On October 24, 1947, three of Hollywood’s top directors sent a telegram to scores of key figures in the film industry. The wire read:
THIS INDUSTRY IS NOW DIVIDED AGAINST ITSELF. UNITY MUST BE RECAPTURED, OR ALL OF US WILL SUFFER FOR YEARS TO COME. YOUR AID IS REQUIRED IN THIS CRITICAL MOMENT. THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANY PICTURE YOU EVER. MADE. SIGNED: JOHN HUSTON, WILLIAM WYLER, BILLY WILDER
“This critical moment” was an investigation of Hollywood by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the issue of “The Ten,” then still this side of prison.
In those first days of the committee’s onslaught, a broad group of film people stood up and fought back. More than fifty stars appeared on two nation-wide broadcasts. Others made a junket to Washington to watch the shabby circus in action. Several top studio executives, among them Dore Schary and L. B. Mayer, said brave words. Both insisted that what mattered in the case of talent was performance, not politics.
But in the hierarchy of the film corporations, men like Schary and Mayer are less than kings. The overlords of the industry are the New York executives who control financing, distribution and the theater chains. The motion-picture business is primarily a real-estate operation, and the real estate is in the hands of men like Loew’s Nick Schenck, Paramount’s Barney Balaban and Fox’s Spyros Skouras. It was these big boys who, at the close of the committee hearings, whistled the studio heads to a meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria. The high-priced hired help were given a brisk caning and a lecture on the facts of life. They emerged from the meeting to issue a statement announcing the firing of “The Ten.” A portion of that document is worth quoting, for it has become a Pike’s Peak of irony:
In pursuing this policy, we are not going to be swayed by any hysteria or intimidation from any source. We are frank to recognize that such a policy involves dangers and risks. There is a danger of hurting innocent people, there is the risk of creating an atmosphere of fear. Creative work at its best cannot be carried on in an atmosphere of fear. We will guard against this danger, this risk, this fear.
Actually, with the firing of “The Ten,” Hollywood created for itself a monster that was to grow as gruesome as any that ever frightened the wits out of children at a horror matinee. Since that day, the film industry has been in panicky retreat before every attack on civil liberties. It is now a hapless pushover for any witch-hunting outfit that seeks to collect blood or blackmail.
The spectacle of a giant monopoly gibbering with fright may seem curious until one recalls a bit of Hollywood history. The film executives (not unlike those in other industries) have always had an abiding faith in “the fix.” They would rather buy off a racketeering union boss than sit down with an honest labor leader. It was this policy that led to the B-picture episode, a few years back, when the studio heads left a satchel of greenbacks in a hotel room to buy off Willie Bioff. It was this faith in the fix that (when a cog slipped somewhere) led to the landing of 20th Century’s Joe Schenck in the federal pokey for income-tax evasion.