On December 2nd, 1954, Joseph McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate, a punishment for what many considered a reckless crusade against communists. McCarthy’s crusade had largely focused on the U.S. State Department and military, which he said were compromised by communist influence at the height of the Cold War. But the culture of suspicion he nurtured ended up targeting suspected communists in Hollywood as well.
According to historian Larry Ceplair, the attacks on Hollywood came in waves, the first of which was during the initial Red Scare of 1919, just two years after the success of the Russian Revolution. Then, in 1934, the Production Code Administration exerted pressure on productions that never saw the light of day because of alleged subversive content. For example, a production of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, about a fictional fascist takeover of the United States, was cancelled by MGM after its script was critiqued by the group.
When Stalin made an alliance with Hitler in 1939, the powers that be in Hollywood became more overtly anti-communist. Walt Disney prepared a campaign against communist agitators, but became sidetracked as American involvement in World War II began. As a young actor, Ronald Reagan was elected leader of the Screen Actors Guild on a platform of purging communist influence. Famously, in 1948, the “Hollywood 10” challenged a U.S. House committee. These writers, directors, and producers declined to answer whether they were communists. They were blacklisted, unable to land jobs in the movie industry.
As the Cold War began, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee descended on Hollywood with a young Republican congressman named Richard Nixon asking studio executives why they didn’t produce anti-Communist movies. The studios quickly responded with anti-Red films such as Iron Curtain (1948) and The Red Menace and I Married a Communist, both released in 1949. None did well at the box office.
Author Jon Lewis argues, however, that Hollywood’s response to the various Red Scares actually solidified the business. While the Red Scare created negative headlines for the short-term, the long-term results were actually favorable to the business side of the movie industry.
According to this view, the blacklist served more than an ideological purpose. Lewis writes that the U.S. House committee which investigated communists in Hollywood helped corporate interests, based in New York, assert power over the movies. He notes that committee members were openly suspicious of Jewish interests in Hollywood, ready to believe anti-Semitic arguments that Jews were hostile to mainstream American life.
The Red Scare and subsequent blacklist, according to Lewis, weakened the influence of two forces working against corporate influence over Hollywood. The old, mostly Jewish, entrepreneurs who dominated Hollywood in the 1930s began to fade as corporations dictated policies, echoing the way corporations began to dominate much of the rest of American economic life in the 1950s.
This assertion of corporate control successfully fended off the growth of unions which threatened profits. As the federal government grew more confident in Hollywood’s ability to fight the Red Menace, it allowed the movie industry to go its own way, waiving possible anti-monopoly actions and allowing the business to establish its own rating systems, fending off calls for government censorship of content.
Through it all, the patriotic American public continued to show up at the box office throughout the Cold War. McCarthy died in 1957, his memory largely disgraced by his overreach, and the seeking out of communists in the movie industry evaporated by the 1960s.