Sunday, September 07, 2003


by William Severini Kowinski

On a lovely spring day in 1953, five year old Buffy Offner met the strangest looking woman she had ever seen. Buffy's father, Mortimer Offner, had taken her to a matinee of Room Service, a play he was directing on Broadway. It starred a new young actor in his first big role, named Jack Lemmon. The strange woman---the bony giant with the most peculiar, exciting voice, wearing a man's suit---was Katharine Hepburn. Mortimer Offner had co-written four of her pictures and she was probably congratulating him on the play's success.

That golden afternoon was never to be repeated, for Morty Offner or for either of his daughters. A month later he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he refused to name names. He never worked in the theatre or the movies or any entertainment medium again.

Theatre and show business had been Morty Offner's life from childhood,[ when he dragged his good friend, George Cukor, into school musicals. Together they would play hooky and wait by the stage door to catch a glimpse of Isadora Duncan. They bought the cheapest tickets to see plays, sometimes two and three times if they liked it, so they could memorize the lines. Cukor spent more time at Offner's house than he did at his own.]

But Buffy and her younger sister Debbie grew up wondering why their father's busy, glittering life in television, theatre and film changed overnight to the strange quietude of a restless insurance agent---why his irrepressible sense of humor could only be exercised at home, and why they couldn't mention his show business successes to his new friends. To them the Blacklist is more than a relic of the 1950s: it is the unseen, amorphous but omnipresent nemesis of their childhood.

Hooray for Hollywood: Ginger Rodgers, sequined battleships, tap shoes and song, tough guy detectives, Bogart and Bacall. That's entertainment-all the thirties and forties dream factory products now washed with nostalgia and categorized as good clean fun-but there were other things happening in Hollywood, too. Films like The Informer, The Dreyfus Affair, The Grapes of Wrath. Films with some political impact that suddenly weren't being made anymore. Stars like John Garfield who disappeared from the screen. Successful writers like Dalton Trumbo and Ring Lardner, Jr. who suddenly took twenty year vacations. And the rarely revived, pathetically lifeless films that followed in the fifties and early sixties. Something was happening there but we didn't know what it was....It was the Blacklist.

Beginning with the first "Inquiry into Hollywood Communism" conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, a period of intense political and cultural repression hit the dream factories: a time of fear, suspicion, doubt and injustice that did not end for nearly twenty years. It destroyed families, friendships, careers, lives. Before it was over it had taken from the screen such talents as Garfield, Lee Grant, Zero Mostel and hundreds of screenwriters, actors and directors whose names are now obscure---because the Blacklist destroyed them.

The Blacklist sucked the lifeblood from Hollywood, then itself died in the early sixties. For its last fifteen years it was a conspiracy of silence few Americans knew about.

Now [in 1976] it comes full circle to the screen it once attacked, in the form of two motion pictures that will at last hold the Blacklist up to full public view. One is a feature film, The Front---the first Hollywood product to really deal with the Blacklist, starring Woody Allen. The Front was written by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt, both of whom had been blacklisted. It also stars Zero Mostel and Hershel Bernardi, also blacklisted.

The other new film is Hollywood On Trial, the first full length documentary on the Blacklist, made by a group of young filmmakers from Cambridge, Mass., and narrated by John Huston.

"You think I'm a shit, don't you?" How Hollywood Became A Dream Divided Against Itself

Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s was an exciting place. Movies were popular antidotes to the Depression and war-weariness, and so the glamour of Hollywood was somewhat self-satisfied, a kind of public service. But Hollywood was also a place of ideas. Expatriate writers and directors from war-torn Europe, including Jews and others fleeing the Nazis, encouraged this more serious culture. It was a time of political ideas and debate, responding to the Great Depression, the plight of the Okies in California, to the new union movement and the rise of fascism around the world.

The apotheosis of right-wing witch-hunting and the direct precursor of McCarthyism that outlived McCarthy, HUAC launched its 1947 inquiry with much fanfare, demanding to know the political affiliations and union membership of movie people suspected of having subversive ideas they might sneak onto the silver screen.

But Hollywood matched HUAC's flamboyance. The first ten who refused to answer the committee's questions on constitutional grounds were immediately charged with contempt of Congress. "The charges were correct," screenwriter Dalton Trumbo said later. "I did have contempt for that particular Congress."

The jokes and much of the bravado stopped when their Supreme Court appeal unexpectedly failed and the Hollywood Ten were sentenced to prison.

At first Hollywood was united in its resistance to the politicians' attempt to tarnish their American Dream factory. When HUAC's investigation was first announced, actor-director John Huston was among those who organized a galaxy of Hollywood luminaries such as Humphrey Bogart, Frederic March, Danny Kaye and Lucille Ball into the Committee for the First Amendment. They took to the radio with a program called "Hollywood Fights Back" and barnstormed cities between Los Angeles and Washington, protesting the HUAC hearings and asserting their first amendment right to a "free screen."

But when the Hollywood Ten was indicted, movie studio executives met at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York and issued the infamous Waldorf Statement, which declared that the Ten would not be permitted to work for any major studio again, and that the studios would be on the lookout for other similarly dangerous subversives. It was the official beginning of the Hollywood Blacklist.

It was the industry itself, not the committee, that changed all the rules. Now the careers of all dissidents were in jeopardy, and so Hollywood's united front crumbled. Some of the Ten had been too abrasive and defensive. Defending someone's right to be a Communist no longer seemed wholesome. Grumbling about mistaken strategy, some prominent members of the First Amendment Committee dropped out. One of those was Humphrey Bogart.

He was working on "Key Largo" at the time, directed by his friend, John Huston. They had a brief conversation on the subject during the filming that not only demonstrates the strain being put on relationships, but in its own way is a perfect illustration of how easily the Hollywood m├ętier lends itself to black comedy. Bogart and Huston had hardly exchanged an unnecessary word during the filming, and now they were in a bar, drinking side by side in silence. Until Bogart said, "You think I'm a shit, don't you?" "Yep," Huston replied.

But even such tragicomedy wasn't possible for long. When movie people began testifying and naming their friends for having attended a meeting at which Communism was discussed, or being members of subversive organizations like the End Jim Crow in Baseball Committee, there were no illusions of unity left to defend. Hollywood had become a dream divided against itself, and it has never been the same.

The Blacklist soon spread to television, where the networks were actually paying people like Vincent Hartnett and his Red Channels scaresheet $5 for each name of an alleged Communist in the media. Behind Hartnett and other groups was the threat of organized boycotts of sponsors' products if the people they named weren't kept from working. As always the names included civil rights activists, pacifists and anyone who spoke up against the Blacklist itself-like John Henry Faulk, whose only subversive act was running for an Actors' Guild office, or Lee Grant, who was kept out of films and television for twelve years because of something she said in support of another Blacklisted actor, at his funeral. And the actress blacklisted because she said something in support of Lee Grant.

The cost of twenty years of the Blacklist was felt in personal terms: defeat, despair, and even suicide were not unknown, and alcoholism, divorce, breakdown and early death were not uncommon. Friends informing on friends led to lifelong suspicion and guilt.

The effects were inevitably felt throughout the culture and are still being felt, for behind much of the vapidness of today's movies is the job the Blacklist did in ridding Hollywood of an atmosphere in which ideas could grow and be respected. Writer-director Abraham Polonsky recalls the years when, thanks largely to the influx of European directors and the presence of writers like Aldous Huxley and William Faukner, Hollywood was actually a place of intellectual ferment. "I remember my conversations with my friends in the 40s. Hegel, Marx, Kant, Russell, Wittgenstein, all the modern writers, all the modern painters, were active names in the communal, social, personal dialogue in this town. Nowadays, I only hear those painters' names when I go to Sotheby's to listen to an auction."

The thrust of the Blacklist was to make unsafe any impulse in the entertainment community that did not contribute directly to making money for the studios and networks. Intellectual and political activity, unionization, and anything that threatened the authority of the status quo were the real targets of the Blacklist, not Communism. And so, the Blacklist succeeded.