” they were able to enlist hundreds of Hollywood celebrities to challenge the committee’s right to question anyone’s political affiliations.
The Committee for the First Amendment dominates Doherty’s account, not the House Committee on Un-American Affairs. “At once glamorous and grassroots, it would be the animating center of the campaign against HUAC from Hollywood’s besieged liberals,” he writes. By focusing on the story’s angels, rather than its monsters, the author separates himself from his predecessors as he charts the CFA’s noble but naive conviction that it could defend a Communist’s right to free speech without defending Communism itself.
Hollywood liberals were hardly naive about Communists. Before the war, they had worked alongside Communist Party members in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, one of the largest and most successful Popular Front organizations of the period. But after the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact in 1939, Moscow secretly ordered Party members to cease opposition to Hitler and promote isolationist policies instead. Many of the future Hollywood Ten, including screenwriters John Howard Lawson, Dalton Trumbo, and Lester Cole, shamelessly flip-flopped overnight and turned on their former allies, denouncing liberal colleagues as warmongers and traitors.
Such hypocrisy and dishonesty were difficult to forget. Yet when CFA members flew to Washington in 1947, they put aside their misgivings, believing, as good liberals do, that freedom of expression and freedom of conscience demanded a stout defense. Weren’t these the very ideals Americans had just fought for?
At first, the argument seemed to be working. During the first days of the nationally broadcast hearings, following the testimony of the studio chiefs and the “friendly” witnesses, public opinion was trending against HUAC, something Doherty’s new research makes clear. But then the Hollywood Ten testified.
The “unfriendlies” and their lawyers (three of whom were Party members as well) had devised a unified strategy. Asked if they were Communists, the Ten didn’t invoke the Fifth Amendment and refuse to answer; instead, they cheekily cited the First Amendment and replied with a barrage of prevarications and obfuscations.
Since HUAC was able credibly to document each witness’s party membership for the cameras and press, these obstreperous antics came across as evasive, not principled. They weren’t Democrats or Republicans; they really were Communists, and they were just trying to keep it secret, as required by the Communist Party at the time. If Moscow’s strategy was designed to turn the Hollywood Ten into martyrs, as many suspect, it worked. HUAC co-chairman J. Parnell Thomas charged them with contempt of Congress, and all ten eventually did jail time. (That Parnell subsequently wound up in the same federal prison as Lawson and Cole is a third-act twist that still beggars belief.)
Bogart, Bacall, and fellow CFA members, seated in the hearing room in full view of the cameras, were unprepared for this testimony. They had foolishly hoped that the Ten would defy the committee by taking the Fifth, then publicly and honestly discuss their affiliations on the Capitol steps outside the committee’s purview. Instead, the CFA was now tied tightly to “unfriendlies,” who no longer seemed like a particularly sympathetic bunch to defend. A press report said that the visiting celebrities “were blind to how cynically the Communists had played them.” And it didn’t help that several of the Ten showed up just days later at a New York dinner in honor of a Soviet spy.
The hearings were a disaster for Hollywood liberals. One of the Ten, Ring Lardner Jr., said he overheard two women outside the hearing room discussing Bogart.
“He’s a Communist,” one said. “I won’t be going to any more of his movies.”
“No, he isn’t,” said the other. “He’s an anti-Communist.”
“I don’t care what kind of Communist he is,” the first replied. “I’m still not going to any more of his movies.”
Doherty methodically charts how, after the hearings, the movie community rapidly transitioned from “stiff-backed resistance to supine capitulation.” The American Legion threatened boycotts, and the studio chiefs were pressured by their bankers in New York. The same executives who publicly rejected a blacklist before the hearings unanimously agreed after the hearings to fire the ten “unfriendlies” and never again employ Communists. The CFA dissolved, and Bogart along with other celebrity opponents of HUAC were forced to make humiliating public apologies to preserve their careers.
Was the outcome inevitable? Was resistance to the new mood of the country futile? Doherty argues that Hollywood’s newfound maturity and cultural importance from 1939 to 1945 had raised its profile and made it a high-value target, especially when longstanding political divisions that World War II had suppressed were resurfacing. Republicans and conservative Democrats used HUAC to tarnish the New Deal. Hollywood right-wingers used HUAC to denounce old rivals on the left. And the Reds, on orders from Moscow, used HUAC to discredit democracy and prove that fascism was on the rise.
Doherty’s tragic conclusion is that Hollywood’s naive and idealistic liberals, caught between the Committee and the Comintern, never stood a chance.