Researching Hollywood’s anti-communist Red Scare
Recent History and War studies graduate, Joshua Thurstance looks back on his final-year research on Hollywood’s anti-communist Red Scare and offers some advice on choosing a dissertation topic.
When the time came to choose a topic for my History dissertation, the freedom to select something out of the many enticing historical accounts and debates presented a challenge in itself. For some people, that choice might be influenced by a student’s area of interest, desired career path and practicality of source availability.
Hopefully the topic of your final-year research, however you make that choice, is something you’re enthusiastic about. For me, learning about Hollywood’s darkest hour inspired me to examine ‘Red Menace’ hysteria in mid twentieth-century American society.
Around 2019, during my second year at university, I developed a fondness for classic cinema and film history. Naturally, immersing myself in the stories of Hollywood’s Golden Age expanded my knowledge of the silver screen and the immortal status of Cinema’s many illustrious stars. A sharp contrast to Hollywood glamour was the political persecution of ‘communist agents’ during the era known as the Second Red Scare.
Prior to working on my dissertation, I was aware of the extensive history of anti-communism in the United States. The hysteria surrounding this is well documented, from the fear of socialist anarchy in the aftermath of Russian Revolution to the witch-hunt politics of demagogue Joseph McCarthy. Activists, minorities and unions were persecuted for association with perceived radical ideology and acts of political dissidence were vilified as ‘un-American’.
What I did not appreciate was the extent to which Red Menace hysteria had unsettled the creative circles of America’s film industry. Through government investigations and studio blacklists, the witch-hunts in Hollywood saw friends betray friends, careers end and the rights specified in the first amendment be misconstrued.
The origins of the Red Menace in Hollywood can be traced back to the Great Depression. In the 1930s, the liberalism of New Deal America contributed to the revival of communist organisations in the United States from which Tinsel Town was not exempt, with the formation of Hollywood Popular Front organisations becoming increasingly influenced by communist ideology. This, along with increasing strike action against the studios, opened the door for red-baiting politicians to paint Hollywood’s left-wing circles as perpetrators of communist and subversive activity.
This culture of hysteria politics was to be exploited for leverage over dissidents, in an attempt to suppress views not shared by powerful individuals. The animation trailblazer Walt Disney did just this in 1941 when his animation department went on strike. Disney accused his employees of ‘communistic agitation’ in the face of growing dissent regarding pay irregularities. The strike would eventually be settled, but not without the dismissal of hundreds of strikers.
Anti-communist tensions in Hollywood reached boiling point in 1947, with the trial of the Hollywood Ten. Beginning in October, the House Un-American Activities Committee held ‘show trial’ hearings featuring testimony intended to ‘validate’ the existence of communist infiltration in Hollywood. Amongst the friendly witnesses were Warner Bros. President Jack Warner and members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), including Walt Disney and future President Ronald Reagan.
Lasting just two weeks, the hearings exposed the ‘communist infiltration’ of Hollywood. President of the Motion Picture Association of America, Eric Johnston responded by issuing the Waldorf Statement. The statement, which was the result of a secret meeting between Hollywood’s leading executives, announced the blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten, whilst also pledging to expand the blacklist policy to individuals guilty of ‘alleged subversive and disloyal elements in Hollywood’.
The enforcement of the blacklist instigated an era of fear in Hollywood. Conservative gossip columnist Hedda Hopper would stoke the flames, using her influence to inform her readers of traitorous forces in Hollywood’s inner circles. Meanwhile the naming of communist ‘sympathisers’ in Hollywood rattled on, with 151 people listed in the 1950 Red Channels report.
The significance of the Red Scare in Hollywood is exemplified by the expulsion of cinema legend Charlie Chaplin. Despite never being a communist, the English born actor’s association with peace activism led to the Hollywood icon being harassed by anti-communist groups. Whilst never officially blacklisted, Chaplin was barred from re-entry into the United States in 1952 for ‘moral and/or political reasons’. Chaplin would finally return to the United States in 1972 to collect an honorary award at the Oscars, largely considered to be an apology to the silent movie star.
Even the movies themselves embraced communist hysteria. Films such as the aptly named B-movie The Red Menace (1949) and Big Jim McLane (1952), starring MPA President John Wayne, looked to elevate anti-communist rhetoric. Others like the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) were less direct.
High Noon (1952) represents the era’s most notable allegorical interpretation of the times, serving as a criticism of the red baiting hysteria. To screenwriter Carl Foreman, ‘life was mirroring art and art was mirroring life’ with Foreman acknowledging that the story of Marshal Will Kane being betrayed by his own people was essentially a story about his own experiences at the time.
Not long after the success of High Noon, Foreman would be blacklisted and refused entry into the United States. Foreman continued to produce screenplays, but would not be credited for his work. This includes his contributions to Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
The hysteria of the Red Menace would eventually fade away. Senator McCarthy would fall and the intensity of domestic Cold War tensions would subside. Despite this, the Red Menace left a stain on American society and the positive image Hollywood looks to reflect.
The recent passing of actress Marcia Hunt, one of the last remaining blacklisted actors of this era, rekindled my enthusiasm for this topic. Named in the Red Channels report, Hunt’s acting career did not end with the blacklist, but she was notably limited to predominantly television work. Reflecting on her time in Hollywood, she said, ‘I’d made 54 movies in my first 16 years in Hollywood…in the last 45 years, I’ve made eight. That shows what a blacklist can do to a career’.
I included the Hollywood Blacklist as a supplemental case study in my dissertation on the Red Scare in America more generally. The section only made up 10% of the full word count and by the time I had finished I realised I could have focused the entire dissertation on anti-communism in Hollywood!
Being asked to write 10,000 words on a topic can sound like a lot. From my experience, it won’t feel like that if you pick a subject that you’re passionate about.
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