"We got a very good writer. You won't be ashamed."
-- From the movie, "The Front," written by Walter Bernstein
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Last Thursday, at some ungodly hour of the morning, I found myself on the early train to Washington with my friend and colleague, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation magazine.
The three of us were headed to DC for a day of events marking the 60th anniversary of the Hollywood blacklist, a list the very existence of which was denied for years. It kept writers, directors, actors and others in the entertainment business from working if they were suspected of possessing clandestine Communist sympathies or even if they just dared to have left-leaning political opinions.
Walter was blacklisted in the early 1950s, and forced to work under a variety of pseudonyms until 1960. Years later, he was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay when he wrote "The Front," starring Woody Allen as a cashier who poses as a writer for a blacklisted friend.
Victor, now a journalism professor at Columbia, wrote "Naming Names," an award-winning book considered the definitive account of the Hollywood blacklist.
I was with them to moderate a panel discussion of the blacklist at the National Press Club. Joining us in DC was the articulate and stunning, 90-year-old actress Marsha Hunt, whose promising career as a movie ingÃƒ©nue also was short-circuited by false accusations of disloyalty.
In May 1947, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had just begun. The House Committee on Un-American Activities came to Hollywood and heard the testimony of 14 "friendly" witnesses who alleged that Communist propaganda was spreading through the movies. (A suspect line of dialogue: "Share and share alike -- that's democracy!")
That fall, 19 members of the Hollywood community -- including 13 members of what was then called the Screen Writers Guild -- were subpoenaed to appear before the committee on Capitol Hill.
Progressives in the movie business, including Marsha Hunt, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, John Huston, Danny Kaye and Paulette Goddard created the Committee for the First Amendment and flew to Washington to observe the proceedings. They also hoped to testify.
Instead, the committee called the first of the so-called "unfriendly 19," writer John Howard Lawson, and asked the now famous question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Refusing to answer, he and nine others -- including Ring Lardner, Jr., and Dalton Trumbo, then the highest paid writer in Hollywood -- became known as the Hollywood Ten. On November 24, 1947, all of them were cited for contempt of Congress. The next day, Hollywood studio heads issued a statement that the ten were fired "until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist..."
They added, "We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods."
The Hollywood Ten were fined and jailed, the Committee for the First Amendment vanished as quickly as it had been organized, and a grand, hysterical inquisition ignited, burning like arson through the worlds of entertainment, academia, science, government, and organized labor. Thus began what the writer Stefan Kanfer called the plague years and playwright Lillian Hellman dubbed "Scoundrel Time."
The show business blacklist was a vicious whispering campaign, a witch hunt that bullied and intimidated. It terrorized friends into betraying friends and drove some to suicide, mortal illness and economic despair. It sent writers to prison, uprooted families and attempted to crush the creative spirit of magnificent American storytellers.
In the end, with time and the bravery of intelligent men and women who dared to stand up and declare it a shameful and immoral national disgrace, the blacklist failed. Among them, Edward R. Murrow (as depicted in the George Clooney movie "Good Night and Good Luck"), and John Henry Faulk, the Texas-born, homespun broadcaster who fought the blacklist and won, although the courtroom battle financially wiped him out.
On Thursday, we came to Washington to honor the talent and invincibility of those who survived the scourge of the blacklist with unstinting courage and grace. At a time when civil liberties are once again at risk, when anti-terrorism has replaced anti-Communism as the cloak behind which villains hide to cast ethnic and religious slurs, or to accuse those who question authority as guilty of treason, we take their experience to heart.
We remember that eternal vigilance is indeed all that protects us from those who would deny our freedom and keep dissenting and creative voices silent. The cry of "Wolf!" is never far from the door.
copyright 2007 Michael Winship