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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les cinéastes américains dans la piège du maccarthysme

by François Eychart

American Film-makers in the Trap of McCarthyism

Translated Monday 16 October 2006, by Patrick Bolland

In 250 pages, Thomas Wieder gives a fascinating panorama of the world of American cinema during the period of McCarthyism. What he shows merits attention since it is bears many comparisons with the cloak and dagger policy of suspicion imposed by the Bush administration today with its Patriot Act as a mean of fighting terrorism.

The work of cataloguing and interrogating American communists had in fact started before the war, when Roosevelt was still hesitating to take part in the world conflict. At the time, some influential members of Congress found Hitler less of a threat than Stalin. The US entry into war and the alliance with the USSR froze the attempt by the FBI at controlling the communist menace, which resurfaced under President Truman. Thomas Wieder shows that in Washington, paranoia settled in permanently in l947, rooted in right-wing conservatism and that sought to create an image of the United States, based on the lack of social conflicts, the ideology of Christianity, anti-black racism, but also anti-Semitism and, of course, the hatred of communism, the latter considered as a threat to the integrity of the American nation.

The witch-hunt started immediately. Communists, or those presumed to be communists, were summoned to appear in front of the the House Committee on Un-American Activities, to declare themselves communists, and to denounce the communists they knew. If they refused to answer, as the US Constitution permitted them, they were pursued for contempt of Congress and jailed. Ten famous actors, screen writers and film-makers (1) were condemned, followed by numerous others (Bertold Brecht barely escaped the Committee by going back to Germany). Hundreds of people were persecuted or pressured to give names to reduce their sentences, or to have their file shelved.

The average number of denunciations was 8 or 9 per person appearing in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, but some denounced from 150 to 180 people. Some executives of large movie corporations contributed to the witch-hunt by dismissing those who had to appear in front of the committee, or by forcing them to denounce those they knew in order to get their jobs back. The American Patriot League and the newspaper magnates, especially William Randolph Hearst, stirred up the hysteria. Actors like Ronald Reagan, John Wayne or Gary Cooper agreed to denounce their colleagues, and advanced in their careers as a result of this.

The shock was huge. Some, like John Berry or Jules Dassin, went into exile and tried to pursue their careers in Europe, which was not easy, far from the atmosphere and the money of Hollywood. Joseph Losey managed nevertheless to become a first-rate director and Herbert Biberman to make the very beautiful “Salt of the Earth” (1954). Others, after coming out of jail, chose to work under a false name. Pierre Boule offered his name for the scenario of the Bridge on the River Kwai, a l957 movie made by David Lean. To avoid being condemned and continue to make films, some like Elia Kazan or Edward Dmytryk denounced their colleagues without shame. The Supreme Court, which should have supported those invoking their constitutional rights, refused to take a vote on this issue, thus validating the decisions of the Maccarthy Commission.

Things started to change in the early 60’s. Maccarthy was dismissed, the Supreme Court refused to allow a committee to go after people in the way McCarthy had, and or consider belonging to a political party as an offense. Slowly, Hollywood restored the good name of the victims of this witch-hunt. Some movies evoke this dark period, such as Sydney Pollack’s “The way we were” (1973), nevertheless amputated of scenes which gave the film its true political dimension. But the harm was done, as much for the people involved as for American cinema, of which a whole dimension was amputated.

Easy to read and with many appendices including the revolting testimony of Elia Kazan and film summaries, the book of Thomas Vieder exposes very clearly a complex reality and the attitude of many as the trap was closing in on an entire profession.

Les sorcières de Hollywood, ["The Hollywood Sorcerers"] byThomas Wieder, Éditions Philippe Rey, (2006), 252 pages 19 euros. Thomas Wieder teachers history at the École Normale Supérieure. This is his first published book. Not yet available in English.

(1) Translator’s note: In 1947, the “Hollywood Ten” were cited for “contempt of congress” for refusing to testify before the HUAC: Alvah Bessie, screenwriter; Herbert Biberman, screenwriter and director; Lester Cole, screenwriter; Edward Dmytryk, director; Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriter; John Howard Lawson, screenwriter; Albert Maltz, screenwriter; Samuel Ornitz, screenwriter; Adrian Scott, producer and screenwriter; Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter. We recommend Dalton Trumbo’s own short and searing account in "Time of The Toad" or a more lengthy exposition in Victor Navasky’s "Naming Names".

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