Unearthing a Forgotten Episode of Hollywood’s Blacklist Era, 75 Years Later

Unearthing a Forgotten Episode of Hollywood’s Blacklist Era, 75 Years Later

Seventy-five years ago, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC for purposes of pronunciation) launched the first of its series of postwar investigations into alleged communist subversion in Hollywood.

The show trial was staged from Oct. 20 to 30, 1947, and you can probably rewind the newsreel images in your mind’s eye: the unhinged committee chairman, J. Parnell Thomas (D-N.J.), yelling over witnesses and furiously pounding his gavel; the compliant straight men accusing former colleagues of the most unpatriotic heresies in Cold War America; and the backtalking recalcitrants being hauled away from the witness table mid-harangue.

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In countless documentaries and fictional reenactments, the confrontations are cast as a morality play pitting the craven Friendlies (as those who named names and sucked up to the committee are called) against the defiant Unfriendlies, who refused to cower before their inquisitors and would soon to be immortalized as the Hollywood Ten (for the record: screenwriters Alvah Bessie, Hebert Biberman, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz and Dalton Trumbo; director Edward Dmytryk; and producer Adrian Scott, all of whom in 1950 were put in the slammer for six months to a year for contempt of Congress). 

From left: Samuel Ornitz, Ring Lardner, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Herbert Bieberman and Edward Dmytryk, who were charged for their defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Courtesy Everett Collection

The truth of what went down in the marble caucus room of the Old House Office Building on Capitol Hill is more complicated. Dalton Trumbo later said that “only victims,” emerged from the HUAC-incited blacklist era, a magnanimous gesture that infuriated his fellow Hollywood Ten alumni, who felt there were also heroes and villains. Trumbo’s companions had themselves in mind as the heroes, but another witness, a screenwriter mostly forgotten today, fits the description at least as well: Emmet G. Lavery, president of the Screen Writers Guild. Without Lavery’s savvy testimony and canny maneuvering, the guild may not have survived the most treacherous passage in its history.   

In good screenwriterly fashion, the drama that played out in 1947 is all about backstory, back to the 1930s, when two rival unions vied to represent Hollywood’s screenwriters — the Screen Writers Guild and the Screen Playwrights, Inc. Though no actual gunfire erupted, the bitter showdown lived up to film historian Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s billing: “the Hollywood writers’ wars.”

As occupants of a lowly rung on the studio system totem pole (mere “schmucks with Underwoods,” in Jack Warner’s assessment), screenwriters would certainly seem prime candidates for a union label. Producers hogged credit, ripped off scenarios and underpaid the typists. Even so, getting screenwriters to lock arms in solidarity was tough going: They were a solitary, taciturn bunch, bad joiners who did not work well with others, who would rather lose a limb than share a byline.   

What finally convinced the independent brokers to embrace the logic of strength in numbers was a series of draconian salary cuts implemented by the Depression-wracked studios. In 1933, a group of politically animated screenwriters, including future Hollywood Ten members John Howard Lawson and Lester Cole, decided the time was ripe to organize the ranks into a Screen Writers Guild. The guild would protect story credits, assure standardized contracts and, to maximize its pull, mandate a closed shop.  

Fearing an upending of the power dynamic in what had long been a sweet racket, the studio heads refused to negotiate with the SWG and worked to break the union. It threatened members with retaliation and hurled the most reliable and durable of charges at the guild, namely that it was communist-led and inspired. (Giving the charges some credence was the fact that the guild’s co-founder and first president, John Howard Lawson, was a well-known and lockstep party liner.) In 1936, led by MGM’s Irving Thalberg, the producers set up a more compliant alternative, the Screen Playwrights. A classic company union, it was created, in the words of SWG mainstay Philip Dunne, for “the express purpose of wrecking the Screen Writers Guild.” Its ranks included some of the more financially secure or just doggedly grouchy writers around town, such as Herman Mankiewicz, P.G. Wodehouse and Crane Wilbur.

Recruiters for each union prowled the studio lots for membership and engaged in prolonged rhetorical warfare. Many couldn’t stop themselves from writing witty dialogue. “In the mobilization of the scriveners, I cannot agree that each Hollywood quill slinger is a genius,” wrote Gene Fowler, dubious about the whole idea of a screenwriters’ union, considering the raw material. “Indeed, there are more than a few who never could have made the grade on the Staten Island Zeitung.” The crossfire of memos, ads in the trade press and dueling editorials is so voluminous that one wonders how anyone ever finished a screenplay.  

The SP won the first battle, mainly because the studios refused to bargain with the SWG.  In 1936, the SWG filed papers for formal dissolution (“Screen Guild Now Dodo Officially,” gloated The Hollywood Reporter). However, in 1937, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Wagner Act, which obliged employers to bargain with a union duly recognized by the National Labor Relations Board. SWG activists swung back into action and petitioned for recognition by the NLRB. In 1938, after months of contentious hearings, the feds oversaw an election to decide whether the SP or the SWG would be the designated bargaining agent for Hollywood screenwriters. The SWG won handily. Henceforth, it would be the buffer between the screenwriters and the studios.  

The multihyphenate Emmet Lavery — screenwriter, playwright and sometime practicing lawyer — had managed to avoid most of the bad blood from the writers’ wars of the 1930s. Born in 1902 and raised in Poughkeepsie, New York, he graduated from Fordham Law School in 1924 and passed the New York bar in 1925. Yet the theater, not the courtroom, proved to be his preferred stage. His first play on Broadway was deeply informed by his Catholic faith: The First Legion, a mystery set in a Jesuit rectory, which opened in 1934. In 1935, a contract with MGM brought him to Hollywood, where he divided his time between stage and screen, even serving a stint with the Federal Theater Project in New York.

During World War II, Lavery did his bit by collaborating with Edward Dmytryk, the future member of the Hollywood Ten, on two hugely profitable potboilers: Hitler’s Children (1943), an adaptation of Gregor Ziemer’s best-selling Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi, and Behind the Rising Sun (1943), a yellow menace screed in yellowface. He ratcheted down the jingoism in China Sky (1945), an adaptation of the Pearl Buck novel, in which he served as both producer and writer.

Lavery had been an active member of the SWG since 1937 and during the war had chaired its mobilization committee. In November 1944, he was elected to the first of three successive terms as SWG president. His congenial manner and center-liberal stewardship suited the postwar mood of the membership: weary of infighting, ready to hunker down to work and forget the old battles.   

The rest of the nation was not. Throughout his tenure as SWG head, Lavery was thrust into a high-profile role as spokesman not just for the SWG but for all of Hollywood. In appearances before state committees, on radio shows and at public forums, he was called to address what seemed like the only issue in postwar America anyone was interested in talking about: communism and its alleged infiltration into Hollywood cinema. “In what pictures and in what studios?” he would ask in frustration. For his defense of freedom of expression and his refusal to purge suspected communists from the SWG ranks, Lavery increasingly found his own patriotism — and his Catholic faith — questioned by anti-communist zealots.

Throughout 1946 and 1947, the incoming fire was relentless. Director Sam Wood, whose hatred of communism was so pathological that his Last Will and Testament demanded that his heirs sign affidavits attesting to their anticommunist credentials before they could collect their inheritance, attacked Lavery for opposing the work of his own Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, formed in Hollywood in 1944 to beat back the red tide.   

In 1946, Lavery testified before the California State Senate committee on un-American activities, chaired by Jack B. Tenney, to defend the SWG against the usual charges. “The quickest way to break a union is to involve it in a discussion of the political faiths of its members,” he told Tenney. “We take the position that a man’s politics or religion are not the concern of the guild or union.”

Lavery was next targeted in a very personal way by W. R. “Billy” Wilkerson, editor and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. Wilkerson believed that a red (not a schmuck) worked behind every Underwood in Hollywood. On Aug. 21, 1946, in a front page broadside titled “Hollywood’s Red Commissars,” Wilkerson dismissed Lavery’s Catholicism as a convenient pose, something that made him “an ideal front man for the Guild’s communists.” Non-communist screenwriters, claimed Wilkerson, were puzzled by Lavery’s refusal to take action against the termites in their midst. “Is he a dupe or a dope?”

Lavery responded in a lengthy letter that Wilkerson, to his credit, published gratis and without edits. “I take my social conscience from the Gospels of the Apostles not from the essays of Karl Marx,” Lavery told Wilkerson. “For the past ten years, you have tried to break the Screen Writers Guild with repeated and fallacious charges that it was dominated by the Communist Party.” The guild, Lavery promised, would not be broken.   

Lavery’s most well-publicized confrontation with anti-communist critics of Hollywood occurred on the popular weekly affairs radio program, America’s Town Meeting of the Air, broadcast Sept. 2, 1947. The topic at hand was “Is There Really a Threat of Communism in Hollywood?” Lavery and the actor Albert Decker said no; Jack B. Tenney, whom Lavery had tussled with the year before, and Lea E. Rogers, mother of Ginger and a professional anti-communist, said of course. During the heated back and forth, Rogers charged that the SWG was “loaded with communists” and accused Lavery of sneaking “commie bits” into his latest play, The Gentleman From Athens. Rogers had forgotten Lavery’s other profession. He sued for libel and ultimately collected $32,357.  

So, by the time of the HUAC hearings of October 1947, Lavery had had his patriotism impugned and faith questioned by Sam Wood, the Tenney committee, The Hollywood Reporter and Lea Rogers.  He did not need to be subpoenaed to come to Washington to defend the guild and himself.

By then, however, a new and worrisome complication had been thrown into the calculus for liberals trying to stand on principle. In August 1947, over the veto of President Harry Truman, the U.S. Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which stipulated that if the membership of a union were communist, or could credibly be suspected of being communist, then the NLRB could decertify the union as the designated bargaining agent of the workers. This meant that if Lavery aligned himself with the Unfriendlies and refused to deny he was a communist, the SWG could be shut down. All that had been fought for and won since the 1930s would be surrendered. In 1965, the anti-communist provision of the act would be ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but in 1947 it was very much the law of the land.

Lavery testified at the end of the second week of hearings, on Oct. 29, after four members of Hollywood Ten had completed their performance art. There was tension in the air because no one was certain how this screenwriter was going to respond. Would Lavery refuse to answer HUAC’s $64 question — are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party? — and align the SWG with the Unfriendlies and therefore put the future of the guild at risk?  Or would he try to prove his patriotic bona fides by naming names?

When committee counsel Robert Stripling asked the inevitable question, Lavery was ready. “As a student of constitutional law, I am not sure the committee has the right to ask this question,” he said. “But let me break the suspense at once. I am not a Communist. I have never been a Communist. I do not intend to become a Communist.” He was rather a loyal and lifelong Democrat. “Now if the Committee would like know why I became a Democrat — .”

“The Committee is not interested,” growled Thomas.

From left; House Unamerican Activities Committe chairman J. Parnell Thomas confers with Robert Taylor as he takes the stand to give friendly testimony, 1947

From left: House Un-American Activities Committee chairman J. Parnell Thomas confers with Robert Taylor as he takes the stand. Courtesy Everett Collection

Lavery patiently explained how he thought Hollywood could be a force for good in the world. “I don’t think it is enough to make people afraid [of communism],” he said. “I think the problem of all citizens and this Congress is how to make people aware of the love that they have for America.”

Lavery had threaded the needle. He distanced himself from both extremes (the name naming Friendlies and the uncooperative Unfriendlies), unequivocally denied that he was a communist, and eloquently professed his love for America.

The testimony won universal praise. “Lavery was excellent,” said Red Kann in Motion Picture Daily. “Calm and always conveying an impression of a calm and reasoned and reasonable approach.” The Washington Post was also impressed. “There was the usual yelling and screaming fury when the four [Unfriendlies] were ordered from the witness stand, but it was the Guild president — no Communist — who stole the show before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.”   

Lavery may have stolen the show in 1947, but 75 years later his cool and dignified performance before HUAC is mainly forgotten. When he died in 1986, an affectionate remembrance in the magazine of the Writers Guild of America acknowledged his exceptional leadership during a time of “bitterness — of factionalism — of intra-Guild strife,” but none of the obituaries recalled how decisive his role was for the Hollywood writers’ trade. He could not prevent the blacklist, but he did preserve the Screen Writers Guild.