Thomas Doherty — The Anti-Fascism of the 1930s and the Backstory to the Hollywood Blacklist

In the following essay, Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, examines how the ant-fascist movement in 1930s Hollywood shaped the blacklist in 1950s Hollywood:

Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939Last November, the Hollywood Reporter deviated from its normal beat and published and in-depth investigation of itself. Part historical reclamation, part act of contrition, the lengthy article by Gary Naum and Daniel Miller dredged up the paper’s complicity in facilitating the Hollywood blacklist, specifically the animating role of its founding editor, W. R. “Billy” Wilkerson.

Citing chapter and verse from Wilkerson’s front-page column, a must-read fixture of the trade press from 1930 to 1960, the piece traced an ideological vendetta by a mean SOB who, if he did not singlehandedly launch the blacklist era, worked tirelessly to sustain it. Along with the anguished self examination, a sidebar article by Willie Wilkerson, editor Wilkerson’s son, apologized for the sins of his father.

Like a lot of commentators on-line, I was put off by Wilkerson Jr.’s posthumous hit on his father—a gesture that struck me as an odd sort of oedipal payback— but Naum and Miller’s article was a solid job of history, backed up by exhaustive research in the paper’s back pages and sobering reflections from the dwindling number of alumnae of the blacklist era. It was also more temperate in tone than most inquiry into what jas become the bitterest slice of Hollywood history. I am always amazed at how raw and close to the bone the subject of the blacklist is, how ferocious the passions remain even after half a century, despite the fact that the battles are mostly vicarious now, fought by descendents, literal and spiritual, a generation or two removed from the main action.

The last major venting of authentic bile from actual participants was during the controversy that arose over the honorary Oscar awarded to director Elia Kazan in 1999. In 1952, in a closed session before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Kazan “named names”—informed on his former comrades in arms—and, worse, refused to apologize for doing so. Worse yet, he used his free pass to make indisputably great movies. Like the old joke about Irish Alzheimer’s disease, where the afflicted forget everything except the grudges, the surviving octo-and-nanogenarians went at each other once again, but mainly it was an ex post facto donnybrook. During the tense ceremony, younger members of the Academy audience showed their colors by (variously) sitting on their hands, standing up to cheer, or tepidly applauding.

Like Baum and Miller, I’ve spend a good deal of time scrolling through back issues of the Hollywood Reporter over the years, lately for a study how the motion picture industry responded to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. (The short answer: pretty well, on average, especially compared to the rest of America.) My own sense was that the sackcloth and ashes routine was a bit overdone: the piece didn’t unjustly malign editor Wilkerson but it left a lot unsaid and brushed over some of the historical complexities. As befits its masthead, the Hollywood Reporter‘s role during the blacklist was mainly reportorial not prosecutorial. In general, it reflected mainstream industry attitudes when it insisted that the Hollywood Ten be called the Unfriendly Ten, so as not to sully the industry as a whole with the antics of the witnesses called before the original HUAC hearings in October 1947. (These are the iconic hearings that are invariably unspooled in archival documentaries of the era: the testimony from HUAC’s other Hollywood-centric hearings was denied newsreel coverage).

First, it might be useful to review some important historical context omitted by the article—not to justify what happened but to better explain it. The backstory to the blacklist era was not just the atmosphere of heightened fear brought about by the Cold War—which became hot in Korea in 1950-1953, not coincidentally the years of the most systematic operation of the blacklist—but the political ferment of the 1930s.

During the 1930s, as Hollywood never tires of reminding itself, many motion picture people marched in the vanguard of the Popular Front and took to heart the causes that galvanized a generation of men and women “of the Left,” as the phrase went. The white-hot center of the activism was the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League of the Motion Picture Industry (HANL), the group that set the agenda for the cadre who would later ruefully dub themselves “premature anti-Fascists.” The outfit was co-founded in 1936 by MGM screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, a secret member of the Communist Party USA, and Dorothy Parker, the famed wit and screenwriter, but it was in many ways the brainchild of a mysterious former member of the German Communist Party named Otto Katz. “Columbus discovered America and I discovered Hollywood,” Katz famously boasted, when he realized how the deep pockets of motion picture personalities could help line party coffers. Many of the directors, screenwriters, and actors who later ran afoul of HUAC were involved with HANL, including the Hollywood Ten.

Conservative historians would later label HANL a “communist front group” and, to be sure, communists were animating founders and active members. They also performed most of the drudge work—organizing rallies, distributing pamphlets, holding conscious-raising sessions. Yet HANL attracted a remarkably broad spectrum of support from standard-issue liberals, conservative Catholics, and hard-nosed moguls, all of whom had good reason to oppose Nazism. It was a time when the military-minded director John Ford and the Moscow-minded screenwriter John Howard Lawson could be seen walking shoulder to shoulder in a picket line in support of strikers at the Hollywood Citizen-News. (Not for nothing was it called the Popular Front.) In two of the group’s most celebrated actions, members protested visits to Hollywood in 1937 by Vittorio Mussolini, son of the Italian dictator, and in 1938 by Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the latter in town to obtain a studio distribution deal for Olympia (1938), her documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Throughout the 1930s, HANL’s membership and influence rose steadily, peaking at around 5,000 dues-paying members.

However, at the height of its influence and prestige, the local arm of the Popular Front was suddenly to become far less popular. The pivotal event, and one left conspicuously unmentioned in the Hollywood Reporter‘s own trip through its files , was the Soviet-German Non Aggression Pact. Announced to a startled world on August 23, 1939, the accommodation by the two totalitarian powers gave the green light for World War II. The news hit the stateside Popular Front like a lightning bolt—forever shattering the alliance of convenience between men and women of the Left.

The party liners hastily fell in line with the new party line: the committed interventionists became anti-interventionists, the ardent warriors ardent pacifists, and the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League re-branded itself as the Hollywood League for Democratic Action. Screenwriter and future Hollywood Ten member Dalton Trumbo was in the vanguard of the 180- degree turnabout, writing in Hollywood Now, the group’s official newsletter, that any American who called for defense appropriations and intervention overseas held opinions that “constitute a treasonable state of mind.”

Shocked by the sudden switch in loyalties, the authentic liberals bolted from HANL. Membership dwindled and soon the group fizzled out. Predictably, in June 1941, when the Nazis invaded Russia, the Hollywood party liners reversed themselves again and called anew for the policies they had opposed in the 1939-1941 interim.

None of this justifies the persecutions of HUAC and its allies in the private sector. Yet the backstory helps explain why anti-Fascists like Wilkerson—and liberals like MGM head Dory Shary, independent producer Walter Wanger, and Jack and Harry Warner—were less than sanguine about backing the avowed communists called before Congress in 1947. All of the Hollywood Ten had been loyal party liners since the 1930s, all were then acceding to party discipline in their united front against HUAC, and all were, by definition in 1947, Stalinists.

Having been consigned to the dustbin of history, communism is a bad joke now, but during the first tense days of the Cold War no one was laughing. Director Edward Dmytryk, a member of the original Hollywood Ten who served time in prison for contempt of Congress but later recanted his beliefs and named names, offered an instructive explanation in his memoir It’s a Hell of a Life, But Not a Bad Living “I believed that every martyr has a right to choose his own reason for martyrdom. Protecting the Communist Party, which I had grown to despise, was not going to be mine.” The veterans of the 1930s knew, in the end, where the loyalties of the Hollywood Ten resided, and it was not—contrary to a raft of post-Cold War memoirs and credulous documentaries—with the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Tragically, many hundreds of Popular Front activists or just hangers on got caught in the crossfire as collateral damage.

Finally, a word about Billy Wilkerson. Throughout the 1930s, Wilkerson was a staunch liberal on matters of civil rights and a clear-eyed anti-Fascist. He opposed the original incarnation of HUAC, chaired by a Texas demagogue named Martin Dies, and defended the industry against charges of subversion. He supported many of the campaigns of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, who regularly took to the pages of the Hollywood Reporter to rally the community and advertise its causes. Crucially too, after the Hitler Stalin Pact, unlike the communists in the Popular Front, he continued to support a strong defense and warn his readers against Nazism.

Indeed, in his understanding of the threat from Nazism, Wilkerson was eerily prescient. The first time the Nazis came on to Hollywood’s radar was in December 1930, when Universal’s epochal anti-war picture All Quiet on the Western Front opened in Berlin. The Nazis used the premiere to incite their street thugs and intimidate the Weimar Republic—disrupting the screening by releasing mice into the theater, setting off stink bombs, and beating up patrons they took to be Jewish. As the film unspooled, Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels lead his brownshirts in shouts of “Judenfilm!” Cowered by the demonstrations, the Weimar government capitulated to the mobs and banned the film. It was a huge symbolic victory for the Nazis and a harbinger of things to come.

From faraway Hollywood, Wilkerson used his front page column in the paper he had recently founded to send out a warning flare. Introducing a new word to his motion picture-wise but foreign affairs-deficient readership, he fretted over the omens. “Certainly the Nazis—as the National Socialists are called—and their leaders would not create and foster so much dissatisfaction for so puerile a reason,” he pointed out, scoffing at Nazi claims that the film had been maliciously doctored solely for German release. “The real force back of these demonstrations apparently is the revived military spirit of a large part of the German people.” Wilkerson was old enough to remember where German militarism had once led, and he feared it might lead there again. “People cannot be spurred to another war if they see on the screens of their country representations of their armies retreating, of their soldiers going hungry, becoming discouraged, losing their courage at the sight of battle. Such depictions bring things too close to home.”

Wilkerson concluded his diagnosis of the German psyche with a gloomy prediction:

The military spirit of the German people, created through years of training, is only dormant, not dead. Such a spirit, with centuries of growth behind it, cannot be killed even through such a lesson as the Great War. It is comparatively easy to revive—much easier than one would imagine. But—to revive it successfully, to fan it again into flame, cannot be done if the horrors of war are to spread before the eyes of the people so dramatically and realistically as in All Quiet.

In postwar America, Wilkerson may have fallen short of contemporary standards of fidelity to the First and Fifth Amendments, but he discerned a greater threat with dead-on precision. That might be remembered when tracing the moral arc of the man’s life.

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