John Huston narrates HOLLYWOOD ON TRIAL, an informative, often compelling, but uneven documentary about the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigations into the motion picture industry, their direct effects and lasting repercussions. Mixing archival footage and interviews with
surviving figures from the period, director David Helpern Jr. exactingly recreates events and evokes the highly charged atmosphere that marked the era.
In October 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating the motion picture industry to determine if it had been infiltrated by Communists. Several leading Hollywood figures--including actors Adolphe Menjou and Robert Taylor, and executives Louis B. Mayer and Walt
Disney--actively supported the investigation, but many others opposed it, seeing it as a movement towards censorship.
Of those summoned to testify before the committee, 10--Herbert Biberman, Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott, Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, and Dalton Trumbo--refused to discuss their political associations, and became known as the Hollywood
Ten. In time, the Ten were convicted of contempt and imprisoned. Even before conviction, leading producers agreed to bar any of them from working in the industry. Others in Hollywood avoided them, afraid of being associated with them.
In the wake of the hearings, studios began blacklisting anyone suspected of having leftist ties. Many people, including Zero Mostel, Howard da Silva, and Gale Sondergaard, found their film careers at an end, while others, such as Elia Kazan and Edward Dmytryk, cooperated with HUAC, usually in the
form of naming others who had leftist leanings, and were permitted to continue working. A few blacklisted writers, such as Dalton Trumbo, continued to work under pseudonyms or through "fronts," people who would take credit for their scripts. To the embarrassment of the industry, blacklisted
writers won Academy Awards under assumed names. In spite of evidence to the contrary, several people deny that a blacklist existed. Ronald Reagan asserts that there was no industry blacklist, but that the American people didn't want to see movies made by subversives.
Producer-director Otto Preminger made headlines when he insisted that Trumbo receive credit for the script of EXODUS (1960). While this event seemed to herald the end of the blacklist, it took years before blacklisted personnel began to work again under their own names. Some, such as actor Larry
Parks, never worked in Hollywood again.
HOLLYWOOD ON TRIAL is half a terrific documentary. The first section of the film, which deals with the initial HUAC investigation that culminated in the conviction of the Hollywood Ten, is a riveting and unnerving examination of government abuse of authority. While this portion of the film is
interspersed with segments of interviews with participants in the events being detailed, it relies almost entirely on archival footage to tell the story. Director David Helpern Jr., working with editor Frank Galvin, lays out the progression of the investigation by weaving together footage of HUAC
hearings, newsreel clips of celebrities and politicians, as well as excepts of industry shorts made by those who denounced or defended the Ten. This material (particularly the committee hearings) is so powerful on its own that no witness's recollection, nor any "expert" analysis, could heighten
its dramatic effect. The heated confrontation, for example, between the angry and frustrated committee chairman J. Parnell Thomas and John Howard Lawson--who steadfastly refuses to abet what he calls "an attempt to get control of the screen and to invade the basic rights of
Americans"--demonstrates with perfect clarity how pernicious and dangerous the HUAC investigations were.
The second half of the film, which concerns the capitulation of film industry leaders to government pressure and right-wing paranoia, is far less compelling. Made up to a greater degree of contemporary material, mostly in the form of interviews, it's somewhat unfocused. The interviews do little to
further clarify what happened, and offer too little information on how Hollywood changed under the blacklist. This half of the film also devotes a generous amount of time to a virtually unknown scriptwriter, Millard Lampell, and the making of THE FRONT (1976) (the first Hollywood film to deal with
the blacklist). These elements are interesting of themselves, but have the effect of clouding this section's purpose. Perhaps Helpern intends not only to relate the history of blacklisting but also to point out its lingering effect. If so, he fails to make this point very forcefully, which is
curious considering the amount of material he has otherwise gathered.
Despite its digressions, however, HOLLYWOOD ON TRIAL is a very worthy look at what is arguably the most shameful episode in the history of the American motion picture industry, and it is essential viewing for anyone interested in the period.
Sign up and add shows to get the latest updates about your favorite shows - Start Now
- 1. Outlander Boss Addresses Jamie and Claire's Sex Drought
- 2. Tracee Ellis Ross on How Black-ish Enlisted Octavia Spencer to School Us for Black History Month
- 3. The Originals' Leah Pipes Is Headed to Another Witchy CW Series, and It's Not Legacies
- 4. Sizzy Will Heat Up in Shadowhunters' Final Season
- 5. Jane the Virgin Creator Is Bringing Jaime Camil to Her New Comedy
- 6. Which Umbrella Academy Character Are You Most Like?
- 7. 7 Questions The Umbrella Academy on Netflix Needs to Answer in Season 2