American films in the post–World War II era had begun to grow increasingly bold, both in their sociopolitical messages and in their depictions of sexuality. Summoned to speak before HUAC, Hollywood artists of all kinds (directors, actors, writers) who had ties to the Communist Party or had simply been leftists or progressives were faced with a daunting challenge: they were expected to admit their guilt but also had to give up names of other Hollywood types who had allegedly participated in communist activities. If they chose not to do so, they faced jail time and banishment from Hollywood through a blacklist generated by frightened movie producers.
Many "friendlies," as friendly witnesses were dubbed, capitulated to save their own careers, among them director Elia Kazan, an ex-communist who benefited greatly from his cowardice before HUAC. But a few defied the McCarthyist witch-hunt at great cost to their lives and careers. The most famous of these became known as the Hollywood Ten. They were Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Sam Ornitz, Robert Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo. Most were screenwriters whose scripts had dealt with antifascist topics.
The Hollywood Ten were accused of writing and producing films that advanced procommunist propaganda. They argued in return that their First Amendment rights were being violated by being forced to speak when their conscience prevented them from doing so. The courts did not agree, and they were subsequently sentenced to prison.
The careers of these men were either ruined or painfully diminished. The solidarity of the Hollywood Ten also crumbled when Dmytryk, a director, turned on his friends and claimed that they forced him to include communist elements in his films. Forgiven by Hollywood, his career actually improved.
Much has been made of the other nine members avoiding the blacklist by writing under pseudonyms. It is often pointed out that Trumbo was able to write Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus under his own name in 1960. Nevertheless, the number of scripts they could write and the compensation they received were greatly reduced compared to their pre-HUAC indictments. When contrasted with Dmytryk's career, they undoubtedly suffered for their position.
The Hollywood Ten were among many whose lives were ruined by HUAC's Hollywood witch-hunt. Actors and actresses branded as communists saw their lives destroyed to a greater extent than other HUAC targets. Legendary actor Sam Jaffe, who played such roles as Gunga Din, died in penurious obscurity. Other performers whose livelihoods were virtually wiped out include Zero Mostel, Burl Ives, and Dorothy Parker.
The Hollywood Ten remained in the public eye long after McCarthyism came to an end. In 1970 Trumbo gave a speech when presented with a lifetime award by the Screen Writer's Guild proclaiming that young screenwriters, when looking back upon that time, should not "search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims."
Hollywood's reasons for keeping the blacklist in the public eye have less to do with history and justice than with profiting from a sensational topic. At least ten feature films have been produced dealing with the subject. In the 1970s, The Front, a comedy starring Woody Allen, represented the hands-off approach that Hollywood was taking toward the era. The early 1990s produced Guilty by Suspicion, a dark drama starring Robert De Niro that portrayed the Hollywood Ten as nothing less than saints. But perhaps the finest balance is struck in the The Majestic (2001) that combines the comedy of The Front with the drama of Guilty By Suspicion, with Jim Carrey playing a blacklisted screenwriter.
Wagner, Dave. Blacklisted: The Film Lover's Guide to the Hollywood Blacklist. New York: Palgrave, 2003.