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Lest we forget

Published: November 2, 2007
Section: Opinions


October 27 marked the 60th anniversary of one of the most significant events in film historyone that most people fail to remember, but really should. On that day in 1947, the Committee for the First Amendment, a group of roughly thirty A-listers from the world of film, risked their careers by flying to Washington to protest the House Un-American Activities Committee.

CFA had been formed a month earlier by screenwriter Philip Dunne and directors John Huston and William Wyler, who felt that the right to freedom of speech, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, was being threatened by HUAC. They were soon joined by some high-profile friends, including: Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Charles Boyer, Gene Kelly, John Garfield, Judy Garland, Sterling Hayden, Katharine Hepburn, William Holden, Danny Kaye, Burt Lancaster, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Audie Murphy, Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, and Frank Sinatra.

In 1946, as a direct result of the growing Red Scare, the U.S. House of Representatives made the nine-member HUAC a standing committee, and Rep. J. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ) its chairman. Almost immediately, Thomas and his colleagues began promoting the idea, initially advanced by the previous HUAC chairman Rep. Martin Dies, that Communists were attempting to insert propaganda into popular entertainment to corrupt the American public. Thomas traveled to Hollywood to share his suspicions with studio chiefs and seek from them the names of potential subversives. He then returned to Washington and began calling those individuals to testify.

Some acknowledged and renounced past left-wing activity, and also named names of others with whom they had associated or who they believed had been involved in similar activity. These friendly witnesses preserved their careers by ruining others, and therefore have been regarded with great disdain by survivors and students of the period. In the fall of 1947, however, 10 of the 39 subpoenaed witnesses took a more principled stand and refused to share any such information with HUACregardless of the personal and professional implications of doing soin order to fend off censorship and preserve the integrity of the First Amendment. This group, which became known as the Hollywood 10, consisted of Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo.

One by one, they were called before HUAC, and one by one they refused to answer the infamous question: Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party? Enraged, Thomas threatened to cite them for contempt of Congress, a charge that carried with it a significant prison sentence, but the Hollywood 10 held their ground.

With the matter coming to a head, CFA decided to use their celebrity to call attention to the situation. On October 26, 1947, they participated in Hollywood Fights Back, a broadcast on ABC radio in which each read brief but passionate statements in support of the Hollywood 10 and defense of their industry. Then, on October 27, 1947, 26 of them boarded a plane for Washington. En route, they stopped on airfields in cities across the country to share their concerns with average Americans who came to greet them. Eventually, they landed in Washington, where they sat in the audience of HUAC hearings in respectful protest for several days.

Their efforts failed to yield results. They departed with the Hollywood 10 still in jeopardy. Upon their return, the increasingly intimidating climate got the better of several members, who made statements and wrote articles renouncing the trip. Bogart, for instance, said he was duped into going, not realizing that the Hollywood 10 actually were Communists.

While CFA broke apart, the fear-mongerers only grew stronger. On December 2, HUAC did indeed cite each of the Hollywood 10 for contempt. The following day, the studio executives who employed them met behind closed-doors and then issued a press release, known as the Waldorf Statement, condemning, terminating the contracts of, and explicitly blacklisting them. Shunned by their industry, all 10 ultimately were found guilty and received sentences ranging between six and twelve months behind bars. For over a decade after their release, they were unable to find work.

The situation got worse before it got better. On June 22, 1950, Counterattack, a right-wing publication, began circulating a pamphlet titled Red Channels among studio executives. It accused 151 people from the industry of being Red Fascists and their sympathizers. They, too, were subsequently blacklisted. Again, careers were ruined, families were destroyed, and lives were cut short.

All of this sounds rather depressing, and it was, but it is not the end of the story. This summer, I traveled to Los Angeles to conduct interviews for a book I am writing. One of the people I spoke with was Marsha Hunt, an 89 year old woman with the appearance and memory of someone decades younger, who in the 1930s and 1940s was one of the top stars in Hollywood. She began under contract to Paramount, moved to MGM (where she starred in Pride and Prejudice and was named the studios Best Dressed actress), graced the cover of the March 6, 1950 Life magazine, and had offers from all three networks to star in her own show on the new medium of television. And then, even quicker than she had risen, she fellher inclusion in Red Channels brought an abrupt halt to her blossoming career.

For the record, Hunt was never a Communist, not that she ever invoked that in her defense. She simply felt it was no crime to be a Communist, or to refuse to discuss being one. She had been one of the members of CFA aboard the flight that left for Washington on October 27, 1947one who did not distance herself from the trip upon her return. In fact, the plight of the Hollywood 10 only prompted Hunt to continue the fight. She spoke out on committees (including as a member of the SAG board), in petitions, and among friends and colleagues. For her principled stand, she lost her career, but never apologized or expressed regret.

Remembering the date on Saturday, I called Hunt, who turned 90 a little over a week ago, to thank heron behalf of all of usfor what she did 60 years ago today. She said she marked the anniversary by re-enacting her part in the Hollywood Fights Back broadcast at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. (The original broadcast, it should be noted, was co-written by screenwriter Robert Presnell, her late husband.) Hunt noted that upon her arrival at the event, veteran actor James Whitmore, who was also reading a part, greeted her by asking, What are you doing here? Were both supposed to be dead!

Hunt, for her part, says she feels great and wants to live for at least 10 more years, and then Ill look and see if its worth hanging around. She says her best work is ahead of her, and wants to make sure that mistakes of the past are not repeated. We have things to be watchful about, she cautions. For example, she states, The Patriot Act is misnamed. It steps on constitutional rights and has to be protected against. It speaks volumes that Marsha Hunt, entering her tenth decade, is still looking out for the rest of us. One can only hope that well do a better job of looking out for ourselves.