Radical Innocence reconsidered

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne

The fate of one member of the Hollywood Ten, Dalton Trumbo, was recently the subject of a  widely released film. Trumbo (2015) foreshadowed a renewed interest in Hollywood’s Red Scare of the 1950s. The film premiered six months before Donald Trump began his Presidential campaign with its ‘America first’ message – the slogan was the title of another right-wing populist group dating back to isolationist debate before the Second World War. It appears that the rise of a new form of right-wing populism which culminated in the Trump administration from 2017 to 2021 has led to greater interest in the McCarthyite period of the 1950s. Links between the two periods are easy to find. Donald Trump’s one-time legal advisor was Roy Cohn, an assistant to the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose legal and political tactics gave rise to the term McCarthyism.

The reissue of Bernard F. Dick’s Radical Innocence, a 1988 critical study of the Hollywood Ten, is another indicator of that growing interest.[1] Professor Dick is a prolific writer on the film industry and has recently released a book on films that dealt with communism in the 1950s called The Screen is Red. His Anatomy of Film is a standard text. He has also written a history of American cinema in World War II, Second World War: The Star-Spangled Screen, which has been highly influential. Dick has recently published a book on Columbia Pictures and he has also written books on the playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman and directors Billy Wilder and Joseph Mankiewicz.

The Hollywood Ten – as they became known – appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in October 1947. The longwinded title for the committee quickly shortened to become HUAC, and its history is infamous. These HUAC hearings were highly unfair and vindictive. These investigations uncovered little or nothing about communism in the film industry that wasn’t already known and were more about pre-election publicity for the committee members. Many historians have labelled the hearings a ‘show trial’ for good reasons.[2] HUAC handpicked some conservatives to testify about the perils of communism in American cinema. They relied on the FBI to determine suitable communists or left wingers to interrogate.

These ‘unfriendly witnesses’ which came to be called the Hollywood Ten comprised Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, Alvah Bessie, Edward Dmytryk, John Howard Lawson, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, Albert Maltz, Herbert Biberman, and Ring Lardner, Jr.  They were called unfriendly witnesses as they refused to answer the committee’s questions about their political affiliations and were eventually imprisoned for contempt of Congress. One of its members, Ring Lardner Jr once said that the Hollywood Ten was a group of people who were thrown together. Some people he liked and others he didn’t. Right through the hearings and beyond, they argued over strategy and tactics and with each other. They were never a cohesive unit.

Dick agrees with Lardner that the Hollywood Ten were an accidental group of writers and directors selected by the committee. His conclusion is backed by the FBI reports that show the investigations were chaotic, with a constant reshuffling of witnesses right up to the public hearings in October 1947. Nonetheless, they were depicted as a homogenous group of left-wing writers and directors. Dick points out: “They did not come to a particular place for a particular purpose, nor did they have a common aesthetic; they represented different talents within the industry as well as different traditions within the arts.”

The reputation of the Hollywood Ten has always been looked at through a political prism, and the group’s critical reputation was never high. Dick noted that: ‘For more than forty years, they have also been stigmatized by Billy Wilder’s quip “Of the unfriendly Ten, only two had any talent; the other eight were just unfriendly.”’ Dick fails to mention that while the quote has been attributed to Wilder and has been widely used, it may just be a spurious Hollywood anecdote. It certainly sounds like Wilder’s sense of humour, but it has never been linked to him directly from any contemporary source.[3] It is also at odds with the actions Wilder took during the hearings. Wilder provided nominal support for the Hollywood Ten through the Committee of the First Amendment. Wilder was also not a man who routinely savaged the reputation of his fellow writers and directors. He was normally polite and often complimentary.[4]

Even if the quote is fictitious, Dick is correct in saying that the Hollywood Ten’s cinematic contribution has been largely ignored. Initially, the most visible figure was John Howard Lawson, whose highly volatile and adversarial testimony set the scene for the group. Lawson was dragged screaming from the hearings. Dick rightly notes that Lawson has been the subject of some academic research. Yet, the most prominent members of Hollywood Ten would be Edward Dymytrk and Dalton Trumbo, who took different paths to reinvigorate their careers. The others were largely ignored.

Crossfire, was nominated for the Best Director Academy Award.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

At the time of the hearings, Dmytryk looked certain to be a successful director. He had directed a series of low-budget films until he made a major film noir in Murder, My Sweet (1944).  Just before the hearings, Dmytryk had made a strong film about anti-Semitism called Crossfire (1947). Even though it was a low-budget B film, it received several Academy Award nominations. The producer was Adrian Scott, who was called to testify before  HUAC. Dmytryk would eventually distance himself from the group and then give names as requested by the committee in later years. Following his rejection of the Hollywood Ten’s approach, Dmytryk returned to Hollywood. In the later part of his career, he was celebrated for his films, such as The Caine Mutiny, and he had a successful film career that ran until 1975. Dick spends a great deal of time on the director and his work.

Dalton Trumbo’s script for Spartacus (1960) helped break the blacklist. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In sharp contrast to Dmytryk, Trumbo would never testify and remained an unrelenting opponent of HUAC and was contemptuous of those who did. Trumbo would use ‘fronts’ to write a series of screenplays over the next ten years. He would then be noted as the man who broke the blacklist when he received credit for Spartacus (1960). Trumbo would return to Hollywood on his terms. He is also recognised for his “Only victims” speech at the Laurel Award dinner on 13 March 1970. It was a speech arguing that everyone involved lost from the HUAC investigation. The term was used by many, including Robert Vaughn, for his study of the blacklist and has become a defining statement of the period.[5] In this respect, Dick’s book is now a little dated. In 2021, Trumbo has become a hero since the release of a popular film and books about his life.

Dick looks beyond these three dominant figures and demonstrates that each of the Hollywood Ten contributed to film history. Some of the contributions were relatively minor, while others made major impacts. For example, Lester Cole made some interesting films, such as Among the Living (1941), described as a mixture of film noir, social drama, horror films with suspense. Samuel Ornitz wrote novels in a similar vein to James Joyce. Herbert Biberman would defy the blacklist and somehow direct Salt of the Earth, a film about a strike with strong feminist messages – everyone is equal.[6] Albert Maltz would write a highly regarded film noir in The Naked City (1948), his last screen credit for twenty-two years, and he was denied a screen credit for The Robe (1953) and many other successful films. Maltz would eventually return to being credited with Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). While Maltz was prolific, Alvah Bessie had not written a great deal for Hollywood. Still, Dick shows he made a strong impact through his novels, particularly Men in Battle, where he used his experiences as a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Ring Lardner Jr. left a legacy of sparkling wit with some of his screenplays, but Dick shows he had a broad range of skills. For example, along with John Howard Lawson, he was not credited for the legendary film noir Laura (1944). Lardner would revive his career in later years with films such as M*A*S*H (1970).

A Russian poster of Salt of the Earth, the 1954 Herbert J. Biberman historical melodrama starring Juan Chacon, Rosaura Revueltas, Will Geer, David Wolfe, and David Sarvis. Banned fron beingscreend at the time of its release. In 1992 the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Image and caption information courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Each of the Hollywood Ten is given a dedicated chapter, and Dick proves to be a fair-minded critic of their work. In doing so, Dick highlights the hidden tragedy of the hearings and the subsequent blacklist. The book shows that tremendously talented people were shunted aside for no good reason other than holding unpopular political views or engaging in lawful protest. Yet it is hard to agree with Dick’s general conclusion that: “It is a truism of American film history that the blacklist which followed the 1947 hearings contributed to the decline of the movie industry after World War II.” He further argued that “The greatest irony of the blacklist, then, was the way it backfired on the industry that set it in motion: it weakened the industry that it was supposed to strengthen; it strengthened some whom it was supposed to destroy by eliciting from them work that was often better than they had done previously. Yet some aspects of the blacklist transcend irony: the premature deaths and suicides it caused, the dull and sanctimonious films it spawned.”

The reality was that television was emerging after the Second World War, and it would undercut the industry far more aggressively than any political investigation. Yet even with its conservative slant, some of the cinema from the 1950s is among the greatest to reach the screen. Harvey (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), High Noon (1952), The War of the Worlds (1953), Rear Window (1954), Night of the Hunter (1955), The Searchers (1956), Twelve Angry Men (1957), Vertigo (1958) and Ben Hur (1959) are among the films made during this time, and it is not evidence of a film industry in creative decline.

Moreover, the HUAC investigation was never about strengthening the film industry; it was about publicity for the Congressional investigators. Certainly, each of the Hollywood Ten suffered greatly due to the HUAC investigation. They suffered alongside tens of thousands of other people across the United States in the Red Scare period. In broad terms, American democracy was shown to have an Achilles heel regarding right-wing populism – a flaw even more evident today.

One clear shortcoming of the reissued book is that there is no attempt to update or place the work in its contemporary context. More than 30 years after its initial publication, the work deserves some form of updating. Even a short biographical essay or afterword would have been useful to examine the scholarship on the Hollywood Ten over the past decades. A revised bibliography should have been included to refer to works published after 1989. Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo’s work on Dalton Trumbo is an important addition to the literature,[7] as is Gerald Horne’s detailed study of John Howard Lawson.[8] Jennifer E. Langdon has written well about Adrian Scott and Crossfire.[9] Other articles on the critical and political contributions of individual members of the Hollywood Ten have should also have been noted. Radical Innocence remains interesting and important, but its publication represents a lost opportunity to refresh a key work.


[1] Bernard F. Dick, Radical Innocence, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988 and re-released in 2021.

[2] Among others see Thomas Doherty, Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist, New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

[3] Most historians quote secondary sources or say it is widely quoted. See Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard. New York: Hyperion, 1998 or Donald T. Critchlow, When Hollywood was Right, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[4] Robert Horton (ed.). Billy Wilder: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

[5] Robert Vaughn, Only Victims: a Study of Show Business Blacklisting. New York: G P Putnam, 1972.

[6] The remarkable history of this film is told in H. J. Biberman, and Michael Wilson, Salt of the Earth: The Story of a Film. Beacon Press, 1965.

[7] Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical. 2015.

[8] Gerald Horne, The Final Victim of the Blacklist John Howard Lawson: Dean of the Hollywood Ten. University of California Press, 2006.

[9] Jennifer E. Langdon, Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2010.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s