Before HUAC came to Hollywood

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

Ever since director D. W. Griffith had created “history written with lightning” with his film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, the film industry had to deal with an anxious political leadership in Washington. The way Hollywood could present and deliver ideas was always a source of concern for the political leadership and communism was always a particular focus. According to director William DeMille, he was interviewed by federal agents as early as 1922, after he was invited to attend a lunch with communist leader William Z. Foster at the house of the actor Charles Chaplin. His brother Cecil was able to support his political innocence.

Ever since director D. W. Griffith had created “history written with lightning” with his film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, the film industry had to deal with an anxious political leadership in Washington.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

The House Committee on Un-American Activities[1] investigation in Hollywood in 1947 was certainly not the first time that conservative political forces had intervened in the film industry.  Hollywood had resisted many attempts from Federal and State bodies for censorship on scenes with sex and violence since the 1920s.  A HUAC investigation in 1938 was the first visible sign, however, that the conservatives wanted to influence the political content of Hollywood’s films.  Committee chairman Texan Democrat Martin Dies and his political allies were alarmed by the development of the Anti-Nazi League in Hollywood which they considered to be a communist front.[2]  Using the testimony of former communist J.B. Matthews, Dies made the ridiculous mistake of accusing child actress Shirley Temple, who was about 10 years old, and other actors’ of serving the communist cause’ because of a message in a French radical newspaper.  His opponents pounced on this and his investigation became a laughing stock.

FBI and HUAC historian Kenneth O’Reilly notes that the Dies Committee reports were only a “supplement” to the Bureau’s own operations. While the FBI did not support the Dies Committee, it had access to and used its extensive reports. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover believed that communists were prevalent throughout the film industry. A report to him said that the communist leadership had “thrown caution to the wind” in its efforts to gain control of the film industry and its intellectual leadership was now visible as a result.The release of Mission to Moscow in 1943, with its pro-Stalin message,confirmed these views and caused an uproar, with the Republicans attacking the film industry for doing the bidding of the Roosevelt administration. The FBI reacted to the release of the film by beginning a comprehensive surveillance of the film industry, ranging from scrutiny of industrial issues and the political activities of directors, actors and writers, through to the content of films. At one point in 1944, Hoover demanded a report by the fifteenth of each month on the infiltration of Hollywood by communist agents and ideas. This grew into a large body of information tracking the activity of real and suspected communists. [3]



The release of Mission to Moscow in 1943, with its pro-Stalin message, confirmed the conservative view that Hollywood – and by extension – was pro-communist and caused an uproar, with the Republicans attacking the film industry for doing the bidding of the Roosevelt administration. The publication of the book Mission to Moscow in 1943 had become part of an internal wrangle within the State Department between those who were suspicious of Stalin’s motives and those such as the author Soviet Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, who believed the Soviet Union could take its place in the world community. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover remained on the side of those who distrusted Stalin and his motives. He regarded the film Mission to Moscow as evidence of communist infiltration of Hollywood.
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After Dies’ floundering attack on Hollywood, he turned his attention to other areas.  The Federal Theatre Project has been a staging ground for many radical and liberal plays and was regarded with contempt by the conservatives.  The committee managed to get funding withdrawn.  Despite having no immediate impact, the Dies committee showed a path for the HUAC investigations of later years.  Massive publicity could be generate by an investigation of Hollywood and the committee helped originate the smear tactics that were to succeed so well after the war.[4]

The political content of films did not worry conservatives in the period leading up to 1938.  The work of the Hays Office and the Production Code Administration had ensured that Hollywood would steer clear to dealing directly with political and social issues.[5] 
The Hays Office had been set up in 1922 to self-regulate the industry and to mollify numerous state censorship boards which were slashing films across the country.  The office had initially little impact because it could only advise.  In 1930, after public criticism and threats of federal intervention, the industry introduced a production code with a detailed list of prohibited areas.  The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America created the Production Code Administration to enforce the regulations.  It really developed teeth in 1934 after a campaign by the Catholic Legion of Decency against immoral films.  Without a certificate of approval from the PCA, the studio could be fined $25,000 if the film was released.  The administration aimed to ensure that moral standards were maintained on the screen.  Its disapproval meant that film would be condemned by Catholic bishops and picked up by the Legion of Decency.  While primarily meant to judge films on their moral values, it would often disapprove of films because of their political or social messages. Through the efforts of these bodies and fears of losing the valuable European market, the studios managed to avoid the topic of Europe’s lurch into fascism for many years.

Hollywood gradually began to edge toward supporting a more interventionist stance in Europe from 1938 to 1941.  The first serious attempt to tackle the subject of the rise of fascism was Blockade (1938) which focused on the Spanish Civil War.  The Spanish conflict was the great divisive international issue of the 1930s.  The American left supported the Loyalist government, with 3000 people enlisting in the Abraham Lincoln brigade to fight for Republican Spain.  The right, including the Catholic Church, supported Franco and the fascists.  Germany and Italy poured huge amounts of arms and men into Spain to support Franco and were instrumental to his victory.

Because of the power of the PCA, Blockade never mentioned either Franco or the fascists.  The original publicity for the film carried the disclaimer that care had been taken to prevent any costume of the production from being accurately that of either side in the Spanish Civil War.  It said the story did not attempt to ‘favour any cause in the present conflict.’[6]  This claim was spurious as there were many references to bombers attacking cities, which was a common strategy of the fascist armies.  The disclaimer and the caution with uniforms did not stop the film from being systematically picketed by Catholic organisations throughout the United States.  These pickets wee a forerunner to the those which sprang up during the post-War era.  The film may have been watered down to gain Catholic approval, but it still contained some powerful anti-war scenes.  It focused on the cruel blockade of a Spanish province and the bombing of cities.  At end of the film, an hysterical Henry Fonda, who played a farmer turned soldier, screamed to the audience and demanded to know where was the conscience of the world.[7]  This scene and the bombing of a city and the panic it caused were particularly disturbing.  As a whole the film was more an indictment of total war than just the fascist cause, but this did not stop the protests.


The first serious attempt to tackle the subject of the rise of fascism was Blockade (1938) which focused on the Spanish Civil War.
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After failing with Blockade, independent producer Walter Wagner tried to make a film based on the best selling book Personal History by Vincent Sheehan, which also focused on the rose of European fascism, but he dropped the idea for the time being after more opposition from the PCA.  Other studios picked up from there.  Warner Brother’s first major anti-Nazi film was Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) which was based on a trial of German agents in New York.  It was directed by anti-Nazi émigré Anatole Litvak and depicted Nazi Germany as a direct threat to America with its plans for world domination.  During the film, an FBI agent declared that Germany was at war with the United States.[8]  PCA head Breen attempted to intimidate Warner Brothers by telling them that the film would lead to foreign censorship, but the studio went ahead with it anyway.  As the film had not broken the letter of the production code, Breen could not stop it being produced.  But as Breen had predicted, it was banned across Europe, and the appeasing British demanded that several lines be deleted.[9] 


[1] William deMille, Hollywood Saga (New York: E.P. Dutton & co. Inc., 1939), 195–196. The correct acronym for the House Committee on Un-American Activities is HCUA, but it is conventional to use the acronym HUAC. Report to Director on Communist Infiltration in Motion Picture Industry, 6 September 1942, COMPIC 100–138754. (Hereafter COMPIC.) The FBI has released the COMPIC files on disc. A second set of COMPIC files, containing mostly high-level summaries, were released by BACM Research. The most comprehensive set appears to be J. Edgar Hoover and Radicalism in Hollywood, Part 1, Communist Infiltration in Motion Picture Industry, Primary Source Media, 2007, which includes a useful index. While there is some overlap between the three sets, some documents appear in one set and do not appear in others.

[2] Larry Ceplair and Ken Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community 1930 – 1960, Doubleday, New York, 1980. P. 109. Hollywood Reporter, 15 April 1943. The publication of the book Mission to Moscow in 1943 had become part of an internal wrangle within the State Department between those who were suspicious of Stalin’s motives and those such as the author Soviet Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, who believed the Soviet Union could take its place in the world community. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover remained on the side of those who distrusted Stalin and his motives. He regarded the film Mission to Moscow as evidence of communist infiltration of Hollywood. J. Edgar Hoover to SAC Los Angeles, 21 June 1943, COMPIC. For a full account of the politics of Mission to Moscow see David Cuthbert, “Our Awkward Ally: Mission to Moscow,” in John E. O’Connor, and Martin A Jackson, (eds.) American History/American Film: Interpreting the American Image, eds., New expanded edition (New York: Continuum, 1988), 121–146. For the wider debate see Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977).

[3] O’Reilly, Red Menace, 47–48. For example, FBI agent and Los Angeles Special Agent in Charge R. B. Hood used the Dies Report to conclude that the Anti-Nazi League was a “communist front of the worst type” in a report from 1941. FBI report, 1 January 1941, Anti-Nazi League FBI file, http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/hollywoodleague.htm (accessed on 25 January 2009). Nancy Lynn Schwartz, The Hollywood Writer’s Wars, Knopf, New York, 1982, pp. 136 – 137.

[4] Schwartz, Writers, pp. 136 – 139.

[5] The most complete history of the Production Code Administration is Leonard J. Jeff and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood Censorship and the Production Code from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1990.

[6] Halliwell, Film Guide, 5th edition, Paladin, London, 1986, p. 110.

[7] Blockade, (d) William Dietrele, (w) John Howard Lawson

[8] Clayton R. Koopes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies, Free Press, New York, 1987, p. 29.

[9] Koppes & Black, Hollywood, p.30 One year later, a full print was shown in the United Kingdom.