The Hollywood Ten: The Men Who Refused to Name Names

4:13 PM 11/16/2015

by David L. Dunbar

When the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed filmmakers to testify about communism in the industry, a few held their ground — and for a time, lost their livelihood.

Hollywood Ten - H 2015
Courtesy of Photofest

Hollywood Ten - H 2015

It was the casting call no one in Hollywood wanted to receive. In October 1947, when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) convened a hearing in Washington, D.C., to investigate subversive activities in the entertainment industry, 41 screenwriters, directors and producers were subpoenaed. Most witnesses were “friendly” — that is, willing to respond to the committee’s central question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” And those who confessed to membership were offered the opportunity to name “fellow travelers,” thereby regaining their good standing with the committee and, by extension, the American film industry.

Ten witnesses — all current or former party members — banded together in protest, refusing to cooperate on First Amendment grounds (freedom of speech, right of assembly, freedom of association) and affirming that HUAC disagreed: It found the so-called Hollywood Ten in contempt of Congress, fined them each $1,000 and sentenced them to up to a year in federal prison. All 10 artists also were fired by a group of studio executives — and the era of the Hollywood blacklist began.

Meet the Hollywood Ten:

  • Alvah Bessie (1904 – 1985)

    The son of a New York businessman, Bessie joined Eugene O’Neill’s Provincetown Players as an actor after graduating from Columbia University. In 1935 he published his first novel, Dwell in the Wilderness, while a staff writer at The New Yorker. In 1938, he went to Spain to serve with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting the Franco-led fascists. Hemingway praised Bessie’s 1939 memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Men in Battle, as a “true, honest, fine book.”

    In 1943 Bessie moved to Hollywood, where he worked as a Warner Bros. contract writer on The Very Thought of You (1944), Hotel Berlin (1945), Objective, Burma! (1945) and other features. When called to testify before HUAC, Bessie refused to cooperate, saying, “I will never aid or abet such a committee in its patent attempt to foster the sort of intimidation and terror that is the inevitable precursor of a fascist regime.” Bessie served his 12-month sentence for contempt of Congress at the minimum-security federal lockup in Texarcana, Texas.

    Prison marked the end of Bessie’s Hollywood career. He moved to the Bay Area, where he wrote novels, edited a union newspaper and worked as publicist for arts organizations. For seven years he was the stage manager and soundman at San Francisco’s Hungry I nightclub, earning $70 a week. 

  • Herbert J. Biberman (1900 – 1971)

    Biberman began his career at age 28, directing plays and helping run the Theatre Guild in New York City. In 1935, he moved to Hollywood, where he graduated from dialogue director to writer to director of modest films, including Meet Nero Wolfe (1936), King of Chinatown (1939) and The Master Race (1944), an anti-Nazi film.

    Three years later, the HUAC committee handed him the shortest sentence of the Hollywood Ten — six months in the minimum-security Texarcana, Texas, prison that housed fellow defendant Alvah Bessie. Biberman’s wife, Gale Sondergaard, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in Anthony Adverse (1936), also refused to testify before the HUAC and was blacklisted.

    Biberman never worked in Hollywood again. In 1954 he teamed with other blacklisted artists, including screenwriter Michael Wilson and producer Paul Jarrico, to direct Salt of the Earth, an indie drama based on a miners’ strike in New Mexico. The House of Representatives formally denounced it, and the FBI investigated its financing. After a run of more than two months at about a dozen theaters, it was banned for 11 years. In 1993, the United States National Film Registry selected the film for preservation as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

  • Lester Cole (1904 – 1985)

    The child of Polish immigrants, Cole (ne Cohn) owed his political leanings to his Marxist father, who was a garment union organizer in New York City. In the eighth grade, Cole’s school principal denounced Lester as a traitor for opposing America’s entry into World War I. He dropped out of high school at age 16 and eventually became a stage director and playwright.

    In 1932 he moved to Hollywood to work with 17 other writers on one of Hollywood’s first all-star extravaganzas, the W.C. Fields comedy If I Had a Million. The two successful plays Cole had written in New York landed him a five-year, $250-a-week contract with Paramount.

    In 1933, while writing B movies, including several in the Charlie Chan series, he co-founded the Screen Writers Guild (with future Hollywood Ten collaborators John Howard Lawson and Samuel Ornitz), the first of the Hollywood guilds. The following year Cole joined the Communist Party and remained a committed Marxist throughout his life.

    From 1932 through 1947, he churned out more than 40 produced scripts, most prominently for The House of the Seven Gables (1940) and the Errol Flynn war picture Objective Burma! (1945), which was based on an original story by another future blacklister, Alvah Bessie. In 1946, his career got a major boost when MGM put him under contract. It didn’t last long: The following year Cole refused to testify before HUAC. In 1949, before turning himself in at the federal prison in Danbury, Conn., to serve his sentence for contempt of Congress, he penned the story for the Humphrey Bogart aviator feature Chain Lightning (1950).

    The blacklist destroyed Cole financially and professionally. His unfinished script for Viva Zapata! (1952), directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando, was reassigned to John Steinbeck, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the picture (story and screenplay). In 1961 he emigrated to England, where he wrote the screen adaption, under the name Gerald L.C. Copley, of Born Free (1966), Joy Adamson’s book about raising a lioness in Kenya. In the last two decades of his life, he found a second career teaching film writing in San Francisco.

  • Edward Dmytryk (1908 – 1999)

    Born in Grand Forks, British Columbia, Dmytryk was the second of four sons of Ukrainian immigrants. His father, a severe disciplinarian who bounced between jobs as truck driver, smelter worker and motorman, moved his family to San Francisco and then to Los Angeles. Dmytryk left his punitive home at age 14, becoming a messenger at Famous Players-Lasky (forerunner of Paramount Pictures) for $6 a week while attending Hollywood High School. He progressed to projectionist, film editor and, by age 31, director (and naturalized American citizen). His best-known picture from his early years was Murder, My Sweet (1944), adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel, Farewell, My Lovely. That same year he joined the Communist Party.

    In July 1947 RKO released Dmytryk’s thriller Crossfire, about an American soldier who kills a Jewish veteran and evades detection thanks to loyal Army buddies. Three months later, in Washington, D.C., Dmytryk and the rest of the Hollywood Ten snubbed the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although publicly blacklisted in November, he nevertheless received an Oscar nomination as best director for Crossfire.

    In 1948 Dmytryk fled to England, where he made two films in two years before returning to the U.S. He was arrested and imprisoned in the federal camp at Mill Point, West Virginia, where he served four and a half months. Behind bars, he decided that he’d been made a Commie dupe. On April 25, 1951, he returned to the HUAC hearings and admitted that he had been a party member from 1944 to 1945. He named 26 other party members, including Adrian Scott. By turning informer, he ended his own blacklisting.

    Independent American producer Stanley Kramer was the first to hire him again, first for a trio of low-budget films and then for The Caine Mutiny (1954), a World War II drama that received Oscar nominations for best picture, best actor and other awards.

    From the 1950s through the early 1970s, Dmytryk continued to direct studio films, including Raintree Country (1957), a remake of The Blue Angel (1959) and The Carpetbaggers (1964). After his film career tapered off, he taught film and directing at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California film school. In 1966 he published a book about his blacklist experiences, Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten.

  • Ring Lardner Jr. (1915 – 2000)

    The son of the noted Chicago humorist, baseball writer and playwright attended Andover and Princeton, where he joined the Socialist Club. In his sophomore year he enrolled at the Anglo-American Institute of the University of Moscow, which was established to familiarize young Britons and Americans with the wonders of the Soviet system. Lardner returned to New York and, in 1935, briefly worked at the Daily Mirror before signing on as publicity director with David O. Selznick’s start-up movie company. Lardner got his big break when Selznick partnered him with Budd Schulberg, a reader in the story department who would later cooperate with HUAC. The two rookies punched up a few scenes in A Star is Born, a 1937 feature starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor that became a critical and box-office success.

    By 1937 Lardner had been recruited by the Communist Party in Hollywood and was attending a Marxist meetings four nights a week. In time he became a member of such groups as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Hollywood Writers Mobilization Against the War. He also served on the board of the Screen Writers Guild.

    In 1942, he co-wrote Woman of the Year with Michael Kanin. The comedy marked the first onscreen collaboration between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and won Lardner and Kanin an Oscar for original screenplay. In 1947 he became one of the highest-paid writers in Hollywood when he signed a contract with 20th Century Fox at $2,000 a week. A few months later he stood by his fellow members of the Hollywood Ten in refusing to testify before HUAC. Lardner replied to the standard question — “Are you now or have you ever been …” — by noting, “I could answer the question exactly the way you want, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.” The aggressive committee chairman, J. Parnell Thomas, a Republican from New Jersey, angrily dismissed Lardner from the stand.

    By the time Lardner began to serve his sentence for contempt of Congress in 1950, former Rep. Thomas was in the same federal penitentiary in Danbury, Conn., after his conviction of defrauding the government by putting fictitious workers on his payroll. Behind bars, the screenwriter and the HUAC chairman “became reacquainted,” as Lardner later wrote.

    After his release, Lardner wrote a novel, The Ecstasy of Owen Muir (1954), and then moved to England where he wrote under several pseudonyms for television series such as The Adventures of Robin Hood. His blacklisting ended when producer Martin Ransohoff and director Norman Jewison gave him screen credit for writing The Cincinnati Kid (1965). Lardner's later work included M*A*S*H (1970), for which he won the Academy Award for an adapted screenplay.

    Although Lardner allowed his party membership to lapse in the 1950s, he said in an interview with The New York Times that “I've never regretted my association with communism. I still think that some form of socialism is a more rational way to organize a society, but I recognize it hasn't worked anywhere yet.” He died in Manhattan in 2000 at age 85, the last surviving member of the Hollywood Ten.

  • John Howard Lawson (1894 – 1977)

    Born in New York City to a wealthy family, Lawson (ne Levy) wrote his first play (A Hindoo Love Drama) at age 16 as an undergraduate at Williams College. Following a stint as a volunteer ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, where he served alongside Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and E.E. Cummings, Lawson edited a newspaper in Rome and worked as a publicity director for the American Red Cross. During the 1920s and 1930s, he began writing left-leaning plays, some of which made it to Broadway.

    He sold his first script in 1920 to Paramount, and eight years later MGM offered him a writing contract. In 1933, he co-founded the Screen Writers Guild, serving as its first president. That same year he also wrote two Broadway plays and joined the Communist Party. In 1938, he earned his lone Oscar nomination, for best story, for Blockade, a Spanish Civil War drama starring Henry Fonda. The Knights of Columbus denounced it as “Marxist propaganda.”

    When it was Lawson’s turn to testify at the HUAC hearings in 1947, he attempted to make a statement but was silenced by the thundering gavel of the committee chairman, J. Parnell Thomas. Lawson served his 12-month sentence at the minimum-security federal correctional facility in Ashland, Kentucky.

    After his release, Lawson moved to Mexico, where, in 1951, he wrote the screen adaptation for a British production of Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country, which was the first film to depict apartheid in South Africa. Lawson was originally not credited, with Paton cited as the screenwriter. In an interview with The New York Times, he said, “I’m much more completely blacklisted than the others. I’m much more notorious and extremely proud of that. It had much to do with the fact that I helped organize the Guild.”

  • Albert Maltz (1908 – 1985)

    Brooklyn-born Maltz graduated from Columbia University in 1928 and attended the Yale School of Drama, where he earned a master’s degree in the craft of playwriting. In the New York theater community, he was known for staging his pointed dramas in progressive venues like the Theatre Union and the Group Theater. His 1932 play Merry Go Round, a political exposé based on a Cleveland murder, was adapted into a film.

    Maltz joined the American Communist Party in 1935 but channeled his politics into writing. His short story “The Happiest Man on Earth,” about unemployment during the Depression, won the 1938 O. Henry Award. In 1941, Maltz moved to Los Angeles for a job with Warner Bros., penning the gritty noir adaptation of Graham Greene’s This Gun for Hire. He received a 1945 Oscar nomination for best screenplay for The Pride of the Marines.

    Despite his contributions to the war effort, Maltz was subpoenaed to testify at the HUAC hearings. While refusing to answer questions on First Amendment grounds, Maltz was able to get a statement on the record: “I am an American, and I believe there is no more proud word in the vocabulary of man.” Nevertheless, he was tried and convicted of contempt of Congress.

    Before he was dispatched to the federal lockup in Ashland, Ky. — the same facility that housed Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo, fellow members of the Hollywood Ten — he recruited his friend Michael Blankfort to front for him on an adaptation of his 1944 novel The Cross and the Arrow, which became the film Broken Arrow, starring James Stewart. The sympathetic treatment of Native Americans in the Western earned Maltz an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay.

    After prison, Maltz moved to Mexico City, where he wrote novels and uncredited screenplays for The Robe (1953) and other films. By 1970, producers agreed to give Maltz credit for writing Two Mules for Sister Sara, a Western starring Clint Eastwood.

  • Samuel Ornitz (1890 – 1957)

    At age 12, this son of a wealthy New York dry-goods merchant was giving socialist speeches on the streets of the Lower East Side. Six years later, instead of following his two older brothers into business, he became a social worker for the New York Prison Association and later the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

    In 1918, while still a social worker in Brooklyn, he channeled his activism into the theater, writing a didactic play titled The Sock, loosely based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and set in a New York slum. In 1923 he wrote the humorous novel Haunch Paunch and Jowl about Jewish immigrant life circa 1910, which became a national commercial success. In 1928 he moved to Hollywood, where he wrote 25 mostly middling films between 1928 and 1949, mainly for RKO and Republic. The most notable: Little Orphan Annie (1938).

    Along with Lester Coles and John Howard Lawson, Ornitz was a key figure in the founding of the Screen Writers Guild. A vocal supporter of the Soviet Union, Ornitz was one of the most outspoken political figures in Hollywood.

    As a member of the Hollywood Ten, Ornitz’s refusal to answer questions at the HUAC hearings in October 1947 resulted in a 12-month sentence. While serving his time at the federal prison in Springfield, Vt., he published his most successful novel, Bride of the Sabbath (1951). He never worked in film again.

  • Robert Adrian Scott (1911 – 1972)

    Born into a middle-class family in Arlington, N.J., Scott wrote magazine articles before moving to Hollywood. Starting in 1940, he contributed to several scripts, including the one for the popular Cary Grant comedy Mr. Lucky. Scott received more acclaim as a producer. He and director Edward Dmytryk, a future fellow Hollywood Ten member, teamed up on a string of dark thrillers, including Murder, My Sweet (1944), based on Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, and Crossfire (1947), an anti-Semitism drama that received five Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director.

    In 1947, at the height of his career, Scott was subpoenaed to testify at the HUAC hearings (he had joined the Communist Party in 1944). He became one of the Hollywood Ten when he refused to answer the committee’s questions on First Amendment grounds. While waiting a court ruling, Scott moved to London to look for work but decided to return when the courts refused to overturn HUAC’s contempt charge. He noted that “nine of us couldn’t go into court with the 10th on the lam. That would have made it impossible for the rest who were left.”

    Scott was sentenced on Sept. 27, 1950, to the federal prison in Ashland, Ky. In the meantime, he had sued RKO Pictures for wrongful dismissal; the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was rejected in 1957. After serving his sentence he moved to London, eventually finding work writing without credit for television, including the British series The Adventures of Robin Hood. When the blacklist ended in 1960 with Dalton Trumbo’s onscreen credits for Exodus and Spartacus, Scott returned to Los Angeles to work for Universal. He had more success, however, writing for TV series, including Lassie and Have Gun — Will Travel, using his wife’s name, Joanne Court, as a pseudonym.

  • Dalton Trumbo (1905 – 1976)

    During his high school years in Grand Junction, Colorado, Trumbo landed a job as a cub reporter for the Grand Junction Sentinel, covering everything from school events to athletic news, crime to obituaries. In 1924 he enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he wrote for the school paper as well as the Boulder Daily Camera. In 1925, when his father lost his job, Dalton moved with the family to Los Angeles. Soon after, his father died.

    To earn tuition money for the University of Southern California, Trumbo took what he intended to be a short-term job at a bakery in downtown Los Angeles. Instead, he ended up working there until 1932. In that time, he studied writing, criticism and psychology at USC, established himself as a writer and made a little money on the side by check kiting and bootlegging.

    In 1933 he left the bakery to become the associate editor of the Hollywood Spectator, where he was already a contributor, and the following year moved to the story department at Warner Bros. In October 1935 he was promoted to screenwriter, a position that he only expected to tide him over until he established himself as a novelist. Instead, he ended up with more than 50 screenplays and adapted stories to his credit. His first, Road Gang, was released in 1936.

    When Warner Bros. tried to force Trumbo to switch unions — from the Screen Writers Guild, run by John Howard Lawson, to a more pliable upstart, the Screen Playwrights — he refused, and the studio voided his contract. This mini-blacklist lasted about six months. Trumbo signed with Columbia, where he wrote a few B pictures, and then moved to MGM, which bounced him after two fruitless years. He managed to sell a script to Warners and eight B movies to RKO.

    Trumbo was more focused on what would become his best-known novel. Published in September 1939, two days after the start of World War II, Johnny Got His Gun is an antiwar novel about an American soldier wounded on the last day of the First World War. He loses his limbs, eyes, ears, mouth and nose and has no way to communicate with the people around him. It won an early National Book Award. (In 1971, Trumbo wrote and directed a film version.)

    Trumbo’s big film break was Kitty Foyle (1940), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. During the war he wrote a number of screenplays and in 1943, after being a fellow traveler for years, Trumbo decided to join the Communist Party. After refusing to testify at the HUAC hearings in 1947, Trumbo was convicted of contempt of Congress. The following year, he and the party went their separate ways. In 1950, after exhausting the appeals process, he spent 11 months in a federal prison in Ashland, Ky. From his cell he wrote letters home to his wife, Cleo, and their three children, many of which he signed, “From Daddy. Dalton Trumbo. Prisoner #7551.”

    After prison, he lived in Mexico in a tight-knit community with other blacklist exiles, including Ring Lardner Jr. and Albert Maltz. In 1953 he wrote the story for Roman Holiday, which was fronted by his screenwriter friend Ian McLellan Hunter, who himself was later blacklisted. It won the Academy Award for best screenplay, as did The Brave One (1956), which he wrote under the name Robert Rich.

    In 1960, Trumbo’s public billing for Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and Otto Preminger’s Exodus was a one-two epic punch that effectively marked the end of the blacklist.