Review by Alvah Bessie: The Inquisition in Hollywood

by Rebeca on June 19, 2009

The Inquisition in Hollywood
by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund

Reviewed by Alvah Bessie

In These Times, April 23-29, 1980

Thirty years after HUAC’s “investigation of the motion picture industry and the incarceration of the Hollywood 10(1950), their case has finally been recognized for what it was: a frontal attack on thought-control in the U.S. A case that was “lost,” it initiated the so-called McCarthy Era.

Following The 10, hundreds of workers in film, theater, radio and TV, in education and medicine, on newspapers and magazines, in federal, state and local administrations followed them into blacklist ostracism and unemployment, although they escaped prison terms by invoking the Fifth Amendment instead of the First.

The First was the considered choice of The 10 — or rather the 19 motion picture writers, directors, producers and actors who received the original subpoenas in 1947. They and their attorneys decided that the correct way to attack the House Committee on Un-American Activities was to strike at its right to exist at all.

If Congress, they argued, can make no law about opinion or association, neither can it investigate those areas. Their position was supported by the Supreme Court itself in a notable decision: West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette (1943).

In ringing language upholding the First Amendment as a shield against any attempt by the state to force a citizen to declare his “loyalty” or punish him for remaining silent, Justice Jackson’s majority opinion seemed to have “destroyed the whole super-patriotic cable. . . including the proponents of the House Un-American Activities Committee.” (Charles Katz, one of the lawyers for The 10.)

The very same Justice Jckson was still on the high court and concurred with his colleagues when they refused in 1950 to grant a hearing to the case of The 10.

What had happened between 1942 and 1950? The Cold War, carried in the womb of World War II, was born and flourished mightily. Our glorious ally, the USSR, became our enemy; our enemies — Germany, Italy and Japan — became our client states and shortly our allies. And — irony of fate — two liberal justices — Murphy and Rutledge — who would most certainly have voted for certiorari — died within two months of each other in 1949.

Yet the 1947-1950 fight of The 10 was a major factor in giving the quietus to HUAC and its Senate counterpart in 1975.

There have been a handful of books devoted to the case, or touching on it. The late Gordon Kahn, one of the original 19, was a journalist who practically wrote Hollywood on Trial (1948) as the 1947 hearings were in process. There are three smart-ass books: Walter Goodman’s The Committee (1969), Eric Bentley’s shameless paste-up of HUAC testimony called Thirty Years of Treason (1971) and Stefan Kanfer’s A Journal of the Plague Years (1973) which share a common point of view: the Committee was disgusting but so were those who fought it. Serious books like The American Inquisition (1973) and my Inquisition in Eden (1965) achieved no circulation at all.

But this new book by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund is the most ambitious and the most successful to date. It is a definitive study of the case and the period that gave it birth, and the story will probably not have to be told again.

Both young writers have benefitted by training in sociology and history. There is scarcely a detail of the elaborate and complicated scene from 1930 to 1960 that has escaped their meticulous and exhaustive attention and their solid analysis.

Their examination of the subject is based soundly in an understanding of the political history of World War II, both abroad and at home. They start even earlier, in the Depression that created labor and radical militancy in our country. That period also saw the development of the first American “Popular Front,” which was almost destroyed by the original Dies Committee and its unremitting attack on the reforms of Roosevelt’s four administrations.

The case of the Hollywood 10, Englund and Ceplair make plain, was something more than a successful attempt to control the content of film and dictate who could and who could not work in the industry. it was a flanking attack on the American people and it sparked a nationwide assault on progressive ideas and organizations.

We have not yet recovered from the McCarthy period, which could be repeated any time Peanut Carter and those who run him decide that they will brook no opposition to their endless maximization of profits and their drive toward World War III.

The Ceplair-Englund book is therefore crucial to our time. It has already created resentment in certain literary and industrial circles, notably in Hollywood, because it puts the finger on who, what, when, where and why. It displays uncommon objectivity that can both praise the role of the Communist Party during that period, and point out the errors of judgement committed by Communists, The 10 and the liberal organizations that supported them.

If it misses a point, it cannot be faulted for that fact. The decision in West Virginia etc. vs. Barnette on which The 10 had relied, had been brought by parents who belonged to Jehovah’s Witness and had told their young son not to salute the flag because it was a “graven image.”

In New Hampshire a few years ago another member of that contentious sect was arrested for covering the state slogan on his car license plate: “Life Free or Die.” He didn’t object to the slogan, but saw no reason to advertise New Hampshire on his car.

He took his case to the Supreme Court, which in April 1977handed down its decision, written by Nixon’s Chief Justice Burger. He said that the First Amendment “includes the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all . . . [both are] complementary components of the broader concept of ‘individual freedom of mind.’.”

This decision made a two-paragraph item in some newspapers but the ever-alert Carey McWilliams, writing in The Nation (July 23, 1977) said: “That, of course, was precisely the contention of the Hollywood 10 . . . now, nearly three decades later, a majority of the Court has confirmed their contention. . . The experiences suggests that New Hampshire’s motto. . . should, in pragmatic terms, be interpreted to mean “live free or somehow manage to survive until the Supreme Court, in the fullness of time, changes its mind.”

Perhaps Ceplair and Englund will add this victory as a footnote in the next edition of their invaluable book.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Randall Radic June 19, 2009 at 11:28 pm

That’s a HELL of a review. I’ll have to see if I can get my hands on this book. Simply for the sake of comparison, if nothing else.

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