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Hollywood's Wildest Night Ever: When Legends Faced Off in a Political Showdown | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Hollywood's Wildest Night Ever: When Legends Faced Off in a Political Showdown

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.

Fearing that Mankiewicz might oppose a loyalty oath, DeMille decided to put the measure to a test while the guild president was in Europe. He assembled the board of the guild on August 18, 1950, to propose a bylaw that would make signing an oath mandatory for members. “A tremendous principle has to be acted upon here,” DeMille told the board. “The question we are asking is, Are you on the American side or on the other side? There are members of the guild on the other side and we all know that…”

When Mankiewicz returned to the United States, he questioned the morality and legality of the newly approved oath. But DeMille was only getting started. He screened several of Mankiewicz’s films, looking for Communist propaganda. His chief ally, Albert S. Rogell, vice president of the guild, openly accused Daily Variety of being “un-American” because it had published one of Mankiewicz’s anti-oath statements.

On October 9, at a heated guild board meeting, Mankiewicz continued to rail against the oath, particularly the requirement that the guild send producers the names of all directors not in compliance. He proposed a full meeting of the membership to discuss it, and said that in protest, he would refuse to sign the oath. This would put that year’s Oscar-winning director on his own guild’s blacklist.

DeMille and one of his key supporters, Frank Capra, disputed the use of the word blacklist, pointing out that producers could still hire anyone they wished.

“This guy’s un-American but you can hire him—that’s a blacklist!” Mankiewicz replied.

“I will not stand for any blacklist,” John Ford said, “but why shouldn’t a man stand up and be counted?”

“Because,” Mankiewicz answered, “nobody appointed DeMille to do the counting.”

Now the intrigue thickened. DeMille called a secret meeting of guild members known to oppose Mankiewicz, and they decided to initiate a recall movement against their president. This group of sixteen—which included Frank Capra, Leo McCarey and Andrew Stone—would try to accomplish the recall before Mankiewicz had a chance to stop it, but it required the support of 60 percent of the guild’s membership, or 167 votes.

The next day, Vernon Keays, the guild’s executive secretary, mobilized the guild staff to prepare slips of paper carrying the message: “This is a ballot to recall Joe Mankiewicz. Sign here—Yes.” There was no explanation of why Mankiewicz should be ousted, no opportunity to vote no, and the ballots were marked so that voting would not be secret.

Then the secretaries addressed the ballots, carefully avoiding several dozen members close to Mankiewicz who might expose the attempted coup, then shipped them to DeMille’s office at Paramount. There they were given to messengers on motorcycles—it was a scene out of prewar Germany or Italy—who delivered the ballots well into the wee hours of the morning.

Despite the precautions, Mankiewicz learned of the recall movement, and on October 13 he called a meeting of possible supporters in the back room of Chasen’s restaurant. Mankiewicz’s lawyer, Martin Gang, predicted that if the recall succeeded, the director’s film career would probably be over. Gang proposed two actions: a petition within the guild calling for a general meeting, and a legal injunction nullifying the result of the current recall vote.

The injunction needed only one sponsor, and Huston quickly signed on. But the petition required twenty-five names, and there wasn’t a minute to waste, so the anti-oath faction spent the rest of the evening hunting all over town for signatures. Among those who did sign: Nicholas Ray, Richard Brooks, George Seaton, Mark Robson, Robert Wise, Fred Zinnemann and Joseph Losey.

Finally, at about 2 am, a limousine was dispatched to Walter Reisch’s home to secure signature number twenty-five.

In response, several members of the guild board, including Capra, fired off a telegram to members finally explaining the case against Mankiewicz. Among the allegations: He was trying to overturn the board’s “legal and orderly” decision on the oath, and he was making “untrue and incendiary” allusions to a “blacklist.”

But the board had no choice but to accept the pro-Mankiewicz petition and schedule a general meeting the following Sunday evening at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

DeMille (left), now on the defensive, privately proposed a compromise: he would drop the recall motion if Mankiewicz would perform “an act of contrition.” He suggested that Mankiewicz write up something and give it to Louella Parsons, “who can read this to the American people…that you are sorry for what you have done.”

“Oh, hell,” Mankiewicz reportedly replied, “you can stuff your act of contrition.” Capra, who had grown disgusted with DeMille, resigned from the guild board.

With that, it was clear that the October 22 meeting, which was taking place just as the nasty Nixon-Douglas campaign was reaching its peak, was likely to be one of those rare Hollywood blockbusters that actually lived up to its billing.

That night, Mankiewicz brought along his friend Elia Kazan, who had just finished filming A Streetcar Named Desire. As their car pulled up outside the hotel, Kazan suddenly revealed that he could not attend the meeting. DeMille knew about his Communist Party membership, he explained, and would use it (and anything else) against Mankiewicz.

Still shaken, Mankiewicz opened the proceedings with a low-key recital of the facts as he saw them, ending with an attack on the “Politburo quality” of the move to recall him. Then DeMille took the stage, declaring, “No one has accused Mr. Mankiewicz of being a Communist.” But DeMille would not leave it at that. Instead, he veered off into an assault on many of Mankiewicz’s supporters, reciting a list of Communist front groups they had once been associated with, while suggesting that if Mankiewicz stayed in office his left-wing backers would take over the guild.

This provoked a torrent of response. “I resent paper-hat patriots who stand up and holler, ‘I am an American’ and contend that no one else is,” Don Hartman complained. Huston told DeMille that many of Mankiewicz’s admirers “were in uniform when you were wrapping yourself in the flag.” But it was the dignified, and highly respected, George Stevens who delivered the coup de grâce, reading from a report on his personal, in-depth investigation of DeMille’s recall movement.

“It was rigged,” Stevens announced, “and it was organized, and it was supposed to work.… Mr. Mankiewicz would have been out.… He would just have been smeared and out…quick, overnight, or in 36 hours, if you please…”

Now on the run, McCarey, one of DeMille’s allies, explained, “Everybody was moving pretty fast, and it was a fire, and maybe we used the wrong nozzle.” The always-witty Mankiewicz commented, “But I am the only one that got wet.” But DeMille held firm and continued to refer to several directors’ susceptibility to Communism. Adopting what was apparently intended as a Jewish accent, he read off the names of “Mr. Villy Vyler… Mr. Fleddie Zinnemann…”

This was too much for Wyler. “I am sick and tired of having people question my loyalty to my country,” he protested. “The next time I hear somebody do it, I am going to kick hell out of him. I don’t care how old he is or how big.”

Fritz Lang added, “Mr. DeMille, do you know this is the first time since I’m in America that I’m afraid, because I have an accent?” Then, to wild applause, someone called for kicking DeMille off the guild’s board, and some started heckling him.

Still, Mankiewicz felt he could not be certain of the support of the majority until Ford took a stand.

Finally, after midnight, he saw Ford raise his hand. “I admire you,” Ford told DeMille, “but I don’t like you, and I don’t like a thing you stand for.”

Ford had helped found the guild, he said, “to protect ourselves against producers.” Now, he continued, “somebody wants to…give out to producers what looks to me like a blacklist.”

Ford closed by calling for the resignation of the entire board. “Let’s turn the guild over to the Polack, and go home,” he pleaded, referring to Mankiewicz. “Tomorrow, let’s go back and make movies.” This produced thunderous applause, Mankiewicz sighed with relief, and the meeting adjourned at 2:20 am, with DeMille trudging from the hall, disgraced but still defiant.

The issue appeared settled. Almost lost in the calm that followed was the fact that the guild’s loyalty oath, adopted by the now-deposed board, remained in place. Five days after his victory, Mankiewicz wrote an open letter to the guild membership, calling on them to sign the oath, as he had now done, setting aside “whatever reservations you may have concerning any aspect of the oath or its method of adoption.”

Why? Mankiewicz explained that “a wicked and widespread misconception” continued to exist “both within our industry and without—a misconception that continues to vilify and smear both our persons and our guild.”

“It is essential,” he said, “that you help to remove that misconception.”

It was true that this was a request, not a demand, and that the nonsigners would not necessarily be placed on a blacklist. Still, it seemed to many that the battle-scarred Mankiewicz had abandoned his principled opposition to all such oaths. Variety now reported that it appeared that an industrywide oath would soon be adopted, also “voluntary” in nature.

The Mankiewicz triumph in October 1950 had only thwarted the very worst excesses of Communist-hunting in Hollywood. The overall trend remained. (And Nixon defeated Douglas, setting back the cause of women in politics. )

Losey would later comment that if “the loyalty oath hadn’t gone through the guild, history might have been slightly different, because it started the ball rolling.”

A second round of congressional hearings on Communism in Hollywood took place in March 1951, and they made the 1947 probe “look like a college musical,” as one writer commented. The ex-Communist actors Larry Parks and Sterling Hayden and, later, the director Kazan turned on their old friends. A blacklist was solidly enshrined, and it did not fade until the end of the decade.

Greg Mitchell‘ book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady details the national hysteria over the Communist menace, and the rise of McCarthyism, in 1950.

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