For nearly six decades, the Hollywood blacklist has been the sweetest and most cherished fairy story in the repertoire of the American left. It never loses its charm, though they tell it again and again - most recently in the current film Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston from the B reaking Bad series in the role of Dalton Trumbo, the most talented and articulate of blacklisted writers.
In 1947, as the story goes, innocent liberal actors, writers and directors in movies and television were victimized by an ogre, the House Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. Congress. Known under the dreaded acronym HUAC, the committee claimed that C ommunists had infiltrated Hollywood in order to pour Marxist ideas into the minds of the American public.
HUAC compelled various Hollywood people to testify under oath. Ten of the witnesses refused to answer the committee's questions, so they were charged with contempt of Congress and jailed for months. They claimed, over and over, that they were merely exercising their rights under the constitution.
This made the mostly unknown Hollywood Ten into liberal heroes and enhanced the self-righteousness of the multitude of journalists who praised them in the liberal magazines. It helped that the Ten's chief tormentor, J. Parnell Thomas, chairman of HUAC, was aR epublican. And then the story acquired a delicious subplot: Only a year after he confronted Hollywood, Thomas was found guilty of hiring a clerk who privately kicked back her entire salary to him. Convicted of fraud, he was sentenced to 18 months. As the movie Trumbo gleefully shows, Thomas and Trumbo found themselves in the same jail long enough to scowl at each other while the soundtrack explains the irony.
From that point on, the Hollywood Ten and their friends enjoyed the deep pleasures of moral superiority. They were victims, but proud victims. Many thought that the blacklist was a badge of honour. M ordecai Richler's third novel, A Choice of Enemies, published in 1957, contains a character who falsely claims he's blacklisted when he's merely unemployed.
Of those who made sure they shared the Hollywood Ten's glory, the playwright and scriptwriter Lillian Hellman gave the most egregious demonstration. In 1976 she wrote Scoundrel Time, a book celebrating her own role in the HUAC hearings. She boasted that she too had refused to tell the committee anything, and she condemned the liberal anticommunists who remained silent about HUAC's outrages. They were the real scoundrels, she thought.
Why did the liberal anticommunists not protest, along with the presumably courageous Hellman? William Phillips, editor of the Partisan Review, answered. PR had once been Marxist but by the 1940s was anti-communist. First of all, Phillips said, some were Communists and what one was asked to defend was their right to lie about it. "Another consideration was the feeling that Communists did not have a divine right to a job in the government or in Hollywood." Allan Ryskind's recent book, Hollywood Traitors: B lacklisted Screenwriters, shatters the innocent facade of the writers, especially Trumbo. Ryskind grew up in Hollywood, where his father, M orrie Ryskind, wrote A Night at the Opera for the Marx Brothers. Since then Allan has watched the flowering of the legend with a skeptical eye.
He says the behaviour of the Ten during the time of the German- Soviet pact betrays their real opinions. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a 10-year non-aggression pact in Aug. 23, 1939, allowing Germany to conquer Poland without fear of Soviet intervention - the beginning of the Second World War. For the next 22 months Trumbo and the others were American isolationists, ferociously opposing Franklin Roosevelt's aid to Britain in its fight with Germany. They were following Communist orders. When Hitler betrayed Stalin and attacked Russia, Communists like Trumbo abruptly reversed their opinions and announced that Germany had to be opposed.
The movie Trumbo ignores these developments in order to keep the liberal myth alive. It presents Dalton Trumbo as high-minded, inventive and desperate to maintain both his pride and his income. It's amusing from time to time, providing the audience doesn't think about who believed what, when and why.