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.

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.

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.

Failure of early post-war anti-communist films

Dr Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

In Jet Pilot, John Wayne played an American pilot who takes the Russian defector on a tour of American military bases and demonstrated the United States military prowess. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

While the mood of the United States was anti-communist, cinema depicting the politics was not popular. Perhaps one of the main reasons for the failure of the anti-communist message in American cinema was the amount of studio interference in these films. There were often trivial reasons for the failure of the films.

Director Joseph Von Sternberg was listed as the director of Jet Pilot, which begun production in 1950, and was finally released in 1957, and was produced by Howard Hughes.  Von Sternberg had been Hollywood directorial royalty in the 1930s, but his fortunes had declined by the early 1950s. RKO had already flopped with I Married A Communist and The Whip Hand, and its third attempt at anti-communist propaganda almost failed to get a release.  The plot was about a Russian pilot, played by Janet Leigh, who defected to the United States.  John Wayne played an American pilot who takes the Russian defector on a tour of American military bases and demonstrated the United States military prowess.  He then faked a defection to feed false information to the Russians.  The pair fell in love and she helped him escape back to America.  Von Sternberg loathed the picture and resented the amount of studio interference. 

“I was told, step by step, day by day, movement for movement, word for word, precisely what I was to direct … My name is on the film as director, and there are other names also to which are given credit are just as shadowy, but the names of all those who had a finger in the celluloid pie are mercifully omitted.”[1] Studio interference played a key role in the poor quality of these films particularly at RKO.

The Big Lift (1950) was one of the few anti-communist films with a liberal view of the world. 

Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Not all anti-communist films were unbalanced in their approach.  The Big Lift (1950) was one of the few anti-communist films with a liberal view of the world.  It focused on the story of the Berlin Airlift in 1949 when the Russians blockaded the city and the western allies began supplying Berlin with all its needs from the air.  It was depicted as dangerous work and the film showed a quiet confidence in America in dealing with the communists.  The airlift was physically and mentally demanding on aircrews who were forced to work long hours to supply the city with food and coal.

One of the airmen, Danny MacCullough, played by Montgomery Clift, spent a day in Berlin and travelled through the Russian sector to see the life of ordinary Berliners.  Russian soldiers searched a railway carriage for smugglers and one man informed on a women for smuggling coffee.  The coffee was confiscated and the Russians left.  The crowd in the train was about to vent its anger on the man, when he revealed that he was a carrying a huge parcel of coffee and gave the woman, twice the amount she was smuggling.  The Russians were shown as strong but think-headed and easy to deceive.

In a separate incident another American airman Hank, played by Paul Douglas, debated the merits of the American system with a critical communist.  She said that American democracy was a farce as the results were determined by big business.  Hank argued that in the 1948 election, President Truman was written off by the newspapers and just about everyone else.  But in the end, Truman was elected by the people, despite what a big business and the papers were saying.  This was an interesting scene as it was one of the few where the merits of communism and capitalism were actually debated.  The debate was slanted against the communists, but it was clear that writer and director George Seaton was not afraid of communism and felt it could be dealt with through intelligent debate and, if necessary, through the sensible use of force.  At a later time, he spoke about his research for this film, and of being held by the Communists for 56 hours on a dirty train with his wife and daughter after attempting to enter Berlin. Seaton quoted the organizer of the airlift General Lucius D. Clay, who said that if we “resort to totalitarianism to defeat totalitarianism we have lost our democratic soul by doing it.” Seaton’s film even contains some comedy which was lacking in other anti-communist films of the period.  Seaton’s effort would be the final liberal statement from Hollywood on communism for some time.  The film was ranked at 91st by Variety for 1951.[2]

The anti- communist plots of some films were often absurd.  In Tokyo Joe (1949), a plot to return Japanese militarists was described as ‘communist inspired and communist directed’.  This ludicrous idea was either a last minute rewrite of the script or a dubbing of the original soundtrack.  From internal evidence I the film, it appeared as though the words were dubbed at some late stage.  The voice of the General talking to Humphrey Bogart goes oddly deep while this was being said.  The words were also spoken when the camera was focused on Bogart.  This suggests dubbing as it would be difficult to synchronise the General’s mouth movements with his speech.  In either event, the communist element plays no logical part in the film at all.  Communism was not mentioned again.


[1] Joseph von Sternberg, Fun In A Chinese Laundry, Secker & Warburg, London, 1965, p. 282.

[2] Variety, 3 January 1951.  A film called Destination Moscow is listed at 88th.  The film is not listed in Halliwell’s Film Guide, 5th edn, Paladin, London, 1986, but it would be reasonable to conclude that it was an anti-communist film.

I Married a Communist or Woman on Pier 13 (1949)

Dr Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, Strategic Communication, La Trobe University


I Married a Communist was one of the most distinctive of the early anti-communist films.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The initial failure of anti-communist films deterred some filmmakers.  A Hollywood producer John Sutherland scrapped plans for anti-communist film Confessions of an American Communist after he found that exhibitors were ‘indisposed towards films touched with propaganda’.[1]  But the major studios were not deterred and a series of anti-communist films followed in 1949 including The Red Menace, The Red Danube and I Married a Communist.

I Married a Communist or Woman on Pier 13 (1949) was one of the most distinctive of the early anti-communist films.  It was the second of Howard Hughes’ attempts at an anti-communist film,[2] and was an important film for RKO, as the New York Times noted, because it signaled the switch at the studio from its traditional liberal views Hughes’ ultra-conservative values.[3]  The film was beset with production problems, the screenwriters had to ensure its attacks on communist unions were not seen as attacks on all unions.  Making the distinction was proving difficult.  The writers had to create a story about industrial unrest on dockyards without ever mentioning the word ‘strike’.  Instead they had to contend with ‘walk-out’, or ‘work stoppage’ or ‘tie-up’.  Actors Merle Oberon and Paul Heinreid were pressed into appearing in the film and then walked out.[4]

The film was also used as a political barometer for RKO directors.  Joseph Losey along with 13 other directors were offered the job before it was picked up by Rovert Stevenson.  Losey told that the film was the ‘touchstone for establishing who was a “red”’.  Directors were offered I Married a Communist and if they turned it down, they were blacklisted.  Nicholas Ray was also one of the directors offered the film.  He began working on sets and on the script thinking that the film was so idiotic that it would never be made.  When he realized that it was going to be produced, he walked off the set.[5]  Ray later claimed that he told Hughes that the film was a ‘loser’ and wanted nothing to do with it.[6]

After its first disappointing commercial screenings, the film was retitled The Woman on Pier 13, in the hope that a hint of sex and mystery on the waterfront would attract the crowds.[7]  Despite the screenwriting problems about unions, the film was, in large measure, a smear campaign against the head of the West Coast Longshoreman’s and Warehousemen’s Union Harry Bridges.  The union leader was born in Australia and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover tried hard and failed to have him deported.[8]  The choice of Bridges as a target by the studio may also have been made because of the links between the ILWU and the Hollywood’s 10’s Dalton Trumbo who had been a noted supporter of the union leader for many years.[9]  In return, the ILWU had also been a strong promoter of the Hollywood 10.[10]  The ultra-conservative director Cecil B. DeMille had said that Harry Bridges should be in jail and wanted laws to stop him from having a ‘stranglehold on a critical American industry’.[11]

The film focused on Brad Collins, played by Robert Ryan, who played a reformed communist.  He was blackmailed by his former colleagues who threatened to tell his wife and employer of his communist and criminal past.  Ryan, who worked for the waterfront management, was forced to prolong a litter union dispute on the waterfront.  His brother-in-law Don Lowry was indoctrinated by the communists to lead the waterfront union towards confrontation.  The communists acted by manipulating key agents in sensitive positions.  With agents in management and in the union, the communists inflamed and prolonged an industrial dispute which caused economic damage to the United States.  They did this because Moscow had ordered that the docks had to be ‘tied up for 60 days’.[12]  Eventually Lowry became aware of he communist plans and was killed by them.  Angered by Lowry’s murder, Ryan fought and exposed the communist ring, but while regaining his honour, he lost his life.

Throughout the film, the structure of the Communist Party was not made clear; the leader Thomas Gomez took his orders from a shadowy figure on a telephone.  The appearance of this shadowy figure who directed operations from behind the scenes, and who was never caught, was one of the consistent images in anti-communist films.  The figure appeared to be rich and wealthy; a member of the establishment.  The film implied that communists were present throughout society and their senior officials occupied high levels of power.  This hinted that the officials were connected with the Democrat administration.

Former communist membership could be an instrument of blackmail.  If Ryan’s communist past – which included murder – were discovered, he was told he would lose both his wife’s love and his career at the shipyards.  This was a clear attack on those Hollywood radicals who defended their party membership on the grounds of a youthful indiscretion.  Party membership was a lifetime commitment, regardless of the intentions of the individual.  Once a member of the party, it took an extreme act of contrition to remove the taint.  I Married a Communist can be read as Hollywood’s version of its own internal politics.  The hysterical tone of the films and the slimy depiction of communists was a reflection of how the moguls saw the communist threat.  In one scene, an FBI informer was killed by the communists and this was a calculated insult to those who refused to testify.  Informing on communists was depicted as an act of bravery.  Those who attempted to purge themselves of their past were the only ones who could be free from the taint of communism, just as those who did not recant before the various committees could ever again be trusted.

Exploration of the reasons for becoming a communist were confined to those weak-minded young men who were seduced – both literally and metaphorically – by communists.  The script of I Married A Communist claimed that one party member can indoctrinate a thousand Americans.[13]  The means of indoctrination looks to be sexual in nature.  Critic Nora Sayre has noted that there was a common figure running through the anti-communist films called ‘the Bad Blonde’.  The role of the blonde was to seduce ‘impressionable’ young men into joining the Party.[14]  Certainly as the communist agents Nixon[15] and Christine discussed indoctrination of Lowry in I Married A Communist, they equated it with seduction.

            INTERIOR DARKROOM-NIGHT

We begin on Christine’s hands rinsing a short piece of Leia film in tray-pull back as she hands the film to Nixon, who slips it in viewer and studies it closely.

CHRISTINE:   (in moment) Important?

NIXON: (continues studying film) Very.  As a matter of fact, it’s what I’ve waited for – for he last eight months.  (still studies film while questioning) How close is young Lowry to his brother-in-law?

CHRISTINE: Very close.  Why?

NIXON: (still studies film)  In that case – I’ve changed my mind about him.  Continue with his indoctrination.  I’ll inform headquarters you personally guarantee he’ll be delivered for use when and if he’s needed. 

Christine takes this with mingled reaction: pleasure about Don, puzzlement about Nixon’s new purpose.  She smiles answering:

CHRISTINE: (with slight mockery) Why – that will be a very interesting assignment- that I will enjoy very much.

He gives her an unreadable side-look – hands strip of film to her.

NIXON: Destroy it.

She drops film I tray – takes bottle of chemical from shelf.  Nixon exists.  Christine pours acid on film.  Fumes and vapor rise.  She still smiles – about herself and Don.[16]

Anti-intellectualism was another theme of I Married a Communist.  In one scene, communist agent Nixon reminded Brad Collins of his communist past.

            Nixon sits – opens briefcase – rummages through folders.

NIXON: (during this action) I’m a student of contracts.  They’re what makes this country of ours fabulous to the rest of the world. (finds what he seeks) On one hand, we have Bradley Collins – the great success story.  On the other – here I have the record of a very unsuccessful young man named Frank Johnson.

                        Brad shows no visible reaction – asks:

BRAD: Who’s he?

NIXON: He was typical of the lost generation – produced by the 30’s.  He left school – ambitious, strong, intelligent – hunting a job, to make his start up ladder.  Unfortunately – there were no jobs.

BRAD: (calmly) Why tell me about him?

NIXON: I’m coming to that – Mr. Collins. (consults documents) Embittered – and violent by nature – Frank Johnson joined the Young Communist League – then became a full fledged member of the Party… (seem to skip through document – hitting only the salient details).. Party card listed Frank J… Agit-prop activities, strikes in New Jersey … Very prominent in strong-arm work .. Then suddenly – broke all connections with the Party and disappeared … Reason unknown.

He stops – puts folder down – removes spectacles in a gesture we’ll learn is characteristic.  With spectacles off, Nixon is a changed man: cold, hard, the complete “intellectual”

NIXON: (continued) … Or was unknown until now…[17]

For these screenwriters being an intellectual was to be suspect, and being ‘the complete “intellectual” was to be a communist.


[1] New York Times, 4 August 1948.

[2] The first was a film called The Whiphand (1951) which was originally on Nazis but had the focus changed to communists because of Hughes’ ownership of RKO.

[3] New York Times, 5 December 1948.

[4] New York Times, 5 June 1949.

[5] Tom Milne (ed.).  Losey on Losey, Secker & Warburg, London, 1968, pp. 73 – 76.

[6] Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise, No. 6. ‘Nicholas Ray: Rebel!’ Take One, 5 January p. 11.

[7] Andrew Velez (ed.).  Robert Stevenson’s The Woman on Pier 13, RKO Classic Screenplays, Frederick Ungar, New York, 1976.  From introduction by Andrew Velez.  No page Number.

[8] Harry Bridges was the president of the International Longshormen’s and Warehousemen’s Union.  He is remembered for leading a strike in 1934 on the West Coast which eventually became a general strike.  The Congress of Industrial Organizations expelled the ILWU on the grounds of communist domination.  Bridges never denied his sympathy for communist and radical causes, but always denied being a party member.  Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets, Norton, New York, 1991, pp. 245 – 264.

[9] Bernard F. Dick, Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten, Universtiy Of Kentucky Press, Lexington, 1989, p. 219.

[10] Dalton Trumbo to

[11] Keep Faith, a speech before the American Legion Convention, Dinner Kay Auditorium, Miami, Florida, 15 October 1951, Box 212, Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Utah, USA.

[12] Velez, Woman on Pier 13, p. 31.

[13] Velez, Woman on Pier 13, p. 31.

[14] Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War, Dial, New York, 1982, p. 81.

[15] The script refers to the communist leader as being Nixon, but the final cast list gives the name as Vanning.  It may have been changed to avoid confusion with HUAC member, later US President, Richard Nixon.  As the screenplay refers to him as Nixon, this name will be used.

[16] Velez, Woman on Pier 13, p. 33.

[17] Velez, Woman on Pier 13, p. 13.