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Hollywood Meets Frankenstein | The Nation

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Hollywood Meets Frankenstein

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With its blacklist, Hollywood has created a real monster, and it does more damage than the havoc wreaked by King Kong and Godzilla combined.

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In a matter of hours, Mary Jo Kopechne lost her life and Ted Kennedy the presidency.

"The Commodore's acts have touched the public,
more or less nearly, in a spot which is tender."

Hollywood, California

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.

Hollywood is a company town, and beneath the fancy publicity it is not so different from a coal town in Kentucky or a cotton town in Alabama. When a strike broke out in 1946, the studios smashed it by using tear gas, fire hoses, and gun-toting deputies.

A few final details to fill in the background. Nineteen fifty-one was a rocky year for motion pictures. The Supreme Court had handed down an anti-trust decision ordering the divorcement of theater chains from production facilities. The public, hit by high prices, began to cut down on money spent for entertainment. Television antennae darkened the sky. In Los Angeles, movie attendance dropped 30 percent. Hundreds of neighborhood theaters shut their doors. 20th Century's Skouras asked his 130 highest-priced personnel to take salary cuts, some up to 50 percent. Warner Brothers (showing a comfortable profit for the fiscal year) fired five department heads, one of them with twenty-three years' service.

The film industry, following a national pattern, was searching for a way to slash employee's paychecks and intimidate their unions. Many movie executives looked upon the investigations of Hollywood as a faintly noxious blessing. True, they created nasty publicity. But they also made workers fearful and reluctant to press wage demands. They also kept the unions from becoming militant. Hadn't the conviction of "The Ten" knocked off half a dozen leaders of the Screen Writers Guild?

Meanwhile, the witch hunters were busy. After "The Ten" came the hearings of last year, which used Larry Parks for a burnt offering. Then the Hollywood subcommittee session at which Sidney Buchman turned out to be the main event. Each of these investigations was regarded by the employer element as the big crisis which, once past, would get everybody off the hook and permit a return from panic to Hollywood's normal condition of twittering nervousness. A spokesman for the Un-American Activities Committee actually told an interviewer on TV that last year's hearing would definitely wind up the investigations of "Red influence" in films.

Early in 1952 there seemed to be some easing of the pressure against studio personnel. Studio heads were no longer (or less often) making rousing speeches against The Menace. (One top executive, at a compulsory meeting of the entire staff, from producers and stars to grips and messenger boys, demanded that every one of the workers become an informer and report immediately anything of a suspicious character in the words or actions of fellow employees.) But this sort of thing decreased and a numbed weariness settled over Hollywood. The monster had been fed, it seemed, and for a while would be content to digest its victims.

This prediction turned out to be wishful thinking. A new quarry was marked for the hunt—liberals and "fellow travelers." This meant attacks on more than isolated writers, directors, actors, and a few producers. It meant the impugning of certain top executives themselves, no matter how fervid their protestations of anticommunism, no matter how many anti-Communist pictures they had produced.

Dore Schary (in charge at Metro, the biggest studio of them all) became a prime target. So did Paramount's chief of production, Don Hartman. So did Stanley Kramer. The Wage Earners Committee, a local nuisance group, picketed theaters throughout the Los Angeles area and paid its respects to Schary and Kramer with placards, on one of which their names dripped blood.

Neither Schary nor Kramer took it lying down. Both filed suits for more than a million dollars against the Wage Earners, and these actions are now pending in the courts. Schary took a big ad in the movie trade papers and the Los Angeles dailies, defining his suit as "a challenge to all those who recklessly and viciously peddle the tawdry wares of defamation and personal slander." Even the right-wing Producers Association came out in behalf of the libel suits.

The picketing did not stop. But for a moment, there seemed to be a stiffening of resistance. The worm turned, ever so slightly. People who had long ago resigned themselves to a relentless and inevitable McCarthyism crawled up from their cyclone cellars. There even seemed to be a ray of sunlight. When the Republican faction on the Un-American Activities Committee released a report denouncing Hollywood for having failed to purge itself of Communist influence, elements of the Producers Association blasted the report. So vigorous was this reaction that the Democratic members of the committee later dissented from the Republican stand.

Had Hollywood had enough? Had the loss of talent and revenue and the acres of damaging publicity finally exasperated the studios? Had they glimpsed, in the light of events, the shadowy reflection of a lost principle, the principle of civil liberties? It almost seemed as though the saturation point had been reached when, as in the Salem witch hunts, the fanatics started to go after the higher echelons.

Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, but at this moment—at a time when Schary and Kramer found themselves on the barricades lately manned by people who are now for the most part jobless—Howard Hughes joined battle with the Screen Writers Guild over the issue of monies and credit due screen-writer Paul Jarrico. The latter, a Fifth Amendment casualty, demanded both credit on a finished picture and $5,000. Hughes galloped into the fray, Sir Galahad in tennis sneakers, doing the noble thing to defend free America. That is, it began to be noble after $3,500, for which sum Hughes was originally willing to settle with Jarrico. The Guild, whose contract with the entire industry stipulates that it alone shall arbitrate credits, tried to force Hughes to honor a contract which he publicly and blandly renounced. So far, two courts have upheld Hughes, or at least relieved him of the obligation to fulfill his contract with the Guild.

And since we've come to the courts: recently a jury in federal court awarded Adrian Scott (one of "The Ten") $80,000 due him under an unfinished contract with RKO. Judge Ben Harrison, acting on the appeal of the studio, reversed the decision on the ground that the jury didn't know everything it should have known about the case. In announcing his decision, Judge Harrison also made a pejorative statement concerning what he thinks of a man who refuses to answer a question at a Congressional hearing. At the same time, it is only fair to say that in the case of another member of "The Ten" the judge allowed a verdict for a smaller amount to stand.

The Hughes controversy broke at just about the time that Elia Kazan (with a juicy new contract pending) confessed all to the Un-American Activities Committee and published an advertisement in which he urged "liberals" to "speak out" and inform on associates. The blasts from Hughes and Kazan sent a good many liberals scuttling back to their cyclone cellars to sit it out in what they hoped would be silence.

Then came a development that reached down into the cyclone cellars.

The American Legion for some time has had a proscribed list which feeds the hungry maw of the American Legion Magazine whenever that publication feels the need for more red meat in its diet. About three months ago, the Legion's Americanism experts found a brilliant new way of harassing the studios and getting them to lop off reddish pinks and pinkish whites. The method: picketing.

One or two pictures were picketed in one or two cities, and immediately Representatives of the Industry (run when you hear that phrase) rushed to the Legion experts with a view to arranging some kind of truce. The idea was to arrive at a formula whereby the studios would get a guarantee that pictures would not be picketed. What was dreamed up was a clearance mechanism—that may well become Exhibit A in the evidence of this era's corruption of the American tradition. The mechanism works something like this:

Actor or writer finds himself on the list. He is called in by the thief in charge of such matters at the studio which employs him and is given a dossier of "charges" against him. These range from parlor gossip to hearsay quotes from the Tenney Committee reports, to scuttlebutt from the pages of "Red Channels," to data from state and county volunteer committees. Mention in the Daily Worker, other than outright attack, is considered a charge.

Out of the "appeasement" meeting between the Legion and industry representatives came a preliminary list of some 300 names, furnished by letter to each studio. The letter stated that if the studio employed any of the listees, picketing on a national scale would ensue when the picture involving the person's services was released.

To meet this, the studio now calls the listee, presents him with the charges, and asks him to write a letter "to the head of the studio" answering, by what is known as an Affidavit of Explanation, the following questions:

1. Is this so?

2. The reasons for joining organizations cited in the charges.

3. The people who invited you to join.

4. Did you invite others to join?

5. Did you resign? When?

The letter or affidavit (copies of which go to various agencies and organizations, and to certain individuals, including, so it is said, George Sokolsky, Howard Rushmore, and Freddy Woltman) is then submitted to a vague "central committee" for "clearance."

What makes this of particular interest, even among the exhibits of atrocities against civil liberties that are so plentiful these days, is the unblushingly investigative character of the questions, as revealed in the third and fourth items. This goes beyond the Un-American Activities Committee in asking liberals or "sympathizers" to name other liberals or "sympathizers."

In addition to Hollywood's troubles with the Legion, the Un-American Activities Committee has announced a new round of hearings for this coming autumn. Its process-servers are as busy as ever. Throughout the spring, deputy marshals sought out Los Angeles physicians, lawyers, radio, and television artists. Film folk were not ignored. One of the latest to be subpoenaed is a screen writer who received his summons on the floor of a Screen Writers Guild meeting—a meeting presumably open only to members in good standing. Considering the fact that the writer's address and phone number appear in the local directory and that no attempt was made to serve him at home, so far as he knows, the choice of time and place was clearly a calculated intimidation. Fear, suspicion, and wild rumor can be kept at fever pitch without the necessity of formal hearings. All the committee needs is an unlimited supply of pink subpoena forms.

As matters stand today, Hollywood is using half a dozen blacklists, as well as supplementary graylists based upon the vaguest sort of innuendo. The assumption that a person is guilty until proved innocent has become standard operating procedure. A weedy growth of professional witch-hunting outfits has sprung up. Fingermen are doing a brisk business, hourly supplying additional names. In an effort to protect themselves from the cruder forms of blackmail, the studios are hiring their own investigators. Quite likely the talent scouts who once signed up young starlets are now combing the country for promising ex-FBI men.

All this has its effect on the kind of films that are being made. A fair cross-section of the pictures now in production includes the following: Time Bomb, Tribute to a Bad Man, Apache Trail, Flat Top, Road to Bali, Pleasure Island, Something for the Birds, Springfield Rifle, and Bela Lugosi Meets the Gorilla Man—plus two others whose titles seem uncomfortably autobiographical: Panic Stricken and Tonight We Sing.

It is the opinion of the seasoned if not shell-shocked observers out here that if the industry goes all the way with appeasement of the Legion or any other pressure group on the setting of standards for employability, it will finally deliver itself to the Sokolskys, the McCarthys, and the Wage Earners Committee. After that there can only be darkness and television.

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