You Must Remember This

The Communist Hunters Come to Hollywood

How the search for Soviet sympathizers in the film industry began.

Rep. Martin Dies, Jr.,
Rep. Martin Dies, Jr.

Harris & Ewing, official White House photographers/U.S. Library of Congress

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 1 below, on the pre-history of the Hollywood blacklist, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

A pervasive idea about the Hollywood blacklist seems to be that its victims were persecuted and punished despite little to no evidence that they were actually communists. This was true, in many cases, and some people who were blacklisted were not and had never been members of the Communist Party. There were people who were denied their livelihoods, and thus happy lives, for reasons that were stupid or petty, or for virtually no reason at all.

But there were also dedicated Communists in Hollywood. They weren’t necessarily revolutionary Communists. Just because you were a member of the Communist Party, that didn’t mean that you wanted to overthrow the government or pass state secrets to the Soviets. It didn’t mean you were going to deny the sizable salary offered to you by a studio, or that you wouldn’t use that salary to buy a nice house and car.

Most Hollywood Communists were concerned with domestic social issues, like racial inequality. They hoped the party could someday compete alongside the Democratic and Republican parties for a real voice in the shaping of the nation. And as both the Communist Party and the U.S. media changed their rhetoric during the period in which the U.S. and the USSR were allies, it looked like American acceptance of domestic communism might not be far off.

Circa 1944, the Communist Party of the USA billed itself in its constitution as “a political party carrying forward … the traditions of Jefferson, Paine, Jackson, and Lincoln … through a government of the people, by the people, and for the people; its abolition of all exploitation of man by man, nation by nation, and race by race … striving toward a world without oppression and war, a world of brotherhood of man.” When you read the memoirs of Hollywood people who admit an association with the party, one sentiment comes up over and over again: If you were concerned about inequality and systemic oppression abroad and at home, the Communists were the only people who seemed to be committed to doing anything.

As the numbers of movie folk attending Los Angeles-area Communist Party meetings began to swell, the party itself took notice. Though the percentage of movie workers drawn into the party remained small, those members associated with the film industry tended to donate more money than workers in other industries. A party organizer named Stanley Lawrence referred to the new Hollywood recruits as “fat cows to be milked.”

How many cows were there? The conservative point of view, then and even today, holds that even if membership in the party was small, communists managed to infiltrate and seize a disproportionate amount of power, particularly within certain unions. The counter-argument is that if there was a communist conspiracy to infiltrate Hollywood, the communists were stupid in the way they went about it. They basically got nowhere with the really powerful people—the producers—and made the biggest impact with the least powerful people in town: the writers. That said, a number of screenwriters associated with the party did take an active role in the formation and governance of the Screen Writers Guild. But this was a small victory because that guild was plagued by infighting from its inception, and the known or suspected communists who did have power in the guild were opposed by a sizable faction of anti-communists.  

The most committed Communist activist in town was John Howard Lawson, writer of the Hedy Lamarr vehicle Algiers and the Bogart war flick Sahara, and as of 1937, the president of the Hollywood chapter of the Communist Party. Lawson espoused the party line, no matter how that line changed, and he seems to have been the most aggressive and unyielding soldier fighting to inject American movies with leftist ideology.

Less doctrinaire than Lawson were passionate believers like Screen Readers Guild president Bernard Gordon and screenwriters Paul Jarrico, Ben Barzman, and Michael Wilson—an Oscar winner for A Place in the Sun, a film which managed to be both class-conscious and totally decadent in the best classical Hollywood fashion. Barzman spoke for many when he described the party thusly: “It’s just the best, most organized way I know to fight fascism and imperialist war and to aid the colonial peoples in their struggle for freedom.” Barzman and friends had heard stories of the dark side of Joseph Stalin’s rule, tales of mass arrests, show trials, and executions, but weren’t sure what to believe. Maybe those stories were just Western propaganda.

For others, communism was a fad, something to check out once or twice before moving on to the next thing. The Communist Party was a supposedly secret organization. In the early 1940s, Barzman told his future-wife Norma that if anyone found out he was active in the party, then that would be the end of his career working for studios. Many, including director Edward Dmytryk, registered under aliases. There were some records kept of who joined or gave money to the party, and of who attended meetings—and the FBI seized many of these records by breaking into the party’s Hollywood headquarters. But there were not records kept of who left the party in disillusionment or disgust, or who attended a handful of meetings but never fully committed.

The shades of red were made blurrier in 1934, when the Soviet Union established the Popular Front, which called for all leftists and antifascists to join forces. Previously, communists had been trained to shun noncommunist leftists, who were branded as capitalists in pinkish clothing. But now, virtually anyone opposed to Nazism or fascism was given the Soviet seal of approval, a fact that would later give red hunters license to attack many non-communists who had once been associated with a group that fell under the Popular Front rubric. Some of those progressives were none too happy to be associated with Communists even at the time, especially after the temporary Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. But by early 1943, few could deny that Stalin was, as Bernard Gordon put it, “heading the most ferocious, bloody, and heroic fight against Hitler.”

The threat of Nazism was a mobilizing force for Hollywood leftists. Hollywood, of course, was a town peopled with refugees. There were New Yorkers, like Nathanael West and Dorothy Parker, who had come to make a quick buck as writers, and there were a host of Europeans in exile—anti-Fascists who’d had their lives directly threatened by Fascism.

In 1936, a number of Hollywood workers, including Dorothy Parker and Oscar Hammerstein, had banded together to form the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. They were ahead of the times, and dangerously so: Most of their peers and colleagues and bosses were not ready to turn their backs on as rich a source of revenue as Nazi Germany, or on other nations that would eventually become the United States’ enemies. It was well known that Columbia chief Harry Cohn idolized Benito Mussolini, and Mussolini’s son Vittorio came to Hollywood in 1937, where he was feted at a reception attended by Walt Disney and Gary Cooper.

The first attack on Hollywood leftists came from Martin Dies, a Texas congressman described by the New Republic as “cocksure.” Dies first came to Los Angeles to investigate communism in the movie industry in 1938. The politician apparently was hoping to smear and conquer the New Deal, and as such he first turned his attention to the WPA theater program, which he helped shut down. Then, in an editorial for the magazine Liberty published in February 1940, Dies accused “forty-two or forty-three” unnamed but “prominent members of the Hollywood film colony” of being “either full-fledged members of the Communist Party or active sympathizers and fellow travelers.”

Dies apparently got his intel from John Leech, a former Communist Party organizer who gave him a list of Hollywood people he claimed were involved with the party. Using Leech’s intel as guidance, Dies held closed-door hearings in Los Angeles and New York in 1940. Some members of the film industry pledged their cooperation with the congressman; others protested loudly. Dies interviewed some of the boldfaced names on Leech’s list, including Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, and concluded that there was no threat in Tinseltown. The celebrities, Dies concluded, “are not or never have been Communist sympathizers.” Hollywood on the whole, and its leftists in particular, assumed that they had dodged the bullet, and that that was that.

Dies was barking up the wrong trees, but he wasn’t the only dog sniffing around. Before Pearl Harbor, Americans weren’t supposed to be concerned with what was going on in Europe. The only political party that made anti-Fascism part of its agenda was the Communist Party, so to express anti-Nazi or anti-fascist sentiment was to mark oneself as a communist. It was more common and more accepted to be against the United States’ involvement in another costly war, and there were isolationists on both sides of the aisle in Congress. A number of congressmen attacked Hollywood for allegedly producing propaganda designed to encourage the American people to support intervention abroad.

Sen. Burton Wheeler, a Democrat from Montana who had once been conspicuously lefty and union-minded, broke with President Roosevelt and made himself a champion of the America First Committee, a powerful nationwide anti-interventionist group which also included Walt Disney and Charles Lindbergh. Wheeler was head of the Senate Interstate Commerce Commission, which also included Republican Gerald Nye and Democrat Bennett Clark. Wheeler announced in 1941 that he intended to investigate the studios, which he pointed out were run primarily by foreign-born Jews. Why were a bunch of foreigners being allowed to influence American opinion, Wheeler wondered, pushing what he termed “a violent propaganda campaign intending to incite the American people to the point where they will become involved in this war.”

Nye and Clark introduced a bill to combat “war propaganda.” Nye spoke out against Hollywood’s hiring of filmmakers who had fled Nazism, citied a wide variety of films from The Great Dictator to Sergeant York as potentially dangerous pieces of propaganda, and warned that that the Jews were using the movies to “fan race hatred” across the nation. Hearings were held; Nick Schenck, Harry Warner, and Darryl Zanuck were among the bigwigs who testified.

And then Pearl Harbor happened, and everything changed. The government quickly reversed course. For the next few years, public officials would put pressure on the studios to make war propaganda that was way more blatant than most of what Wheeler and friends had attacked.