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House Un-American Activities Committee

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They were among the most haunting words in modern American history: "Are you now or were you ever a communist?" They were asked of lawyers, of bankers, of teachers - and, most notoriously, of Hollywood. Actors, writers, directors and producers found themselves before what one man described to me as "one of those star chambers things" - and went to jail, committed suicide or merely queued up for the dole. Others suddenly went to the top of the heap and found stardom because they either answered the question with a firm No or, much worse, gave names of people they said they knew were reds.

It was in the feverish beginnings of the cold war that the film industry caught the attention of a particular body of congressmen within the US House of Representatives. Led by a Republican Congressman, J Parnell Thomas, members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) went into session in Washington in 1947 to investigate whether communists were working at the heart of a business with great public influence.

At the behest of the committee, which included the young Richard Nixon, FBI men set out to deliver pink-coloured subpoenas to 19 Hollywood people - mostly writers - requiring them to appear before the committee to answer questions about their political affiliations and those of others.

By the time the hearings got under way, 11 were called, including the playwright Bertolt Brecht, who testified for an hour and then left the country. The remaining 10 refused to answer the question because they said it infringed their constitution-given right to free speech and free assembly. They became known as the Hollywood Ten. All were jailed for contempt of Congress, among them a director, Edward Dmytryk, who changed his mind in jail and - like director Elia Kazan - named names.

A group of stars, including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye and Larry Adler, flew to Washington to protest and ended up on the famous blacklist - the film industry's catalogue of those whom the studios, scared of HUAC, decided they would never employ.

When they came back from Washington, many of the group changed their minds. Bogart was the first to do so. "That trip was ill-advised, even foolish," he declared ... "I have absolutely no use for communism." He was then free to go on to make Key Largo.

Marsha Hunt, a leading lady of the 1940s who featured on the cover of Life magazine as the outstanding actress of the period, went to Washington and refused to give in. She told me: "It was a terrible time and I lost all my work." She also lost the support of her "Republican family". They were in pain ... I wish I could say they rallied ... it didn't happen." She devoted the next 25 years to working for the United Nations. Adler was also among those who did not retract his protest action. As a result, he was blacklisted.

Just how many were on that list is now a matter for discussion. At its end around 1960 there were estimated to be still 150 people on a list that was said to be held in every producer's office in Hollywood. But back in 1947, 2,000 names appeared in a publication called Red Channels. "Once in it," Once on the list, Larry Adler told me, "you were finished."

After their year-long jail sentences, some of the Hollywood Ten, such as Dalton Trumbo, who had written movies including Kitty Foyle and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, went to Mexico. The writers Ben and Norma Barzman settled in France without going before the committee - after being warned by a beautiful young blonde that there were FBI men blocking her road. "We were planning to have a meeting in our house. We didn't know who it was. Later we discovered she was Marilyn Monroe," Norma Barzman said. "I loved being in France, but my husband hated exile," she said, in conversation at her Beverly Hills apartment. "I had been in the party from February 1943 to February 1949 ... I am very proud of that. Everything I did I would do again."

Larry Adler decided to take pre-emptive action. He moved to Britain before any pink subpoena could come his way, wrote the score for the movie Genevieve and then, when it was released in America, saw that his name had been removed from the credits. When the score was nominated for an Oscar, it was in the name of the musical director Muir Mathieson. "I was pleased to see that it didn't win," he told me.

Of course, Britain won by having him, a living link with Gershwin, Ravel and Fred Astaire, about whom he was delighted to talk. We also benefited from people like Sam Wanamaker, who gave us the new Globe Theatre and the writer-director Carl Foreman, whose Oscar for the screenplay of Bridge on the River Kwai went to the writer of the original book.

Others came to Britain, too. Ring Lardner Jr, one of the Hollywood Ten, arrived and wrote the script for the iconic early black and white TV series Robin Hood. To ensure an American showing, another name was substituted in the writer credits - which became the usual thing to do.

Dalton Trumbo won an Oscar for his film The Brave One in 1956, under the name Robert Rich. A search began for this unknown writer and Trumbo said he enjoyed that immensely.

It also became usual for writers to employ other people to take scripts they had written into the producers' offices, under those people's names. They would get perhaps 25% of the writer's fee. It was not unknown for the "front" as they were called, to demand even more. One told "his" writer: "All you have to do is sit by your typewriter. I have to go and face these people at meetings - and sometimes I don't know the answers."

One man who did know the answers was Walter Bernstein, who used a front himself and who later wrote the film about those days, starring Woody Allen. It was called simply The Front, in which one of the actors was Zero Mostel. "He [Mostel] was an angry man in many ways. Big explosive man. He would try to get nightclub work. I took him up to The Concord [a hotel in the Catskill Mountains near New York], where he had been used to getting $2,000 a night. He got $500. Then they cut it even more. We used that in the film."

Mostel spent most of his blacklist years painting "angry pictures". But he came back to star in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and in Fiddler on the Roof.

The Mostel character in The Front books himself into a hotel, orders a bottle of champagne from room service, opens a window - and throws himself out of it. That happened to the leading American stage, radio and television actor Philip Loeb, who was blacklisted.

The actor Lee Grant - later to star, as the mother of the bride opposite Walter Matthau, in the film Plaza Suite - was blacklisted for 12 years because she spoke at a memorial meeting for J Edgar Bromberg, an actor who had gone to London and died "of a broken heart". She recounted: "A lawyer for the William Morris agency said that I could get off the blacklist if I testified against my husband [screenwriter Arnold Manoff]. It was like a death sentence, it would have been like committing suicide. My message was 'screw you'."

There were those, of course, who did name names. Among the named was Edward G Robinson, gangster superstar, who found himself relegated to small roles in B pictures - a luckier result than others achieved. The most famous victim was Larry Parks, who had starred in The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again and admitted to HUAC that he had been a party member. He was damned if he did and damned if he didn't.

He pleaded with the committee not to make him name names - "I beg you not make me do this" - and then when he finally did succumb, found his contract and the chances of a third Jolson film cancelled and himself a virtual pariah in the film community for a long time.

His wife Betty Garrett, herself blacklisted after starring in On the Town and about to have the lead in Annie Get Your Gun, told me that as a couple "We did a song and dance act in Las Vegas, where the blacklist didn't count." (On one occasion, she said, the maitre d' asked if they would accept a bottle of wine from a member of the audience; it was Joe McCarthy, whose Senate committee was carrying out its own hunt for communists, though mainly outside the Hollywood realm.) Later, Larry Parks went into the property business "and did very well. But he kept saying, 'Don't you think I'd rather be an actor?' "

The blacklist was finally broken in 1960, by Kirk Douglas, who starred in and produced Sparticus. "It was the proudest thing I have ever done," he says. "Yes, I ended the blacklist."

There's one happy thought in all this. In 1951, J Parnell Thomas was found guilty of corruption, and sent to the same jail as the Hollywood Ten. Kate Lardner said that her father, Ring Jr, told him: "I see you're still pushing the chicken xxxx around."


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