From 1946 until 1956, Hollywood banished several prestigious writers, actors, and producers. Known as the “Hollywood Blacklist,” screenwriters were hit hardest, with Oscar winner Dalton Trumbo being the most well known. Some would use fake names to continue working, while others were forced to wait until their names were cleared. And of course, some never worked again. Who were these writers? Why were their careers destroyed? Those answers, as well as the stories behind some of the most famous blacklisted writers, actors, and producers of the era are all right here.
The House Un-American Activities Committee
Also known as HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee was formed in 1938. Its mission was to identify suspected Americans as fascists, communists, or party sympathizers. Two years into the Cold War, HUAC attacked the film industry, forcing the most prestigious writers to testify in front of Congress.
Any writer who was under suspicion was either forced to confess to their “crimes” or defend themselves in front the of the country’s highest court. Ten screenwriters were found “guilty” during the initial hearings. They became known as the Hollywood Ten.
The Hollywood Ten
In 1947, ten writers were found to be in contempt of Congress after refusing to testify before the HUAC. Studio executives were quick to bring the hammer down and fired them all, defending their actions in the Waldorf Statement.
The head of the Motion Picture Association of America issued the statement to the press, making it clear that, “we will not re-employ any of the 10 until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist.”
Alvah Bessie – Objective Burma
Alvah Bessie was a Jewish screenwriter born in 1904. He rose to prominence writing translations of French literature. His career peaked when he was nominated for an Academy Award for writing Objective Burma, a patriotic war film produced by Warner Brothers.
Bessie joined the American Communist party around the same time. When he was called in front of Congress, he said nothing and was jailed. His imprisonment and blacklisting ended his Hollywood career. In 1957, he wrote the novel The Un-Americans, fictionalizing his experience.
Herbert Biberman – Salt Of The Earth
Herbert Biberman came under the lens of the HUAC because of his opposition to the Lend-Lease Act. So, despite his clear pro-war stance against Germany and the Soviet Union, the FBI believed he was a Nazi.
Like Bessie, Biberman was sent to jail and stripped of his Hollywood credentials. When he was released, he independently made Salt of the Earth. The little-seen film was selected by the Library of Congress in 1992 for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Dalton Trumbo – Roman Holiday
The most well-known member of the Hollywood Ten, Dalton Trumbo was named by the Hollywood Reporter as a Communist sympathizer in 1947. He served 11 months in prison, later saying, “it was a completely just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress and have had contempt for several since.”
During his years blacklisted, Trumbo continued to work in Hollywood under different names. One of his most famous films during this period was Roman Holiday, which he used the named Ian McLellan Hunter for. Then, in 1960, something incredible happened.
Trumbo Is Spartacus
In 1960, iconic actor Kirk Douglas revealed that Dalton Trumbo had written Spartacus. The film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, won four Academy Awards. At the same time, Otto Preminger admitted Trumbo had written Exodus, another major Hollywood film. With the power of blacklist weakened after a decade, Trumbo was reinstated by the Writer’s Guild.
More importantly, Trumbo was able to work under his own name again. He was also given official credit for writing Roman Holiday. In 1993, he posthumously received an Oscar for the writing the film, 37 years after its original release.
Lester Cole – Born Free
In 1933, screenwriter Lester Cole teamed up with Samuel Ornitz and John Lawson to form the Writers Guild of America. One year later he joined the American Communist Party. Over the next 13 years, he wrote over 40 films that were made into movies.
After he was blacklisted, he began writing under other names. Three films were produced while he used three different names; Lewis Copley, L.C. Copley, and J. Redmond Prior. The most successful of those films was Born Free, about the real-life couple who raised Elsa the Lioness.
Edward Dmytryk – The Caine Mutiny
Edward Dmytryk started his film career in 1929 working in the editing department. In 1935, he directed his first movie, The Hawk. Eight years later he directed Tender Comrade starring Ginger Rogers. By 1947, he was one of the biggest directors in Hollywood.
Then he was blacklisted. Unlike other members of the Hollywood Ten, though, Dmytryk turned his fate around in 1951. He appeared for a second time in front of the HUAC, and named several Hollywood Communists. In 1954, he directed The Caine Mutiny, the second highest grossing film that year.
Ring Lardner Jr. – M*A*S*H
Before writing his own scripts, Ring Lardner worked as a “script doctor.” He worked on Woman of the Year in 1942, which won Michael Kanin a writing Oscar. By 1947 he was one was the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, even though he held left-wing views.
His popularity came crashing down with the HUAC. He was fined $1,000 and given 12 months in prison. Lardner stayed on the blacklist until 1965, when he resumed working, writing M*A*S*H in 1970. The Vietnam-set comedy won the once-disgraced writer an Oscar.
John Howard Lawson – Blockade
After forming the Writers Guild of America with Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson was criticized in The New Masses as a “Bourgeois Hamlet of our time.” The piece motivated Lawson to join the American Communist Party and begin writing political films.
One of those films was Blockade, starring Henry Fonda. Nine years after the film was released, Lawson was blacklisted. He then left America, choosing to continue his career making movies in Mexico. When he returned, he taught classes at Stanford, the Los Angeles University of Judaism, and Loyola Marymount University.
Albert Maltz – Broken Arrow
Albert Maltz continued to write after being blacklisted, choosing to use his own name. In 1951, he tried to take credit for writing Broken Arrow. The film should have won him the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Western.
It didn’t. Instead, Michael Blankfort won the award. When Maltz was rejected by the guild, Blankfort agreed to take credit for writing the film. Forty years later, in 1991, the WGA finally agreed to recognize Maltz as the screenwriter of Broken Arrow.
Samuel Ornitz – Mark Of The Vampire
The third founder of the WGA, Samuel Ornitz began writing films in 1928. Between then and being blacklisted, he wrote or co-wrote 29 screenplays, including Mark of the Vampire in 1935 and Little Orphan Annie in 1938. Once he was blacklisted, not much else is know about Ornitz.
He didn’t work under any other known names during the time. At some point he was diagnosed with cancer, which led to his death in Woodland Hills, California in 1957. He was 66 years old at the time.
Adrian Scott – Crossfire
Adrian Scott was a producer who worked closely with Edward Dmytryk. The two made several films together, including the Best Picture nominated Crossfire. Three years before being blacklisted, Scott joined the American Communist Party, a move that would force him to move to England.
Living in England, Scott was able to find work in television. For seven years he worked on the shows The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. In 1955, He wrote a scathing critique of Hollywood in The Hollywood Reporter.
The Red Channels List
Two years after the Hollywood Ten were blacklisted, Counterattack published “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.” The piece outed 151 Hollywood heavyweights and well known public figures. Some survived the attack, while others had their careers ruined.
The list, put together by HUAC informant J.B. Matthews, was a force of nature. In one year, nearly everyone named was blacklisted. To clear themselves, they needed to testify before the HUAC and “give up names.” The ones who didn’t remained blacklisted.
Jean Muir – The Aldrich Family
Jean Muir had been cast in the NBC sitcom The Aldrich Family when she was blacklisted in 1951. As soon as her name appeared on “Red Channels” the network was flooded with phone calls to have her fired.
One of the show’s sponsors, General Foods, pulled its name from the program. The company said it would not sponsor any show with “controversial people.” Muir tried unsuccessfully to return to acting in 1958, and transitioned into teaching. She moved from New York to Missouri to work at Stephens College.
Orson Welles – Citizen Kane
Perhaps the most famous name on “Red Channels” was Orson Welles. The legendary director of Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai never testified, though. He moved to Europe two years before the list came out, and his career was never really affected.
When he returned to the United States in 1956, he directed and starred in Touch of Evil with Charlton Heston. Welles continued to work until his death. One of his final roles was as the voice of Unicron in The Transformers: The Movie in 1986.
Edward G. Robinson – Key Largo
One of Hollywood’s most memorable “Golden Age” actors, Edward G. Robinson found himself relegated to “B” movie work after being blacklisted. His road back to relevance was given a boost by Cecil B. Demille, who cast him in The Ten Commandments in 1954.
In 1959, he was back in the good graces of Hollywood and starred alongside Frank Sinatra in A Hole in the Head. He continued to act and was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1973 for his “greatness as a player, a patron of the arts and a dedicated citizen.”
Dorothy Parker – A Star Is Born
Dororthy Parker tasted Hollywood success early, earning an Oscar nomination for writing A Star Is Born in 1937. Over the next decade, she used her success to spearhead civil rights movements. In 1949, she wrote The Fan, and was blacklisted soon after.
For Parker, there was no coming back from blacklisting. In her later years she contributed to Esquire and turned to alcohol. When she passed away in 1967, she gave her house to Martin Luther King Jr., who in turn gave it to the NAACP.
Lillian Hellman – Toys In The Attic
A political sympathizer, Lillian Hellman was called in front of the HUAC for her two-year association with the American Communist Party at the end of the ’30s. Unlike her peers, she made it clear she would tell the committee anything they wanted to know about her.
Hellman refused, however, to discuss anyone else the HUAC wanted to ask about. Because of her stance, she was not blacklisted and even won considerable public favor. She continued working on Broadway and in 1960 directed Toys in the Attic, which won Best Play at the Tony Awards.
Dashiel Hammett – The Maltese Falcon
Dashiell Hammett, the man behind noir classic The Maltese Falcon, was called in front of the HUAC in 1953. He said, and the committee, oddly, took no other action against him. Where many were arrested and levied fines, Hammett was left alone.
He didn’t escape being blacklisted, though. According to Hellman, who was romantically involved with him, Hammett became a hermit. She once described his self-abusive lifestyle as leaving “the typewriter untouched, the beloved foolish gadgets unopened in their packages.” He lost his battle with life in 1961.