You Must Remember This

“Have You Ever Been a Member of the Communist Party?”

The price the Hollywood Ten paid for refusing to answer “the $64 question.”

Biberman and Ornitz
Herbert Biberman and Samuel Ornitz, two members of the Hollywood Ten, after being cited for contempt by the House Committee on Un-American Activities on Oct. 29, 1947.

New York Times Co./Getty Images

You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, is back for a new season. When each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in an excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 2 below, on the Hollywood Ten, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

The hearings on what the House Un-American Activities Committee called “the communist infiltration of the motion-picture industry” began on Oct. 20, 1947. At the insistence of lawyers representing the 19 “unfriendly” witnesses brought before the committee, the proceedings took place in full view of the media. The friendly witnesses were called first.

Jack Warner of Warner Brothers took the stand, and the head of the studio most identified with the New Deal announced his conversion to anti-Communism. He noted the violent strikes at his studio the previous year, and declared that he was done making movies about the little man. He read a prepared statement in which he offered to donate to what he called a “pest removal fund” to root out “ideological termites” burrowing into American soil and have them shipped to Russia. Warner demurred when it came to naming names of certain subversives, but he did list the names of several writers who he claimed had “slanted” dialogue to match their own politics, including Alvah Bessie, Gordon Kahn, Howard E. Koch, Ring Lardner Jr., Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, and Robert Rossen.

When asked why the producers hadn’t banded together to share information about subversives so that they could be removed from Hollywood, Warner noted that such a thing would qualify as a conspiracy “to deprive a man of a livelihood because of his political beliefs” and would be illegal, “unless there are the proper laws created by you gentlemen in order to make a thing like that legal, possible, active, and effectual.”

Louis B. Mayer, when called to the stand, also asked Congress to pass a law justifying discrimination. “It is my belief they should be denied the sanctuary of the freedom they seek to destroy,” Mayer told the committee.

The parade of friendly witnesses continued, including James Kevin McGuinness, who wrote the story that became the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, and former Daily Worker and Hearst syndicate film critic Howard Rushmore. Then came a series of stars.

Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan, then a Democrat, showed excellent political instincts by saying he could not identify any communists by name and insisting that the threat to the sanctity of the screen was insignificant; only he and the FBI knew that Reagan had already supplied names of SAG members he suspected of voting the party line. Gary Cooper reported with no small sense of satisfaction that communism in Hollywood was on the decline, in part thanks to his own patriotic activism. Ginger Rogers was a no-show, but her mom took the stand to attack screenwriter and director Clifford Odets, and in particular his 1944 Cary Grant vehicle None But the Lonely Heart. But she also agreed with Cooper that things were improving, because executives now seemed to be afraid to hire what she called “the lefty.” This assertion was backed up by Walt Disney, who nevertheless alleged that the Screen Cartoonists Guild was a communist front that had tried to take over his studio so it could turn Mickey Mouse into a pinko.

During the hearings, Eric Johnston of the Motion Picture Association of America made public a letter he had issued to some congressmen questioning the legitimacy of the proceedings, in which purported communists were “condemned without a hearing or a chance to speak in self-defense, slandered and libeled by hostile witnesses not subject to cross examination and immune from subsequent suit or prosecution.” The friendly witnesses would never be challenged, but the unfriendly were about to get a chance to speak. Sort of.

Where the friendly witnesses were allowed to read prepared statements of any length—to say pretty much anything they wanted to without fact checking, rebuttal, arguments, or time constraints—the chairman made it very clear that the unfriendly witnesses were subject to him and his gavel. Eleven of the 19 unfriendlies that had been subpoenaed were actually called to the stand. Ten of them had prepared written statements, though only a couple of those men were allowed to read them. (All of the statements were released to the media, however.) John Howard Lawson, the founder of the Screen Writers Guild, testified first. He was not allowed to read a statement which accused the committee of wanting to “cut living standards, introduce an economy of poverty, wipe out labor’s rights, attack Negroes, Jews, and other minorities, drive us into a disastrous and unnecessary war.”

All Thomas cared about was Lawson’s answer to what he termed the $64 question: “Have you ever been a member of the Communist party?”

As you can see in the video above, when Lawson refuses to answer to Thomas’ satisfaction, several men move to physically remove him from the room.

When Dalton Trumbo was called to the stand, his response to the $64 question was to demand due process. “I believe I have the right to be confronted with any evidence which supports this question. I should like to see what you have,” Trumbo said.

The chairman’s response: “Oh. Well, you would?”

Trumbo: “Yes.”

Thomas: “Well, you will pretty soon.”

At this point, the entire room erupted in laughter. (You can watch the exchange starting at the 2:17 mark in the video below.) 

Thomas was bluffing here. In the midst of the hearings, the MPAA demanded that the committee furnish the list they had implied they possessed of so-called subversive films produced by Hollywood studios. The committee would not name the names of the films that ostensibly were the reason for the hearings. On the second day of testimony, Thomas declared he had a list of 79 people in Hollywood who were definitely communists. He never released that list, either.

The committee, nothing if not inconsistent, allowed screenwriter Alvah Bessie to read the first two paragraphs and the last two paragraphs of his statement. Writer Albert Maltz was allowed to read the entirety of his statement, in which he compared Reps. Thomas and Rankin to Goebbels and Himmler.

Whether or not the committee’s aim was censorship, it was the modus operandi of the hearings. For the most part, the accused communists were only allowed to speak on their accusers’ terms. Everything came down to “the $64 question.”

Only 11 of the “unfriendly” witnesses were called to testify in the fall of 1947, and 10 of them—a group that became known as the Hollywood Ten—shared legal counsel. They had agreed beforehand that they would not answer any questions about their party membership or other affiliations, because their whole defense was based on the idea that Congress had no right to pry into their lives, their beliefs, or their practice of assembly. Also, they knew that the committee could use their admitted allegiance to any social group or professional guild against them, and against any fellow members of those groups.

A pattern started to emerge: Thomas would refuse to let the unfriendly witness speak his mind; the witness would refuse to answer Thomas’ questions directly; a dossier would be read exposing the supposedly damning evidence of the witness’s communist ties, often including not much more than screen credits, or the fact that they were members of the Writers Guild, which all screenwriters had to be. Thomas would wrap up by announcing that the witness would be indicted for contempt of court.

The 11th man was Bertolt Brecht, the German poet and playwright who, through works like Mother Courage and Her Children, The Threepenny Opera, and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, critiqued war and capitalism from a Marxist perspective. The German-born Brecht had fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and had been living in America for six years. The committee began reading excerpts from Brecht’s pre-Hollywood works, to prove he was a communist. Having not pledged with the others to avoid substantive dialogue with the committee, Brecht defended himself, insisting that his work had been misinterpreted, due to mistranslation. And he didn’t shy away from answering the $64 question, saying, “I was not a member or am not a member of any Communist Party.” 

At the end of his testimony, Brecht was thanked for being a good example, and dismissed. He immediately hopped on a ship back to Germany, never to return.

By Oct. 31, 1947, 11 of the 19 subpoenaed had been called to the stand. The unfriendlies who had testified, minus Brecht, believed that it was all over, and that they had won. Producer Samuel Goldwyn publicly called the hearings “a flop.” The MPAA, still waiting for Thomas to release his list of alleged propaganda films, declared that the sudden closing of the hearings vindicated the studios’ position that there was no proof that Hollywood had allowed communists to control its products.

Maybe that would have been that. But then William Randolph Hearst started using the front pages of his newspapers to publish editorials, declaring that “the motion picture industry is now infested with Communists,” and since the studios had refused to clean house, the government ought to punish them by instituting official, “patriotic” censorship, to “prevent further privileged indoctrination by the high-salaried camp followers of revolutionary Stalinism.”

Five days after the close of the hearings, the Screen Writers Guild held elections in which a slate of anti-communists won in a landslide, a sign that much had changed since the beginning of the hearings, and that Hollywood on the whole had been duly frightened. Another sign of the same came that very day, when the MPAA’s Eric Johnston, who had declared victory on behalf of the Hollywood Ten a few days earlier, told the Hollywood Reporter that the 10 had performed a “tremendous disservice” to their industry. It was time that the studios, Johnston said, “take positive steps to meet this problem.”

Three weeks later, on the same day Congress voted 346 to 17 to indict the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress, Johnston called a meeting of 50 film executives at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. He said they had two options: continue to do nothing, which wasn’t working out too well for anyone, or appease Hollywood’s critics by purging the industry of known communists.

There had still been no conclusive proof presented that any of the Hollywood Ten were a subversive threat. But they had not done themselves any favors by refusing to answer questions. There was a pervasive sense, in the media at least, that a man wouldn’t invoke his right to silence unless he had something to hide. As one of the Hollywood Ten, Edward Dmytryk, wrote later, “It was clear to those who listened that the unfriendly witnesses were behaving as communists could be expected to behave.”

And this is what finally moved the studios to act: not actual fear of communists, not even the threat of government censorship, which was scary for sure but would have taken more than a Hearst editorial before it actually happened. What the studio chiefs were afraid of in 1947 was the same thing they feared 25 years earlier, when Will Hays was brought to Hollywood to oversee self-censorship of film content in the wake of a number of scandals involving the perceived morality of movie stars. They were worried about bad publicity.

The studios believed that if regular people found reason to dislike the personal lives and habits of the people who made movies, they would stop buying tickets to those movies. The film industry could survive the firing of 10 men, most of them writers, always considered the most disposable and replaceable workers who had actual influence over the content of films. The film industry could not survive an organized boycott by every person in America who was afraid of communism. If avoiding that meant disposing of a few sacrificial lambs, that was what the studios were going to have to do.