“Television Responds to the Red Scare”
By Gary Rutkowski
American television production, halted in its infancy before World War II, continued full-force with the four networks— ABC, CBS, NBC, and DuMont— scheduling programs regularly. Soon after, in 1950, they also began consulting an independently published booklet entitled “Red Channels,” which listed alleged Communists or sympathizers who were not to be employed on television: a blacklist.
With the beginning of the Cold War a strong Anti-Communist wind blew into postwar America and it was exploited. The era would be defined by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, whose manipulation of public opinion intensified the “red scare.” The “scare” was rooted in two sets of hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 and 1951 which targeted (but was not limited to) the Hollywood film, television, and radio communities. After the first, ten men (dubbed the “Hollywood Ten”), mostly screenwriters, were imprisoned for not cooperating with the committee, having not “named names” of other members of the Communist party of “leftist” organizations.
Many of these and other blacklisted writers found a safe haven in television— writing under pseudonyms and fronts. Others, such as performers and directors, found they could not work at all. Careers were ruined and lives were shattered in a time when any left wing political association, no matter how tenuous, could be considered subversive.
Television provided the first expose of the hysteria with Edward R. Murrow’s 1954 CBS “See It Now” broadcast “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy,” which weakened McCarthy’s credibility by offering film clips of his own misstatements and half-truths. McCarthy received equal time on “See It Now,” only damaging himself further. In a related press conference, Murrow said: “Who has helped the Communist cause and who has served his country better, Senator McCarthy or I? I would like to be remembered by the answer to that question.” Weeks later, ABC and DuMont aired the “Army-McCarthy Hearings,” further weakening McCarthyism’s stronghold.
The blacklist came to an end in the early sixties, after McCarthy’s death, when several producers insisted that writers from the “Hollywood Ten” receive screen credit under their real names again. In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of the first HUAC hearings, formal apologies were given to blacklisted artists by such organizations as the DGA, the WGA, SAG and AFTRA.
(Reprinted from The Vault: The Journal of the Archive of American Television, Winter 2000.)
Selected Soundbites from the Archive of American Television Collection:
Ring Lardner, Jr. (Writer, blacklisted, one of the “Hollywood Ten”)
“HUAC Chairman [J. Parnell Thomas] said: ‘That’s enough, skip to the $64,000 question. Go ahead.’ He turned it over to the committee counsel who then said: ‘All right, Mr. Lardner, are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?’ I said, ‘I can answer that question, too, but I’d like to explain.’ Thomas said: ‘Never mind explaining anything.’ I said one other thing, and he said: ‘Come on, answer the question, any real American would be happy to answer that question.’ And I said, ‘I could answer it the way you want it, Mr. Chairman, but if I did, I’d hate myself in the morning.’ He said: ‘Leave the witness chair. Take him away.’ I said, ‘I think I’m being removed by force.’ And I was indeed.”
Roy Huggins (Show Creator/Producer/Director, “friendly” witness)
“[HUAC] asking me for names that they already had was a violation of their mandate from Congress and so I felt that it was wrong for me to cooperate with them. I didn’t think it was wrong to give them names although I would rather not have. But giving them names they already had didn’t strike me as being a horrible deed. But cooperating with them, with this loose canon committee that was violating its mandate from Congress and violating my rights was, was really not the right thing to do. But I decided that I was going to cooperate with them and I was also going to state that I felt what they were doing was wrong.”
Abraham Polonsky (Writer-Director, blacklisted)
“I was subpoenaed [and] I stood on the Fifth and wouldn’t answer any questions…. I got a letter from a college here recently, and the letter said: “ what is the thing you’re proudest of?” And I wrote back and said, when the U.S. Government pushed me, I pushed back.” And the kid wrote back: ‘That’s why we love you!’”
Tony Randall (Actor)
“Everybody was cleared through that man [Vincent] Hartnett [“Red Channels” author]. He made a living from clearing people. People made money out of the blacklist. And the worst blacklisters were actors who turned in other actors and got their jobs. It was a devastating disclosure of human nature.”
Joseph Wershba (CBS News Reporter/News Producer)
“What Murrow did was to hurl the spear that broke open this whole boiling fear in the American body politic where it wasn’t a question of whether this was going to be constitutional or that was going to be, the question was going to be whether we have a government at all based on a constitution.”
Leonard Goldenson (Executive/Founder ABC)
“We couldn’t afford it. It cost us about $600,000 to run that [coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings] gavel to gavel, but when that was over, that was good-bye Mr. McCarthy. The public turned on him. And properly so.”
Ring Lardner Jr.’s entire six-part Archive interview is now online.
Ring Lardner, Jr. (1915-2000) described his work as a screenwriter and one of the most closely identified victims of the Hollywood blacklist. Mr. Lardner described his career as a writer on such films as A Star Is Born (1937), in which he contributed the movie’s famous ending; Woman of the Year (1942), for which he and co-writer Michael Kanin won an Academy Award; and Laura (1944), the classic film noir for which he contributed uncredited. He described the Hollywood “red scare” which halted his career and placed him on an industry blacklist. He described his testimony as an “unfriendly” witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that landed him in jail as one of the “Hollywood Ten.” He spoke in detail about his work in television, which he did under pseudonym during the blacklist era, working on such series as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-58), The Buccaneers (1956-57), The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956-57), and Ivanhoe (1958). Mr. Lardner talked about his emergence from the blacklist in the mid-sixties that culminated with his win of the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for M*A*S*H (1970).