11th Annual Peoria Film Noir Festival features ‘commie sympathizer’ Humphrey Bogart

CAPTION: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall lead demonstrators protesting the House UnAmerican Activities Committee’s October 1947 probe of Hollywood. Also pictured are actors Paul Henreid (“Casablanca,” “Of Human Bondage”) and Richard Conte (“The Godfather,””Call Northside 777″)

The 11th annual Peoria Film Noir Festival this month offers two double features on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 4 – 5, and the twin bill I’ll introduce on Friday, Oct. 4 – “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” – features a familiar face that bravely stood up to 1940s-’50s crazoids that make today’s right-wing Tea Partiers seem more like rude dinner guests: Humphrey Bogart.

Sixty-six years ago this month, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) first held open hearings in Washington about Communists in the movie industry, and Bogart and pals demonstrated there.

Their Committee for the First Amendment included Bogie, wife Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, Richard Conte, Dorothy Dandridge, Melvyn Douglas, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Ira Gershwin, Sterling Hayden, Paul Henreid, Katharine Hepburn, Lena Horne, John Huston, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, Groucho Marx, Edward G. Robinson, Robert Ryan, Frank Sinatra and Jane Wyatt.

This hearing, an early and ugly example of what’s now known as “the McCarthy Era,” was really a revival of HUAC’s allegations that some actors, producers, directors and writers were Communists, a claim that first arose in 1940, when then-HUAC chair Martin Dies made the accusation.

However, World War II interrupted the witch hunt and focused attention on real threats from the Axis, Nazis and a “Fifth Column” of sympathizers. But in the post-war ’40s, conservative extremists fanned flames of suspicion about Communist sympathizers or “card-carrying” members. Paranoia increased, especially after 1946, when Republicans took control of Congress for the first time since the Hoover administration. And it was a bipartisan impulse; Democratic President Harry S Truman enacted “loyalty oaths.”

In Hollywood, a right-wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals arose, with participation by conservatives including Gary Cooper, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, Barbara Stanwyck, John Wayne and Peoria-born screenwriter Frank Wead.

In opposition was the progressive Free World Association, with activists such as Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, John Garfield, Rita Hayworth, Walter Pidgeon, Rosalind Russell and Orson Welles.

Apart from such opponents, HUAC – whose members included then-U.S. Reps. Richard Nixon of California and J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey (who’d later be convicted and jailed for taking kickbacks) –investigated Hollywood, plus organized labor and government employees.

The accusations were exaggerated but not completely contrived; there was a germ of truth. Some people were members of the Communist Party; others supported Depression-era labor organizing, freedom fighters in the Spanish Civil War, or anti-fascist efforts.

“A number of Hollywood directors, screenwriters and actors had joined the Communist Party or contributed funds to its activities during the Depression of the 1930s,” wrote film historian Michael Mills.

Of course, existence, even infiltration, doesn’t mean influence.

In 1947, HUAC singled out the “Hollywood Ten,” which included writers Ring Lardner Jr. and Dalton Trumbo, and charged them with contempt of Congress for refusing to co-operate with HUAC’s inquiry. Despite arguing that the First Amendment of the Constitution gave them that right and protection, the Ten were sentenced to jail.

Before the Ten’s conviction, in 1948, Bogie and group opposed the questioning and its implications.

“Our planeload of Hollywood performers who flew to Washington came East to fight against what we considered censorship,” Bogart wrote. “We were there solely in the interests of freedom of speech, freedom of the screen and protection of the Bill of Rights. None of us in that plane was anything but an American citizen concerned with a possible threat to his democratic liberties.”

In the United States, it’s legal to be a Communist (or even a Nazi), and – more to the point – dissent is not disloyalty, much ess treason. So each of the Ten tried to make a statement but was silenced.

Bogart’s group tried to fill the silence.

“Why is it that as loyal American citizens and taxpayers, we shouldn’t raise our voices in protest at something we believe to be wrong?” he asked.

Through years of hearings and character assassinations, HUAC never showed that movies were instruments of propaganda. In fact, Bogart said, just the opposite.

“All the wind and fury proved that there’s been no Communism injected on America’s movie screens,” he wrote.

Still, the Hollywood Ten appealed, lost and started serving their one-year prison sentences in 1950. They also were fired and prevented from working, although most such convictions eventually were overturned.

Worse, hundreds of people were blacklisted – barred by studio cowards from working. They included Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Chaplin, Aaron Copland, Howard Da Silva, John Garfield, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Burl Ives, Arthur Miller, Zero Mostel, Clifford Odets, Dorothy Parker, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Gale Sondergaard, Orson Welles and Josh White.

In fact, a legal brief in support of the Ten’s appeal signed by hundreds of additional actors and Hollywood figures resulted in 84 of them added to the industry blacklist.

Meanwhile, newspapers criticized HUAC for violating the Constitution by infringing on free speech, but the atmosphere of fear and suspicion had not yet been criticized by mainstream figures such as broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. So several protestors backtracked some – or at least sought to clarify their position for the ticket-buying public.

John Garfield wrote an article called “I’m a Sucker for a Left Hook.” Edward G. Robinson wrote, “The Reds made a sucker out of me.” And Bogart wrote an essay for a 1948 issue of Photoplay magazine entitled “I’m No Communist.”

Bogie explained that columnist and TV host Ed Sullivan warned him, “The public is beginning to think you’re a Red!”

But Bogart defended his actions, saying, “There are a great many Americans, liberal in thought, who are stoned by the unthinking who don’t realize that these liberal-minded folks are pure Americans. These liberals are devoted to our democracy.”

(Incidentally, this year’s film noir fest also will feature “Kiss of Death” and “The Killing” on Saturday, Oct. 5, introduced by writer and historian Norm Kelly, and this year’s festival may be the swan song for its founder, Journal Star reporter Steve Tarter, who’s also run the Apollo Theater’s movie series for about a decade. Check it out.)

Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; his twice-weekly columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

Bill Knight

Leave a Reply