Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that there was a time in American history when communism was an acceptable ethos. “Karl Marx got a bum rap,” he said. “All he was trying to do was figure out how to take care of a whole lot of people.”
In the midst of the Great Depression, Americans saw failings in their current system and socialist policies drew sympathy as a result. As Vonnegut went on to say, “You talk about the collapse of communism or the Soviet Union. My goodness, this country collapsed in 1929. I mean it crashed, big time, and capitalism looked like a very poor idea.” Thus, with sympathies running high in the thirties, socialism naturally spread within Hollywood.
“I never thought there’d be repercussions particularly. Being a communist may not have been thought of as being socially acceptable particularly, but it wasn’t something you went to jail for being,” Water Bernstein, who was one of the first people to find himself blacklisted by Hollywood, told THR.
The origins of the blacklist date back to the 1940s and ’50s when a committee was created by the House of Representatives and tasked with uncovering communist sympathisers and other American citizens consider to be disloyal to the values and principles of the government. The committee was forthright and hasty, fuelled by a notion that Russian spies were trying to subliminally litter Hollywood movies with communist messages.
This meant that anyone rounded up as suspect had to stand trial before the committee and try to disavow the ethics and politics which they were accused of harbouring. If they were deemed disloyal, they would be barred from the industry.
In 1947, the famous Hollywood Ten were barred from the film industry after they refused to testify before the committee. Included in this first ten was Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was a prolific screenwriter who won two Academy Awards, one for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, both of which were penned under a pseudonym or via a front, during the years of his exile.
It was Trumbo’s belief that quashing the rights of those who had differing opinions to your own was undemocratic, thus he refused to testify in front of the committee on those grounds, stating: “Everybody now seems to be talking about democracy. I don’t understand this. As I think of it, democracy isn’t like a Sunday suit to be brought out and worn only for parades. It’s the kind of a life a decent man leads, it’s something to live for and to die for.”
Each of the Hollywood Ten was sentenced to a year in prison and a hefty $1000 fine. This harsh punishment stirred up backlash and in response, some of the biggest players in the whole industry started up The Committee for the First Amendment. It was the belief of this protest group that the Hollywood Ten were not communist, they were simply making a stance of democracy. This liberalised fraction attracted a glut of gargantuan stars from Humphrey Bogart and Lucille Ball to Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
However, this support was cut immediately once reports revealed that many of the Ten were indeed bonafide Commies. The response to this was best illustrated by the brilliantly pithy article that Humphrey Bogart supposedly penned for Photoplay back in May 1948: “As the guy said to the warden just before he was hanged,” Bogart potentially wrote, “This will teach me a lesson I’ll never forget. No sir, I’ll never forget the lesson that was taught to me in the year 1947, at Washington D.C. When I got back to Hollywood some friends sent me a mounted fish and underneath it was written: If I hadn’t opened my big mouth I wouldn’t be here.”
The legacy of this fallout has lingered on in Hollywood forevermore. Although the blacklist ostensibly ended in 1960, when Dalton Trumbo was openly credited on Exodus, having amassed 151 names during its existence, many stars still argue that it still exists in a subtler but equally robust manner today. This is true in both the treatment of historical cases; for instance, it took Donald Trumbo up until December 2011 to receive his credit for Roman Holiday, and in a modern sense, many people within the film industry posset that if you voice beliefs that run counter to Hollywood you will be effectively embargoed.
More importantly than tracing whether the blacklist still exists in a nebulous sense, is learning the lesson that history tells us regarding freedom and egalitarianism. As Marsha Hunt, a blacklisted member of the Screen Actors Guild, told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012, “What took place in our nation, starting in Washington D.C. was ugly, was unfair and for well over a decade this was neither the land of the free nor the home of the brave.”
This was an ugly unfairness that Kirk Douglas was willing to take a stand against. He risked his career to declare Donald Trumbo the creator of Spartacus and essentially brought an end to the official blacklist to an end.