8 Movies About The Hollywood Blacklist
“One of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this Government has its headquarters in Hollywood... the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States."
- John E. Rankin, US State Congressman
The Hollywood Blacklist was one of the darker and highly controversial actions by several film studio heads during the 1940s and 50s where scores of directors, screenwriters, actors, musicians and other entertainment professionals were unofficially banned due to their real or perceived association with communism. The list was rarely made public but resulted in untold damage to the careers of many established and promising talents. They were betrayed in private, berated in public, and some of them were unable to ever work again in Hollywood.
In October of 1947 a committee called 'The House Un-American Activities Committee' (HUAC) based on an article in the Hollywood Reporter called for questioning several entertainment professionals including Dalton Trumbo, Maurice Rapf, Lester Cole, Howard Koch, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, etc. in order to determine whether they were communist sympathizers and whether they had tried to insert communist propaganda in American films.
Ten of those investigated (Cole, Lardner, Lawson, Trumbo, Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Edward Dmytryk, Albert Maltz, Sam Ornitz and Robert Adrian Scott) refused to cooperate citing the inquiry as unconstitutional and so were held in contempt, fined, sentenced and informally blacklisted. This ban was stringently enforced – well into the 60s – and those trying to subvert it were threatened with expulsion.
The subject itself was taboo for several years even post the 60s and it was only with the late 70s that Hollywood started making films on the subject. Here we look at some of them:
Perhaps the first successful film on this subject was a romantic film “The Way We Were” (1973) by Sydney Pollack and which was made on a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. Partially based upon Laurents' experiences with HUAC, it stars Barbara Streisand as an anti-war and anti-capitalist who falls in love with a carefree writer with no political interest (played by Robert Redford).
The movie was a blockbuster and was nominated for several Academy Awards, winning two, and Streisand was also nominated for a BAFTA as well as a Golden Globe. The movie is also considered to be one of the most romantic films ever.
Another of the earliest successes on this front was “The Front” (1976), a comedy-drama by Martin Ritt and written by Walter Bernstein. It stars Woody Allen as a cashier and bookie (Howard) who's television writer friend has been blacklisted. Unable to work officially, he asks Howard to become the face and take a percentage of the fees. In the process Howard becomes intimately aware of the unreasonable actions of the HUAC.
Several people involved in the making of the film including the director, screenwriter and many of the actors had been blacklisted. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Original Screenplay as well as a BAFTA and Golden Globe.
The first documentary was simply titled “Hollywood on Trial” (1976) by David Helpern and which examined the period. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
However the most powerful and moving documentary on the subject is perhaps “Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist” (1987), which is directed and co-written by Judy Chaikin along with Eve Goldberg. The film documents the after-effects of the Blacklist through the experiences of the families of many of the artists whose careers were decimated when the film bosses and media gave in to the bullying demands of the US Congress.
“Guilty by Suspicion” (1991) was written and directed by Irwin Winkler and stars Robert De Niro as a film-maker during the 50s who finds that he is facing an informal ban and which will be lifted only if he implicates his colleagues as communist collaborators. The film shows the struggle faced by many of the entertainment professionals who were not implicated but were still under immense and undue pressure to either neglect their principles or jeopardise their career. The film was entered into the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.
As Trumbo said in an interview: “The Blacklist victimized them all: those who stood by their principles and lost their jobs, and also those who compromised their principles to keep their jobs.”
And George Clooney gave his take on the subject when he directed and co-wrote “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005) along with Grant Heslov. Set in the 1950s during the initial era of television journalism, the film squares broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his team of co-producer and reporter (played by George Clooney and Robert Downey, Jr. respectively) against the powerful U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy who raised unsubstantiated charges against many individuals, accusing them of being anti-American communists.
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director as well as Best Actor for Strathairn. It was also nominated for six BAFTAs and four Golden Globes, and was named by AFI (American Film Institute) as one of the ten best films of 2005.
Of the Hollywood Ten, the most famous today is perhaps screenwriter James Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) the writer of classics like “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944), “Roman Holiday” (1953), “The Brave One” (1956), “Exodus” (1960) and “Spartacus” (1960).
Trumbo suffered immensely during the blacklisting. He was imprisoned and barred from the industry, had to shift to Mexico and wrote under pseudonyms during which two of his films, Roman Holiday and The Brave One, won an Academy Award for Best Story. It was only in the 60s that he was publicly credited as the writer of the above films and was also reissued an Oscar for The Brave One in 1975 and for Roman Holiday in 1993 (posthumously).
There are two films made on him:
A documentary “Trumbo” (2007) by Peter Askin and which is written by Trumbo's son, Christopher, based on his father's letters as well as archival clips, home movie footage and interviews. It includes readings by performers such as Michael Douglas, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland, Liam Neeson as well as Paul Giamatti. The movie had its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.
And a biopic, “Trumbo” (2015) by Jay Roach and written by John McNamara based on the biography 'Dalton Trumbo' by Bruce Alexander Cook. Lead actor Bryan Cranston was nominated for various awards, including the Academy Award.
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