Wednesday, November 23, 2005


The following is from Donald Spoto's biography of Ingrid Bergman, NOTORIOUS. The backlash against Hollywood by current prudish Christians sounds just as crazy and loud now as it did then. Over and over, at least throughout modern history, artists and intellectuals are always the target of religious prudes. This is because prudes fear and hate the internal freedoms which creative people almost always display. Of course, "creative people" does not include the John Waynes and Charlton Hestons of the acting world because they usually demonstrate little talent save for playing to a type. John Wayne got his only Oscar by playing against type. And Stalone got good reviews for playing a cowardly cop in "Copland" recently.

[OPEN QUOTE] That year, Hollywood folks were already under the worst cloud of suspicion in the history of the business. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was on the rampage, tearing up the lives of filmmakers, writers, actors and even arts professors in a search to root out the specter of Communism among "dangerous" artists and intellectuals. If traitorous Americans were not exposed (so ran the conventional wisdom), then Russians would creep into the house while decent Americans slept, and suddenly the country would be under the control of the Soviets. The traitors were probably already embarking on a plan to atomize the minds of innocent Americans: according to a very active (and misguided) citizens' group, the numbing of America was to be achieved when Communists got their way and put fluoride in the nation's water supply.

The paranoia that gripped postwar America had several causes. First of all, China had fallen to a Communist regime in 1949. That same year, Moscow announced the detonation of an atomic bomb. Communist troops were preparing for a war (beginning in 1950) against American-supported armies in Korea. And there were, alas, some authentic cases of treason and espionage on the home front. All these fueled a terrible suspicion among ordinary people.

The triumph over Fascism in Europe and the hitherto unimaginable display of power demonstrated by America's atomic bombs at the end of World War II bestowed, in their wake, an unspoken presumption that there was something like a divine mandate to protect everything "pure" about American values and American success. In June 1949, peace and prosperity were proofs of that. A certain moral smugness often occurs in such circumstances, the odd but unspoken hunch that God is an American. Thus the coagulation of pride and paranoia.

It all began in October 1947, when the HUAC, which had developed unchecked from a congressional committee to investigate suspicious activities among American intellectuals, acted more and more like medieval Crusaders. Nineteen prominent men in Hollywood were ordered to testify about their involvement in Communist activities. The first group (who came to be known as the "Hollywood Ten") at first refused to testify and at once lost their jobs, were sentenced to prison and fined for contempt of Congress. (1) Studio executives initially condemned the witch hunt, but when threatened with the loss of financial backing from East Coast banks, they became friends of the HUAC. The deepest loyalties of moguls are always to the cashier. Hence, too, the hypocrisy over the box office receipts of Stromboli.

In short order, those suspected of having Communist associations—or who might even have belonged to intellectual groups critical of society in the 1930s—were blacklisted unless they cooperated with HUAC. The result was that those who did not, who included some of Hollywood's finest talents, never worked there again or were forced to take a long leave of absence. At the same time, during a writers' strike, studios fired all employees who refused to toe the mark by cooperating with the HUAC.

All this reached critical mass with the rise of the disreputable Senator Joseph McCarthy, a forty-year old Wisconsin Republican who was about to launch one of the worst assaults against American constitutional rights in the nation's history. Almost single-handedly' McCarthy—with the loud support of millions—expanded the Hollywood witch hunt, claiming he had the names of known Communists who were working in the highest government offices. The "lists" of these names he never produced, nor could he ever provide a convincing case against a single individual. Nevertheless, capitalizing on the country's anxieties about Korea and Eastern Europe, Mccarthy raged on, trampling civil liberties in the name of patriotism.

McCarthy was finally disgraced in 1954 after his lunacy led him to attack (of all people) President Eisenhower as tainted with Communist sympathies. But by the time the Senate finally censured him, McCarthy's fantasies had ruined countless lives and helped to canonize a dangerous ideal of extreme right-wing conformity—a notion that was itself anomalous in a nation born in revolution, raised on healthy dissent and encouraged on a diet of rugged individualism.

Senators McCarthy and Johnson and their species had talked a lot about God blessing their undertakings, and they were mighty sure where those undertakings led and where they were being corrupted. In the entertainment industry, one of their staunchest supporters was Walter Winchell, whose reports to "Mr. and Mrs. America" approved the blacklisting of actors, writers and technicians in radio and television.

Thus the country was hot with both rage and fear regarding Hollywood people. No writer, producer or actor who wanted to work dared to submit a story that was even vaguely critical of something gone wrong in the nation, nor would he or she dare to imply that the culture was increasingly blanketed by paranoid delusions. An appallingly narrow, conservative smog darkened the entire landscape of the entertainment industry just when Ingrid Bergman fell in love and became pregnant.

For many Americans, movie actors were strange, immoral, no account scoundrels. Newspapers had recounted the antics of Lana Turner, Charles Chaplin, Mickey Rooney and Errol Flynn. Movie stars, as Louella Parsons and Walter Winchell implied on the radio, were not always nice people. Sometimes they drank too much and got arrested; they had extravagant homes and wild parties; worst of all, they seemed to get divorced and remarried as often as normal folks have birthdays. Ingrid Bergman was held above all that—until now. "People saw me in Joan of Arc and declared me a saint," Ingrid said. "I'm not. I'm just a woman, another human being." Well, that was no excuse. The Puritan public disgrace heaped upon her was so virulent that it is remarkable that she was not close to a nervous breakdown.

(1) The Hollywood Ten: screenwriters Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo; and directors Herbert Biberman and Edward Dmytryk. [CLOSE QUOTE]

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