The Cold War ushered in a new era in the American society that would change the way in which everyday life was carried on by the public. Men, women and children were convinced to fit the “average” mold that was promoted through propaganda issued from the American government and media. Events, such as the McCarthy hearings and Hollywood Blacklisting, contributed to the overwhelming fear of nonconformity. The American public was bombarded with images of conformity such as the popular “family sitcoms” that were mass produced in the 1950’s. The insistence upon normality and conformity was also portrayed metaphorically in numerous Sci-Fi movies of the time which exemplified xenophobia, the hatred or fear of strangers or foreigners or of anything strange or foreign.
The ideas promoted by McCarthyism and the anti-communistic sentiment of the times were meant to push people away from non-conventional ways of thinking. Anything that was the slightest bit left or radical or even new could be construed as communistic. After Russia’s rejection to the Marshall Plan, a strong wave of communist fear began to sweep the nation and was being promoted by the U.S. government and the media. The early development of the Russian nuclear weapon brought grounds for suspicions of leaked information and the discovery and conviction of espionage for the Rosenbergs only fanned the flames of fear. The 1940’s were plagued with endless magazine articles like “How Communists Get That Way” and “Communists Are After Your Child.” Even President Truman’s Attorney General stated “There are today many Communists in America. They are everywhere–in factories, offices, butcher shops, on street corners, in private businesses–and each carries in himself the germs of death for society.” The Cold War had created a fear that democracy was in danger and that the American people must take drastic measures to ensure the continuance of their way of life. The first step taken in searching out “Communists” in the U.S. was the development of the House on Un-American Activities Committee or the HUAC. The HUAC was formed in the 1930’s but didn’t really become active until the Cold War controversies began in the forties and fifties and would assist Senator Joseph McCarthy in rooting out the “Reds”. The HUAC distributed millions of pamphlets to the American public cautioning: “One Hundred Things You Should Know About Communism” (“Where can Communists be found? Everywhere”).
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By the late 1940’s and early 1950’s the American public had been primed for the invasion of privacy and civil liberties that the HUAC and various other congressional subcommittees would commit in their quest to seek out the Commies.
In 1947 the first wave of hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities began. These hearings were mainly focused on Hollywood and the film industry. McCarthyism would take its biggest toll in this industry and would contribute to the creation of the infamous “Hollywood Blacklist.” The HUAC interrogated numerous actors, directors, screen-writers, etc, and countless films were reviewed by innumerable congressional committees in hopes of finding circumstantial evidence that would prove the theory that Hollywood was infiltrated by communists and that communistic ideas were being portrayed to the unknowing public in films and the media. The HUAC hearings subpoenaed countless members of Hollywood, many of which lost their jobs. In the public’s eyes, being called to testify meant that you were either a communist or were associated with one and that was simply unacceptable for many of the production companies at that time. The most notable victims of these are hearings and the only ones to actually go to jail were the “Hollywood Ten.” After the investigation and analysis of a few select films, Avah Bessie, Herbert J. Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., and Dalton Trumbo were found suspects in portraying communistic ideas and were subpoenaed in October of 1947.
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These ten individuals refused to cooperate with the hearings and pleaded the Fifth Amendment which had become a popular response tactic to the committee inquiries. In the spring of 1948, all ten were convicted of contempt of court and were sentenced to one year imprisonment. Upon the announcement of the imprisonment of the “Hollywood Ten”, fifty studio heads convened in New York for a secret meeting to discuss the film industries reaction to the HUAC hearings and imprisonments. The fifty business men decided that the film industries tie to the McCarthy hearings was extremely damaging for their public image. Thus, a statement was released announcing that “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 method.” This acceptance of the results and pressures from the HUAC hearings was one of the first capitulations to the red scare that was sweeping through the public and now would be an overwhelming force in Hollywood.
The 1950’s ushered in a new agenda of seeking out the “Reds” in America when Senator McCarthy made his memorable speech on February 9th, 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia. He claims to “have in my hand a list of fifty-seven cases of individuals who appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party.” McCarthy was now spearheading the search for communism in American and would soon be focusing, yet again, on Hollywood.
The use of hearings and inquiries was powerful in Hollywood due to the high level of cooperativeness that the studios put forth. Many of the studio presidents were eager to see any controversy quickly removed and even hired private Ex-Communists to search out infiltrators in their own studios. However, when the HUAC returned to Hollywood in 1941 for an even more vigorous inquiry into the motion film industry, the trials were simply shows put on to arouse public attention; no real facts were obtained during these hearings, only the pressure to name names. The major focus of almost every inquiry was to find out the names and roles of other individuals that the suspect had come in contact with during their role in the evil Communist society. Many actors and actresses were called in for hearings without any probable evidence what so ever. Some would be labeled as “friendly witnesses”, ones that cooperated and answered the committee’s questions, such as Lucille Ball, while others would be known as “unfriendly witnesses” who choose to plead the Fifth or First Amendments and were submitted to secretive lists that condemned them as Communists and dangerous individuals. Soon the committees began to insinuate the guilt of everyone who pled the Fifth, calling them “Fifth Amendment Communists.” Senator McCarthy insisted that “A witnesses’ refusal to answer whether or not he is a Communist on the ground that his answer would tend to incriminate him is the most positive proof obtainable that the witness is a Communist.”
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Of the hundreds of people subpoenaed, a list of some 324 people was composed that would outline them as communists and communist supporters. The movie studios were extremely reluctant to get involved with anyone whose name appeared on the list or had been involved with the hearings and many lost their jobs. Yale Law School professor Ralph Brown has conducted one of the most systematic surveys and finds that roughly ten thousand people lost their jobs due to McCarthyism (cite 9u39).
In the film industry alone, some 80% of unfriendly witness lost their jobs without even having been convicted of a crime (Ellen Schrecker the Age of McCarthyism).
The film industry soon started to change as people began to fear losing their job and reputation.
The economic hardships befalling Hollywood hit the movie industry hard. The studios were already losing money due to the invention and wide-spread use of the television and many studios were going bankrupt or on their way down that path. Needless to say, the McCarthy controversy didn’t sit well with the heads of the major studios. Due to the storm of bad publicity hovering over Hollywood and the buzz of gossip about Communist film stars the movie industry was experiencing serious backlash from both consumers and its backers. Many of the banks and financial supporters of the studios began to complain and became reluctant to get involved. During World War II banks were quick to lend money for film projects; however, with the loss of profit to the television and the scandals in Hollywood, the banks became more cautious than ever, getting more involved in monitoring the content of the films, and pushing for conservative, safe ventures (HUAC).
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During this time the studios also became aware of the public’s reception of their films and feared a protest by several conservative groups, most notably the American Legion. Many right-wing, conservative groups threatened to boycott theatres if Hollywood continued to support blacklisted individuals, thus the contents of the movies being made began to shift as the red scare continued. In the time between 1947 and 1954, almost forty explicitly propagandistic, anti-Communist films were made in Hollywood, despite the fact that nearly every single one lost money. These films include The Red Menace(19490, I Married a Communist(1950), Big Jim McClaine(1952), as well as films that portrayed the importance of cooperating in federal investigations, such as On the Waterfront(1954).
In fear of alienating any part of the shrinking movie audience, studios took drastic measures to ensure the public of Hollywood’s support in keeping America safe from Communism. One industry executive explained, “We’re a business that has to please the customers; that’s the main thing we have to do, keep people happy, and, to do that, we have to stay out of trouble.”(Ellen Schrecker, the Age of McCarthyism).
The most significant avenues of anti-communism propaganda in film can be seen in many of the Sci-Fi movies of the times. Movies exhibiting issues such as brainwashing, infiltration, sabotage, and xenophobia were widely released and metaphorically portrayed a danger of communism in America. Some of these films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) portray the infiltration of society by aliens a.k.a Communists, and how only the people who are weary of the outsiders and posses a sense of paranoia of what is happening around them survive. This can be interpreted as the idea that one should always be on the look out for Communism in society and should be quick to take action. Other films dealt with the idea of cooperativeness with the government and questioning outsiders. Films that dealt with these issues were numerous and included such well known films as: Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Thing from Another World (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), This Island Earth (1955) and many more (It Came from the 1950’s).
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The media and film industry were subjecting the unknowing public to masses of anti-communist propaganda and breeding the idea that everything conservative is right and anything different is wrong and must be destroyed, much the way aliens were unquestioningly annihilated in the films. This new trend in the theatres was far reaching but was no comparison to the expansive influence of the television.
The television had become the most popular thing to hit the American public since the telephone and people were buying sets left and right. Hollywood was distressed over the spread of television, but many production businesses picked up on the trend and took it to new heights. The television companies had seen the brutality of the HUAC and McCarthyism in dealing with the film industry and took measures to ensure that television would not fall under the same suspicions. By June 1950, the Blacklists had spread to the broadcast industry too; with the publication of the Red Channels, a 213-page compilations of alleged Communist affiliations of actors, writers, musicians and other radio and television entertainers by the American Business Consultants, many production companies set out to make sure they were safe from any connection with the traitors (HUAC).
Many companies, such as CBS, imposed loyalty oaths on their employees and most added professional anti-Communists and informers to their payrolls (Ellen Schrecker: Blacklists and other economic sanctions).
By 1951, the television networks and their sponsors no longer hired anyone whose name was in Red Channels, and the prohibition soon spread to anyone who seemed controversial or liberal. In hopes of appeasing the public and keeping their own reputations safe, television companies invested in a new form of programming known as sitcoms.
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Television in the 1950’s can easily be interpreted as the heyday of congeniality. The Sitcom, along with the Western was the typical show of the time. Sitcoms portrayed an ideal life in which a nuclear family was promoted and life was perfect for the show’s characters. The American public was shown that life free from liberalism, reform, or free-thinking was pleasant. Every night the viewing public would see a loving, all-knowing father; a beautiful, unquestioning mother; and two quick-to-please children who always had their rooms cleaned. The public was being fed the idea how the perfect family should live and the belief that normality and conformity are good and anything that doesn’t fit into that mold is wrong and will not be accepted; after all, all of the families on television were simple, conservative individuals and they all seemed very happy. The Western also followed along these basic ideas. Westerns such as Gunsmoke (CBS) brought the viewing public back to simpler times when evil was easy to spot and honor was found in those who protected justice. The television networks used these types of shows to protect themselves from any accusations that they were sending out “Communist messages”, but these show subsequently influenced a generation into a new way of thinking and living. Families moved in rapid numbers to suburbia and wanted to be just like the Cleavers or the Andersons. The American public would never be the same, always reflecting on the perfection played out nightly on television and setting their goals to reaching that level of traditionalism.
The Hollywood Blacklisting that followed the Red Scare of the 1950’s forced the media to change in order to survive the scrutinizing committees of the HUAC and various congressional committees that pushed for the social “purging” of America in hopes of searching out the “Reds” which they believed were hiding among them. This change in media came at a time when the public had become extremely receptive to such influences due to the spread of the television and the growth of the middle class who had extra money to spend on luxuries such as going to the movie theatres. The constant barrage of conformity and conservatism as well as xenophobia seen in everyday shows and movies shaped the perception of the average American to believe that liberal or radical ideas were not what normal people supported and believed in.