Back Story to Hollywood’s Anti-Trump Blacklist

Recalling the director who pushed back at the Hollywood Left -- and was glad he did.

Debra Messing and Eric McCormack, billed as “co-stars” of something called Will & Grace, have called for the “blacklisting” of those attending fundraisers for President Trump. As the Washington Examiner put it, this was “so that Hollywood Democrats could refuse to work with them in the future.” As had it, this drew “natural comparisons to the late Sen. Joe McCarthy’s efforts in the 1950s to rid Hollywood of ‘Communist sympathizers.’” These efforts might pack more clout if they had the history right.

The primary investigator of Communism in Hollywood was a House committee that started with a probe of fascism during the 1930s, and as William F. Buckley said, should have been called the Committee to Investigate Fascism and Communism. It wound up being called the House Committee on Un-American Activities and after World War II, congressional sleuths were after Communist International (Comintern) agent Gerhart Eisler, whose brother Hanns Eisler was a composer in Hollywood.

When HCUA reps showed up there, that caught the attention of many in the dream factories. As Budd Schulberg noted, the Communist Party was the only game in town during the 1930s and 1940s. The CPUSA controlled unions that read incoming scripts and trashed the work of conservative writers. The Party also smeared and blacklisted actors they didn’t like and attacked them directly during the violent studio strikes and jurisdictional disputes following World War II. The chief anti-Communists were liberal Democrat union leaders such as Ronald Reagan of the Screen Actors Guild and Roy Brewer of IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. 

Reagan was one of the “friendly” witnesses before an HCUA hearing in Washington in November of 1947. The “unfriendly” witnesses, originally 19, were pared down to the “Hollywood Ten,” including Stalinist screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson, CPUSA straw boss in the talent guilds. Defiant studio heads proclaimed they would not fire Communists but changed their minds after the hearings.

That was the origin of the “Hollywood Blacklist” legend, and it all took place before Joe McCarthy was any kind of player. Senators do not serve on House committees and McCarthy never had anything to do with Hollywood. His wild, accusatory style did great harm to anti-Communists, particularly the liberal Democrats among them. Anybody who raised any concern about Communism could be smeared with “McCarthyism,” a preferred incantation of the Left for decades. (Although it is crucial to stress that McCarthy’s cause, not his style, was legitimate and has been vindicated.)

The antics of Debra Messing, Eric McCormack and others are more characteristic of Hollywood Communists during the Stalin Era than the late Senator from Wisconsin. The blacklisted screenwriters survived under a free-market system in which they ghosted scripts and sold them under the table. Dalton Trumbo, who joined the CPUSA during the Stalin-Hitler Pact, even got a hagiographical biopic in 2015. Few if any Hollywood movies dare to dramatize Stalinist terror, but some are enlightening about the Communist Party on the domestic front.

After 1947, Stalin strengthened his hold on Eastern Europe by taking over Czechoslovakia. He exploded the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949, and launched a widespread purge of writers and artists. The victims included Solomon Michaels and Itzak Feffer, who had been brought to Hollywood in 1943 for the express purpose of denying Soviet anti-Semitism. These and other atrocities made formerly reticent witnesses willing to testify before the HCUA.

In his 1953 testimony, Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men) told the Committee the victims of recent show trials in Czechoslovakia, “were all hung for being Jews, and nothing else.” Another who chose to testify was director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire), who became a target-rich environment for Party hacks. He responded with On the Waterfront, written by Budd Schulberg.

Marlon Brando plays longshoreman and former boxer Terry Malloy, under the thumb of mob boss Johnny Friendly, played by Lee J. Cobb. When the mob bumps off Terry’s brother, Malloy decides to talk to the waterfront crime commission.

“You ratted on us, Terry,” yells the mob boss, to which Terry responds, “I’m glad what I done to you. You hear that? I’m glad what I done, and I’m gonna keep on doing it.”

The movie won eight Oscars, including best picture, but as Kazan explained years later, “On the Waterfront was my own story. Every day I worked on that film I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and fuck themselves.” Kazan passed away at the age of 94 in 2003, but his art and courage remain an example to this day.

Elia Kazan stood up to a powerful Communist Party that blacklisted others on the basis of their politics. Debra Messing, Eric McCormack and others now seek to do the same with those who show support for Donald Trump, the duly elected President of the United States.

Trump supporters everywhere could be forgiven for telling the Hollywood Democrats to go fuck themselves. And if they felt like adding “I’m glad what I done to you,” it would sure be hard to blame them.


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