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The House Un-American Activities Committee

6.01.2011

The American mood darkened even further with the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which kicked into full gear in 1947. The results were disastrous for film as an art form, and equally grave for those caught in the net of hysteria and suspicion. The HUAC had been around since 1938, when a former Communist, James B. Matthews, named James Cagney, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Miriam Hopkins, and even Shirley Temple as actors whose work unwittingly served Communist interests.

At that time few people took the charges seriously. But in 1944, Walt Disney, aggravated by the 1941 animators’ strike at his studios, helped to form the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, aided by director King Vidor, actors Ward Bond, Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, and John Wayne, novelist Ayn Rand, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and matters began to get more serious.

In 1946, HUAC decided to hold formal hearings on the issue of Communist infiltration in Hollywood. At the dawn of the Cold War, with the Soviets gradually extending their influence throughout Eastern Europe, it was difficult to remember that Hollywood had produced films lauding the American-Soviet alliance during the war at the behest of the U.S. government. Now these films would be cited as proof of Communist influence in the motion picture industry. Those associated with the productions were brought to task by HUAC, creating an atmosphere of fear and distrust throughout Hollywood. When the committee asked him why he had participated in the making of Song of Russia, Robert Taylor said crisply that he had made the film under protest as an MGM contract performer. Subsequently Taylor became one of the first “friendly witnesses” to testify at the HUAC hearings on Communist infiltration in the film capital.

In May 1947, the committee held ten days of closed hearings in Los Angeles, where Taylor, Adolphe Menjou, and Jack Warner, as well as Leila Rogers, Ginger Rogers’s mother and a virulent anti-Communist, all testified to the wide extent of Communist infiltration in Hollywood. Shortly thereafter, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) instituted a loyalty oath that all members were asked to sign, although at this early stage participation was voluntary.

In October 1947, HUAC held more hearings in Washington, where Walt Disney, as well as actors Robert Montgomery, Gary Cooper, George Murphy, and Ronald Reagan, testified to the immediate danger to the film community from Communist infiltration. Meanwhile, another group of actors, including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, and Sterling Hayden, as well as lyricist Ira Gershwin and director John Huston, formed the Committee for the First Amendment to protest the hearings. The protests were soon drowned out by a chorus of disapproval, and Bogart and the others soon realized that the atmosphere of fear developing around the hearings could ruin their careers. Shortly thereafter, the Committee for the First Amendment was disbanded, and its former members returned to Hollywood to disavow their stand against HUAC.

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