Friday, 13 April 2012

Good Night and Good Luck - Against McCarthy

"Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?"
As we have studied in class, this question brought the disgrace to more than 90000 people in 1950’s US. After World War II, the increasing tensions produced by the Cold War, the first URSS a-bomb that copied the first US “Fat Man” plutonium bomb, the appointment of Mao Zedong in China and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950 created a claustrophobic climate of fear and suspicion in the United States. Just being suspected of communism meant that one was a traitor and the association with communists was even worse than being one.
It was at this moment when the Republican senator of Wisconsin Joseph McCarthy appeared in the political US scene. Together with the HUAC (The House of Un-American Activities Committee) and with the help of some powerful personalities such as J. Edgar Hoover (First Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation – FBI – who had been obsessed with the eradication of communism long time before McCarthy), McCarthy started a terrifying campaign against “communism” known as the Red Scare. Even Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, two future presidents, supported McCarthy’s witch hunt.

What started with the announcing of a list of suspected communists, soon became into a public indiscriminate hunt, especially in the world of entertainment. McCarthy was often in the news accusing many types of people, from business men to TV and cinema personalities. They said that movie where trying to brainwash people’s minds with anti-American communist propaganda. Many writers were also labeled as communists or communist sympathizers. The careers of many people were destroyed just with a stupid accusation. Many people were forced to testify against other people and, if they refused, they were blacklisted. As a consequence, many people gave the name of other people who were not communists indeed. Here follows a list of some of the most famous people accused:
Bertolt Brecht
(German poet and playwright)

Charlie Chaplin
(English comic actor and director)

Edward G. Robinson
(American actor)

Dashiell Hammett
(American writer of detective novels and short stories)

Elia Kazan
(American director, producer, screenwriter and actor)

W.E.B. du Bois
(American civil rights activist, writer, editor and historian)

Langston Hughes
(American poet, playwright, novelist and civil rights activist)

Orson Welles
(American actor, director, screenwriter and producer)

Shirley Temple
(American child actress and later ambassador)

But not everything was fear. Many brave men raised their voices against the injustices produced by what came to be called McCarthyism. In the damaged field of cinema, the most famous case was that of “The Hollywood Ten”. That was a term used to describe the first group of Hollywood workers accused of communism and sent to prison because of their resistance to McCarthy’s methods. Their names were Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo. The vast majority of them were screenwriters. In 1950 they made a short documentary film in which each of them made a speech complaining and denouncing their situation.
In support of the Hollywood Ten, film director John Huston founded the Committee for the First Amendment in order to protest against the HUAC hearings. Other members of the Committee were famous Hollywood stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, Katherine Hepburn, Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard), Groucho Marx and Frank Sinatra.
In 1956, with the loss of prestige and credibility of McCarthy, two films (among many others) reflected the oppressive situation of the previous five years. I strongly recommend you to see both of them because they are amazing films. One of them is Storm Center (Daniel Taradash, 1956), in which Bette Davis plays the role of Alicia Hull, a small town librarian who refuses to remove a book called The Communist Dream from the library’s collection. An aspiring politician from the town called Paul Duncan accuses her of communism, turning the rest of the people against her. The film soon became very famous, although its end was strongly criticized because it was “too optimistic”.
The second film is Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The story deals with an extraterrestrial invasion in a small town in California. The invaders replace humans with identical clones, with the difference that they do not have any emotion or feeling. The film reflected the paranoia that you cannot trust anybody, that everybody can be one of “them”, even your best friend.

Arthur Miller also raised his most powerful weapon against MacCarthyism: a play. In 1952 he wrote The Crucible, a dramatization of the events that took place in Salem during 1692 and 1693, in which some important members of the colony accused others of practicing witchcraft and, therefore, they were judged, condemned and executed. Miller uses these tragic events of American history as an allegory of the situation in which he lived, strongly criticizing the fact that you could lose your work, your family and your reputation just because someone says that you were a communist.

But the most crucial effort against the Red Scare came on the part of Edward Murrow, a journalist that became famous because of his extraordinary radio programs during World War II. In a series of TV shows called See it now, Murrow made a fierce critique of McCarthy’s “witch hunts” denouncing that his accusations were unfounded and that he was violating the main rights of American people. Murrow was immediately accused of sympathizing with communism.

From then on, Murrow and his team were alone. Even CBS channel turned their back to him. But Murrow didn’t give up. He invited McCarthy to the program in order to defend himself from their accusations. In the interview the real nature of the Senator was revealed. Using excerpts from McCarthy’s own speeches, Murrow pointed out the several contradictions and lies that he had invented to create the communist paranoia.
Although their efforts were essential to discredit McCarthy, Murrow had caused many problems to CBS and in 1958 See it now was cancelled (all this was reflected in George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck)

In 1954 McCarthy went too far. He accused ex-president Harry Truman and some members of the Senate of communism, and he even tried to accuse President Eisenhower. As he never proved any of these charges, the truth was revealed and his ideas were discredited. That meant the end of fear, the end of paranoia, the end of McCarthyism.

1 comment:

Patricia Bou said...

Thanks a lot for such an interesting entry. I'm going to add some labels to it. I think the label "Films" can be very productive in this blog.