Hollywood dominated American popular culture at the dawn of the Cold War. In 1946, cinema box offices swallowed up an astonishing 90 percent of Americans' total spending on entertainment, with weekly attendance at the nation's movie houses approaching 90 million at a time when the entire population of the country was only 140 million.18
At the same time, Los Angeles was home to one of the more active sections of the Communist Party USA, and quite a few Hollywood personalities joined the Party.
Spurred on by a real fear that Communist infiltrators of the motion picture industry would use films to disseminate Soviet propaganda, and unable to resist the incredible publicity that would come from taking down Hollywood Reds, the counter-subversive crusaders of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) opened hearings into Communist activities in Hollywood in 1947.
In October 1947, before what can only be described as a media circus, HUAC began its public investigation into Hollywood Communism. Studio heads and other film industry professionals cooperated with the committee's investigation, furnishing names of suspected leftists in the industry. (Walt Disney named names, as did popular B-movie actor and future President Ronald Reagan, then head of the Screen Actors Guild, who signed up to serve the FBI as a secret informer, code-named Agent T-10.) Ten witnesses named before the committee, all of whom were in fact current or former members of the Communist Party, refused to cooperate with HUAC and denounced the proceedings as unconstitutional. The so-called Hollywood Ten—Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo—were eventually convicted of contempt of Congress.
HUAC's investigation split the Hollywood community. Supporters of the Ten—including major stars Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, Gene Kelly, and Frank Sinatra—formed the Committee for the First Amendment to protest HUAC's hearings and the Ten's convictions. The Committee for the First Amendment was opposed by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which backed HUAC's efforts to purge Communists from the film industry. (The Motion Picture Alliance included among its supporters not only Disney and Reagan but also John Wayne and Gary Cooper.)
The two opposing pressure groups sought to win the support of the studios to their positions; in the end, the anticommunist Alliance prevailed when the studios created a blacklist to prevent the Hollywood Ten and other Communists from working again in the industry. On 25 November 1947, one day after Congress issued contempt citations on the Hollywood Ten, the Motion Picture Association of America announced that "We will forthwith discharge or suspend without compensation those in our employ, and we will not re-employ any of the 10 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 a member or any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods."
The Hollywood blacklist began with the Hollywood Ten and eventually swelled to include more than 300 names, including many notable actors (Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson), directors (Orson Welles), and writers (Arthur Miller, Dashiel Hammett). Blacklisted actors and directors, whose faces were as recognizable as their names, were simply frozen out of Hollywood; a few of the most talented writers on the blacklist were able to continue in the industry by writing under pseudonyms. (Dalton Trumbo, one of the Ten, actually won an Oscar under a pseudonym for writing the screenplay to 1953's Roman Holiday.) The blacklist finally broke after 1960, when Trumbo received on-screen credit, in his own name, for writing the epic screenplays to Exodus and Spartacus. But throughout the 1950s the blacklist had a chilling effect on Hollywood radicals.
Hollywood's very public ordeal with the Communist problem, as framed by HUAC, shaped several films of the era. Perhaps the most famous of Hollywood's "HUAC pictures" is Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront (1954), in which Marlon Brando stars as a dockworker who heroically chooses to break the waterfront code of silence by turning informer against his own corrupt union bosses. It's difficult to interpret On The Waterfront as anything other than a muscular metaphorical defense of Kazan's own decision to "name names" before HUAC. Representing the other end of the political spectrum, 1956's Storm Center starred Bette Davis as a heroic small-town librarian who refused to pull a Communist book off the shelves, even though it meant she lost her job and was herself falsely branded a Communist.
While Storm Center's politics were just as obvious as those of On The Waterfront, other Hollywood pictures dealt with the Red Scare in subtler ways. The sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) perfectly captured the dark paranoia of the McCarthy era, with alien invaders secretly occupying human bodies and turning them into soulless "pod people." Viewers at the time and ever since have seen the film as a historical allegory... but of what? Are the pod people meant to represent Communists, secretly infiltrating American society with an alien ideology that robs them of free thought and individual liberty? Or are they meant to be McCarthyites, so desperate to prove their anticommunist bona fides that they embrace a conformity that robs them of free thought or individual liberty? Either way, few cultural artifacts capture the fearful mood of the early Cold War era as well as the final reel of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: "Look!" screams the hero, staring directly into the camera, "You fools! You're in danger! Can't you see? They're after you! They're after all of us! Our wives... our children... they're here already! You're next!"