Moving images

Hide in Plain Sight: the Hollywood blacklistees in film and television 1950-2002

Paul Buhle and D

There was little honour among artists in Hollywood from 1947 to 1954. The likes of Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan lined up before the House Un-American Activities Committee to snitch and rat on those of their colleagues they knew had communist sympathies. American cinema suffered greatly as a result, with studios backing off from controversial themes for fear of being tarnished as Bolsheviks. The human costs of the Red Scare were also immense. Hundreds of writers, directors, actors and technicians found their lives turned upside down. Some, such as Bertolt Brecht, Joseph Losey and Carl Foremen, fled to Europe. Others took to the bottle. A few, bitter and crushed, killed themselves.

However, according to Hide in Plain Sight, the revelatory new study by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, this litany of sorrows wasn't the whole story. Many of the blacklistees migrated to television, at that very point during the 1950s when it was emerging as the dominant form of public entertainment. The TV studios, as likely to be based in New York as in LA, were hungry for new, less melodramatic talent. Decamped performers, a number of whom had been educated in the method style of acting, displayed an unprecedented edgy intensity; writers tended to return to themes of social justice; directors gave their programmes, whether sitcoms or action dramas, a realism that had rarely before been seen on the box.

Every film script in Hollywood was raked over for the slightest hint of subversion. Yet the censors didn't spot the liberal values being cathode-rayed directly into suburban living rooms. One of the most popular series of the decade was a set of fictionalised historical dramas called You Are There. Scripted by writers such as Walter Bernstein and Abraham Polonsky (in 1951 an Illinois congressman once described the latter as "a very dangerous citizen"), these half-hour programmes focused on martyrs such as Socrates, Galileo and Joan of Arc; celebrated liberty through their treatments of the Salem trials and the Scopes "monkey" trial of 1925; and introduced viewers to the work of Sigmund Freud and to the New Orleans roots of jazz. Among the actors - none of them right-wing lackeys - who went on to even greater things were Paul Newman, Rod Steiger and John Cassavetes.

Freedom, people-power, the cruelty of the rich and the clergy - these motifs were also commonly found in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1956-1958), the rollicking series starring Richard Greene in the lead role that became the first-ever British television hit in the United States. Many of the scripts were written by outcast luminaries such as Ring Lardner Jr and Waldo Salt, and featured storylines far more socially and politically rooted than those in previous versions starring Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Audiences saw Robin Hood saving Jewish merchants in York and women condemned as witches to the stake. The programme was so successful that companion series were commissioned: the makers of The Adventures of Sir Lancelot even asked an Oxford University Marxist group to supply them with analyses of eighth-century English politics.

Hide in Plain Sight bristles with the tales of those brave idealists who, often working pseudonymously, sought to offer alternatives to the sanitised, dissent-free, "organisation man" hegemony of cold war Hollywood. Adding fuel to the radical flame stoked by Popular Frontists such as Ben Shahn, Marc Blitzstein and Clifford Odets, they vitalised the western and sci-fi genres, utilised European neo-realism, created masterpieces such as Twelve Angry Men (subsequently made into a film), and even helped to shape the beginnings of animal rights consciousness through Lassie, Born Free and Daktari.

The blacklistees also went on to reinvigorate American cinema. Waldo Salt brought his own experiences of isolation and alienation to the landmark Midnight Cowboy. Michael Wilson, writer of A Place in the Sun, a film Charlie Chaplin described as the best he'd ever seen, ironically paraphrased Brecht who had commented that appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee was akin to "a zoologist being cross-examined by apes", by writing the wildly successful Planet of the Apes.

Buhle and Wagner's book is energetically written, fastidiously researched and endlessly diverting. It is a fitting culmination to their Radical Hollywood trilogy. Published four years after the turncoat Elia Kazan received a lifetime achievement Oscar, it honours those artists who believed that moving images should aim to show us the world, transform it even, rather than blind us to it. If only there were more than a handful of people in Hollywood today who thought the same.

Sukhdev Sandhu is the author of London Calling: how black and Asian artists imagined a city (HarperCollins)