Almost precisely seventy-two years ago, on October 22, 1950, several hundred members of the Screen Directors Guild convened in an emergency session in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel. One participant later called it “the most tumultuous evening” in the history of Hollywood. The showdown over a political loyalty oath had finally arrived.
On one side: the guild’s president, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (left), who faced “the most dramatic evening in my life,” as he later recalled. On the other: Cecil B. DeMille, one of the founders of the movie industry.
It transpired in the midst of one of the most infamous election campaigns of the century, the US Senate race in California that pitted against each other two rising members of Congress: Richard M. Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas. Nixon’s sexist and Red-baiting attacks, and campaign shenanigans, would earn him that fall a nickname that stuck: “Tricky Dick.” (See my book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady.)
On that night in 1950, the Mankiewicz faction, led by John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler, met before the meeting to strategize. “Gentlemen, the fat is on the fire,” Huston announced. He had scribbled some notes on sheets of paper: “hypocritical flag wavers… unappointed arbiters of loyalty… they have employed the very same tactics of those who they profess to have rallied against…”
It was the beginning of the season of the witch in Hollywood. Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr. and other members of the Hollywood 10 had just been hustled off to jail, the penalty for refusing, in 1947, to answer questions about joining the Communist Party. A broad blacklist was still only a rumor, but after two years of relative quiet, another noisy, accusatory period was clearly approaching.
Hedda Hopper, the influential columnist, endorsed an industry-wide oath, adding that “those who aren’t loyal should be put in concentration camps before it’s too late.” Anti-Communist fervor in California swelled, partly because of the volatile race for the United States Senate then underway between Richard M. Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas, a woman he labeled the “pink lady” because of her supposed sympathy for left-wing causes.
The 69-year-old DeMille decided that the Screen Directors Guild, which he had run for years, should be the first Hollywood craft union to institute a loyalty oath. It would require that a member declare that he or she had never joined the Communist Party, even though it was legal to do so. Y. Frank Freeman, head of Paramount, had told DeMille that such an action would have a steamroller effect; all of the other guilds and unions in Hollywood would soon go along.
Only one roadblock stood in DeMille’s way: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the newly elected president of the directors’ guild.
The 41-year-old Mankiewicz, who had moderately liberal political views, was just emerging as a powerful figure in Hollywood; earlier in the year, he had won Academy Awards for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives, and he had just finished filming All About Eve, which went on to win six Oscars, including those for best screenplay, best director and best picture.