Wednesday, November 24, 2010

November 24, 1947 – Hollywood Ten Exonerated thanks to Charlie Chaplin

In the days of the post-war conservatism, the House Un-American Activities Committee stepped up its investigations of the suspected Communist threat to the United States. Created in 1938, the committee served the same purpose as several before it, such as under Overman in 1918 and Fish in 1930. Special committees had worked to investigate fascist or socialist plots in the 1930s and early ‘40s, and Congress finally voted to create a standing committee for the HUAC at the close of WWII. They had considered investigating the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, but instead focused on communism as a more direct threat to the US Constitution.

After two years, hearings began to investigate communism in Hollywood. The West Coast city was a powerful player in American society, feeding media to the populace that may subvert the Constitutional government. Certain films such as Song of Russia and Mission to Moscow were obviously pro-Soviet, but they had been created in the time Russians were needed to combat Hitler. Now Congress readied to clean out the communists as the Cold War would turn former allies into potentially dangerous enemies.

Accusations of Hollywood had not been uncommon already. For years, J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI had kept files on actors, directors, and writers. Charles Chaplin, a native of London, was a particular target, especially in 1942 after Chaplin had pressed publically for opening a second front in Europe. While the front did open with the invasions of Italy and France in 1944, Chaplin was considered something of a warmonger despite his 1940 film The Great Dictator lampooning Hitler and his regime.

Hollywood weights such as Walt Disney and president of the Screen Actors Guild Ronald Reagan testified that there was in fact a communist threat in Hollywood. Other Hollywood leaders such as Humphrey Bogart and John Huston organized the Committee for the First Amendment to resist government crackdown. From a list of alleged members of the Communist Party was created, and ten screenwriters and directors refused to answer questions as to their membership in the Party (an illegal activity at the time), citing their rights under the First Amendment for assembly and free speech.

While the Screen Actors Guild voted to allow officers only if they took pledges against communism, the House of Representatives prepared to vote on a citation of the “Hollywood Ten” under contempt for Congress. In the speeches leading to the vote, Charlie Chaplin, who had flown to Washington specially, was asked to speak. Several congressmen groaned and the word “clown” was heard, but Chaplin firmly took his place and began his speech with, “I am not an American. But, I am not Un-American. I know what Americans stand for, and I have seen it make great victory in Europe against a terrible enemy. To let the outstretched hand of America tighten back into a fist at this time would create a land of fear and anger when what Americans truly want is peace and prosperity.” Quoting the United States Constitution and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Chaplin railed the notion that judging a person by thought and not action went against Jeffersonian principles that had founded the nation. He concluded by reiterating, “I am not an American, but I support Americans. It is up to the vote of this House to decide whether their America is true to its name.”

The vote for citation would fail only slightly, 180 to 183. December 3, MPAA president Eric Johnson and a collection of film makers would issue a press release from the Waldorf Hotel stating that Hollywood would not take collective business actions against the ten suspected men. While some might be fired or hired on the principles of free market employment, a “blacklist” would be unthinkable. The Red Scare of the ‘40s would die back, though the Communist Party would not make any great gains in the conservative Greatest Generation.

Some, such as J. Edgar Hoover, would continue to investigate anti-American activity, discovering the espionage of Alger Hiss. While Hoover would have great success, he would go too far in his bitterness against Chaplin. In 1952, while Chaplin was in London to attend the premiere of his film Limelight, Hoover would attempt to revoke Chaplin’s re-entry permit. The Immigration and Naturalization Service would erupt in scandal that would end with Hoover’s forced resignation in 1953. Chaplin would return to America and gain citizenship in 1961 at age 72.

In reality, Charlie Chaplin did not speak before Congress. The House voted to cite the Hollywood 10, and the MPAA followed with its Blacklist. Over 300 people would suffer the crackdown on left-leaning actors, writers, and directors with only a few able to recreate their careers. Chaplin would be exiled from the United States, not returning until 1972 for business reasons. In his exile, Chaplin wrote, “. . . Since the end of the last world war, I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America's yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.”

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