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925 Silver Collection

“Blacklist” to “Oppenheimer” Refresh the Lessons of McCarthyism Liz Goldner

Like bookends, “Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare,” opened in May at L.A.’s Skirball Cultural Center, and the film “Oppenheimer,” released two months later, both address the dire effects of McCarthyism in the late 1940s to 1950s. Both cautionary artworks are relevant to our current political situation with its own toxic racist, delusional beliefs.

Booklet, Committee on Un-American Activities, U.S .House of Representatives, Washington, DC (revised 12/1/1950). Courtesy of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee collections.

During the cold war, politicians, people in the private sector, and even fellow film industry members such as John Wayne and Ronald Reagan targeted Hollywood actors and writers as perpetrators of subversive activities, accusing many of having Communist connections. The Red Scare was adopted by the Hollywood studios as a patriotic effort, with film executives claiming that Communists in their industry needed to be expunged. With this history as background, “Blacklist” offers insight into the challenges that Red Scare victims faced, including destroyed careers, impact on families and fears of antisemitic and racist backlash.

Similarly, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atomic bomb," in the eponymous film, was lauded as the most famous man in America and featured on the cover of Time magazine. But as he spoke out about the devastation of the bomb on two Japanese cities in 1945, told President Truman that he had blood on his hands, and tried to warn the world about a future infused with ever-more powerful bombs, his security clearance was rescinded and his career destroyed. Roy Cohn, Senator McCarthy’s chief counsel, tried to subpoena Oppenheimer for Communist connections, but as security hearings against Oppenheimer had begun, Cohn backed off.

Lauren Bacall as Schatze Page in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Designed by William Travilla.
Courtesy of Larry McQueen Film Costume Collection.

“Blacklist” addresses the impact of the Red Scare through photos, explanatory text, letters, press coverage, court documents, posters, and Oscar statuettes. The exhibition explores that devastating era in our country, along with its implications today for civil liberties and patriotism. Photographs include one with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye and other actors, all displaying dismay, conveying the gravity of the repressive situation. Another photo features members of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, along with family members, holding signs citing names of Blacklisted people, including Dalton Trumbo and Adrian Scott. The Hollywood Ten — 10 motion-picture producers, directors and screenwriters — appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, refusing to answer questions regarding their possible Communist affiliations. They were sent to prison for contempt of Congress and suspended from their writing jobs without pay. A few members, including Trumbo, wound up writing scripts under pseudonyms.

“We have heard the handcuffs click on the wrists of our husbands … It still reverberates around the world. It will always echo in our hearts and in the hearts of our children,” reads a sign in the exhibition. Another sign, “Premature Death,” quoting from Hollywood Ten member Alvah Bessie, states, “Whether by heart attack or suicide, all were killed by the relentless pressures of the inquisition.” Blacklisted people who died early deaths, including John Garfield and Arnold Manoff, are listed in the show. The “Working Anonymously” sign quotes from writer Bernard Gordon: “It was not the kind of situation where you could just knock on the door to get work … It was not satisfactory to have to work that way and to work for very small money.” Director Jules Dassin is quoted: “We lived on each other’s money which we didn’t have."

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo served eleven months in the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky, in 1950. While incarcerated, Trumbo stored some of his personal belongings in typewriter ribbon tins. The items he kept included a calendar and notes from his children. Courtesy of Mitzi Trumbo.

Other items in this show include storyboard drawings for “Salt of the Earth,” created by blacklisted filmmakers; Trumbo’s 1953 Oscar for Best Original Story for “Roman Holiday,” for which he was not credited; and movie posters for “Roman Holiday,” “The Brave One,” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” scripted by blacklisted writers. The Red Scare was eventually stanched, and by 2011 Trumbo was posthumously given credit by The Writers Guild of America for “Roman Holiday.” “We are shining light on the impact of restricting civil liberties, and on the sharply different decisions made in the name of patriotism,” said Skirball Vice President and Museum Director Sheri Bernstein of the exhibition.

While the blacklisting was going on, J. Robert Oppenheimer was being prosecuted by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1954, and later in 1959. Both hearings — one in color, the other in black and white in the “Oppenheimer” film — demonstrate the gutless depravity of reactionary political operatives.

Dalton Trumbo Best Original Story, “The Brave One” Oscar awarded to the fictitious Robert Rich (1956), Courtesy of Molly Trumbo Gringas.

In the 1954 hearing, Oppenheimer is repeatedly asked if he is a Soviet spy, despite there being no evidence in support of that allegation. The backstory is that AEC chairman Lewis Strauss was concerned that Oppenheimer might be a covert Communist after correctly claiming that the Soviets were also developing nuclear weapons. Strauss, who in earlier scenes supported Oppenheimer’s scientific efforts, then sent a defamatory letter about him to J. Edgar Hoover. Throughout the deeply contentious hearings, Oppenheimer, once lauded as a celebrity scientist, appears increasingly defeated. In 1954 the AEC revoked his security clearance. In the 1959 hearing, Oppenheimer’s lawyers were barred from accessing confidential materials, while the AEC had hundreds of wiretapped recordings. The three-person board deemed that although the scientist was a loyal citizen, he was still a security risk.

These disturbing hearings and the rescinding of Oppenheimer’s security clearance are merely the apex of the three-hour film, which depicts his undergraduate years at Harvard and graduate work at Cambridge, England, followed by professorships at UC Berkeley and Caltech, and especially his tenure as director of the laboratory of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The large team of brilliant scientists there built and successfully tested the atomic bomb under Oppenheimer’s direction. His various romances, marriage, and friendships with leading scientists such as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and others help construct a full portrait of a man who was regarded as a polymath and spoke six languages.

Still from “Oppenheimer,” 2023, Christopher Nolan, Director. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

While Oppenheimer continued to teach and research after the hearings, his victimization and the denigration of his scientific personhood by McCarthyism is an important story for our time. As Kai Bird recently wrote in the “New York Times,” in “The Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” “Sadly, Oppenheimer’s life story is relevant to our current political predicaments. Oppenheimer was destroyed by a political movement characterized by rank know-nothing, anti-intellectual, xenophobic demagogues. The witch-hunters of that season are the direct ancestors of our current political actors of a certain paranoid style.” The same can be said of the Blacklist victims.

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