MOVIES/Ed Rampell

Stars, Survivors, Relatives Remember Hollywood Blacklist’s 70th Anniversary

Seventy years ago, the first member of the “Hollywood Ten” testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). From October of 1947 to roughly 1960, more than 300 artists were banned from working in the movies by HUAC unless they recanted their lefty politics—Communist Party membership, for example, or opposing fascism during the Spanish Civil War—and also informed on the political and union activities and affiliations of others in the entertainment industry. Members of the Hollywood Ten, writers and directors who refused to cooperate with the HUAC, were fired by the motion picture studios, served prison sentences, and were fined for contempt of Congress.

Oct. 27, blacklist survivors, relatives of persecuted artists and contemporary progressive Tinseltown talents gathered at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills to mark the grim time in history. The event, “Un-American: A Reenactment of the HUAC Hearings: A 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist,” was emceed by Tania Verafield, granddaughter of the blacklisted Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein screenwriter Robert Lees, and Max Smerling, grandson of Oscar nominated actor Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee, both of whom were blacklisted.

The proceedings began with a bang when actors portraying HUAC witch-hunters pounded gavels, shouting, “The committee will come to order!” “Point of order!” Identifying himself as a “red diaper baby,” Academy Award winner Richard Dreyfuss took the stage to challenge the not-so-grand inquisitors. Actress Kelsey Douglas read a statement from her grandfather Kirk Douglas, describing how the actor and producer helped break the blacklist by allowing blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to receive screen credit for Spartacus, instead of having to use a pen name, a common practice for screenwriters evading the blacklist.

In a specially prepared black and white video, Ed Asner portrayed screenwriter John Howard Lawson during his Oct. 27, 1947, combative testimony before gavel-banging HUACers. Asner, as Screen Actors Guild president in the 1980s, openly challenged the Central American policies of President Reagan. (Reagan, as Screen Actors Guild president in 1947, secretly informed on actors to the FBI.) Asner’s defiance led to the cancellation of his CBS Lou Grant TV series.

Mike Farrell, another veteran actor and activist, read the testimony of Ring Lardner Jr., who responded to HUAC interrogators asking if he was a member of the Communist Party: “I could answer [the question], but if I did I would hate myself in the morning.”

Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz spoke about his granduncle Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 battle in the Screen Directors Guild against the imposition of loyalty oaths, as did Oscar-nommed Babe actor James Cromwell, whose father, John Cromwell, sided with Mankiewicz against what was viewed as expanding the Hollywood Blacklist. One of today’s leading La-La-Land lefties, Jamie—as he’s fondly known—performed the role of actor Larry Parks, who was pressured by HUAC to name names.

This was the evening’s only testimony by an informer because, as emcee Verafield said, “instead of dwelling on villainy and victimhood, tonight we pay tribute to valor, to those intrepid resisters who refused to be intimidated by the iron heel of the state.” In another video made for the event, Oscar winner Lee Grant recounted how her statement at the memorial service of thesp Joe Bromberg blaming his heart attack on HUAC’s badgering, caused Grant herself to be blacklisted.

Radio and cable TV commentator Ellen Ratner (sister of the late Center for Constitutional Rights president Michael Ratner), played writer Lillian Hellman explaining why she wouldn’t name names to HUAC: “To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is to me inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

In a highlight of the four-and-a-half-hour live event, five daughters of tough guy actor Lionel Stander read portions of their antifascist father’s fiery testimony: “I am not a dupe, or a dope, or a moe, or a schmoe, and everything I did, I was absolutely conscious of. … I am not ashamed of everything I said in public or private.”

Other highlights: Bobby Miller read publicly for the first time his playwright father Arthur Miller’s letter to HUAC. Jeremy Kagan, director of the anti-gun violence Shot, read writer/director Abe Polonsky’s testimony. Muslim Public Affairs Council president Salam Al-Marayati read folksinger Pete Seeger’s testimony, as Hector Villagra, executive director at the ACLU of Southern California, played against type as a HUAC Republican Congressman. K.B. Solomon sang Paul Robeson songs and read the African American icon’s dramatic HUAC testimony.

The final reader was myself, quoting from my namesake, legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow’s 1954 rebuttal of the dictatorial methods of Senator Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty… and remember we are not descended from fearful men.” I repeated Murrow’s signature sign-off: “Goodnight, and good luck.”

But before leaving, the audience was urged to paraphrase the ending of Dalton Trumbo’s movie that helped break the Blacklist, as everybody stood and proclaimed: “We are Spartacus!” Although it took about 13 years, by stressing the fighting words of artists under attack, the Hollywood Blacklist Commemoration showed that defiance is key to successfully resisting repression. Not only by those directly coming under attack, but opposition by those who are not at the moment targets of persecution, even if it means placing oneself in harm’s way.

The program, which will be aired by C-SPAN, comes as free speech is imperiled by a president who threatens broadcasters’ licenses, calls for tighter libel laws, denounces the media as “fake news,” etc. Of course, Senator McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn, went on to become Donald Trump’s attorney. During the intermission, as I was one of the event’s organizers, a member of the audience criticized the attendance of GOP pollster Frank Lutz. But I reminded him of Zero Mostel’s immortal words: “Our side doesn’t blacklist.”

Ed Rampell is a Los Angeles-based film historian and critic who contributes regularly to, where this originally appeared.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2017

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