hollywood and the blacklist -- 8/25/23

Today's selection -- from Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman. The powerful Hollywood studio heads, most notably MGM’s legendary Louis B. Mayer, were not in favor of the communist blacklist of the 1950s. But in the final analysis, as powerful as they were, they were nevertheless employees and did not have the final say. Instead, that was in the hands of New York real estate and banking interests:

“‘[MGM studio head Louis B.] Mayer was not one of the guys in favor of the blacklist,' said screenwriter Bernard Gordon. 'He respected Dalton Trumbo, as a writer turning out material who was important to him. And Marguerite Roberts was one of MGM's best writers; she got blacklisted because of her husband, John Sanford.’

“‘They did not care about politics,’ said the screenwriter Robert Lees, who was named by Sterling Hayden and blacklisted. ‘Robert Arthur, a producer I worked with a lot at Universal, was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance. One day he and my collaborator Fred Rinaldo got into a political argument. The next day we were talking about our kids and the Dodgers. He was a very good producer and he thought we were good writers and we got along great.

“‘MGM did their darndest to keep their good writers, whatever their politics. They didn't want to get into that mess, although Jack Warner practically crawled. Basically, the moguls wanted to be Americans first and Jews second.’

“After the hearings ended, the major motion picture studios were faced with further outside legal and political trouble from the government and other organizations. Anti-Hollywood newspaper editorials began appearing in Kansas and California, and there were protests in North Carolina against Katharine Hepburn, who as a member of the Committee for the First Amendment had publicly supported the Ten.

“The most troubling of all of these activities was a threatened boycott by the American Legion, with three million members spread over seventeen thousand posts. Earlier in 1947, protests by the Catholic War Veterans had effectively torpedoed the release of Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux. Loew's theaters helped the boycott by refusing to book Monsieur Verdoux, effectively crippling the picture, which grossed only $325,000 in America.

“In a deposition, Eddie Mannix was even more open. ‘A business that is dealing in public favor cannot have a small percentage of the press nor the radio out against them. Whether 50 percent of the press was for them and 50 percent was against them, we suffered. We have always felt that criticism against our industry hurts us where praise does not help us to the same degree ....

“‘We had information, whether true or untrue, that organizations in America were about to put on a campaign against the picture business, particularly against the members who had defied Congress, and if that organized campaign would have taken place, I can assure you that it would have been a very sorry day for our picture business. If the situation, for example [with the Chaplin picture] were reflected throughout the United States of America, they would all have been in the red. There is no question as to that.’

“If protestors could effectively hobble a movie by Charlie Chaplin, the gold standard for thirty-five years, what could they do to a run-of-the-mill star? (That Chaplin had endured a nasty paternity suit, that Monsieur Verdoux was a calculated slap at the triumphalist values of postwar America, and that most critics and audiences slapped back went unnoticed by the moguls.)

“And so a meeting was called at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel on November 24 and 25, 1947, for what Mayer would retrospectively characterize as a ‘two-day wrangle’ to address the problems.

“Among those present at the Waldorf Conference were Mayer, Joe and Nick Schenck, Nat Spingold, Harry Cohn, Jack Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, Walter Wanger, Eddie Mannix, Albert Warner, Eric Johnston, Samuel Goldwyn, Ned Depinet, Barney Balaban, Y. Frank Freeman, Spyros Skouras, William Goetz, Leo Spitz, J. Robert Rubin, Dore Schary, Henry Ginsberg, Cheever Cowdin, and assorted supporting players and lawyers, including Mendel Silberberg.

Members of the Hollywood Ten and their families in 1950, protesting the impending incarceration of the ten

“Eric Johnston opened the proceedings by saying the movie business belonged to the public, just like baseball, and he pointed to what baseball had done when its reputation had been threatened--elected Judge Landis, banned the so-called Black Sox players, and cleaned house. And now the public, in the form of the American Legion, was rising up; letters were being written; federal censorship was a distinct possibility. It was the movie industry's turn to make a move. …

“The result of the conference was that the studios issued a statement saying they had collectively suspended each of the Hollywood Ten [prominent writers identified as Communist sympathizers] and would not knowingly employ a Communist in the future, thereby initiating the period of the Hollywood blacklist: ‘We will forthwith discharge or suspend without compensation those in our employ and we will not re-employ any of the Ten until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath, that he is not a Communist. ... We will not knowingly employ a Communist or any member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods.’

“There was nothing to be done about the Ten--they had sealed their own fates. The question was what criteria would be applied in the future. Mayer even claimed that he said, ‘We got to look out for the future that we don't get an innocent person hurt.’ Unfortunately, as Schary would observe with a straight face, ‘No machinery had been worked out’ for protecting the innocent.

“The studio heads have always taken the fall for acquiescing to the blacklist, but it should be remembered that, in those days, New York ran Hollywood. However much power resided in these men who could fire movie stars and green-light pictures, most of them were employees.

“‘All movie companies are dependent on the House of Morgan,’ was the way that George Seldes put it, while a prescient, anonymous article in The Nation said that ‘The overlords of the industry are the New York executives who control financing, distribution and the theater chains. The motion-picture business is primarily a real-estate operation, and the real estate is in the hands of men like Loew's Nick Schenck, Paramount's Barney Balaban and Fox's Spyros Skouras.’

“The key to the result of the Waldorf Conference was its location. ‘Mayer just wanted to make movies,’ said playwright and screenwriter Arthur Laurents, ‘but New York made him back down. The banks made all of them back down. They were afraid of boycotts, they were afraid of the American Legion, and they were afraid of the Catholic church.’"

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Scott Eyman


Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer


Simon & Schuster


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