Witch Hunt in 50s Hollywood: The Second Red Scare

I Married a Communist- The Script Blog

And how the classic western High Noon became a response to the wave of extreme anti-communism which swarmed the American film industry.

What we mean by Red Scare?

National Geographic summarises it very well here and below:

The Red Scare was hysteria over the perceived threat posed by Communists in the U.S. during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, which intensified in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (Communists were often referred to as “Reds” for their allegiance to the red Soviet flag.) The Red Scare led to a range of actions that had a profound and enduring effect on the U.S. government and society. Federal employees were analyzed to determine whether they were sufficiently loyal to the government, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, investigated allegations of subversive elements in the government and the Hollywood film industry. The climate of fear and repression linked to the Red Scare finally began to ease by the late 1950s.

As an example, the feature film “The Red Menace” (1949) publicly stated that the picture was about

“THE MOST SERIOUS THREAT TO OUR NATION TODAY”

“SO SHOCKING IT WAS FILMED BEHIND LOCKED STUDIO DOORS”

Maybe thinking that the message was not clear enough, a whole paragraph was added at the bottom of the poster warning the audience that:

USING THE GUISE OF ‘MORAL VALUES’, THE RED MENACE CREEPS LIKE A CANCER ACROSS THE LAND, POISONING MINDS, CORRUPTING OUR YOUTH, THREATENING WORLD PEACE, SOWING HATRED, INTOLERANCE, CULTURAL DIVISION, GREED, INJUSTICE, ARROGANCE, AND DELUSIONS OF SUPERIORITY, AND CUTTING A WIDE SWATH OF WAR, DEATH, DEVASTATION, DISEASE, AND HUMAN MISERY ABROAD.”

No room for subtlety here.

The Red Menace - The Script Blog
The Red Menace (1949, directed by R. G. Springsteen)

Was there a first Red Scare?

Indeed. Between 1917-1920. This is how Jonathan Haslam from ias.edu describes it, here and below:

Russian spies held a morbid fascination in the minds of Americans dating back to the Red Scare in 1919, following the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of the Communist International, of which the Communist Party of the USA became a constituent member, subject to the extra-territorial discipline imposed from Moscow. 

Global domination was indeed Moscow’s declared aim. The issue, however, was whether this goal was at all practicable.

The Red Scare blended neatly with popular hostility to mass immigration in America, particularly against a surge of Jews fleeing the anti-Semitic heartlands of Eastern Europe. Responding to hostility, many Jews embraced the inclusive internationalist ideals of Communism rather than the outlandish idea of building a Jewish state in the deserts of British-controlled Arab Palestine.

Red Paranoia

In his book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Glenn Frankel  describes the situation like this:

Communism posed an existential threat even more alarming than that posed by Islamic extremists in the modern era. Communists, after all, could be anyone—neighbors, relatives, close friends. They looked and sounded exactly like us, yet they were agents of a ruthless foreign power whose declared goal was to destroy the American way of life.

“What is a Communist?” asked Karl Baarslag, staff member of the National Americanism Commission of the American Legion in 1948. “A Communist is a completely transformed, unrecognizable, and dedicated man. While he may retain the physical characteristics of the rest of us as far as natural functions are concerned, his mental and psychic processes might as well be from another planet. A Communist … is completely emancipated from all moral inhibitions and is therefore above law, ethics, or morality.” 

Hollywood Red Sign

Whats was HUAC?

House Un-American Activities Committee.

Trumanlibrary.gov gives us the long answer.

HUAC was created in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty and rebel activities on the part of private citizens, public employees and organizations suspected of having Communist ties. Citizens suspected of having ties to the communist party would be tried in a court of law. Also during this time, Senator Joseph McCarthy began a campaign against alleged communists in the U.S. government and other institutions. From 1950-1954 “McCarthyism” described the practice of accusing Federal Government employees of having affiliations with communism and leaking information. Government employees could be blacklisted (viewed as untrustworthy or someone to avoid) and could lose their jobs. The threat of Communism was a driving force that created a wedge between society and the United States government.

Glenn Frankel, in High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, tells how it worked.

The accused who

were willing to cooperate underwent a ritual of humiliation and purification. They were required to confess to and renounce their membership in the Communist Party and praise the committee for its devotion in combating the scourge. And finally, to prove the sincerity of their conversion, they had to name the names of other participants in the Red plot to destroy America.

The committee already knew almost all the names—its own investigators had membership lists supplied by Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation and had collected secret testimony. No matter. The naming of names was considered a defining part of the process. The alternative was to invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions. This meant appearing like a criminal who had something to hide and would ensure that you would lose your job within hours or days, because the major Hollywood studios had all adopted a policy of blacklisting anyone who refused to cooperate. 

Carl Foreman, the man behind High Noon

Glenn Frankel strongly links the making of the western High Noon with the blacklist situation.

The main link is its writer, Carl Foreman.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he and his wife, Estelle, soon joined the Communist Party, which they believed was the organization most dedicated to fighting racism and poverty at home and Fascism abroad. 

For Carl Foreman, it all came down to this: either sell out his friends or lose the job and the career he had worked so hard to achieve. As he pondered what to do, he began to rethink his screenplay for High Noon and turn it into an allegory about the Red Scare and the blacklist. The marshal was now Carl himself, the gunmen coming to kill him were the members of HUAC, and the hypocritical and cowardly citizens of Hadleyville were the denizens of Hollywood who stood by passively or betrayed him as the forces of repression bore down.

“As I was writing the screenplay, it became insane, because life was mirroring art and art was mirroring life,” he would recall. “There was no difference. It was all happening at the same time. I became that guy. I became the Gary Cooper character.” On a global stage, the Cold War was an epic clash of empires and opposing ideologies. But in Hollywood, the struggle played out in far more intimate terms. People lost their jobs, business partnerships unravelled, friendships were destroyed, and families turned against each other. And the bitterest conflicts often were not between political enemies but among former allies and friends. 

Carl Foreman was the son and Stanley Kramer (the producer of High Noon) the grandson of Russian Jews, and Fred Zinnemann (the director) was a Jewish émigré from Vienna whose parents had both perished in the Holocaust. None of them had ever made a Western before, and together with a talented cast and crew they created a most unusual one. It was a gritty, low-budget, black-and-white drama with no beautiful vistas, no cattle drives or stampedes, no gun violence until its final showdown, a morally corrupt community, a frightened, vulnerable hero, and a political message that quietly defied the reactionary spirit of the times. 

The film

asks the question that history demands of each of us: if we were confronted with the same terrible choice that these people faced—in this case, between betraying our principles or losing our livelihoods—what would we do?

Center, Stanley Kramer; full right, Carl Foreman.

Vanity Fair published a great article about this by Glen Frankel himself, you can read it here.

More about screenwriting? Either type “Screenwriting” in the web searcher or check For Screenwriters: How Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut Was WrittenOn Screen Writing, According to Edward DmytrykBest Scriptwriting Books Ever: The Art of Dramatic Writing amongst many other posts!