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Toll of the Hollywood Blacklist Explored in New Skirball Show – The Hollywood Reporter


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The entertainment industry’s blacklist during the early years of the Cold War — an era in Hollywood marked by the public investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), private rifts, political factions, media bias and antisemitism — gets thoughtful treatment at the Skirball Cultural Center in a new exhibit, open now through Sept. 3. Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare opens with a wall covered in copies of The Hollywood Reporter, as then-publisher William R. Wilkerson’s entertainment trade infamously not only covered the conflict at the time but also helped instigate it by publishing names of purported Communist sympathizers.

“We are 75 years out from that history and it felt like a good time to share this very local story that took on national prominence, because so many of the ideas that it’s exploring are still so relevant,” Cate Thurston, coordinating curator of the exhibit, tells THR. The exhibition originally was created by (and is on loan from) the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, but has taken on new life in the Skirball’s much larger gallery space. Thurston says “it was an opportunity and also a little bit of a challenge” to add objects that maintain the spirit of the exhibition, which explores themes like the morality of being held accountable in one’s profession for political beliefs and associations, and whether government has a right to investigate a citizen’s personal life.

Alfred L. Levitt’s Writers Guild of America membership cards from 1965 to 1982 list both his real name and his front, Tom August.

Alfred L. Levitt’s Writers Guild of America membership cards from 1965 to 1982 list both his real name and his front, Tom August.

Courtesy of Screen Writers Guild Records, Writers Guild Foundation Library and Archive

Various pieces of significant ephemera are mounted throughout the space, including HUAC’s 100 Things You Need to Know About Communism pamphlet, a storyboard drawing and union flyer for the independently financed Salt of the Earth (a 1954 film spotlighted in the exhibit for its fearless exploration of a labor strike in New Mexico, created by all blacklisted writers), as well as personal items belonging to members of the Hollywood Ten, the group of producers, directors and writers who were mostly blacklisted by the industry after refusing to answer questions about their political affiliations. Also on display are blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s typewriter ribbon tins filled with mementos he kept with him during his incarceration (he spent 10 months in prison after being held in contempt of Congress) and his Oscar for 1957’s The Brave One, which he received 18 years later, having used a pseudonym for his work on the film to protect his identity.

Dalton Trumbo Best Original Story, The Brave One awarded to the fictious Robert Rich (1956)

Dalton Trumbo Best Original Story, The Brave One awarded to the fictious Robert Rich (1956)

Courtesy of Molly Trumbo Gringas

“I think one of the things we do in the gallery really well is look at the role that media outlets like The Hollywood Reporter and the original publisher, W.R. Wilkerson, had in creating that negative opinion of blacklistees and that positive opinion of what HUAC was doing,” Thurston says, adding, “What’s interesting about this, and how it played out in the media in public, is: How do we work across political ideologies we disagree with? How do we find disagreement and move forward together as Americans? Because if we don’t, democracy doesn’t work. We come to this place again and again throughout our history, and I think we’re there now.”

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Amid the politics, the exhibit also focuses on the human element. Letters mailed by incarcerated members of the Hollywood Ten to their children highlight that not only were jobs lost, but time was, too. And a robust program accompanies the exhibit in the form of conversations and screenings focused on blacklisted films or ones made by the Hollywood Ten, like Roman Holiday (which Trumbo worked on uncredited) and Odds Against Tomorrow and Force of Evil (two films by blacklisted Jewish screenwriter Abraham Polonsky).

Union flyer promoting the opening of Salt of the Earth (1954)

Union flyer promoting the opening of Salt of the Earth (1954)

Courtesy of the Herbert Biberman and Gale Sondergaard Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

The screening series, according to Marlene Braga, vp of the Skirball’s public programs, is especially geared toward the visitor she calls “the filmic superfan.” Adds Braga: “Lovers of history, and film history in particular, are showing up at our programs. We looked at the programming for the Blacklist in a manner that’s very similar to a classic three act story structure, beginning, middle, end. And strove to identify how we could tell as thorough a story as possible with our programming, when you consider that there are so many stories and layers around the blacklist.”

Recently, The Skirball Cultural Center has made the exhibition and all the related programs free to everyone in the WGA.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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