Arthur Miller and the HUAC investigations

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

Arthur Miller with Marilyn Monroe. Miller defined the word witch hunt with his play The Crucible released in 1953.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Marilyn Monroe was never considered political, yet her image would be entwined with the acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller. A year before DiMaggio and Monroe, began their ill-fated marriage, on January 22, 1953 the play The Crucible held its premiere at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York. It was a groundbreaking play and it defined the HUAC investigations as a witch hunt and cemented the reputation of Miller, who had been acclaimed for Death of A Salesman in 1949, when he had won the Pulitzer prize for drama. The Crucible, represents the paranoia about communism that pervaded America in the 1950s. There are clear and obvious parallels between the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigation rooting out of real and suspected communists and the seventeenth-century witch-hunt mania that hit Salem. Clearly, the necessity to “name names” was another link between the two periods. Miller wrote in his autobiography that the main point of the hearings was to have the accused make a public confession, to damn their confederates as well as the Devil.  The accused would then guarantee their new allegiance by breaking ‘disgusting old vows’ in public.[i]  The Crucible remains one of Miller’s most acclaimed plays and its continued revivals have painted an indelible image of the ‘witch-hunt’ as part of the hysteria of the McCarthyite period. As recently as 2015, the Melbourne Theatre Company was reviving the play to great popular and critical success. It is played all over the world to this day.


Miller certainly did not invent the term witch hunt. From at least the 1930s, the term witch-hunt has been used allegorically to describe investigations by governments to seek out and expose perceived and real political enemies, fostering a degree of social fear. One of the first to use it in terms of Hollywood in the Red Scare period was actually an arch-conservative in Cecil B. DeMille. After the 1947 HUAC hearings, the media reported that: “DeMille said he thought Reds were neither more or less active in Hollywood than in other major American cities … ‘Hollywood is a convenient target for so-called witch hunters … I sometimes think these hunters are actually hunting headlines while the real witch sits in her little red tent and laughs at them.’”


The playwright Arthur Miller handled the HUAC investigations in a far different way to Kazan.  He was called long after the early investigations and he believed that his marriage to Hollywood’s most popular actress Marilyn Monroe helped spark the interest of the HUAC investigators.  At his hearing, Miller talked quite openly about himself and his political beliefs.  He had never been a member of the communist party, but had been active in left circles for many years.  Miller refused to name any other person and his approach earned him a contempt citation from Congress.  The charge was later quashed by the Circuit Court of Appeals in 1958.

Miller made several artistic responses to the HUAC investigations through his plays A View From the Bridge (1955) and The Crucible (1953).  A View From the Bridge cannot be considered to be a direct rebuttal of On the Waterfront, but there are strong similarities.  In the play, a longshoreman informed immigration authorities of wife’s two relatives who were illegal immigrants.  His actions were not terribly evil, but he was destroyed by them nonetheless.

The Crucible was a powerful play which linked the HUAC investigations to the Salem witch-hunts.  Miller wrote in his autobiography that the main point of the hearings was to have the accused make a public confession, to damn their confederates as well as the Devil.  The accused would then guarantee their new allegiance by breaking ‘disgusting old vows’ in public.[1]  The Crucible remains one of Miller’s most acclaimed plays and its continued revivals have painted an indelible image of the ‘witch-hunt’ as part of the hysteria of the McCarthyite period.[2]


[1] Miller, Timebends, p. 331.

[2] As recently as June 2016, the Melbourne Theatre Company was reviving the play to great popular and critical success.  The play was 48 years old.

Kazan and On The Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront (1954) was a subtle defense of informing.  It was a film of undeniable power with a strong central performance from Marlon Brando.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

While informers were slated in Stalag 17, there was a small group of films which defended their role.  These films were for more successful than the studio’s anti-communist efforts.  On the Waterfront (1954) was a subtle defense of informing.  It was a film of undeniable power with a strong central performance from Marlon Brando.  The film began as a screenplay by Arthur Miller called The Hook about a doomed attempt to overthrow gangsters on the waterfront.  Arthur Miller was a close friend of director Elia Kazan and they planned to write and direct the film between them.[1]  Studio head Harry Cohn had the story checked by the FBI and Roy Brewer, the powerful and corrupt head of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, for any possible communist taint.  Brewer told Cohn that if the movie was produced in its present form he would pull out projectionists in any cinema that showed it.  The FBI regarded it as dangerous because it could cause trouble on the nation’s waterfront at the time of war in Korea.  Cohn demanded that the central gangster figure be turned into a communist to refute these criticisms.  Miller withdrew the script and received a caustic telegram from Cohn saying:

‘IT IS INTERESTING THAT THE MINUTE WE TRY TO MAKE THE SCRIPT PRO-AMERICAN YOU PULL OUT. HARRY COHN’.[2]

Kazan was annoyed by Miller’s backing away from the project.  The pair had a further falling out over their individuals public and artistic responses to the HUAC investigations.  Kazan had quit the party in 1935, but the committee still wanted his testimony before he could continue his career in Hollywood.  Kazan decided to testify before he committee and to name names.  He felt ostracized for his decision to testify and inform.  Kazan gave vent to these feelings in On the Waterfront.  The film was about the plight of Terry Malloy, played by Brando, who was unwittingly involved in a dockside murder by a gangster union.  After they murder his brother, – shades of I Married A Communist – he declared to stand up to the gangsters and testify before a Kefauver-like commission.[3]  It was scripted by Budd Schulberg, who like Kazan, had testified before the HUAC investigators and named names of former communist party members.  Schulberg had a long association with the communist party and had introduced one of the Hollywood 10, Ring Lardner Jr., to the party and then later named him in testimony.[4]

Terry Malloy’s testimony to the inquiry and his subsequent rejection by the dockers can be seen to mirror Kazan’s history when he broke from the Communist party in the 1930s and later testified in the HUAC hearings as a friendly witness.  Kazan claimed that he testified against the communists because he saw them as a threat to America, and was then forced to suffer the ostracism of his former colleagues.  After many years of half-hearted denials, Kazan admitted in his autobiography that he used the film to hit back at those in the Hollywood community who shunned him.

He wrote:

I doubt that Budd (Schulberg) was affected as personally as I was by the parallel of Tony Mike’s story.  (Tony Mike was the basis for Terry Malloy)  his reaction to the loss of certain friends was not a biter as my own; he had not experienced their blackballing as frequently and intensely as I had in the neighborhood known as Broadway.  I believe Budd regarded out waterfront story with greater objectivity, an objectivity I appreciated.  But I did see Tony Mike’s story as my own, and that connection did lend the tome of irrefutable anger to the scenes I photographed and to any work with actors.  When Brando, at the end, yells at Lee J. Cobb, the mob boss, “I’m glad what I done – you hear me? – glad what I done!” that was me saying with identical heat, that I was glad that I testified as I had.  I’d been snubbed by friends each and every day for many months in my old show business haunts, and I’d not forgotten nor would I forgive the men, old friends some of them, who’d snubbed me, so the scene in the film where Brando goes back to the waterfront to “shape up” again for employment and is rejected by the men with whom he’d worked day after day – that, too, was my story, now told to the world.  So when the critics say that I put my story and my feeling on the screen, to justify my informing, they are right.[5]

Panic in the Streets (1950) also supported informing.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Similar themes about informing had appeared before in Kazan’s films.  Panic in the Streets (1950) also supported informing.  Two criminals killed an illegal alien after a card game and become unknowingly infected with plague.  After examining the body, a doctor realised he had 48 hours to track down the infected killers or the disease would cause a large scale epidemic.  The film was about a desperate search for the villains by the health authorities and the police before the plague took hold.  The criminals continued to spread the disease throughout their haunts as the search continued.  Those who did not inform were vulnerable to the disease.  One café owner with a key lead did not tell the authorities what he knew even though his wife was already dying from the disease.  Informing to the authorities was not only good civic duty but essential for the survival of the community.  The authorities could heal only those who confess, those who did not could infect with a deadly plague.

Kazan always appeared troubled by his decision to name names before HUAC.  In 1952, he directed a film called Viva Zapata which was about the Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata and his struggles.  Kazan had to juggle the complex and contradictory demands of extolling a revolutionary leader and maintaining an anti-communist line.[6]  In 1953, he directed an anti-communist film called Man on A Tightrope, in which he took great pride in using Fredric March who he claimed to have rescued off the blacklist.[7]  Critic Nora Sayre has pointed out that the themes of informing and betrayal reappeared in many of Kazan’s later works.  In his film The Visitors (1972) which was based on his son’s script, two Vietnam veterans took vengeance on a former friend who had given evidence against them after they had raped and murdered an young Vietnamese woman.  In the film, the informer felt that he should have prevented their actions rather than turning them in, which was useless.  Following The Visitors, Kazan wrote a novel called The Understudy where a reluctant informer’s testimony brought an old friend before the grand jury.  The informer was extolled by the police for informing against a criminal and he did everything to help his friend while dying.[8]


[1] Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life, Methuen, London, 1987, p. 195.

[2] Miller, Timebends, p. 308.

[3] Senator Estes Kefauver headed a Senate committee for investigating organized crime in 1950.

[4] Remark by Ring Lardner Jr. at Australian Film Institute Seminar on 26 March 1991. Notes taken by author.

[5] Kazan, A Life, p. 500.

[6] For an excellent account of Kazan’s problems with the film see Paul J. Vanderwood, ‘Viva Zapata: An American Cold Warrior’, in John E. O’Connor and Martin A. Jackson, (ed.), American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, new exp. Edn. Continuum, New York, 1988, pp. 183 – 203.

[7] Kazan, A Life, p. 479. Kazan’s claim is doubtful.  March appeared in no films between 1947 and 1950 and in a British film in 1948 which suggests that he was blacklisted for a time, He was credited with a film in 1951 which indicates that he was off the blacklist when he came to make Man on A Tightrope in 1952.  Based on listings from Ephriam Katz, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper & Row, p. 774.

[8] Nora Sayre, Running Time, Dial, New York, p. 172.

Informers and Stalag 17 (1954)

Stalag 17 (1954) was an interesting film from a political perspective.  The film was about an informer within a prisoner of war camp.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

One of the most controversial aspects of the HUAC investigations was the insistence of the investigators for names.  Those named by people testifying were usually already known to the committee and it served no purpose other than to show that the witness was fully co-operative.  Those who informed were also the subject of many films during the 1950s.  Stalag 17 (1954) was an interesting film from a political perspective.  The film was about an informer within a prisoner of war camp.  Director Billy Wilder had signaled his disgust with the HUAC style investigations through his support of Mankiewicz, along with his involvement in the Committee For The First Amendment and it comes through in this film.

The desperate Willliam Holden tries to bribe a German Sergeant to get the name of the Informer.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The authorities were the detested Nazis, and in consequence the film could not be objected to on political grounds.  An informer within the camp was foiling escape attempts and passing on secrets.  It was in one fragment of dialogue that Wilder and co-writer Blum got their message across.  It happened when the suspected traitor William Holden tells his assistant – who no longer trusts him – that there was a German spy in the barracks: ‘It’s hard to imagine an American informing on another American.  But maybe they’re not an American, maybe …’[1]  He is interrupted before he can complete the sentence but the implication was that to inform on another American was an unpatriotic act – perhaps an un-American act – and worthy only of people with the lowest form of morality such as the Nazis.  When the German informer was finally uncovered, he was brutally thrown from the barracks with clattering tin cans tied round his legs to be mown down by machine guns.  It was a violent ending to a film which gave no sympathy at all to the plight of the informer.  Indeed, informers had never been popular in American cinema.  From The Informer (1935) through to Stalag 17 (1954), it was difficult to identify any films where the informer was a hero.  Informing was usually an act of cowardice. Kiss of Death (1947) was one example where an informer was the central hero for testifying against a gangster.  The line is very close to the sentiments of Moe in Pick Up On South Street. In Brute Strength (1947) directed by Jules Dassin, a prisoner says to a sadistic warder played by Hume Cronyn who wants him to inform: ‘I’m a cheap thief, but I’m not an informer.’[2]  Dassin was one of the Hollywood community who was driven out by the HUAC hearings and blacklisting’s.  He was not able to work in America for many years because of his stand.[3]


[1] Stalag 17, (d) Billy Wilder, (w) Billy Wilder, Edwin Blum.

[2] Quoted in Victor Navasky, Naming Names, Viking New York, 1980, page x

[3] Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community 1930 – 1960, Doubleday, New York, 1980, p. 399.

Strategic Air Command (1955)

Strategic Air Command (1955) also showed the swing away from red-baiting to a more moderate approach to superpower conflict. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The failure of the anti-communist films from 1949 to 1952 to leave their mark was attributable to three main factors: the haste and clumsy way they were produced; the obvious studio pressure to put as much vitriol as possible in the films; and finally the endless digs within the films at former members of the Hollywood community.  In the first phase, the films can be read as concerted attacks on the unfriendly witnesses and those who supported them.  It is not surprising that the anti-communist films had no resonance with the wider American community because they were aimed at blacklisted communist or left-wing writers, actors or directors.  The films failed to separate liberal and communist critics of society, they justified civil rights abuses, depicted communists as sexually perverted, drug dealing hypocrites and they slandered intellectuals.  These films would have alienated those members of the audience with any liberal sympathies whatsoever.  The films also attempted to blame all America’s problems on the communists.  Union troubles, race riots and demonstrations were all linked back to communist agitators and an elaborate masterplot from Moscow.  The films argued that the United States would be perfect apart from these communist agents.  They were political nonsense with their delusions of world wide conspiracy and the films and their ideas were rejected by the American public.

By the mid-1950s, it was clear that the real sting had gone from anti-communist films. Strategic Air Command (1955) also showed the swing away from red-baiting to a more moderate approach to superpower conflict.  The communists were barely even hinted at in the script, even though the entire film is about the work of the Strategic Air Command.  This group was constantly in flight and prepared to attack Russia with its nuclear weapons.  It would have been a difficult task for a writer to draw out any tension from a plane flying for hours on end and instead the film focused on Rusty Castle played by Jimmy Stewart.  Castle was a major league baseball player who was recalled into the SAC because they needed good, steady leadership in the Airforce to maintain their nuclear threat.  He was reluctant to join, after serving during the war, but on seeing the benefits for America, he did so.  It was a simple film which reveled in the advanced technology available to the United States Airforce.  The film lacked a climax which reflected its underlying philosophy which was put forward by Castle:  ‘There is a kind of war on – we’ve got to stay ready to fight without fighting- that’s harder.’[1]

This message of a fight without fighting resonated with Americans.  Their belief in the effectiveness of the Strategic Air Command was to be shattered when the Russians launched the Sputnik in 1957.  However in 1955, the film reassured the nuclear jitters of the American people.  Senator Thomas H. Kuchel of California said the cause of peace was well served by the film.

It serves free people everywhere.  To the extent that all people are made aware of our great military strength, the likelihood of aggression by those who oppose freedom diminishes.  It brings those who view it, a graphic and moving story of the power and might of our Strategic Air Command.[2]

The United States needed its nuclear weapons to keep the communists at bay.  The Strategic Air Command was expensive but it did the job and the security of the American system was maintained.  Subversion was hinted at with the film’s insistence of security.  This film was definitely aimed at reassuring the American people that America’s nuclear weapons were in safe hands and were more than a match for the Russians.

Strategic Air Command achieved great financial success with its message of quiet confidence in the nuclear deterrence and the effectiveness of the American forces.  The cold war message had moved right away from subversion to deal with the actual reality of Russia’s nuclear and military capacity.  When films concentrated on the inherent strength of the United States, they were far more successful.  Strategic Air Command added a note of reassurance which had been missing from the anti-communist propaganda of the 1950s.  It earned $6.5 million and was the fourth highest earning film of 1955.[3]  Such a huge popular reaction to an anti-communist film had simply not occurred before.

Not even the Korean War could provide Hollywood with the impetus to make any popular propaganda films.  The Bridges at Toko Ri (1955), which was the most popular film on the Korean war, avoided discussing any of the major issues involved in the conflict.  There were odd references to the Russians, but the film focused on the life of sailors and pilots in the navy.  The war was a forgotten task undertaken by soldiers who would rather be at home with their wives and girlfriends.  This film was the exception as most Korean War films were box office poison.

Yet the American public remained implacably anti-communist throughout the late 40s and early 1950s and it would be logical to assume that these films would have reflected their concerns and fears about communism.  The films failed because they did not deal with the audience’s real fears about communism.  Other types of films did.


[1] Strategic Air Command, (d) Anthony Mann, (w) Valentine Davies, Beirnie Lay Jnr.

[2] Paramount Studios press release, 31 January 1955, Box 629, Folder 4, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA>

[3] Variety, 25 January 1956.

Night People (1954)

In Night People (1954), Gregory Peck played an American colonel Stephen Van Dyke who was in charge of an operation to return a kidnapped American soldier called John Leatherby. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer Strategic Communication

As the Korean War petered out in 1953, and memories of the HUAC investigations began to fade, most of the real sting went out of anti-communist films.  The new style of anti-communist film depicted Russia as a dangerous and determined enemy which had to be treated ruthlessly.  In Night People (1954), Gregory Peck played an American colonel Stephen Van Dyke who was in charge of an operation to return a kidnapped American soldier called John Leatherby.  The soldier had been kidnapped because the Russians wanted an anti-Nazi couple and hoped to swap the corporal for them.  The film informed us that Himmler’s men now worked for the Russians, and they wanted their revenge on the couple.[1]  The central conflict of the story rested between Van Dyke and the father of the soldier, ad American businessman Charles Leatherby played by Broderick Crawford.  Leatherby felt that the Russians could be negotiated with as if they were hard-headed businessmen.  Van Dyke refuted his ideas.

This is not a cash and carry business.  You are not dealing with A & P.  These are cannibals.  Head hunting, blood thirsty cannibals who want to eat us up.[2]

The conflict between civilians and the military in dealing with the Russians was one of the central themes in many anti-communist films.  Originally called The Cannibals, the film plays out the emerging confidence of dealing with the Russians. Crawford was identified with the Eisenhower administration by the fact that he played golf and had heavy political connections.  Peck was a soldier who was on the cutting edge of the cold war in Berlin.

Charles Leatherby was a tough businessman who wanted results.  He found that this attitude got him nowhere in the cold war diplomacy of Berlin.  When he arrived at Berlin Airport, he asked State Department official Frederick Hobart what the situation was:

HOBART: It’s another big squeeze apparently.  We get them from time to time.  You know.  Yesterday, they held up the autobans and they cut phone lines into East Germany.  Anything they can think of to make nuisances of themselves.
LEATHERBY: What do you think they want really?
HOBART: Well, for one thing they want us out of here?
LEATHERBY: Alright so we get out?
HOBART: Then they may take a fancy to Toledo.
LEATHERBY: Are you trying to be funny?
HOBART: … I’m only sure that whatever happens is not isolated.  They kidnap a 19 year old boy, your son, and we can’t tell if its just a local needle or another Korea.[3]

By the end of the film, Leatherby had seen the error of his ways and realised that the military had the answers for the cold war.  He told Van Dyke that he could not let two innocent people be exchanged for his son.  Van Dyke replied that although it was a major decision for Leatherby, that his opinions had never mattered in the first place.  The military, not the civilians, made the decisions about dealing with the Russians.

Van Dyke discovered that his mistress and contact with the Russians was a Soviet spy and fooled the Russians by swapping her for the soldier.  When it was needed, Van Dyke was ruthless.  After strangling and punching his former mistress, he had poisoned absinthe poured down her throat.  Night People showed a blend of the paranoia of the early anti-communist films with the a return of an assurance that America had in its military.  The opening sequence of marching soldiers, tanks and helicopters was quite impressive as they moved across the wide CinemaScope screen.  Subversion still existed, but it was not from within the American ranks.  It is interesting that they spy had been carefully replaced by Russians, rather than indoctrinated.  The final scene had Van Dyke looking over the skyline of Berlin confident that he could handle the Russians.  The film added a note of reassurance to anti-communist films that had been missing since The Big Lift.  The more positive tone appeared to helped it at the box office.  Variety ranked it 51st, making $2.1 million.

In The McConnell Story (1955) directed by Gordon Douglas, a General introduced the story of an American ace who shot down more planes than any other person in Korea.  He said that because of people like McConnell, women were safe in their homes, children in their schools.  People were free because ‘there are no chains on your mind’.[4]  When McConnell arrived in Korea, he was told that this was the communist testing ground.   ‘If they succeed here, there’ll be no part of the world that’ll be safe’.[5]  The role of the army was simply to slaughter and make them think twice before trying anything again.  There was no mention of subversion within the American ranks.  The threat was simply external.  The film was reasonably popular and was ranked 27th by Variety with rentals of $3.5 million.


[1] Linking the Soviet Union with the German Nazis in the popular imagination to become a totalitarian blur is discussed in Les K. Alder and Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Red Fascism:  The Merger of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the American Image of Totalitarianism, 1930s- 1950s,’ American Historical Review, April 1970, pp. 1046 – 1064.

[2] Night People, (d) Nunnally Johnson, (w) Nunnally Johnson.

[3] Night People, op cit.

[4] McConnell Story, (d) Gordon Douglas, (w) Ted Sherdeman.

[5] Ibid.

The failure of anti-communist films and Pickup on South Street (1953)

One film which broke the anti-communist mould was Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

In the early 1950s, conservative forces in Hollywood began to see that their anti-communist cinematic efforts had been failures.  The films were not popular at the box office and the critical responses were poor or weak. During the Second World War, the reverse was true. Hollywood had made many popular anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese films during the Second World War at a furious pace.  There were no anti-communist equivalents of Casablanca or Mrs Miniver. Somehow these anti-communist films did not work.  My Son John had an established and acclaimed director in Leo McCarey working from his own script, its main star Robert Walker was still basking in his triumph of Strangers On A Train, the celebrated stage actress Helen Hayes had returned to the screen to play John’s mother and Dean Jagger had recently won an academy award for Twelve O’Clock High (1950), yet the film was a complete disaster.  Accoldades were in short supply. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did nominate McCarey for an Oscar for Writing (Motion Picture Story). Even with the star power of John Wayne, Big Jim McLain, was the twenty-seventh most successful film of 1952, grossing $2,600,000. 

The reasons for their failure lay elsewhere. When Cecil B. DeMille was appointed to the State Department’s International Motion Picture Unit as a consultant to make cold war films in 1953, he decried the lack of support for anti-communist pictures.

The American Government would not arm its soldiers with guns made by amateurs.  Neither should it arm … (the State) Department with films by amateurs.[1]

DeMille claimed that the Soviet Union had spent $14 billion on propaganda while the United States spent $75 million.  The Soviet Union was producing better propaganda than the United States.  He argued that more resources were needed to win the propaganda cold war.  Yet the studios had poured in considerable resources for anti-communist films and none had worked.  The films were not allocated second rate talent.  Directors William Wellman, Gordon Douglas, Leo McCarey, William Dietrele, William Cameron Menzies, Elia Kazan, Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, and Josef von Sternberg and others represent a group of highly talented people.  It was not the lack of talent which caused their failure or the pace at which they were cranked out by the studios. 

After the release of Walk East on Beacon and other anti-communist efforts, the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther lashed out at Hollywood for its failure to make effective anti-communist films.  He argued that the United States was in a state of confusion and anxiety over the threat of communism and he wanted Hollywood to ‘clarify the realities of the situation and the true extent of domestic peril.’  Crowther thought that the plots of the film were reworkings of old ideas and reflected a deeper problem in the film industry.

(In Hollywood) no one, resenting aspersions, dares raise a clear contentious voice.  Caution is king.  Intellectually Hollywood is paralyzed.

In this grave state of apprehension, it isn’t likely that the people out there are going to come through with any … literal dramatization of the actual shape of the Communist peril.  Indeed it is not very likely that anyone will henceforth want to touch the subject of communism with a ten foot pole.  Not only is it ticklish as a topic, but pictures about it have proved conspicuously unbefitting as far as the paying public is concerned.[2]

One film which broke the anti-communist mould was Samuel Fuller’s Pick Up on South Street (1953).  It was not an easy film to make. According to Lisa Dombrowsi, in her book The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill you, the script ran afoul of the the PCA, for “excessive brutality and sadistic beatings, of both men and women”. Although a revised script was accepted soon after, the studio was forced to shoot multiple takes of a particular scene in which the manner of Jean Peters and Richard Kiley frisk each other for loot was considered too risqué.

The film begins when a pickpocket Skip McCoy, played by Richard Widmark, stole some microfilm from the purse of Candy, the former mistress of communist Joey. The film contained a secret chemical formulae and Candy attempted to get the film back from McCoy for the psychopathic Joey.  She falls in love with McCoy whole doing so, but McCoy was not interested and wanted to sell the microfilm back to the communists for $25,000.  He eventually also falls in love with Candy, but only after he found out that she would not betray him to the communists.  He was enraged when Candy was beaten and shot by Joey.  He followed Joey and dealt out a savage beating in revenge.

McCoy was not interested in seeking revenge until he has his own personal motives to do so.  When an FBI agent asked him, ‘Do you know what Communism is?’ Skip replies ‘Who cares?’  They press him to act out of patriotic motives and he refused.

McCoy was not interested in seeking revenge until he has his own personal motives to do so. It is his love for Candy – not his political interests – that drive his revenge.

Detective:  If you refuse to co-operate you’ll be as guilty as those traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb

McCoy:  Are you waving the flag at me?[3]

Fuller later argued that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had lunch with him and studio head Zanuck, and was told that he detested Fuller’s work and especially Pickup on South Street. Hoover particuarly did not like Widmark’s character saying “Are you waving the flag at me?”, He did not approve of the the scene of a Federal agent bribing an informer and other things. “Zanuck backed Fuller up, telling Hoover he knew nothing about making movies, but removed references to the FBI in the film’s advertising.” It is simple to identify Hoover’s annoyance. McCoy was only interested in money.  He said to Candy: ‘So you are Red.  Who cares?  Your money is as good as anybody’s.’  The film was a clear break from any other anti-communist film of the time.  Indeed it turned everything on its head.  The criminal world looked down on communism.  Moe, who informed on Skip for $50 to the police, refused to give Skip’s address to the communists because ‘even in our crumby kind of business, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere’.[4]  Moe doesn’t even know why she doesn’t like communism.  She says ‘What do I know about commies? Nothing? I know I just don’t like them.’[5]

Most other anti-communist films defended the role of the informer.  In Pickup On South Street, the stance on informing was reversed.

Director Sam Fuller was laughing at the seriousness of patriotic films and in doing so produced one of the most eccentric and individual anti-communist films of the 1950s.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster
Moe: Some people peddle apples, lamb chops, lumber.  I peddle information.  Skip ain’t sore.  He understands.  We live in a different kind of world.  Once in while he gets how under the collar if I sell him short.
Candy: But you wouldn’t sell him to a commie.
Moe: What do you think I am?  An informer?[6]

Moe was in informer to the police and yet despised informers to communists.  The hero of this film was a unrepentant and unpatriotic criminal.  The law enforcement agencies appeared to be flat-footed and easily misled by the criminals.  The police even needed informers like Moe to round up suspects.  Fuller was laughing at the seriousness of patriotic films and in doing so produced one of the most eccentric and individual anti-communist films of the 1950s. The communism angle is so slight that when the movie was released in France, the dubbed soundtrack changed the villains from communist spys to drug dealers. The French title “Le port de la drogue” can be translated as “Pier of Drugs”. [7] 

Fuller repeated the formula of personal, rather than political revenge, with Richard Widmark leading a submarine in Chinese controlled waters, in Hell And High Water (1954).  Widmark was a mercenary who would sell his services to the highest bidder.  The submarine crew uncovered a plot by the Chinese to have a disguised B29 drop atomic bombs on Manchuria to blame the United States for starting a nuclear war.  Widmark couldn’t care less until his most loyal crew member was killed by a communist prisoner.  Only after his friend’s, did he become committed to stopping the communist plot.  Critic Nicholas Garnham argued that ‘the Fuller protagonist is always caught in a crossfire between warring totalitarian organizations.’  Pickup on South Street finished 62nd in the Variety rankings for 1953.[8]


[1] Hollywood Reporter, 6 October 1953.

[2] New York Times, 8 June 1952.

[3] Pick-Up On South Street, (d) Samuel Fuller, (w) Samuel Fuller.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] For a discussion of Fuller’s anti-communism and his views on national identity see Nicholas Garham, Fuller, Secker and Warburg in association with the British Film Institute, 1971, pp. 106 – 133.

[8] Variety, 6 January 1954.

My Son John ( 1952)

My Son John was a serious attempt to alert America to, what director Keo McCarey considered, a dangerous and pressing threat.  The film seemed to have absorbed the political tensions of Hollywood during that strained time.  From its opening scenes, it was a gloomy tense depiction of strangling the American family.
Image from eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

The links between sexuality and communism were seen in other films, but none more pointed than My Son John (1952) which linked political subversion to sexual activity. Producer, writer and director Leo McCarey was one of the leading anti-communist campaigners in Hollywood,[1] and his film My Son John was a serious attempt to alert America to, what he considered, a dangerous and pressing threat.  McCarey was a staunch anti-Communist and had joined Wood in testifying to HUAC in October 1947. He had directed Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Marys (1945), which were very popular films with Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley. McCarey told HUAC his films were not successful in Russia because they contained God. He wanted Hollywood to produce anti-Communist films as it had done in the Second World War against fascism. In 1952, McCarey would do just that and direct one of the more feverish anti-Communist films in My Son John – the final political messages of which were fashioned by DeMille. The film seemed to have absorbed the political tensions of Hollywood during that strained time.  From its opening scenes, it was a gloomy tense depiction of strangling the American family.

The story began as Ben and Chuck Jefferson, played by James Young and Richard Jaeckel, went off to fight in the Korean War.  They were blonde clean-cut American boys who played football.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The film witnessed the return of Helen Hayes – the first lady of american Theatre – after 18 years away from the screen. The story began as Ben and Chuck Jefferson, played by James Young and Richard Jaeckel, went off to fight in the Korean War.  They were blonde clean-cut American boys who played football, while their brother John, played by Robert Walker, was dark haired and read books.  John worked at some mysterious job in Washington.  Their mother, played by Helen Hayes, was distressed that he did not return for their farewell party.  When he did return, Hayes was shocked to learn that he scoffed at his father’s membership of the American Legion.  Suspicious increased when he told his parents that he believed that Bible stories should be taken on a symbolic rather than literal level.

With the evidence mounting fast, his mother Lucille, played by Helen Hayes, made John swear on the Bible that he was not a communist.  He was quite happy to oblige because he was an atheist and was not afraid of eternal damnation by making such an oath.  The Bible was also used in a scene where John’s father Dan sang John a song he composed for his American Legion Friends.

            If you don’t like you’re Uncle Sammy;

Then go back to the your home o’er the sea;

To the land from where you came;

Whatever its’ name;

But don’t be ungrateful to me;

If you don’t like the stars in Old Glory;

If you don’t like the red, white and blue;

Then don’t act like he cur in the story;

Don’t bite the hand that’s feeding you.[2]

He then bashed John over the head with the bible when he laughed.  The scene appeared to be strongly influenced by a similar scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, where a mother read the story of Exodus from the bible to her two sons.  One son also scoffed at the reading and was struck over the head by the other son with a newspaper.  In an earlier draft of the screenplay of My Son John, the father struck John when he scoffed at the commandment about honoring your parents.  The similarity was no accident as DeMille’s political speech writer Donald Hayne wrote the original drafts for the final speech by John Jefferson.[3]  To scoff at the ten commandments was the equivalent of extolling communism for DeMille who saw them as the moral basis to fight communism.[4]  Furthermore, to scoff was direct proof of communist tendencies, hence the father’s righteous and violent reaction.

Director Leo McCarey watches Robert Walker and Heleln Hayes. The relationship between Mother and Son was a bizarre subtext to this anti-Communist film.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

DeMille exercised absolute control over his staff and it would be impossible to believe that Hayne wrote the speech without DeMille’s direction, approval and consent.  DeMille’s writers considered themselves to be ‘trained seals’ who merely translated the director’s thoughts onto paper.[5]  Even though he has not listed in the credits, it is clear that DeMille had a great deal of power within Hollywood’s anti-communist community and that power extended to influencing the anti-communist content of films of other directors.

John’s father Dan, played by Dean Jagger, swore that if he even thought his son was a communist, he would take him into the back yard and shoot with a double-barrel shotgun.  McCarey’s depiction of the all-American father was drunk, violent, and stupid.  Throughout the film, the father was extremely hostile to John’s intellectual achievements, and yet the mother’s character was even worse.  She hovered on the edge of a nervous breakdown and there were several hints to her being menopausal.  In an earlier draft of the film, the message was clear that she was going through a ‘stage of life’ and needed to constantly take pills.[6]  When the mother heard that John was being investigated by the FBI for being communist, she regarded it as solid evidence that he was guilty. In the draft script, she actually collapsed before testifying that her son was a communist.  The audience was meant to conclude that her communist son was undermining her mental and physical health.  It would be easier to believe that these demented parents led their children into communism.

Like I Married a Communist, My Son John linked intellectual activity to communism.  John was constantly compared with his blonde brothers.  They played football and were doing their patriotic duty in Korea while John was an intellectual and a traitor.  T seemed failure to play football was one of the key elements of becoming a political subversive.  The mother recalled going to a football game to see Ben and Chuck play.  As she supported their football team, she would turn to John and barrack for him in his own personal football game.  The audience was told that John’s brothers were pulled out of school to pay for John’s education.  These ideas neatly fitted with the anti-intellectual atmosphere of the McCarthyite investigators.  It was a time when the word ‘egghead’ became a pejorative term for intellectuals.[7]  While making the film, McCarey told The New York Times:

(My Son John) is about a mother and father who struggle and slaved.  They had no education.  They put all their money into higher education for their sons.  But on of the kids gets too bright.  It poses the problem – how bright can you get?

He takes up a lot of things including atheism… The mother only knew two books – her Bible and her cookbook.  But who’s the brighter in the end – the mother or the son.[8]

But there was something more sinister than intellectual curiosity which led to communism.  In his review of the film Bosley Crowthey in the New York Times wrote that intellectuals were seen as ‘dangerous perverters of youth.’[9]  It was not only in the field of ideas that he was corrupt.  John’s twisted relationship with his mother indicated murkier reasons for the descent into the abyss.  Nora Sayre noted that John was deceitful and charming toward her and there was an undisguised hostility towards his father.  His performance was as close as Hollywood would dare come to that of a homosexual.[10]  The father looked on in disgust when he met his professor from his old University.  In the early draft of the screenplay, Dan says to his wife:  ‘Did you see that greeting?  I thought they were going to kiss each other.’[11]  John’s communism was the result of a combination of anti-athletic, intellectual and homosexual tendencies.

In the original screenplay, John’s mother was in a position to put John in prison for his communist activities.  She could not bring herself to testify against John to the FBI and collapsed and was then put into a hospital.  The draft screenplay was incomplete, but it did include notes of a speech where John renounced his communist past while making a speech to a high school.  The speech, which incriminated him, was made even though the FBI was unable to convict him.  John was arrested and taken to prison.  In the final scene, he visited his mother in hospital and told her of his return to the ‘side of the angels’.[12]

The film required a different ending as Walker died before the end of My Son John.  Some hasty rewriting was needed, and McCarey used some outtakes from Strangers On A Train given to him by director Alfred Hitchcock to spin out an ending.[13]  To complete the film.  John went through a remarkable conversion to capitalism at the end of the film and was immediately gunned down by his fellow communists beneath the Lincoln Memorial.

In the film from the 1930s through to the 1950s, the figure of Lincoln was used to bolster the political viewpoints of the filmmakers.  Abraham Lincoln was the most deified on the Presidents in the American popular imagination.  In Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), the dejected Smith returned to fight the corrupt politicians in the Senate after seeing a small child in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  Director John Ford repeatedly used Lincoln as an icon of fundamental American wisdom in films such as The Iron Horse (1924) and Young Mr Linclon (1939).  In Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the Secretary of State, played by Edward G. Robinson, looked at a picture of Lincoln, while pondering the fate of the Cheyenne Indians, and said ‘What would he do?’ and the problems of Cheyenne Indians were soon resolved.  Lincoln was also used to support the closing anti-communist message in I Was a Communist for the FBI and The FBI Story (1958).

Lincoln was once again the icon of traditional American values.  John’s death at the feet of the memorial showed that his political conversion and redemption was complete.  He had paid his price for becoming a communist.  In the original script he cried out:  ‘I am a native American communist spy – and may God have mercy on my soul!’[14]  The final film made John pay for his communism with his death.  At the conclusion, a tape recording of his planned speech was played to a graduating class.

I was going to help to make a better world.  I was flattered when I was immediately recognized as an intellect.  I was invited to homes where only superior minds commuted.  It excited my freshman fancy to hear daring thoughts … A bold defiance of the only authorities I’d ever known: my church and my father and my mother.  I know that many of you have experienced that stimulation.  But stimulants lead to narcotics.  As the seller of habit-forming dope gives the innocent their first inoculation, with a cunning worthy of a serpent, there are other snakes waiting lying to satisfy the desire of the young to give themselves something positive…[15]

The concluding speech described communism as an addictive drug.  This did not explain why John was able to break his addiction so easily.  During his final speech a ray of light shines down on the stage indicating God’s approval, when John asked for God’s mercy, it was surely given.

The final speech was quite different form Hayne’s original script.[16]  Hayne wanted to emphasise that the laws against communist agents were weak and the FBI could not have convicted John.  He gave up any chance of escape and confessed that he had been passing secrets to the Russians.[17]  McCarey, however wanted to drive home the inherent evil of communism.  McCarey’s draft for John’s final speech was extremely close to the final film and it seemed that Walker’s death did little to change its direction.

Once again, communism was expunged by a severe act of contrition.  Both Robert Ryan in I Married A Communist and Robert Walker in My Son John had to perform this painful act to clear themselves of communism, just as those in Hollywood had to name names before the HUAC investigations in order to clear themselves.  McCarey’s depiction of communism was the blackest of the 1950s.  It was as an addictive drug peddled by intellectuals with homosexual tendencies to young impressionable minds.  The thin academic air of college was a breeding ground for these delusions.  Young people who wanted to do something positive may fall victim to its clutches.  Yet the alternative in McCarey’s world was not much better.  Violent and threatening, verging on psychotic, fathers and neurotic mothers were the all-American couple.  These parents would sacrifice their children to the authorities through guilt by association.  He film rationalized that the techniques used throughout America and Hollywood were necessary and desirable.  It argued that being investigated was the same as being guilty; that authorities were impeccable in their research and pursuit of enemies and never made mistakes.  John’s confession at the end of the film justified the physical and mental battering he had received from his mother, his father and the authorities.  The confession was a justification of HUAC’s investigations and the stance taken by the studio heads.  When the film was released, it was not surprising that DeMille said it was a great film and showed that McCarey was a great American.[18]  The film was, however, universally condemned by film reviewers.  My Son John represented the low water mark of Hollywood’s dealing with communism and the film did not make Variety’s list for the year despite some heavy advertising.[19] Most reviewers slammed the film, aside from Bosley Crowther in The New York Times who praised some aspects of it; but even he had grave concerns about its political dogmatism.

Bernard Dick focuses on Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952) in some detail in his book The Screen is Red. The film’s production fell into a shambles with the death of lead actor Robert Walker, and an ending of sorts was created – with some unheralded assistance by Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock. The remaining film is uncomfortable to watch; it contains one disturbing scene in which an angry father attacks his communist son for laughing at his conservative jingoism. Despite the contrived conclusion, Dick describes McCarey as a master of plot resolution. He argues that McCarey gave viewers an ending that was “dramatic and reflective,” [117] providing an accurate description of America in the early years of the Cold War. His respectful analysis is at odds with both contemporary reviewers and later critics, who see it as a mixture of hysterical anti-communism tinctured with a vague homophobia – along with some disturbing ideas about motherhood.


[1] Ceplair and Englund, Inquisition, p. 259.

[2] My Son John, (d) Leo McCarey, (w) Leo McCarey.

[3] Draft of final speech of My Son John, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[4] A full discussion will be in the chapter on biblical epics.

[5] Quote from unnamed writer in Motion Picture Daily, 16 December 1949.  Accounts of DeMille’s legendary treatment of writers can be found in Ring Lardner Jr., ‘The Sign of the Boss’, Screenwriter, November 1945, and Phil Koury, Yes, Mr DeMille, G.P.Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1976.

[6] Undated draft script of My Son John, Box 439, Folder 10, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Brighan Young University, Provo, Utah.

[7] William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream A Narrative History of America 1932 – 1972, Bantam, New York, 1975, pp. 625 – 626.

[8] New York Times, 18 March 1952.  At the end of the original script, John asks his mother to bake cookies for him in prison.

[9] New York Times, 9 April 1952.

[10] Sayre, Running Time, p.96.  Walker’s performance is close to his acclaimed role of Bruno in Strangers On A Train where again his performance had strong homosexual overtones.  See Donald Spoto, Art Of Alfred Hitchcock, Dolphin, New York, 1976, p. 212 and for a differing view see Robin Wood, Hitchcock Film’s Revisited, Columbia University Press, New York, 1960, pp. 347 – 348.  McCarey did claim that Hitchcock was a strong influence for the film, New York Times, 9 April 1952.

[11] Draft script of My Son John, p. 11 Box 439, Folder 10, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Walker died after being prescribed some sedatives by doctors after emotional outbursts on the set of My Son John.  He had a history of problems with alcohol and had suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1940s.  David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, Secker and Warburg, London, 1975, p. 595.

[14] Hayne, Donald John’s Speech, 2 June 1951, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[15] My Son John, (d) Leo McCarey, (w) Leo McCarey.

[16] Hayne, Donald John’s Speech, 2 June 1951, and Leo McCarey, Leo John’s Speech, 10 August 1951.  Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[17]Undated draft script of My Son John, Ibid.

[18] Cecil B. DeMille to Leo McCarey, 3 April 1952.  Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[19] The film’s advertising focused on a non-existent sex scene.  The film was condemned by most film reviewers at the time.  One belated defence of the film is in Leland A. Poague, The Hollywood Professionals: Wilder and McCarey, London, Tantry Press, 1980.