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.

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.

The cinematic anti-communist crusade

Dr Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The anti-communist crusade of the movie moguls began when they signed the Waldorf Declaration on 24 November 1947 which was the same day that Congress met to approve the HUAC contempt citations. 

The anti-communist crusade of the movie moguls began when they signed the Waldorf Declaration on 24 November 1947 which was the same day that Congress met to approve the HUAC contempt citations.  The declaration was supported by the Motion Picture Association of America, the Association of Motion Picture Producers – the studio heads – and was signed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.[1]  They voted to sack any employee who would not say under oath that he or she was not a communist.  This meant that the Hollywood 10 were sacked without compensation.  The studio heads also voted to refuse to employ any person with communist beliefs.[2]

The Waldorf declaration was the action of men who were quite prepared to sacrifice their political independence of financial gain.  Attacking the communists did not appear to be a high price to pay; after all it was only a small group of writers who were being sacked.  Moverover, the spirited resistance against the HUAC-style investigation in 1941 was done at a time when Roosevelt was firmly entrenched in power.  The political pendulum had swung to the right and the studios were attempting to appease their new political masters.

The Hollywood 10 soon lost most of its support when many in the Committee for the First Amendment dropped their backing for the group.  Some believed that they also could also lose their jobs and others thought the Hollywood’s 10’s behavior before the committee as unforgivable, and support for the group began to fade quickly in the film industry.[3]  In subsequent HUAC investigations, there was little or no effective organised opposition.

The HUAC investigations were, in part, a reaction to the Roosevelt years and the close relationship of the film industry with its administration.  But there were other links between the HUAC investigators and Hollywood.  The film industry had encouraged the myth that America was the unblemished ‘good guy’ of world politics, it now had to reap some of the bitter fruits of that wartime propaganda.  The myth helped give Americans a feeling of infallibility which assisted in their massive war effort.  In fostering the belief that to fight America was to do wrong, the films of the Second World War helped create the mental framework for the cold war.  The adjustment from Nazi Germany to communist Russia as the Untied States central enemy was surprisingly swift.[4]  But it did raise some nagging problems.  If America was always right, and Russia was wrong, why was the United States allied to the country in the first place?

The answer for the American right – and in particular the HUAC investigators – was a vast conspiracy stretching from Russia, to the White House, onto communist screenwriters in Hollywood.  Historian Richard Hofstadter has written about the attractiveness of the conspiracy theory to Americans and its frequent explosions in American life.[5]  A common theme of these theorists was that small groups with outside backing were seeking to control the United States by nefarious means.  Conspiracy theories were a well established part of American political culture and they flourished during the uncertain post-war period.  According to the conspiracy theorists, the Roosevelt administration had a long term plan to undermine capitalism in order to bring the economy under the control of the Federal Government and to pave the way for socialism or communism.  HUAC Investigator Robert E. Stripling believed that Hollywood was in danger of falling under the control of communists, just as other industries had already done.[6]

The scapegoats for the conspiracy theorists were the communist and left-wing writers who worked on the ‘praise Russia’ films of the Second World War.  Screenwriter Howard Koch had been ordered by Warner to make Mission to Moscow and is efforts had been praised by Warner.[7]  Koch was subpoenaed but did not testify, he placed full page ads in the Hollywood trade papers saying that he was not and had never been a communist, but reserved the right not to say it to HUAC.[8]  Koch’s strong liberalism had shown out in films such as In This Our Life (1942) and his talent in Sergeant York (1941) Casablanca (1943), and Letter From an Unknown Woman (1947).  His efforts counted for nothing and his refusal to answer HUAC’s questions, on the principle of his constitutional rights meant that he did not work in Hollywood for another 12 years.  The studio heads were not interested in Justice, they were interested in scapegoats and Koch was one of those blacklisted as a result.

For other members of the Hollywood 10, there were more sinister motives for their blacklisting.  Action in the North Atlantic screenwriter John Howard Lawson was a central figure in the formation of the Screenwriters Guild.  Eradicating him would also relieve the studio heads of a radical and determined union leader.  Ring Lardner Jr had always been a thorn in the side of the ultra-conservative Hollywood leaders.  In November 1945, Lardner wrote a long, highly critical and funny article for Screenwriter on the ultra-conservative Cecil B. DeMille where he relentlessly attacked and satirized the director and his politics.  He focused sharply on the Cecil B. DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom writing:

All policy and action are determined by the self perpetuating board of directors, yet every rank and file member is assured his political freedom to read and listen to whatever pronouncement Mr DeMille is moved to make.[9]

He described the foundation as essentially a right-wing organisation which had attacked the rights of unionists to make a united stand.  The editor of Screenwriter was Dalton Trumbo and the managing editor was Gordon Kahn.  All three became member of the Hollywood 19.  The article was specially transcribed the DeMille and left in his papers in a file on background information on communists for his autobiography.[10]  DeMille was often accused by his political opponents of providing names to HUAC and it seems clear that the selection of Lardner, Trumbo and Kahn was no accident: Hollywood’s right-wing was exacting revenge.

Many have argued that it was the economic decline of Hollywood which forced the studio heads to retreat so vigorously.[11]  However, he moguls had opposed intervention strongly before the war.  It was not economic pressures which drove them to make the Waldorf declaration.  The year 1947 was the second most successful year for the cinema in its history.[12]  There was a slight dip from the figures for 1946 which had been a record year for the industry, but they were not under savage pressure.  Anti-trust legislation and television were on the horizon, but in general the motion picture industry was sound.  The Waldorf declaration and the consequent blacklisting was a personal failure of nerve by the studio heads to fight the HUAC investigations.

The studio heads did not realize that the declaration opened the way for constant sackings and suspicion.  In trying to get a quick fix to a complex problem, the studios had allowed themselves to be held hostage by any patriotic organisation which called any actor, director or writer a communist and promised to picket a film carrying their name.  These organisations were extremely demanding.  When a person was named as a communist by a patriotic organisation of some description, the studio heads either had to get the person concerned cleared through certain channels or have them blacklisted.  Red Channels was one example of the publications circulating at the time which itemized the various offences of actors and writers supposedly in communist from organisations.  The evidence was often wafer thin, but as the introduction to Red Channels showed the editors were not interested in subtleties.

The information set forth in the following report is taken for records available to the public.  The purpose of this complications is threefold.  One, to show how communists have been able to carry out their plan of infiltration of the radio and television industry.  Two to indicate the extent to which many prominent actors and artists have been inveigled to lend their names,  according to these public records, to organisations espousing Communist causes.  This, regardless of whether they actually believe in, sympathize with, or even encourage actors or artists from naively lending their names to Communist organizations or causes in the future.[13]

The Waldorf Declaration and the acquiescence of the studio heads to the HUAC investigators opened the way for chaos in the filmmaking industry.  Blacklisting could occur for being a member of a political group, attending a meeting or signing a petition.  The Blacklisting of an actor was not a one way street.  His or her name could be cleared by approaches to the various agencies concerned.  Certain shadowy figures during the blacklist era made a living attempting to clear people so that they could return to work.  Indeed some groups would cast aspersions on a person’s character and then offer to redress the balance.  This led to a continuing round of clearances of actors and writers through various organisations.  Blacklisted writers could also still write for the studios using fronts to submit their scripts.  People were told to avoid blacklisted people or at least not to meet them in public.[14]

The third phase of the crusade against communism was the release of a series of anti-communist films.  Actor Adolphe Menjou, one of the friendly witnesses before the HUAC hearings, demanded that the studios produce anti-communist films.

I believe it would be an incredible success… I think it would be a very wonderful thing to see one made.  I would like to see a picture of the Bulgarian situation; … I would like that shown to the American public to see communism as it actually is.  I would like to see the brutal beatings, the stabbings and killings that go on through Europe… We showed many anti-Nazi pictures.  I see no reason why we do not show anti-communist pictures.[15]

The studios responded quickly to Menjou’s call.  The first anti-communist film to roll out of the studios was Ninotchka which was re-released by MGM in November 1947.  Earlier the State Department had been so impressed with the film’s anti-communist message that it helped release it in Italy to help undermine the Italian communists in 1946 elections.[16]

Ninotchka was quickly followed by The Iron Curtain which was released by RKO in May 1948.[17]  The title of the film was the image for Churchill’s famous speech of an iron curtain descending across Europe which he made on 5 March 1946.[18]  This film was similar in style to the successful Confessions of a Nazi Spy released before the war, and it also shared the same writer in Martin Krims.  The film concentrated on the defection of a Russian clerk Igor Gouzenko, played by Dana Andrews, who defected in Canada.  Even with its novelty value, and the huge publicity of the HUAC hearings, the film was ranked 64th in the year’s rentals.[19]


[1] Otto Friedrich, City of Nets, Headline, London, 1986, p. 332.

[2] Phillip French, The Movie Moguls, Penguin, Harmonsworth, 1969, p. 154.  Producers Sam Goldwyn, Walter Wagner and liberal Dore Schary opposed the declaration.

[3] Barry Norman, Talking Pictures: The Story of Hollywood, Hooder and Stoughton, London, 1987, p. 205.

[4] Les K. Alder and Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Red Fasciasm: The Merger of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the American Image of Totalitarianism, 1930s-1950s, ‘American Historical Journal, vol. 75, no. 4, April 1970, pp. 1059 – 1061. Alder and Paterson discuss how easily the substitution from Germany to Russia occurred as a totalitarian enemy.

[5] Richard Hofstadter The Paranoid Style In American Politics and Other Essays, Jonathan Cape, London, 1966, pp. 3 – 40.

[6] Robert E. Stripling, The Red Plot Against America, Bell, Pennsylvania, 1949.

[7] Jack Warner to Howard Koch, November 24, 1942, Howard Koch Collection, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research in David Culbert (ed.). Mission to Moscow, Wisconsin Warner Bros Screenplay Series, University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 1980, pp. 264 – 265.

[8] Norman, Talking, p. 205

[9] Ring Lardner Jr., ‘The Sign of the Boss’, The Screen Writer, November 1945, pp. 1 – 12.  Transcript in Box 29, Folder 7, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.  The Cecil B. DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom was formed to campaign for right-to-work laws and against communist infiltration.  DeMille set up the foundation when he refused to pay one dollar to the American Federation of Radio Artists to fight right-to-work legislation on the California state ballot in 1944.  The foundation was closed soon after his death in 1959.

[10] Other names in the files include writers Albert Maltz, Sidney Buchman, and John Howard Lawson who were all blacklisted.  Edward G. Robinson and Elmer Bernstein were described as not communist.  Actor Howard Da Silva was also described a ‘commie’ out to get DeMille.  All appeared before HUAC. Box 29, Folder 7, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[11] French, Moguls, p. 153.

[12] Garth Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art, Little Brown, Boston, 1976, p. 473.

[13] American Business Consultants, Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, New York, 1950, p. 9.

[14] Larry Ceplair and Ken Englund, I, Doubleday, New York, 1980, pp. 386 – 397.

[15] HUAC Hearings, p. 106.

[16] Dorothy Jones, ‘Communism and the Movies’ in John Cogley, Report on Blacklisting, The Fund For The Republic, New York, 1956, p. 300.

[17] For a complete discussion of the film see Daniel J Leab, ‘The Iron Curtain (1948): Hollywood’s First Cold War Movie’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 8, No. 2, 1988, pp. 153 – 188.

[18] Rhode, Robert James (ed.), Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1879 – 1963, Chelsea, London, 1974, p. 7285.

[19] Variety, 5 January 1950 estimated that the film made $2 million in rentals.  No other 1949 anti-communist made the lists.