Screenwriters have always been the sharpest thorn in the side of movie executives, the motion picture labor union with the greatest propensity to strike. The current walkout is their eighth, not including a threatened strike in 1941 that secured their first collective bargaining agreement with the studios.
The Screen Writers Guild (SWG), founded in the early 1930s, was by far the most activist labor union in Hollywood; constituted the bulk of the membership of the Hollywood Communist Party; stood in the forefront of what was called progressive politics in the ’30s and ’40s; and represented the majority of those blacklisted during the ’40s and ’50s.
The current writers’ guild, Writers Guild of America, though not politically radical, is fierce in defending its financial rights. And its ongoing strike provides a perfect occasion to look back on the blacklist era, which torpedoed the careers of countless workers in Hollywood and indelibly shaped the output of movie studios.
Blacklisting is a venerable weapon in Hollywood. In the 1930s, executives wielded it to weaken the SWG. In the 1920s and 1930s, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) used it to punish competing unions during brutal jurisdictional contests.
But the most famous motion picture blacklist began in November 1947, when movie executives fired five of the “unfriendly” witnesses under contract and pledged not to rehire them or the other five until they had purged themselves of their Communist taint. This blacklist grew from the famed “Hollywood Ten” to nearly three hundred following the early 1950s hearings.
There was no “list,” per se. The studio bosses derived their information about whom to exclude from three sources: the indices of the hearings transcripts of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); a list of over three hundred names collected by the American Legion and distributed to the major studios; and Red Channels, a compilation of 151 names collected by American Business Consultants, the brainchild of three former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents and one of the leading smear-and-clear organizations that mushroomed during the late 1940s. The only way to get off the blacklist was to appear before the HUAC, apologize for joining the Communist Party, laud the committee, and name names.
During the 1950s, one found oneself blacklisted if fingered by an informer (who was coached to name as many names as possible). If the named person did not appear before the committee, or they did appear but invoked the Fifth Amendment, they would be fired or blacklisted in the future. That is, one had to be publicly alleged as a Communist Party member.
Yet the dragnet affected not just Communists or even radicals, but left-leaning figures of all stripes. Liberals feared retribution should their scripts be read as too progressive. One said he was always looking over his shoulder as he sat at his typewriter. Liberals who had been politically active, like Edward G. Robinson, had to turn cartwheels to absolve themselves of their past deeds.
The blacklist was created and policed by executives. Red-hunting government institutions — the FBI, HUAC, Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee), and Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security — could only expose and intimidate. (The blacklist should not be conflated with McCarthyism. It preceded and outlasted McCarthy, and he did not concern himself with the media.)
The executives were not ideologically anti-communist; they sought to avoid censorship by the government and boycotts by such organizations as the American Legion and Catholic Church. But the blacklist only ended when the producers became convinced that open hiring of blacklisted people did not negatively impact box office receipts.