copyright 2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 54, fall 2012

The unquiet memory of the Hollywood Blacklist

review by Clay Steinman

During the Cold War, the U.S. film industry’s anti-Communist blacklist cost hundreds their jobs, from November 1947 until at least January 1960, when it first openly cracked. Few topics in U.S. film history spark such divisive debate, or evoke deeper considerations of cultural politics and individual morality. Stakes remain high, even after the Cold War, as the right continues to produce a trumped-up mise-en-scène of fear, demonizing enemies foreign and domestic who dare to propose that another world is possible. During the run-up to the 2010 elections, for example, the National Republican Campaign Committee ran ads that sought support against “Socialism” on the mobile version of www.nytimes.com, as if this were the 1950s with cell phones. Similar charges were made against President Obama in the following campaign.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

In this context, with U.S. politics so riven still, histories cannot but be interventions, as these two recent books attest.[2] Alan Casty provides the first account by a film scholar to take advantage of Communist archives in Russia. Joseph Litvak interlaces queer theory and contemporary Jewish studies to rethink the meanings of blacklisting. Their work comes to contradictory conclusions: Casty finds betrayal and moral cowardice on the left while Litvak develops a new critical lens on the development of Cold War conformist culture.

First, some background. The Hollywood blacklist had counterparts in radio and television, education, government, and other institutions but not, as Litvak points out, the New York theater. While the blacklist reigned, film workers were fired for being “unfriendly” witnesses, refusing to testify against themselves or others before the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities. Those blacklisted, some only for reported Communist associations, lost their jobs not on orders from the U.S. government but because Hollywood’s financial powers feared losses to anti-Communist boycotts and increased government regulation. Postwar profits were already in decline. As Ed Sullivan wrote in his Nov. 29, 1947 column in the New York Daily News: the blacklist began once “Wall Street jiggled the strings.”[3]

Rightwing politicians had their own incentives to attack the Hollywood left: easy publicity, especially when stars testified, and a chance to frame progressive activity and beliefs as essentially if covertly Communist and pro-Soviet, thereby subversive and anti-American. The right’s goal was to put a stake in the heart of any remnants of the New Deal coalition. As the HUAC hearings and the consequent firings hit their stride in 1951, only one escape hatch remained for those called to testify who wanted to keep their jobs: waive their constitutional right against self-incrimination and participate in what Victor Navasky in his influential Naming Names calls a “degradation ceremony” (319). This meant denouncing one’s political past, and offering up to HUAC the names of former comrades—in short, becoming “friendly.”[4]

The blacklisted and their allies felt betrayed. For the most part, they considered informers immoral hypocrites who had fingered former friends. While there were informers who by all accounts had become sincere anti-Communists, there were also those who confessed regrets ranging to self-loathing, as Navasky recounts, offering support for the initially revisionist but now standard version of the blacklist story: political persecution, enabled by betrayal. To see the residual success of this narrative, go to Wikipedia and read “The Hollywood Blacklist,” which sounds much like blacklist history told from the left. This might well drive crazy those who believe the friendly witnesses were the brave ones.

In the 1990s, the empire did indeed strike back with its own histories—or, perhaps, the repressed returned at a gallop, depending upon one’s point of view. The Yale University Press Annals of Communism Series offered new disclosures of previously secret Soviet cables and previously unavailable archives of the Communist Party USA. Although the CPUSA long ago had shipped its archives to the Soviet Union to prevent them from being seen by political enemies, the papers have had a half-life in post-Communist Russian hands that intermittently has allowed for their inspection. They do support elements of the right’s traditional story of CPUSA subservience to Stalinism. Anyone who cares about left history and politics, in Hollywood or in general, needs to reckon with this material. However, the authors/editors in the Yale series tend to see the archives’ raw data through an anti-Communist lens that discounts readings that might value at least some of the contributions of Communist activists to the period’s progressive struggles.[5] Like most accounts, the series also shortchanges the contributions of African Americans to the Party’s history, which leaves a crucial gap for understanding the context for the blacklist, especially for recognizing the racial politics that motivated the anti-Communist Southern Dixiecrats powerful on HUAC.[6]

Drawing upon the Yale Annals and related findings, Alan Casty proposes what might be called a counter-revisionist history of the blacklist. He is no fan of HUAC nor of the blacklist. Nevertheless, his book sizzles with hatred of Communism. He cannot abide the narrative that makes heroes of the blacklist’s victims. Casty argues that those who refused to testify and denounce Communism were complicit with the horrors of Soviet Communism, for by not cooperating with HUAC they “cooperated in a process that was slaughtering and imprisoning millions of people” (15, 242-253). For him, the heroes are the informers, who deserve the high ground for speaking out against Communism and giving HUAC names, even if they did cost hundreds their jobs and contribute to the climate of fear of McCarthyism. Overall, he seeks to turn Navasky’s anti-informer moral framework on its head.

Soviet Communism’s horrors are undeniable; the problem lies in Casty’s unexplored assumptions in holding the blacklisted accountable. Covering the Hollywood Communists with blood as he does requires more evidence and an argument more sensitive to the conflicting forces and complicated choices of the times than Casty provides. The Yale volumes tend to offer little flavor of the experiences and self-understandings of rank-and-file U.S. Communists and their allies, who after all were almost entirely uninvolved with, indeed were unaware of, the secret international machinations the archives disclose. Were ordinary U.S. Communists responsible for the miseries caused far from their shores yet in their names? Are we in the United States responsible for the miseries our taxes and acquiescence make possible and that occurred and continue to occur in our names?

Communism in Hollywood seems designed not only to oppose Navasky’s moral critique of informing but also to defend Robert Rossen, the talented writer-director who became an informer, against “vituperative personal attacks on him as a man, not only as a filmmaker” (14). Rossen, who died in 1966 and about whom Casty wrote a helpful monograph,[7] worked on socially critical films both when he was connected to the Communist Party (e.g., Marked Woman, They Won’t Forget, Body and Soul, All the King’s Men) and after he named more than fifty names (The Hustler). Casty twice maintains, defensively, that almost all of the cooperative witnesses provided HUAC with names it already had (15, 225), although why that should matter if the informers were heroes remains unclear. Unaccountably, he fails to test one of Navasky’s most telling arguments: that informants’ claims that they only named people previously identified, thus hurting no one new, turned out “much of the time . . . to be false” (281). Casty’s anti-Communism may be ambrosia to those who share his political tastes, but the book is unfortunately undersourced when it attributes private motives to friendly and unfriendly alike.

Inflected throughout by contemporary cultural theory, Litvak’s book could scarcely differ more from Casty’s. Indeed, Litvak says outright his is not yet another history. Instead, he gives us a craftily organized disorderly form, which I mean as a compliment. Despite its gravity regarding the individual and social harm caused by Cold War anti-Communism, The Un-Americans offers readers a festive scavenger hunt, streaked with Yiddishkeit (remnants of a time when Jews were still outsiders in the United States) and stocked with insight into the blacklist’s cloudy cultural terrain and legacies. Litvak from the start pledges his allegiance to those who resist the order of things. He is particularly wonderful on the Jewish-queer resonances of 1947’s Crossfire and Body and Soul; and dazzling are his readings of Broadway’s 1943 Oklahoma! and 1956 Bells are Ringing with Judy Holliday. He sees as exemplary the blacklisted witnesses who refused to behave according to HUAC’s project, rules, and sense of decorum, Lionel Stander perhaps above all.[8] He likens Stander’s exchanges with Rep. Harold H. Velde (D- IL), HUAC chair, to the Groucho Marx-Margaret Dumont banter in Marx Bros. films.

With an eye for the comic and complex in the excerpts from testimony that he quotes, and deft swings up and down analytical levels, Litvak has written an unruly text that sympathetic readers fluent in theory may well experience with what Litvak names “en-Jewment.” This he defines as delight in recognition of residual old-country forms not yet renovated for purposes of commodification (e.g., 3, 6-12). He sees these forms still undisciplined by the standards of conventional white gentility—of body, dress, humor, sexuality, voice—mocking dominant codes, wittingly or not. This applies even to Litvak’s endnotes, some of which, in a master flip, seem more primary than his text.

Litvak displays a far more nuanced understanding of the Hollywood Communists than Casty, an understanding of which I can only offer a sample here. For example, he notes that a “wildly disproportionate” number of those blacklisted were Jews (109); the sharpest fencing with inquisitors came almost exclusively from Jews who would not name names (Lillian Hellman, Holliday, Zero Mostel, Stander, etc.). For Litvak the blacklisted were most provocative in their “comicosmopolitanism.” This subversive concatenation he regards as “more a matter of unintended meanings and of performative implications than of explicit and ethical belief” that threatens the monoculturally Christian, white nationalist, hetero-masculinist, and market-individualist rules of the game (3). Casty’s heroes, dutifully or self-servingly naming names, exemplify a type Litvak calls the “sycophant,” especially if they were Jews. Transplanting a concept developed by Alain Badiou, Litvak uses the term to describe participants in Cold War conformity that “works to strip the word ‘Jew,’ as well as particular Jews in American culture” of their Yiddishkeit “radicalness” (20).

Yet you don’t have to be Jewish to love (or resist) the powers that be. Indeed, sycophancy applies to the domestication of whatever difference sticks in authority’s craw. That could involve being differently sexed, or radical, or militantly feminist or pro-union or anti-racist, or a member or supporter of the CPUSA. That difference could even mean being what the right called a “premature anti-fascist,” an active supporter of anti-fascist struggles such as the Spanish Civil War before the start of World War II, because it meant being allied with reds. Litvak notes that the Hollywood blacklist combined disciplinary acts against workers with old-fashioned fear—here, unemployability and, for those who directly resisted HUAC, incarceration. He also makes the incisive point that the intimidation and control powered by the blacklist keeps going still, ever energized by those it most benefits. This permanent blacklist is the ordinary discipline of capitalism. Neither Hollywood nor the system generally can abide a comicosmopolitanism inconsistent with the commodity value of its finished products, and no one will be hired who refuses to do the work assigned.

Even amidst their personal and political distress, those blacklisted half a century ago had a range of movements and a socialist vision to nurture them. In the United States today, the radical left, its organizations mostly pulverized by the state after decades of Cold War, its vision tattered by the toxic failures of hierarchical Leninism, may show sporadic energy. Yet the radical left has little institutionalized community or culture within which to organize and respond, no shared sense of that different world awaiting birth from within the old, no shared map for finding a way to the other side. The blacklist and the movements and institutions that defined its course offer ample negative lessons. Still, the period was too rich to be left only to its failings. Perhaps in histories such as Litvak’s that playfully anticipate life without blacklists, that imagine connection and courage and critical wisdom, future comicosmopolitans will find traces of paths to link to their own.  


1. http://www.newt.org/news/gingrich-obama%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98bureaucratic-socialism%E2%80%99-driving-down-economy;
http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2011/12/even-romney-now-says-obama-is-a-socialist.html. [return to text]

2. The standard (anti-)blacklist history remains Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund’s The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960 (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press-Doubleday, 1980). Among other important contributions are

Andersen raises important questions about the standard version, emphasizing how the film work of the blacklisted mattered, and insisting upon discussing film in terms of the politics of aesthetic design. Of the latest generation of academic writings on the topic, John Joseph Gladchuk’s Hollywood and Anticommunism: HUAC and the Evolution of the Red Menace, 1935-1950 (New York: Routledge, 2007) hews closest to the viewpoints of the blacklisted themselves, and Reynold Humphries’s Hollywood’s Blacklists: A Political and Cultural History (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008) provides a short but incisive overview that can serve well as an introduction. For the center-right, the most favored account (Amazon blurbs by John Patrick Diggins, Richard Schickel, and Tom Wolfe) seems to be Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh, Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance With the Left (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005).

For a treasure chest of rare blacklist-related documents, see the Gutenberg-e online version of Jennifer E. Langdon’s Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s Hollywood (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), http://www.gutenberg-e.org/langdon/index.html. Langdon has done an enormous, generous service for all students and scholars of the period.

3. Qtd. by John Cogley, Report on Blacklisting I: Movies (New York: Fund for the Republic, 1956), 23.

4. Selected non-Communist, progressive activists in the industry were also forced to testify. Even if they denounced their past, if they did not name names, they tended anyway to have trouble finding work, as did those named by others but not called to testify. For a case history of this “graylisting,” see Steven J. Ross, “Little Caesar and the HUAC Mob: Edward G. Robinson,” Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 89-130. On the severe personal costs for Robinson, see Michael Freedland with Barbara Paskin, Hollywood on Trial: McCarthyism’s War Against the Movies (London: Robson Books, 2007), 169-171. For a fascinating quantitative study of Hollywood blacklisting, see Elizabeth Pontikes, Giacomo Negro, and Hayagreeva Rao, “Stained Red: A Study of Stigma by Association to Blacklisted Artists During the ‘Red Scare’ in Hollywood, 1945 to 1960,” American Sociological Review 75.3 (2010), 456-478. A conclusion worth quoting:

“Our findings help explain why, even though a very small fraction of Hollywood artists were directly targeted for blacklisting, many more were victims through stigma by association. This process had many false positives—and these false positives created further panic that allowed conservative politicians to exact compliance from a large sector of the economy. We looked at one aspect of compliance, excluding people from jobs, but there were others too—films that might have been critical of America were not made; films that took a positive view of American power were made” (475).

5. See, for example, note 6 below. Even with such reservations, I found harrowing and recommend The Soviet World of American Communism, by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

6. In Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), Robin D. G. Kelley offers insider perspectives on black-led, multi-racial Party work on the ground (providing a backdrop for Denzel Washington’s 2007 The Great Debaters, written by Robert Eisele]. 

7. The Films of Robert Rossen (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1969).

8. He also praises Holliday, whose clever performance before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in 1952 is discussed in detail by Milly S. Barranger in “Billie Dawn Goes to Washington: Judy Holliday,” Unfriendly Witnesses: Gender, Theater, and Film in the McCarthy Era (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 9-33. Also see Will Holtzman, Judy Holliday (New York: Putnam, 1982), 141-168. Worth mentioning is that both Holliday and Edward G. Robinson, two of Hollywood’s brightest actors, dissembled for investigating committees by playing dumb. 

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