High Noon for HUAC

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The Westerns hold pride of place in American cinema.  They retold the legends and myths of America’s frontier past and had been a feature of cinema virtually since its inception.  In the 1950s, hundreds of westerns were made which dealt with many aspects of American life.  It was perhaps inevitable, with the stifling of direct political criticism, and the pressing concerns of McCarthyism and communism, that westerns would take on a political dimension in the 1950s.

High Noon was one of the most important westerns of the 1950s and many films followed its pattern of a lone law officer facing a threat to the town.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The 1947 investigation proved to be only a testing of the waters for HUAC.  The Hollywood 10 went to prison in September 1950 and the committee re-gathered momentum to pounce on Hollywood again.  The Hollywood 10’s imprisonment had increased the power of HUAC to make it feared throughout the film industry.  Director Joseph Losey told an interviewer that ‘the most terrifying thing about the atmosphere was seeing people succumb, and seeing all protest disappear.  Because if you did protest, you’d had it.’[1]  The second HUAC investigations were to be larger and more systematic and they destroyed the remnants of the liberal-left in Hollywood without any effective opposition.  In the middle of these rising fears about HUAC’s return, Carl Foremen was writing the screenplay for a western called High Noon.

The film was about the desperate efforts of the Sheriff Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, to get help from the townspeople to fight Frank Miller and his gang, who were being released from jail that day, and who had promised revenge on the town and Kane.  Miller, who Kane put in prison for murder, had been pardoned, and his gang were gathering at train station to meet when the train arrived at noon.  Kane approached all the town leaders for assistance to fight Miller but they all abandoned him.  The town and church leaders demanded that he leave town, claiming that the gang would leave the town alone if he was not there.  Kane failed in his attempts and faced the gunmen alone.  After defeating the four outlaws, Kane threw his badge onto the street in disgust at the town and left.  The screenwriter wanted the audience to equate the people of Cooper’s town with those who suddenly deserted their blacklisted friends in Hollywood.

Kane’s disgust equaled Foreman’s as friends humbled themselves and begged for help from the Hollywood community without success.  Foreman had been called to testify in front of HUAC and intended to be an un-co-operative witness. He said his friends began turning their backs on him even though he was not a communist:

My associates were afraid for themselves – I don’t believe them – and tried to get off the film, unsuccessfully.  They went to Gary Cooper and he refused (to go along with them).  Fred Zimmerman, too, was very staunch and very loyal, so was out backer, Bruce Church.

There are scenes in the film that are taken from life.  The scene in the church is a distillation of meetings I had with partners, associates and lawyers.  And there’s the scene with the man who offers to help and come back with his gun and asks, where are the others?  Cooper says there no others … I became the Gary Cooper character.[2]

Foreman depicted Hollywood society in a poor light as the threat of McCarthyism approached.  The pillars of the community were afraid that a gunfight would jeopardise business and possible future investment in the town and urged Kane to leave.  Their attitude was similar to the studio heads who abandoned their employees on the slightest of pretexts to avoid bad publicity and poor box office returns.  The religious leaders also pulled back from Kane because they cannot sanction violence.  He was only offered help by only a 14 year old boy and the town drunk and he turned down both.  The retired marshal wanted to help but could not because of his arthritis.

The point of the film was that the town united could have easily defeated the threat.  Instead the Hollywood community pursued their own individual selfish ends and were torn apart.  The point was not lost after the film’s release and Foreman was blacklisted for his efforts for many years.  He was ‘morosely pleased’ when the message of the film was understood by the conservatives.[3]

Grace Kelly supports her husband in High Noon Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

High Noon was one of the most important westerns of the 1950s and many films followed its pattern of a lone law officer facing a threat to the town.  Foreman certainly had no doubts when he wrote the screenplay that the town was Hollywood and the four men approaching represented HUAC and when the film was released The New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote:

It is a story that bears a close resemblance to things that are happening today where people are traumatised by bullies and surrendering their freedoms … (Kane) is a man with the sense to meet a challenge, not duck and hope it will go away … The marshal can give a few lessons to the people of Hollywood today.[4]

However, it is doubtful whether the audience of the time saw it in that light.  One of the Hollywood 10, Ring Lardner Jr, who knew Carl Foreman, said he could see no anti-HUAC message in the film beyond the general theme of standing up for oneself.[5]  If members of the Hollywood 10, who were more sensitive on the topic did not get the message, and knew the screenwriter, what hope was there for the general audience.  The film had an anti-HUAC message but it is uncertain whether that message got across to the audience.  Director Zinnemann said he did not make films to prove anything.[6]

The film can also be read as a defence of McCarthy with a lone figure standing  up against the communist threat.  The heroic figure of Kane could be seen as McCarthy desperately trying to awaken the community to the impending threat of communism.  Critic Phillip French has also suggested that the film was about the United States reluctantly renewing its role in world affairs.[7]  High Noon started a cycle of movies with the lone or aloof law official figure, struggling with both the town and some form of menace on the horizon.  Something in that formula clicked with the audience and the film finished eighth in the box office for 1952.[8]  The audience responded to the film but it is unclear to exactly what they were responding.


[1] Tom Milne (ed.). Losey on Losey, Secker & Warburg, London, 1968, p. 90.

[2] Rudy Behlmer, Behind the Scenes: The Making of, Samuel French, New York, 1990, p. 276.

[3] Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of he Cold War, Dial, New York, 1982, p. 176.

[4] New York Times, 3 August 1952.

[5] Ring Lardner Jr. at an Australian Film Institute Seminar on 26 March 1991.  (Notes taken by author).

[6] Behimer, Behind p. 277.

[7] Phillip French, Westerns: Aspects of a Genre, Secker and Warburg, London, 1977, p. 35

[8] Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, Vintage, New York, p. 21.

Chaplin and HUAC

A king in New York’s attack on the destructive paranoia of McCarthyism was similar to his attack on Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940) where Chaplin used slapstick to cut his enemies down to size.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.  

Kevin Brianton

Senior lecturer La Trobe University

The only direct depiction of the HUAC investigations in a negative light came in Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957).  Chaplin had been one of he earliest victims of the anti-communist hysteria and had always been a target for the American Right.  Several of his films had enraged the conservatives such as Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940).  His controversial private life had added fuel to the fire of conservatives who considered him to be a moral threat to the country.  An editorial in the Los Angeles Herald Express said:

Charlie Chaplin shelf proclaimed “citizen of the world” and “man without a country,” is fast nearing the end of the trail as far as the United States is concerned.

The complacent self-worship of the man, in a New York press conference is amazing.

In boasting that he was neither a patriot nor an American citizen, he said, in part:

“I am not nationalist of any country … You might say I am a citizen of the world … I never voted in my life … I did a great deal for the war effort … I made a speech in favour of opening a second front in 1942 … I believe that voting for people … leads to fascism.”

What a moral non-eternity that Chaplin is!

In joining the ranks of subversives who have the overthrow of the American way of life as their avowed objective, he insults the American people, the very people who have poured millions into his lap.[1]

The FBI had more than 1900 pages of reports devoted to Charlie Chaplin during his 50 year residency in America.[2]  Just as John Jefferson’s sexual preferences in My Son John were seen as evidence of his political leanings, Chaplin’s divorces and paternity litigations were seen as pointers to his communist sympathies.  Certain scenes in Modern Times comment on communist issues such as when the tramp walked down the street waving a red flag, trying to signal a driver after it fell off a truck.  A communist parade turned the corner behind him and police arrest him as a communist leader.  More important was his depiction of the dehumanizing nature of industrial work which Chaplin delighted in satirizing, along with bosses and police.  It was these scenes and his support for issues such as a second front against the Nazis in 1942 which left him tainted as a communist sympathizer.  It was in this cold war atmosphere of 1952 that United States Attorney General James McGranery rescinded Chaplin’s re-entry permit while he was travelling to London for the premiere of his film Limelight.[3] 

Chaplin was to remain away from the United States for the rest of his life, apart from one visit to pick up a life achievement award at the Academy Awards in 1971.  But although he was never to return, he left his thoughts on he HUAC investigations and he whole atmosphere of paranoia in his film A King in New York (1957).  The film’s attack on the destructive paranoia of McCarthyism was similar to his attack on Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940) where Chaplin used slapstick to cut his enemies down to size.  The exiled King Shahdov of Estrovia sought refuge in the United States where he hoped to fund his plans for the peaceful use of nuclear power.  Unfortunately the crooked Prime Minister, played by Jerry Desmonde, had run off with the funds.  The King and his loyal ambassador Jaume, played by Oliver Johnston, were introduced into various aspects of American culture.  The King visited a progressive school and met a precocious child Rupert Macabee, played by his son Michael Chaplin, who launched into Marxist critique of society.

Chaplin was to remain away from the United States for the rest of his life, apart from one visit to pick up a life achievement award at the Academy Awards in 1971.  But although he was never to return, he left his thoughts on the HUAC investigations and he whole atmosphere of paranoia in his film: A King in New York (1957).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The King later met Rupert wandering homeless in the streets because he was running away from the Un-American Activities Committee who wanted to question him about his parents’ loyalties.  The FBI eventually captured the boy in the King’s apartment and the King was called before the committee.  Before appearing he was wrapped up in a fire hose and proceeded to douse the committee with water. He was cleared of any wrongdoing and before leaving visited Rupert who was destroyed after naming names.  The film’s subject matter was so contentious it was not shown in the United States until 1976.[4]

The pro-HUAC pictures were popular with the American audience.  Both On the Waterfront and The Caine Mutiny were in the top 20 grossing films of 1954.  It is almost impossible to determine whether the main cause of their success was their pro-HUAC message, but it does seem that conservative films had more resonance with the American public.  Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives was a determined attack on the McCarthyite mentality and the anti-intellectual atmosphere of the time.  It was a popular film and part of the post-war liberal flowering of films.  The high-minded aspirations of Storm Centre did not attract an audience.  A King in New York never had a chance.  Although the stinging verbal jab by Wilder on informers in Stalag 17 struck some kind of chord, the attacks mad on HUAC by Chaplin, Miller, Taradash had a little, if any, impact on the American public.  They were pot shots against a well armored opponent.  It is doubtful that the American Right ever felt the sting in the lines delivered in the films.

From the lack of popular reaction to his set of films it would seem that the American public were more behind McCarthy and the HUAC investigations.  The efforts of Hollywood’s liberal community failed to impress the American public that the communists were victims.  However, the pro-HUAC films were also one-offs, and no cycle of films began from On the Waterfront with the informer as hero or from the garbled political message of The Caine Mutiny.  At the close of the decade and in the early 1960s, the political tone of films became more and more anti-McCarthyite.  Films such as Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964) attacked McCarthyism in many different ways.  However, these films were looking at McCarthyism in retrospect when controls were looser and there was little likelihood that a career could be ended by a political statement.  Even though the anti-HUAC films did not strike a chord with the public, it is a credit to the courage and the integrity of the filmmakers that they were made at all.


[1] Los Angeles Herald Express 15 April 1947 printed in David Robinson Chaplin: His Life and Art, McGraw Hill, New York, 1990, p. 546.

[2] Ibid. p. 750. A detailed summary of the FBI’s campaign can be found in this biography.

[3] Ibid., p. 572.

[4] Robinson, Chaplin., p.589.

Storm Center (1956) stands against McCarthyism

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

One American film which stood out clearly against McCarthyism was Storm Center (1956) which focused on a small town in America where a librarian Alicia Hull, played by Bette Davis, was dismissed for having a book called ‘The Communist Dream’ on the library’s shelves. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

One American film which stood out clearly against McCarthyism was Storm Center (1956) which focused on a small town in America where a librarian Alicia Hull, played by Bette Davis, was dismissed for having a book called ‘The Communist Dream’ on the library’s shelves.  The local council wanted the book removed and for future decisions about questionable material to be brought before them.  She told the council:

There was a book in our library for many years.  It is still there.  It made me sick to my stomach every time I checked it out, Mein Kampf.  Maybe we ran the risk of spreading Hitlerism but it didn’t work that way.  People read it.  It made them indignant.  Maybe it helped defeat Hitler?  Don’t you see by keeping it in the library we attack the communist dream?  We say to the communists, ‘We do not fear you.’ We are not afraid of what you have to say.  Tell me, would they keep a book in a Russian library praising democracy?[1]

The council demanded that the book be removed and she refused to withdraw a book because ‘it has ideas we don’t like’.  A politically ambitious councilor then told her that Hull had been linked to several communist front organisations such as the ‘American Peace Mobilization’ and the ‘Voice of Freedom Committee’ during the war.  Hull denied that she was a communist and she had resigned form the organisations when she found out they were fronts.

The council sacked her as well as telling the press that she had former communist affiliations.  The community began to shrink from her, just as the Hollywood community pulled away from those who spoke up for the Hollywood 10 and its supporters.  The councilor who leaked the information prepared to use it as a platform for further political battles ahead.  The councilor was a depiction of those politicians who used their investigations to further their political careers.  Hull was one of the victims whose liberal sympathies were now out of step with the political conventional wisdom.

The film also depicted the traditional American family in a less than appealing light.  One man was hideous anti-intellectual, he resented even his wife’s fondness for music and his son’s taste for reading.  In its defence of the little boy who liked reading books, the film may have been reacting to the depiction of the American family in My Son John.  Provoked by his father’s hatred of ‘pinkos’, the son in Storm Centre burned down the library.  The message of the film was that stamping out even one set of ideas – even repellent ideas – was a short step to book-burning fascism.  The film was an extraordinarily bold statement for its time.

Director and writer Daniel Taradash mad his position on the film clear in The New York Times.

Storm Centre is a dangerous picture about dangerous ideas.  It is about the burning of books and assassination of character.  It is about gossip and its peculiar impact on children.  It is about faith in headlines and distrust of the intellectual.  It is about political ambition disguised as patriotism.  It is about the unpredictable line of cause and effect which can start with the banning of a book and end with the creation of a lunatic.  And on the positive side, it is about a person who believes the best way to save a country is to be loyal to its own traditions, rather than afraid of another’s propaganda.[2]

The film had enormous problems despite its liberal and anti-communist message.  In 1952, Mary Pickford had almost signed to do the picture but had backed out after being approached by he anti-communist columnist Hedda Hopper.  Bette Davis decided to take the role after it had been rejected by Barbara Stanwyck and Loretta Young.  Davis did not work for three years after doing the film.[3]  At studio insistence, screenwriter Daniel Taradash was extremely careful to make sure that Hull acted from liberal motives rather than communist sympathies.[4]  Even so, the Catholic Legion of Decency described it as ‘hugely propagandistic’ which offered a ‘warped, oversimplified and strongly emotional solution to a complex problem’.[5]  Taradash later included a jab at the witch-hunt in the film Bell, Book and Candle (1958) when Kim Novak tried to tell James Stewart about her hidden secret and he asked her if she had done ‘something un-American’.[6]  Her secret was that she was a witch.


[1] Storm Centre Columbia/Phoenix (Julian Blaustein), (d) Daniel Taradash, (w) Daniel Taradash, Elick Moll.

[2] New York Times, 14 October 1956.

[3] Lawrence J. Quirk, Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis, Bantam, New York, 1990, p. 388.

[4] Ibid., p. 386.

[5] New York Times, 12 July 1956.

[6] Bell, Book and Candle, (d) Richard Quine, (w) Daniel Taradash.

The Caine Mutiny and the politics of informing

The Caine Mutiny (1954) was about a mutiny aboard a ship because of a demented captain.  The first part of the film demonstrated the complete incompetence of Captain Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

On The Waterfront was not an isolated example of a film by the disaffected left about HUAC.  The year 1954 saw the release of another popular film which attacked those who criticised or rebelled against authority.  The Caine Mutiny (1954) was about a mutiny aboard a ship because of a demented captain.  The first part of the film demonstrated the complete incompetence of Captain Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart.  The films showed that his judgment was deeply flawed and he had deep psychological problems.  The aspiring novelist Keefer called him paranoid and aroused the executive officer Maryk’s suspicion about Queeg’s mental stability.  Maryk began a medical journal of Queeg and he had plenty of material.  Queeg was both obsessive and paranoid and few in the audience could forget the performance of Bogart with the continuous rolling of his steel balls in his hands.  Incident builds on incident.  Queeg was cowardly, deceptive, arrogant, evasive, and dishonest.  He finally fell apart during a typhoon and the film make it clear that mutiny was the only way to save the ship when Queeg was incapable of giving proper orders.

Up to this point it was clear that Queeg was in the wrong.  The film then executed a reversal and attacked the mutineers for being disloyal.  The defence attorney Greenwald, played by Jose Ferrer, by a vicious cross examination proved Queeg’s incompetence and paranoia.  Yet in the penultimate scene of The Caine Mutiny, Greenwald turned on the crew, and in particular Keefer, for not supporting Queeg.  Greenwald’s final outburst was a real jolt, because at no time had the men failed in their duties or responsibilities or both.  The film made it clear that Captain Queeg was too paranoid to command the ship.  According to Greenwald, however, the crew was wrong not to have followed a leader who may have killed them.

Film historians Roffman and Purdy point out the reason for the unsettling savage twist may have come from the film’s director Edward Dmytryk who was the only one of the Hollywood 10 who later testified before HUAC.[1]  Dmytryk went to prison for contempt of Congress, but after being released from prison, testified before HUAC.  His testimony allowed him to regain his position in Hollywood and The Caine Mutiny was on of his first films after his return.  He later claimed that he opposed the Hollywood 10 before going to prison, but was afraid that recanting before imprisonment would brand him a coward.[2]  The casting of Ferrer as the lawyer Greenwald was also interesting.  Like Dmytryk, Ferrer appeared before the HUAC hearings in 1951 as a friendly witness.  His testimony was described by one historian as ‘cooperative to the point of obsequiousness’.[3]

The film was based on a bestselling novel and a long running play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1953), both of which were written by Herman Wouk, but was sharply different from them both.  In the play, which focused entirely on the court martial trial, Queeg was depicted as a reasonable man until the weight of evidence crushed his spirit and revealed him to be a paranoid incompetent.  Even then some doubt remained.  In the film, it was clear from Bogart’s opening scenes that Queeg was an unstable and dangerous leader.  The film also has an important scene where Queeg, after a cowardly display escorting marines into battle, asked for support from his crew.  The crew continued to ostracise him through a mixture of fear of his madness and disgust at his cowardice.

The Caine Mutiny did not contain a personal commentary like On the Waterfront, but it had clear parallels with Dmytryk’s situation.  The mutiny was blamed on an intellectual writer and officer who had manipulated events for his own ends.  Keefer was the left wing figure who had duped the naive liberals, Maryk and Keith into rebelling against authority.  Keefer was depicted as the true enemy which made The Caine Mutiny one of he most subtle defences of the HUAC investigations and the attacks on communist subverters.  The communists, as represented by Keefer, were cowardly manipulators.[4]  Both the book and the play leave some area of doubt about the dubious role of Keefer in undermining Queeg.  In the film, Keefer accepted that he was guilty and cowardly and all the officers accept their guilt and walk away from him.

In more general terms, the film argued that authority should not be challenged no matter how inept or how dangerous it became.  However, in Bogart’s memorable depiction of the insane Queeg, it was clear that the officers had no choice.  Wouk’s message that brave little men like Queeg stopped Jews from ending up as ‘bars of soap’ and therefore deserved the crew’s full support was lost in the film version.  When the lawyer Greenwald condemned the men, his speech seemed unjust and unnecessary.  Perhaps the film reflected he divided state of Dmytryk’s allegiances which he described in his autobiography.

The film argued that authority should not be challenged no matter how inept or how dangerous it became.  However, in Bogart’s memorable depiction of the insane Queeg, it was clear that the officers had no choice. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

I had long been convinced that he fight of the Ten was political, that the battle for freedom of thought, in which I believed completely, had been twisted into a conspiracy of silence.  I believed that I was forced to sacrifice my family and my career in defense of the communist party, from which I had long been separated and which I had grown to dislike and distrust.  I knew that if it ever got down a choice between the party and our traditional democratic structure I would fight the party to the bitter end.

On the other hand, I would have to name names, and I knew the problems this would cause.[5]

Dmytryk argued that he was forced by communist tactics to refuse to testify before the HUAC and strongly objected to the uniformity.[6]  When Kefer testified and lied before the court martial hearings abandoning Merrick to his fate, the scene mirrored the abandonment he felt when John Howard Lawson testified before HUAC.  Dmytryk felt that the sympathy was ‘oozing’ away from the Hollywood 10 because of Lawson’s screaming and yelling.[7]  The Caine Mutiny was a popular film and was ranked second in rentals by Variety.[8]

Broken Lance can be read as a defense of Dmytryk’s actions as the hero was prepared to go to jail for a noble cause and at the end of the film was welcomed back to the ranch, of which he is now owner. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Dmytryk’s first effort after The Caine Mutiny was a successful western called Broken Lance (1954) in which the hero is forced to falsify evidence in a trial to ensure that his guilty father will not be sent to prison.  The film can be read as a defense of Dmytryk’s actions as the hero was prepared to go to jail for a noble cause and at the end of the film was welcomed back to the ranch, of which he is now owner.  The film was ranked 20th by Variety. Dmytryk’s flair for box office successes abandoned him when he came to direct Soldier of Fortune in 1955.  It was about the rescue of an American taking pictures of military bases in China.  The Chinese tortured him by sowing him pictures of his wife eating dinner with another man.  She was actually trying to arrange his rescue.  The escape was ludicrously simple.  Overall, the film as anti-communist propaganda and as drama was exceptionally poor.  The film did poorly at the box office despite having a big budget and the draw cards of Clark Gable and Susan Hayward.[9]

The strained logic of the Caine Mutiny can also be seen in a minor film called The Rack (1956) which dealt with the collaboration of American soldiers during the Korean War. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The strained logic of The Caine Mutiny can also be seen in a minor film called The Rack (1956) which dealt with the collaboration of American soldiers during the Korean War.  The film was based on a TV play by Rod Sterling.  Captain Edward W. Hall, Jr, played by Paul Newman, returned from Korea accused of collaborating with the enemy.  The defence of his actions rested on the mental and physical torture he was given by the communists during his internment.  The communists discover that Hall had a strained relationship with his father and respected career soldier Colonel Edward Hall, Sr, played by Walter Pidgeon.  For several days, he was locked in a small cellar with wet rags a denied sleep.  The communists made him relive again and again his strained relationship with his father.  He was told constantly that he was totally alone and no one cared for him.  To be released from this torment, he must sign some leaflets.  Under pressure, Hall Jr eventually cracked and collaborated with the enemy.

His defence, however, appeared strong.  The ordeal suffered by Hall Jr was monstrous and his testimony revealed him to be a man on he edge of a mental collapse.  Yet under questioning from the prosecution, he admitted that he could have kept on going.  In a further statement, he said that under a torture a man came a to a critical point where he could be a saint or a sinner.  The decision to collaborate was a simple moral choice between good and evil.

The film argued that any soldier who collaborated was guilty of a moral crime.  Hall Jr invited a guilty verdict from the court and it was brought down on a vote of two to one.  The film wrenched form being a plea for understanding for Korean prisoners of war who collaborated to being the hardest of hardline statements.  Even under torture, there must be no concession to the communists.  Those people who willing aided the communists had no defence under any circumstances.  It  would have been difficult for a film of the 1950s to extol or defend a collaborator with the communists.  Yet by not even allowing a compassionate view of those people who collaborated with the communists under torture, the film certainly had no sympathy with any voluntary communist sympathisers.


[1] Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy, The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair and Politics From The Depression to the Fifties, Midland, USA, 1981, p. 294.

[2] Nancy Lynn Schwartz, The Hollywood Writer’s Wars, Knopf, New York, 1982, p. 308.

[3] Bernard F. Dick, Radiacal Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood 10, University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, 1989, p. 154.

[4] Roffman and Purdy, Historian, p. 294.

[5] Edward Dmytryk, It’s a Hell of A Life But Not A Bad Living, Times Books, New York, 1978, p. 146

[6] ibid., p. 94.

[7] Ibid., p. 100

[8] Variety, 5 January 1955.

[9] Variety, 5 January 1955. 

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.