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Abbreviated history of Communism in Hollywood


The story of communist influence in Hollywood is told in a book by Ronald and Allis Radosh titled “Red Star over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s long Romance with the Left.” Let me indulge in a bit of forgotten history which may help to explain how America’s tradition of free speech gave way to a regime of controlled speech along certain political lines.

The story begins with Lenin’s taking an interest in film making. He said that “the motion picture is for us the most important” of all the arts. A former shoe maker, Willi Munzenberg, organized a post-war relief effort at Lenin’s request, raising funds abroad. Eventually, this organization established a film studio in Moscow and funded several productions.

In the meanwhile, several persons with Hollywood connections accepted invitations to visit the Soviet Union from a communist-front organization, the National Student League, in the summer of 1934. Among them were two college students: Maurice Rapf, then a senior at Dartmouth, and Budd Schulberg. Rapf’s father, Harry, was a top film producer with MGM. Schulberg’s father, B.P. Schulberg, was head of production at Paramount Pictures. Rapf, who was Jewish, was impressed with the fact that the Soviet Union had outlawed anti-Semitism and was opposed to Nazi Germany. After returning to the United States, both Rapf and Schulberg became communists.

Their fathers, pillars of the film industry, were, of course, against this anti-capitalist ideology. Even more, they worried that their sons’ conversion to it would inflame anti-Semitism by reinforcing a connection between Jews and Bolshevism in the public mind. Yet, they were also indulgent parents who tolerated their son’s personal decisions. As a kindly word of admonishment, Irving Thalberg, MGM’s top producer, told the two boys that they were in the line of succession to run the studios some day but, if they persisted in their “immature” political adventures, this scenario would not come to pass.

The boom in theater attendance following the introduction of talking films created a demand for talented writers, actors, and artists in the film industry. Many came from New York City, a hotbed of leftist sentiments, bringing their ideological proclivities with them. In 1935, the Communist party of the United States decided to establish a party office in Hollywood under the control of its hard-line “cultural commissar” from New York, V.J. Jerome. His assistant for Hollywood affairs, Stanley Lawrence, organized Marxist study groups. Lawrence instructed young Rapf and Schulberg to organize tenant farmers in California’s central valley. Later, their energies were redirected to the Hollywood community where their personal connections could be put to better use.

The Hollywood communists began to cultivate film celebrities to build membership and attract persons who would contribute ten percent of their income in dues. Rapf and Schulberg added glamor to this community, especially after Budd Schulberg married an attractive woman named “Jigee” (Virginia Ray). Ring Lardner, Jr. proposed a slogan: “The Most Beautiful Girls in Hollywood belong to the Communist Party.”

Socially, this was the place to be. One could meet famous actors and actresses, screenwriters, and others while participating in party functions. Maurice Rapf made his family’s beach house in Malibu available for communist study groups. Budd Schulberg was able to offer his father’s house in Benedict Canyon for the same purpose. All was done without their parents’ knowledge. The party had a secretive air about it.

In addition to being a rich source of funds, the communist party was also interested in Hollywood because of its access to film-industry unions and the chance to insert ideology into “an ordinary John and Mary movie where millions go”. Such messages would be more persuasive to the masses than those in ideological treatises.

Examples of communist influence might include the 1943 films, “Action in the North Atlantic” (about freight convoys to the Soviet Union), “Hangmen also Die”, “North Star”, “Song of Russia”, and, especially, “Mission to Moscow”, based on a book by the former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies. Since the Soviet Union was now an ally of the United States in defeating Hitler, a pro-Soviet film could be passed off as making a patriotic statement.

Communists and liberals alike were opposed to Hitler. Their alliance came apart in August 1939 when the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. The Hollywood communists, committed to Stalin, went into shock. The party line then became that the nonaggression pact would hurt actually Hitler because it gave the Soviet Union time to shore up its military defenses in eastern Europe following England’s and France’s abandonment of Czechoslovakia. Because the Roosevelt administration continued to pursue an anti-Nazi foreign policy, the American communists began sniping at it and instead adopted a pacifist stance. Not only did this offend political liberals, the communist party attracted attention from U.S. Congressman Martin Dies, chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The ideological contradiction was resolved when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Now the American communists became the most hawkish of hawks with respect to fighting Nazi Germany. President Roosevelt regained their support. In the interest of helping the war effort, the party opposed A. Philip Randolph’s “March on Washington” as being too divisive. It supported the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps, supported a pay freeze for members of the Screen Writers Guild, and favored prosecuting Trotskyites for treasonous activities. References to Lenin, Stalin, and Marx were dropped in the party constitution in favor of supporting the tradition of “Jefferson, Paine, Jackson, and Lincoln”. These sudden shifts must have confused party stalwarts. Different versions of truth appeared as the political winds changed.

During this time, Budd Schulberg was drifting away from the party. Having published several short stories in magazines, Schulberg had been criticized for departing from communist themes. Now he wanted to turn one of them into a novel, What Makes Sammy Run? His communist colleagues discouraged that idea. Schulberg was told he would have to submit an outline to gain party approval. Schulberg decided to take a leave of absence without permission to write the book. It was about an ambitious young Jew from New York who rose to the top in Hollywood by stepping on others but who had met his match in a wife even more ruthless than he.

However well written, neither Schulberg’s father nor the communists could stomach the anti-Semitic implications of this book. A communist reviewer, who had initially praised it, was forced to submit a corrected review. To enforce party discipline, V. J. Jerome came out from New York to give young Schulberg a lecture to the effect that he was “wrong about writing, wrong about this book, wrong about the party”, wrong about everything. This, Schulberg realized, was “the real face of the (communist) party”. He resolved at the time to quit.

The film, “Mission to Moscow”, was obviously communist propaganda even if a friend of President Roosevelt, Ambassador Davies, had written the book. What especially offended critics was the white-washing of the Stalinist show trials. Davies and the screenwriters suggested that the trial victims were Trotskyites who deserved their fate; they had conspired to help the German and Japanese high command. Furthermore, Finland was not actually invaded by the Soviet Union.

John Dewey, the philosopher, called this film “the first instance in our country of totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption.” Non-communists organized the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals which attracted such notables as Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Walt Disney, and John Wayne. The days of communist dominance in Hollywood were numbered.

The party was now into camouflaging its activities as a patriotic enterprise while concealing the communist element. Obligingly, Stalin abolished the Comintern. The U.S. party leader, Earl Browder, then abolished the party itself.

Instead of open activity, party members now worked through front organizations to advance their agenda. They acted as a concealed subgroup that knew what it wanted and, acting as a bloc, could force larger organizations to do its bidding. Outsiders were not sure who belonged to the party. In a typical maneuver, the communists would wait until their opponents had left the meeting and then call for a vote when they were in the majority. If they could not muster a majority of votes, party members would themselves leave so that a quorum could not be maintained.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was seeking a fourth term as President, a group of artists and intellectuals formed an organization called Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (ISCCASP) to support the campaign. Its executive director, Hannah Dorner, was a communist. The nominal head of this organization was FDR’s interior secretary, Harold Ickes. In 1946, the late President’s son, James Roosevelt, became its national director. It soon became apparent that ISCCASP had another agenda than the President’s reelection when Vice President Henry Wallace, whom Roosevelt had recently dumped as his running mate, was the featured speaker at its mass rally in Madison Square Garden.

After Roosevelt died and Harry Truman succeeded him, ISCCASP turned against the new President. By October 1945, as the Cold War deepened, Dorner was telling her board that Truman had shown no will to oppose “reactionary” members of Congress. They needed to fight the “incipient native fascism” coming from the new administration. The Hollywood branch (HISCCASP) accused “reactionary elements” in the administration of using Nazi “divide and conquer” tactics. Political liberals were dismayed.

Actress Olivia de Havilland was scheduled to deliver a speech in Seattle, Washington, written by a communist screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. When de Havilland took a look at the draft, she was shocked to see that she was being asked to condemn “the drive of certain interests toward a war against the Soviet Union” and to say that the Truman administration was supporting union busting, anti-Semitism, and racial bigotry. She decided to rewrite the speech. Her version pointed out the growing differences between Hollywood communists and political liberals. Because the public was confused by their wartime alliance, she recommended that liberals now distance themselves from Moscow and the Communist Party.

A young actor named Ronald Reagan, then a starry-eyed liberal, was asked to join the HISCCASP board in July 1946. He did not know that the organization was loaded with communists. The national chairman, James Roosevelt, who had initially downplayed that fact, became increasingly alarmed and decided to act. He told his board that HISCCASP was seen as a Communist front organization. To dispel that idea, Roosevelt recommended that the board issue a statement opposing communism.

That set off a round of angry reactions. A certain screenwriter said if war broke out between the United States and Russia, he would fight for Russia. Ronald Reagan took the floor to condemn that remark. A flood of epithets followed: “Fascist”, “capitalist scum”, “witch hunter”, “red baiter”.

As Reagan was leaving the meeting, Dory Schary invited him to a meeting in Olivia de Havilland’s apartment. There James Roosevelt and others were drafting a resolution to be presented at the next board meeting. It said: “We affirm our belief in free enterprise and the democratic system and repudiate Communism as desirable for the United States.”

Several nights later, this statement was read at the board meeting. The communists were outraged. They arranged for the resolution to be sent to the communist-controlled executive committee which rejected it. Reagan resigned from HISCCASP’s board that very evening. James Roosevelt also resigned as national chairman.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote an article for LIFE magazine declaring that HISCCASP was a communist-front group. That series of events, plus a Republican sweep of California state elections in November, sealed the fate of that organization. Among the newly elected members of Congress in 1946 was a young war veteran named Richard Nixon.

A major goal of the communist party in Hollywood was to take over the film-industry unions. Dalton Trumbo proposed that all persons in that industry be treated as “industrial workers”. In March 1945, two AFL unions, IATSE and CSU, competed to represent the back-lot employees. CSU (Conference of Studio Unions) was led by a burly communist, Herbert Sorrell, who enjoyed the support of communist-front organizations and the longshoremen union in San Francisco. It called a strike which halted production at Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox, and Universal Studios. The question was whether other Hollywood unions would support the CSU strike.

A year later, CSU made a bid to represent workers on set construction and sound stages. It struck seven studios and again engaged in violence. The Screen Writers Guild opposed this strike. The Screen Actors Guild, previously neutral, had also become opposed. Communists in the union held a meeting at Ida Lupino’s house to discuss how to support the strike.

Unexpectedly, two SAG leaders, Ronald Reagan and Robert Montgomery, showed up. Reagan gave a 40-minute speech, interrupted by frequent heckling, which outlined the reasons why the screen actors should not support the CSU strike. He won over the crowd after actor John Garfield, a known leftist, expressed support for his views. Communist influence in Hollywood unions was on the decline.

As its position weakened, the communist party sought to discipline artists and writers who strayed from the party line. One of the party’s best and best-known screenwriters was Albert Maltz, who, among other things, had written the script for a film, “The House that I Live in”, that opposed racial discrimination. The film featured singing by Frank Sinatra.

Maltz made the mistake of accepting an invitation by the editor of New Masses, the party’s literary magazine, about the relationship between literature and the political situation. He boldly contended that the party’s concept of “art as a weapon” to promote an ideology actually produced bad art. Ideology was “not a useful guide, but a straightjacket” to the writing process. Furthermore, he said, some of the best literature had been produced with writers of questionable political views such as James Farrell, a known Trotskyite.

As one might expect, the party struck back, first, with an article in the Daily Worker, which accused Maltz of “artistic moralizing”. Other communist functionaries piled on with suggestions that he was “anti-Marxist”, or was advocating “retreat” from principles, or was aiding the forces of imperialism. An inquisition-like meeting was held at which Maltz was savagely attacked by an “intellectual goon squad” of communist officials from New York City.

Shaken by this event, Maltz broke down at a follow-up meeting. He later agreed to write an article for New Masses retracting his earlier arguments. Not only that, he attacked other writers who embraced his previous views. Albert Maltz had many friends within leftist circles. His groveling before party bosses disgusted them.

The climax came not in Hollywood but in Washington, D.C. The Communist Party, adapting to Cold War politics, claimed that the Truman administration was planning a fascist takeover of the United States. The big film studios appointed a new lobbyist, Eric Johnston, who favored containing Soviet expansion. After the Republican comeback in the 1946 elections, Republican Congressman Parnell Thomas of New Jersey became chairman of the House Un-American Committee (HUAC). The committee promptly announced that it would be investigating communist influence in Hollywood.

A German film composer, Hanns Eisler, brother of the Comintern’s top agent in North America, was its first target. When he gave evasive answers to questions in a session on September 24, 1947, committee members decided the problem must be deeper than what they originally supposed. They informed Johnston of their intention to do a more extensive probe of Hollywood, and he agreed.

The studio chiefs were not all in agreement. Sam Goldwyn’s attitude was to scoff at the notion that people like Ring Lardner, Jr., Budd Schulberg and Maurice Rapf controlled the Hollywood branch of the party. “If they’re the ones who are running it, we’ve got nothing to worry about,” he joked. The truth was that the studio heads did not want a crackdown on communist influence because some of their best writers were communists. There had been an unwritten rule in Hollywood that the studios would not make an issue of their screenwriters’ communist leanings if the screenwriters did not advertise that fact.

HUAC had advance information from the FBI as to the identities of the Hollywood communists. Preparing to call witnesses, it divided them into persons believed to be friendly to the committee and persons who were not. The friendly witnesses were called first. They readily identified certain individuals as communists. After the first round of hearings, committee chairman Thomas said: “We now have hundreds of names, prominent names.” He expressed hope that the film industry would “clean house”, the implication being that failure to do so would invite government action.

This threw the studio chiefs into a panic. While they were personally opposed to communism, the Hollywood executives objected to the idea of the government telling them whom to hire or fire. Sensing resistance to the planned probe, a HUAC committee member told an MGM vice president that he would be subpoenaed by the committee unless he immediately fired a known communist screenwriter, Lester Cole. Louis B. Mayer called Cole into his office and offered to double his salary if he renounced communism. Cole refused the offer.

HUAC then issued subpoenas for forty-three Hollywood witnesses, including nineteen communists or fellow travelers. The nineteen huddled with their lawyers to plot strategy. Should they plead the Fifth Amendment and inflame suspicions? Should they lie about their communist affiliation? Alternatively, should they tell the truth? (Belonging to the Communist Party was not itself illegal.) The strategy that won support was to plead the First (not the Fifth) Amendment - which guaranteed free speech - and question why the committee was forcing them to reveal their political affiliation.

HICCASP held a “Thought Control Conference” at the Beverly Hills Hotel to protest the Congressional subpoenas. Henry Wallace’s Progressive Citizens of America staged a similar event in New York. A group of political liberals, led by Billy Wilder, John Huston, and Philip Dunne, formed a group called “Hollywood Fights Back.” It arranged for two radio broadcasts to support the Nineteen and flew film stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to Washington to lend moral support. The message was that HUAC was engaged in an intimidating act to violate Constitutional rights that were guaranteed to Americans.

The HUAC hearings began in the Old House Office Building on October 20, 1947, facing a battery of newsreel cameras. Three studio heads said, while they favored making the Communist Party illegal, they did not want to be asked to ferret out communists employed by their organizations. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, opposed outlawing the party. He preferred instead to expose communist “lies when we come across them.”

Then came the unfriendly witnesses, beginning with Hollywood party chief, John Howard Lawson. He had a prepared statement blasting the committee. Chairman Thomas would not allow it to be read. Lawson called the committee hearings “an illegal and indecent trial of American citizens” with evidence furnished by “a parade of stool-pigeons, neurotics, publicity-seeking clowns, Gestapo agents,” etc., etc.”

That set the tone for the other “unfriendly” testimony. Dalton Trumbo framed the issue in terms of anti-Roosevelt politicians harassing people who had supported the New Deal. He would not answer the question whether he was a Communist. Eight others besides Lawson and Trumbo were questioned; hence, the Hollywood Ten. Albert Maltz accused committee members of religious harassment. Asked whether he was a Communist, Ring Lardner, Jr., said: “I would answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.” After testimony was heard, a committee investigator ran through the Communist activities of each witness and even gave the number of their party membership cards.

It was a publicity disaster for the party. The Hollywood Ten were proposing that they could thumb their noses at a duly authorized Congressional committee even as Congress was appropriating billions of dollars to stop the spread of communism in Europe. Realizing now that something had to be done, the heads of the Hollywood studios met at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York to consider the options.

After much discussion, the studio heads agreed not to employ known communists and also fire the ten disgraced witnesses. Those individuals would not be reemployed until they had cleared their record or renounced communism. The ten were, in a word, “blacklisted”. Under public pressure, Bogart and Bacall disavowed any connection with the Communist Party. They said they had been “duped”.

The blacklisting created a problem for the studios. They had to distinguish communists from honest liberals. Those who were blacklisted could not find work in Hollywood except (in the case of screenwriters) under someone else’s name. The Screen Actors Guild would not allow itself to be used as a political screening agency. In its 1947 election of officers, the communist slate of candidates was soundly defeated.

Individually, some of the disgraced artists tried to rehabilitate themselves by disavowing a connection with the communist party. Most liberals refused to help their colleagues who belonged to the party. In 1948, the Hollywood Ten returned to Washington to stand trial for contempt of Congress. Most received one-year prison sentences and a fine of $1,000. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.

In 1951, the House Un-American Activities Committee again decided to hold hearings. This time, it would be looking for individual communists, not just in Hollywood but in radio and television as well. Old friends who had traveled together in communist circles now started to give each other the cold shoulder. Party members began to devise strategies in case HUAC summoned them to testify.

To clear his name, a witness would be required not only to tell committee members of his own activities within the party but also identify friends and accomplices. In other words, prospective witnesses would have to snitch on their friends. Alternatively, they could plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to testify, but that would not work because the public would consider them guilty.

Larry Parks, star of the Jolson Story, at first planned to tell the committee only about himself. Under persistent questioning, however, he broke down and named a large number of people. Edward Dmytryk, the only director among the Hollywood Ten, was eager to break with the communist party after the Korean War had erupted. His story was published in the Saturday Evening Post. Budd Schulberg was another such person. Perhaps the best-known of the cooperative witnesses was film director Elia Kazan, a graduate of Lee and Paula Strasberg’s Theater Group. In the end, he named several of his New York colleagues as communists. Party members were infuriated.

One who remained true to the cause was the playwright Lillian Hellman. A dedicated communist, she told HUAC that she was not a political person but someone who did not believe in bearing false witness against her neighbor. She would talk freely about herself but did not want to hurt innocent people. If forced to name others, she said she would have to plead the Fifth Amendment (which she eventually did).

This line of argument not only spared Hellman from a prison sentence but sealed her reputation as a heroine who had stood up to HUAC. “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashion,” Hellman boldly declared. Years later, Jane Fonda played her character in Julia, a film based on her memoirs. Some regard Hellman’s book as largely fictitious.

Dalton Trumbo, one of the most gifted Hollywood screenwriters, spent ten months in a Kentucky prison for contempt of Congress. After his release in 1951, he began writing scripts for small film producers. Dalton went to Mexico for a few years to join other blacklisted artists, before returning to California and eventually hooking up with some of his former colleagues who had formed an independent studio. Funds from a communist-controlled union enabled this firm, Film Associates Inc., to produce, “Salt of the Earth”, about a strike led by Mexican-American mine workers. There was a subplot about the miners’ wives that exhibited feminist consciousness.

Although Trumbo did not work on this film, he did write a script for another which concerned the experiences of Jean Field, a communist sympathizer who had lost a custody battle because of her political beliefs. She had been arrested for kidnapping when she brought her year-old son back to California from the state where the father lived. One of the charges brought against her was that she had encouraged her son to play with a black child. Trumbo therefore decided to write his script around the relationship between a black and a white woman as they sat in court listening to testimony at Field’s trial.

A group of party members reviewed Trumbo’s script. Jean Field was also one of the judges. She turned in a blistering critique of the script which accused Trumbo of white chauvinism. For example, the script had said that the black boy was “clean and dressed in his Sunday best.” Field said that this implied that the boy was clean “only on special occasions”; normally, he was filthy and wore rags. The party reviewers backed Field’s criticisms. Trumbo was pressured to admit his error. Instead, he fought back against what he considered to be unfair criticism. Eventually he left the party.

This event took place in the context of a flirtation between the American Communist Party and black political activists and a campaign against “white chauvinism” within the party between 1949 and 1953. Ostensibly to help blacks achieve equality in American society, the campaign, according to Red Star over Hollywood, also took the form of “a purge through which hard liners moved to take control of the party by forcing members to show their loyalty by accusing others of racism, which led to expulsion from the Party’s ranks.” Evidence of racism included the use of such terms as “white wash” or “black sheep”.

“ Both whites and blacks began to take advantage of the enormous weapon which the charge of ‘white chauvinism’ gave them to settle scores, to climb organizational ladders, to fight for jobs and to express personality conflicts,” wrote Joseph Starobin, a former editor of the Daily Worker.

The Communist Party was then engaged in a project known as the “Negro Liberation Movement”. Members hoped to make a film based on the book, “Scottsboro Boy”, by a communist writer about one of the defendants in a racially tinged court trial which might star Paul Robeson. Many were supporting a proposal inspired by Stalin’s idea of nationhood that black people, being in the majority in some places, should form their own nation in the American South. It would be a “Negro Republic in the Black Belt.”

Solidarity with the black struggle for equality was then one of the most promising areas of communist activity, offering a change to revitalize the party and make it relevant to current conditions. Black intellectuals, however, were sometimes cautious about or even hostile to the communist overture. That caused party members to engage in self-criticism, admitting that the “poison of (white) chauvinism” might unwittingly be present and vowing to purge themselves of such attitudes.

After Dalton Trumbo quit the party in the spring of 1956, he wrote a memo entitled “Secrecy and the Communist Party” which questioned the wisdom of keeping memberships secret in a society that allowed political parties to compete openly for support. Where political activists faced personal danger as with Civil Rights organizers in the south, such a policy might be justified; but not in the case of the American Communist Party.

This party was, he wrote, “the only organization I know of that has, for over three decades, maintained the general secrecy of its membership regardless of external political circumstances and apparently on a permanent basis.” The party’s policy of secret members had been a disaster. Either the Hollywood members “should have been open Communists, or they should not have been members at all.”

Trumbo tried to get his article published in the party journal Mainstream; but, of course, it was rejected.