The Hollywood blacklist period, roughly 1947 to 1960, was as tense and mysterious as the best noir thrillers of the day. No one knows for sure how many writers, directors, actors, musicians, journalists and film professionals — disproportionally of Jewish or immigrant backgrounds — lost their livelihoods during the Red Scare whipped up by Wisconsin’s own Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Beginning with the blacklisting of the so-called Hollywood Ten – writers and directors called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to answer for Communist ties or supposedly subversive activity – the industry covertly banned scores of people from working because of their political leanings.
ORSON WELLES: Born in Kenosha in 1915, the writer, director and star of Citizen Kane had long been a politically active leftist by the time the Red Scare took hold. There is evidence that he was blacklisted in the late 1940s because of his “radical” beliefs and left the U.S. in 1947 for Europe in order to keep working.
GERDA LERNER: After fleeing the Nazis in her native Austria, Lerner eventually landed in Hollywood. With her husband, film editor Carl Lerner, she became active in the Communist Party. After being blacklisted, the Lerners worked in secret on various film projects and co-wrote and directed the 1964 film Black Like Me. Lerner eventually joined the faculty at UW-Madison, where she became a pioneering professor and scholar of women’s history and taught feminist film history.
NICHOLAS RAY: The director of the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause grew up in La Crosse and fell in with a circle of left-wing artists during the Depression. Ray joined the Communist Party in the post-war years and made a name for himself in Hollywood by directing a string of socially conscious films. Ray eluded the blacklist by secretly naming names to HUAC investigators, continuing to work while others could not.
“Red and Black” appears in the November 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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