At the start of the Cold War, anti-communist fervor focused on Hollywood.
In October 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by a “dapper martinet,” New Jersey Congressman J. Parnell Thomas, held nine days of public—and much-publicized—hearings to investigate alleged Communist infiltration in Hollywood. Among the 41 witnesses were movie stars, studio heads, producers and directors, and writers and critics, all caught on newsreel and broadcast on radio, riveting the public’s attention. Doherty (American Studies/Brandeis Univ.; Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, 2013, etc.) brings considerable authority to his detailed account of the hearings, featuring colorful portraits of the large cast of characters, some of whom were willing, if not eager, to cooperate; others, called the Unfriendlies, were decidedly hostile. Lead-off witness Jack L. Warner insisted that no hint of communist propaganda ever made its way into movies, even if some in Hollywood were members of the Communist Party. Among the few films HUAC cited as suspect was MGM’s sentimental love story Song of Russia, released in 1944, when Russia was a valued ally. The steely Ayn Rand, called as an expert witness by virtue of having lived under communist rule, was adamant that the movie reflected the studio’s communist sympathies, creating “a picture of how favorable life was under a totalitarian Soviet.” The suave Adolphe Menjou, who charmed onlookers—as well as the interrogators—hinted at subtler infiltration: “a crafty actor could inject a subversive sentiment into a film with a gesture, a sidelong glance, or an arched eyebrow.” Outrage and anger over the hearings was swift: A group of glamorous stars, including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Danny Kaye, formed the Committee for the First Amendment to protest infringement of civil liberties. Their presence in the hearing’s gallery drew enthusiastic fans. Although RKO chief Dore Schary asserted that competence, not political views, should determine hiring decisions, after the hearings ended, studio heads caved in to pressure, firing and blacklisting unfriendly witnesses.
A thorough and lively chronicle of a shameful episode in American political and entertainment history.