Book Review: “Show Trial” — Not Ready for Primetime

Thomas Doherty’s fragmented, stop-and-start-again style dilutes narrative authority and further complicates an already very complicated story.

Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, And the Birth of the Blacklist by Thomas Doherty. Columbia University Press, 424 pp., $29.95.

By Helen Epstein

Over three million books are now being published every year, so writers are increasingly called on to testify to the value of their efforts. One prominent national book fair organization requires authors who wish to be invited to audition come up with an “elevator speech” touting their book; a recently-added New York Times feature asks authors to “persuade someone to read it in 50 words or less.”

Defending and justifying has long been part of the drill for doctoral candidates and other academics, I thought. It seems mandatory for Thomas Doherty, whose Show Trial centers on the nine-day HUAC hearings of October, 1947 that resulted in the blacklist.

“The scholarship generated by the decision of the House Committee on Un-American Activities to go Hollywood is voluminous,” writes the film historian and Brandeis Professor of American Studies. It includes “academic studies, edited volumes, memoirs, oral histories, documentaries, and, lately, blogs and websites. With the exception of the storied alliance between the motion picture industry and the U.S. government during World War II, it is probably the most chronicled slice of history from the golden age of the studio system, not to say a raw wound that, even into the twenty-first century, rips open whenever a ghost from the past is resurrected or a blacklist-themed melodrama enters the pop-cult bloodstream. Anyone presuming to add another entry should offer a few words of justification.”

Doherty chose to re-examine the pre-McCarthy hearings because, he argues, those hearings set the pattern for subsequent congressional-media confrontations; because they gave birth to the blacklist; and because their focus was squarely on the motion picture industry. He wanted to be even-handed and to avoid the pitfalls of listing either to the Right or Left, to examine “overlooked backstories and to expand the cast of characters caught in the crossfire. Though the Hollywood Ten will always get top billing, thirty-one other witnesses  — and myriad players in the gallery and commentators on the sidelines – have tales worth telling. Finally, no single study has been devoted exclusively to HUAC’s Hollywood year.”

I was ready to time-travel back to 1947 with Doherty, whose research for previous books Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Cultureand Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration equipped him for the enormous challenge posed by this one.

Doherty draws on 70 years-worth of writing and documents: transcripts of the hearings themselves, press accounts from sources such as Daily Variety, Motion Picture Daily, and the Hollywood Reporter; Hearst publications; Communist journals such as The New Masses, Daily Worker, and the People’s Daily World; and liberal newspapers such as PM and the New York Post. Doherty has also been able to delve into archival research that has been amassed over this time; the letters, memoirs, and oral histories of participants such as Howard Fast, Alvah Bessie, Dore Schary, Dalton Trumbo and Ring Lardner Jr. and the various position papers and manifestos of relevant organizations; as well as the ever-growing secondary literature that includes memoirs such as Jane Lazarre’s The Communist and The Communist’s Daughter and reportage such as Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s.

The HUAC hearings of 1947 involved Washington politicians, lawyers, FBI agents, and bureaucrats tied to the investigation of Communism in Hollywood; tinsel town moguls, screenwriters, directors, and actors primarily engaged in making films; members of the press, unions, industry groups and ad hoc committees who were caught up in the actions and reactions. All of these intricate actions and interactions need to be analyzed, sorted out, summarized, and transformed into an intelligible, cohesive foreground, against a background of international, domestic, and local politics.

Thomas Doherty assumes his reader knows the story, and does not bother to define his terms or provide much beyond rudimentary context.Click To Tweet

Doherty does not do that. He assumes his reader knows the story, and does not bother to define his terms or provide much beyond rudimentary context. Playing with the idea of the “show” in show trial, he structures his book as though it were a big screen extravaganza, and performs it via several personas: the historian determined to showcase every relevant document; the slick movie reviewer who can’t resist a good line; the conscientious ethnographer lost in the weeds.

Doherty opens Show Trial with “Program Notes” that introduce several of the themes and components that will be part of the political and cultural saga to come. “In 1947 the Cold War came to, or rather was declared on, Hollywood,” it begins. “From the get-go, the lingo of showbiz ballyhoo (a three-ring circus, a Barnum show, a vaudeville burlesque)  clung to the proceedings.” The Congressional hearing proffered all the trappings of Hollywood, playing on the centrality of movies in American life. It also played on the historical theme of the witch hunt, with its rituals of confession and self-flagellation. No one was actually burnt or hanged or even denied freedom of speech, Doherty points out. Though “unfriendly” witnesses were not allowed to read their statements before the committee, they distributed them to reporters, published political ads, and spoke at rallies. Also, he emphasizes that, contrary to popular memory, the hearings of 1947 were initially criticized and opposed by a large part of the Hollywood establishment — before it caved into political pressure and imposed the blacklist.

The “Program Notes” segue to “Backstories,” beginning with a chapter titled “How the Popular Front became Unpopular.” This section comprises a series of short sections introduced by captions of protagonists and quotes that at first appear enigmatic, but then are revealed to be relevant to the subject of the section, e.g. “Willie Boff: ‘You’ve got to be tough in this den of hyenas,’” “Gayle Sondergaard: ‘An actress used to be an isolated individual who had no contact with the outside world.’”

A narrative thread emerges with “Martin Dies: ‘The only thing that counts in these investigations is what gets into the papers.’” In 1934, Doherty writes, the House of Representatives established a special committee — it beame known as the McCormack Committee — to investigate Communist and Nazi subversives in America. In 1938, following Hitler’s annexation of Austria, an ambitious Congressman Dies revived it. HUAC as chaired by Dies investigated the existence of a subversive “fifth column” in the U.S. allegedly composed of Nazis on the one hand and Communists on the other. It launched an investigation of labor unions, the German American Bund, the Federal Theater Project, and Hollywood and introduced the term “Communist dupe” into the American lexicon. But as the world went to war in 1939, HUAC went into hibernation; it wasn’t until Republicans took control of Congress in 1946 that the Committee was revived under the guidance of another ambitious Congressman, J. Parnell Thomas, who announced at its first meeting in January, 1947 that it would be the most “active” year in the committee’s history.

Bertolt Brecht Testifies Before the House Un-American Activities Committee (1947). Photo: Open Culture.

Doherty’s enthusiasm for his subject practically jumps off the page. He loves the many facts and anecdotes he has discovered; the catchy quotes and colorful characters include the usual suspects as well as Ayn Rand, Bertoldt Brecht, and Ginger Rodgers’ righteous mother Lela. He relishes the gossipy as well as the political and ethical, and is intrigued by the workings of the twenty-some industry organizations that played a major role in the proceedings — groups such as IATSE (International Alliance of Stage Employees) and the MPA-PAI (Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals), as well as the better-know SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and CPUSA (Communist Part of the United States of America). But he falls far short of finding a way to organize it all.

Perhaps Doherty, discouraged by the number of authors in whose footsteps he was following, wanted to do something more creative rather than yet again tell the story sequentially. Unfortunately, he chose a digressive, character-driven strategy that keeps the reader flipping pages to understand what is being said, by whom, when, and why. His fragmented, stop-and-start-again style dilutes narrative authority and further complicates an already very complicated story.

It certainly was hard for me to follow. The origin of the blacklist itself is buried in the middle of  Chapter Five: “Smearing Hollywood with the Brush of Communism.” There we find the Motion Picture Association of America’s President Eric Johnston’s testimony before HUAC in March. In June, at a meeting of West Coast branch of the MPAA, he proposed a three-point resolution. The first point proclaimed, “Nothing can be accomplished by smearing Hollywood with the brush of Communism.” The second, “Agreed: not to employ Communists in Hollywood jobs where they would be in a position to influence the screen … The proof must be conclusive and it is the responsibility of the U-American Committee to furnish proof and the names.” This constituted, Doherty points out, the first official consideration of an anti-Communist blacklist.

There are many amazing quotes and anecdotes buried in this text, but little guidance regarding what is central and what is peripheral. I often felt as though I were reading Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Insidious Intersecting Spheres of America’s Political, Movie, and Press Establishments in Hollywood in 1947 and how each Profited from the Others. The Hollywood Ten, cited with contempt of Congress and who faced years of litigation in the courts, become part of the scenery in Doherty’s narrative. With so much data and little authorial direction regarding what’s key and what’s relatively unimportant — it all fascinates Doherty — the reader is apt to focus on items of interest to him or her.

I was interested in the enormous role of radio and by the influence of those precursors of contemporary cable news commentators: gossip columnists. I appreciated Doherty’s selection of choice pieces of testimony and his capsule depictions of the “Friendlies” and “Unfriendlies,” especially the few women involved — Rand, Rodgers, and Hedda Hopper on the Right; Lauren Bacall, Lillian Hellman, and Katherine Hepburn on the Left.  I liked the mini-portraits of refugees Hans Eissler and a Bertolt Brecht who was complimented by Chairman Thomas for good manners after he testified: “I was not or am not a member of any Communist party.”

Doherty notes that Brecht flew out of the country after his appearance before the Committee, and that a few days later the Chairman brought the proceedings to an abrupt and unexpected end. Some people thought that was the end of HUAC and the pursuit of Communists in Hollywood, but the author then digresses to quote Dorothy Parker at a post-mortem dinner declaring, “Facism isn’t coming – it’s here!”

Dalton Trumbo and other members of the Hollywood Ten protesting the Hollywood Un-American Activities Committee. Photo: Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

Continuing on his detour and detail-riddled way, Doherty then takes us to December 3, when 48 movie moguls met at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria, followed by MPAA President Eric Johnston issuing what became known as the Waldorf Declaration. Doherty does not quote it in its entirety, but I found the clearly written, to-the-point statement (albeit somewhat buried in the chapter nominally devoted to it) such a welcome contrast to his digressive style that I quote it here:

“Members of the Association of Motion Picture Producers deplore the action of the 10 Hollywood men who have been cited for contempt by the House of Representatives,” it began. “We do not desire to prejudge their legal rights, but their actions have been a disservice to their employers and have impaired their usefulness to the industry….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 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.

In pursuing this policy, we are not going to be swayed by hysteria or intimidation from any source. We are frank to recognize that such a policy involves danger and risks. There is the danger of hurting innocent people. There is the risk of creating an atmosphere of fear. Creative work at its best cannot be carried on in an atmosphere of fear. We will guard against this danger, this risk, this fear.

To this end we will invite the Hollywood talent guilds to work with us to eliminate any subversives: to protect the innocent; and to safeguard free speech and a free screen wherever threatened.

The absence of a national policy, established by Congress, with respect to the employment of Communists in private industry makes our task difficult. Ours is a nation of laws. We request Congress to enact legislation to assist American industry to rid itself of subversive, disloyal elements.

Nothing subversive or un-American has appeared on the screen, nor can any number of Hollywood investigations obscure the patriotic services of the 30,000 loyal Americans employed in Hollywood who have given our government invaluable aid to war and peace.”

Doherty observes that, only a month earlier, HUAC and the blacklist seemed to have become a closed chapter. He quotes columnist Max Lerner of PM wondering “why Hollywood surrendered without making a fight?” and (sort of) answers his question with more quotes from various players.

Doherty ends his book with an epilogue titled “Blacklists and Casualty Lists.” The 1948 elections voted two HUAC members out of Congress. Chairman Thomas was sent to jail for unrelated accusations of fraud.

Years of court cases followed the hearings and in April, 1950 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Hollywood Ten’s contempt of Congress citations and sent them to jail as well.

By that time, I was sure Doherty’s ‘show’ was not ready to open. He needed to be given more preview notes, and do a few more drafts.

 Helen Epstein is the author of ten books of non-fiction including  Children of the Holocaust and The Long Half Lives of Love and Trauma, all now available from Plunkett Lake Press.

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