HUAC hearings and the end of liberal Hollywood

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

Conservative ideologue Ayn Rand was angry about the focus of the 1947 HUAC hearings, as she had wanted to examine The Best Years of Our Lives. Committee head J. Parnell Thomas argued with her saying that if the film was attacked, there would be a furor. The fact that Rand may have been able to approach the head of the committee to complain about the way she had been interviewed strongly indicated that the friendly witnesses were stage managed.  No unfriendly witness had such an opportunity. [1]   It also demonstrated the obsession of the committee with publicity. He would later link the investigation of communism in the film industry to the leaking of atomic secrets to the Russians. Journalists were intrigued and showed up in droves to find it was a media stunt and Thomas had nothing.

The Best Years of Our Lives dominated the box office and scooped the Oscars, becoming the most successful film of the year.  After the HUAC investigations of 1947, director William Wyler claimed that he wouldn’t be allowed to make films such as The Best Years of Our Lives anymore because of HUAC.  He warned that the committee was making decent people afraid to express their political opinions by creating fear in Hollywood.  Wyler said fear would lead to self-censorship and eventually the screen would be paralysed.[2]


Crossfire is a 1947 film noir which deals with antisemitism.
It was part of a liberal flowering of films in post war period. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Wyler’s warnings about censorship seem unjustified.  Several films were made on sensitive topics such as racial prejudice from 1947 through to 1951.  These films included Crossfire (1947), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Pinky (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), Intruder in the Dust (1949), No Way Out (1950), and Storm Warning (1950).  Even westerns began taking a liberal turn with films such as Broken Arrow (1950) and Devil’s Doorway (1949) depicting Indians in a positive light.  To varying degrees these films showed that Hollywood could tackle social subjects well.  Capitalism was also the subject of allegorical attack.  Abraham Polonsky made two successful radical films in his short-lived film career as screenwriter and director in the 1940s.  Both Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948) have been read as Marxist critiques of capitalism.[3]  All My Sons (1948), based on Arthur Miller’s play, depicted an industrialist was willing to sell defective planes to the Airforce to stay in business.  But this brief flowering of liberal and radical films was cut short in 1951 at the time of the second HUAC investigation of Hollywood and the lead up to the 1952 Presidential election.

Hollywood’s political vision in the immediate post-war period was in turmoil.  The caustic anti-communism was competing with a vision of liberal tolerance.  Overall it was the liberal films which won the popularity stakes, with Pinky being the second most popular film of 1949.[4]  But their popularity did not guarantee their production.  With the second and more extensive HUAC investigation in 1951, the political pendulum had swung so far to the right that liberalism was tainted with being soft on communism.  Some people argued that the State Department and the Truman administration had lost China to the communists. This was idea so pervasive that it even strongly affected the Kennedy administration.  He was determined to be seen to be strong on communism as a Democrat President.  His determination led to events like the Bay of Pigs invasion and intervention in Vietnam.  [5]  After 1951, there was no such confusion in the political message from Hollywood.  The diet of films was straight anti-communism with no liberal trimmings.

Big Jim McLain (1951), was more of a public relations exercise for the HUAC investigators, than a film.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Big Jim McLain (1951), was more of a public relations exercise for the HUAC investigators, than a film.  It was produced by the ultra-conservative actor John Wayne and was based on the experiences of HUAC investigator William Wheeler and it claimed to be made with the full co-operation of the committee with access to cases from HUAC files.  The film linked HUAC to American icons. After the opening credits, the narrator quotes from the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet. It then immediately praises the House Committee on Un-American Activities for its attack on communism despite “undaunted by the vicious campaign of slander launched against them.” Wayne was targeting HUAC’s opponents in Hollywood.The film began with the assumption that anybody who was a communist after 1945 was a traitor or spy or both – a few clearly stated by J. Edgar Hoover.  HUAC investigators were able to track down communist subversives but the committee could do little with them once they had took the fifth amendment.  The investigators taped several conversations about a far-fetched plot to tie up the wharfs by infecting them with some kind of bacteria.  The infestation would be the basis for long industrial dispute which would be prolonged by communist agents in management and unions.  Once again it was a waterfront union as in I Married A Communist.  This effort would be the same as putting ‘another division in the field’ in Asia. European distributors were not so impressed with the plot. According to Wikipedia, “In some European markets the film was retitled as Marijuana and dispensed with the communist angle, making the villains drug dealers instead. This was achieved entirely through script changes and dubbing. ” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Jim_McLain

Jim McLain, played by John Wayne, and the Hawaiian police force uncovered the plot, but only arrested those responsible for the accidental death of a communist stooge.  The audience were left wondering why the communists were not behind bars for murder of McLain’s partner.  The film’s aim, however, was to reinforce Wayne’s view that the constitution was designed to protect good citizens, not those who would tear it apart.  The communists were straight out criminals and thugs, who betrayed each other and murdered Wayne’s partner.  At one stage, McLain fought the entire gang single handedly and was so honorable that he would not punch out one communist because he was too short.  McLain said: ‘We don’t hit the little guy.  That’s the difference between us and you.’[6]  The communists take a fifth amendment and go free at the end of the film.

The real objects of Wayne’s attack, however, were those who refused to testify before HUAC, while informers on communists were greatly praised.  At one point, McLain and his partner visited an old couple who told them that their estranged son was a communist.  This evidence provided the vital clue which broke a communist cell in Hawaii.  Informing was a selfless act of patriotism, even if it meant naming your own son.  Big Jim McLain was ranked 27th by Variety making $2.6 million in rentals.[7]  It was the most successful of the anti-communist films of the early 1950s possibly because of the immense popularity of John Wayne.


According to the film’s Wikipedia entry “Nancy Olson (pictured left) hated the script but figured that six weeks in Hawaii and a chance to work with a star like John Wayne seemed a good enough reason to accept. She thought the film would flop and nobody would see it. She was right to a degree – it wasn’t one of Wayne’s more successful pictures – but she didn’t count on how often it would appear on television. She later said people stopped her all the time to mention it. Olson, a staunch liberal Democrat, said she and Wayne would often have political arguments but she would always let Wayne have the last word. ” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Jim_McLain
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] Branden, p. 201. 

[2] Gordon Kahn, Hollywood on Trial, Boni and Caer, New York, 1948, p. 221.

[3] Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy, The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair and Politics From The Depression to the Fifties, Midland, USA, 1981, p. 278.

[4] Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, Vintage, New York, 1982, p. 20.

[5] For a treatment of the fears of the liberals in the Kennedy administration see David Halberstam The Best and the Brightest, Fawcett crest, USA, 1973.

[6] Big Jim McLain (d) Edward Ludwig, (w) James Edward Grant.

[7] Variety, 7 January 1953.

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