The cinematic anti-communist crusade

Dr Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The anti-communist crusade of the movie moguls began when they signed the Waldorf Declaration on 24 November 1947 which was the same day that Congress met to approve the HUAC contempt citations. 

The anti-communist crusade of the movie moguls began when they signed the Waldorf Declaration on 24 November 1947 which was the same day that Congress met to approve the HUAC contempt citations.  The declaration was supported by the Motion Picture Association of America, the Association of Motion Picture Producers – the studio heads – and was signed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.[1]  They voted to sack any employee who would not say under oath that he or she was not a communist.  This meant that the Hollywood 10 were sacked without compensation.  The studio heads also voted to refuse to employ any person with communist beliefs.[2]

The Waldorf declaration was the action of men who were quite prepared to sacrifice their political independence of financial gain.  Attacking the communists did not appear to be a high price to pay; after all it was only a small group of writers who were being sacked.  Moverover, the spirited resistance against the HUAC-style investigation in 1941 was done at a time when Roosevelt was firmly entrenched in power.  The political pendulum had swung to the right and the studios were attempting to appease their new political masters.

The Hollywood 10 soon lost most of its support when many in the Committee for the First Amendment dropped their backing for the group.  Some believed that they also could also lose their jobs and others thought the Hollywood’s 10’s behavior before the committee as unforgivable, and support for the group began to fade quickly in the film industry.[3]  In subsequent HUAC investigations, there was little or no effective organised opposition.

The HUAC investigations were, in part, a reaction to the Roosevelt years and the close relationship of the film industry with its administration.  But there were other links between the HUAC investigators and Hollywood.  The film industry had encouraged the myth that America was the unblemished ‘good guy’ of world politics, it now had to reap some of the bitter fruits of that wartime propaganda.  The myth helped give Americans a feeling of infallibility which assisted in their massive war effort.  In fostering the belief that to fight America was to do wrong, the films of the Second World War helped create the mental framework for the cold war.  The adjustment from Nazi Germany to communist Russia as the Untied States central enemy was surprisingly swift.[4]  But it did raise some nagging problems.  If America was always right, and Russia was wrong, why was the United States allied to the country in the first place?

The answer for the American right – and in particular the HUAC investigators – was a vast conspiracy stretching from Russia, to the White House, onto communist screenwriters in Hollywood.  Historian Richard Hofstadter has written about the attractiveness of the conspiracy theory to Americans and its frequent explosions in American life.[5]  A common theme of these theorists was that small groups with outside backing were seeking to control the United States by nefarious means.  Conspiracy theories were a well established part of American political culture and they flourished during the uncertain post-war period.  According to the conspiracy theorists, the Roosevelt administration had a long term plan to undermine capitalism in order to bring the economy under the control of the Federal Government and to pave the way for socialism or communism.  HUAC Investigator Robert E. Stripling believed that Hollywood was in danger of falling under the control of communists, just as other industries had already done.[6]

The scapegoats for the conspiracy theorists were the communist and left-wing writers who worked on the ‘praise Russia’ films of the Second World War.  Screenwriter Howard Koch had been ordered by Warner to make Mission to Moscow and is efforts had been praised by Warner.[7]  Koch was subpoenaed but did not testify, he placed full page ads in the Hollywood trade papers saying that he was not and had never been a communist, but reserved the right not to say it to HUAC.[8]  Koch’s strong liberalism had shown out in films such as In This Our Life (1942) and his talent in Sergeant York (1941) Casablanca (1943), and Letter From an Unknown Woman (1947).  His efforts counted for nothing and his refusal to answer HUAC’s questions, on the principle of his constitutional rights meant that he did not work in Hollywood for another 12 years.  The studio heads were not interested in Justice, they were interested in scapegoats and Koch was one of those blacklisted as a result.

For other members of the Hollywood 10, there were more sinister motives for their blacklisting.  Action in the North Atlantic screenwriter John Howard Lawson was a central figure in the formation of the Screenwriters Guild.  Eradicating him would also relieve the studio heads of a radical and determined union leader.  Ring Lardner Jr had always been a thorn in the side of the ultra-conservative Hollywood leaders.  In November 1945, Lardner wrote a long, highly critical and funny article for Screenwriter on the ultra-conservative Cecil B. DeMille where he relentlessly attacked and satirized the director and his politics.  He focused sharply on the Cecil B. DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom writing:

All policy and action are determined by the self perpetuating board of directors, yet every rank and file member is assured his political freedom to read and listen to whatever pronouncement Mr DeMille is moved to make.[9]

He described the foundation as essentially a right-wing organisation which had attacked the rights of unionists to make a united stand.  The editor of Screenwriter was Dalton Trumbo and the managing editor was Gordon Kahn.  All three became member of the Hollywood 19.  The article was specially transcribed the DeMille and left in his papers in a file on background information on communists for his autobiography.[10]  DeMille was often accused by his political opponents of providing names to HUAC and it seems clear that the selection of Lardner, Trumbo and Kahn was no accident: Hollywood’s right-wing was exacting revenge.

Many have argued that it was the economic decline of Hollywood which forced the studio heads to retreat so vigorously.[11]  However, he moguls had opposed intervention strongly before the war.  It was not economic pressures which drove them to make the Waldorf declaration.  The year 1947 was the second most successful year for the cinema in its history.[12]  There was a slight dip from the figures for 1946 which had been a record year for the industry, but they were not under savage pressure.  Anti-trust legislation and television were on the horizon, but in general the motion picture industry was sound.  The Waldorf declaration and the consequent blacklisting was a personal failure of nerve by the studio heads to fight the HUAC investigations.

The studio heads did not realize that the declaration opened the way for constant sackings and suspicion.  In trying to get a quick fix to a complex problem, the studios had allowed themselves to be held hostage by any patriotic organisation which called any actor, director or writer a communist and promised to picket a film carrying their name.  These organisations were extremely demanding.  When a person was named as a communist by a patriotic organisation of some description, the studio heads either had to get the person concerned cleared through certain channels or have them blacklisted.  Red Channels was one example of the publications circulating at the time which itemized the various offences of actors and writers supposedly in communist from organisations.  The evidence was often wafer thin, but as the introduction to Red Channels showed the editors were not interested in subtleties.

The information set forth in the following report is taken for records available to the public.  The purpose of this complications is threefold.  One, to show how communists have been able to carry out their plan of infiltration of the radio and television industry.  Two to indicate the extent to which many prominent actors and artists have been inveigled to lend their names,  according to these public records, to organisations espousing Communist causes.  This, regardless of whether they actually believe in, sympathize with, or even encourage actors or artists from naively lending their names to Communist organizations or causes in the future.[13]

The Waldorf Declaration and the acquiescence of the studio heads to the HUAC investigators opened the way for chaos in the filmmaking industry.  Blacklisting could occur for being a member of a political group, attending a meeting or signing a petition.  The Blacklisting of an actor was not a one way street.  His or her name could be cleared by approaches to the various agencies concerned.  Certain shadowy figures during the blacklist era made a living attempting to clear people so that they could return to work.  Indeed some groups would cast aspersions on a person’s character and then offer to redress the balance.  This led to a continuing round of clearances of actors and writers through various organisations.  Blacklisted writers could also still write for the studios using fronts to submit their scripts.  People were told to avoid blacklisted people or at least not to meet them in public.[14]

The third phase of the crusade against communism was the release of a series of anti-communist films.  Actor Adolphe Menjou, one of the friendly witnesses before the HUAC hearings, demanded that the studios produce anti-communist films.

I believe it would be an incredible success… I think it would be a very wonderful thing to see one made.  I would like to see a picture of the Bulgarian situation; … I would like that shown to the American public to see communism as it actually is.  I would like to see the brutal beatings, the stabbings and killings that go on through Europe… We showed many anti-Nazi pictures.  I see no reason why we do not show anti-communist pictures.[15]

The studios responded quickly to Menjou’s call.  The first anti-communist film to roll out of the studios was Ninotchka which was re-released by MGM in November 1947.  Earlier the State Department had been so impressed with the film’s anti-communist message that it helped release it in Italy to help undermine the Italian communists in 1946 elections.[16]

Ninotchka was quickly followed by The Iron Curtain which was released by RKO in May 1948.[17]  The title of the film was the image for Churchill’s famous speech of an iron curtain descending across Europe which he made on 5 March 1946.[18]  This film was similar in style to the successful Confessions of a Nazi Spy released before the war, and it also shared the same writer in Martin Krims.  The film concentrated on the defection of a Russian clerk Igor Gouzenko, played by Dana Andrews, who defected in Canada.  Even with its novelty value, and the huge publicity of the HUAC hearings, the film was ranked 64th in the year’s rentals.[19]


[1] Otto Friedrich, City of Nets, Headline, London, 1986, p. 332.

[2] Phillip French, The Movie Moguls, Penguin, Harmonsworth, 1969, p. 154.  Producers Sam Goldwyn, Walter Wagner and liberal Dore Schary opposed the declaration.

[3] Barry Norman, Talking Pictures: The Story of Hollywood, Hooder and Stoughton, London, 1987, p. 205.

[4] Les K. Alder and Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Red Fasciasm: The Merger of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the American Image of Totalitarianism, 1930s-1950s, ‘American Historical Journal, vol. 75, no. 4, April 1970, pp. 1059 – 1061. Alder and Paterson discuss how easily the substitution from Germany to Russia occurred as a totalitarian enemy.

[5] Richard Hofstadter The Paranoid Style In American Politics and Other Essays, Jonathan Cape, London, 1966, pp. 3 – 40.

[6] Robert E. Stripling, The Red Plot Against America, Bell, Pennsylvania, 1949.

[7] Jack Warner to Howard Koch, November 24, 1942, Howard Koch Collection, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research in David Culbert (ed.). Mission to Moscow, Wisconsin Warner Bros Screenplay Series, University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 1980, pp. 264 – 265.

[8] Norman, Talking, p. 205

[9] Ring Lardner Jr., ‘The Sign of the Boss’, The Screen Writer, November 1945, pp. 1 – 12.  Transcript in Box 29, Folder 7, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.  The Cecil B. DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom was formed to campaign for right-to-work laws and against communist infiltration.  DeMille set up the foundation when he refused to pay one dollar to the American Federation of Radio Artists to fight right-to-work legislation on the California state ballot in 1944.  The foundation was closed soon after his death in 1959.

[10] Other names in the files include writers Albert Maltz, Sidney Buchman, and John Howard Lawson who were all blacklisted.  Edward G. Robinson and Elmer Bernstein were described as not communist.  Actor Howard Da Silva was also described a ‘commie’ out to get DeMille.  All appeared before HUAC. Box 29, Folder 7, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[11] French, Moguls, p. 153.

[12] Garth Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art, Little Brown, Boston, 1976, p. 473.

[13] American Business Consultants, Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, New York, 1950, p. 9.

[14] Larry Ceplair and Ken Englund, I, Doubleday, New York, 1980, pp. 386 – 397.

[15] HUAC Hearings, p. 106.

[16] Dorothy Jones, ‘Communism and the Movies’ in John Cogley, Report on Blacklisting, The Fund For The Republic, New York, 1956, p. 300.

[17] For a complete discussion of the film see Daniel J Leab, ‘The Iron Curtain (1948): Hollywood’s First Cold War Movie’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 8, No. 2, 1988, pp. 153 – 188.

[18] Rhode, Robert James (ed.), Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1879 – 1963, Chelsea, London, 1974, p. 7285.

[19] Variety, 5 January 1950 estimated that the film made $2 million in rentals.  No other 1949 anti-communist made the lists.

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