Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall at HUAC

Danny Kaye, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall  protest at the HUAC Hearings

Some notes on Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and their 1947 trip to Washington to present their case to HUAC, on behalf of the Committee for the First Amendment.

A bitter young blogger, intent on bringing to light the connections between film noir and the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, visits his local library to see what books they have on offer on the awful years of HUAC.  

In the library, this bitter young blogger is interested to note, that on the cover of both the books he find, is Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Bogart on the cover!
The first of these books is WITCH-HUNT IN HOLLYWOOD by Micahel Freedland with Barbara Parks.

The second book is HOLLYWOOD'S BLACKLISTS by Reynold Humphries.

While not a victim of HUAC, Humphrey Bogart did play a part in this shameful episode.  Strangely, while Bogart was not the most famous actor of his day, his is probably the name that has lasted the longest.  

That is surely why he wound up on these book covers.  

After all, who wants to see images of Richard Nixon, J. Parnell Thomas and Robert Stripling?

Nobody. And interestingly, Reynold Humphries in his book notes that those three, Nixon, Thomas and Stripling, dressed in their suits, bore an uncanny resemblance to the gangsters and hoods of noir, to whom they sometimes compared the Communists . . . 

Bogart on the Cover!
But we are here today at least to ask what part did Bogart and Bacall play?  Although the HUAC years threw up many tragic tales and created bitterness throughout the industry — through the whole country in fact — a few stars managed for a variety of reasons to work their way through this defiling minefield without having their careers blown to bits.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were was caught up in this, because everybody was.  It is remarkable to think that every film you watch that was made in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s was produced with this climate as a backdrop.  

Also all of these films were made with the Production Code bearing down on them — but that is another story.  

There is much to read and understand about these times, but here in the briefest of manners possible, is where Bogart and Bacall fitted in.

It was during the 1947 hearings that Humphrey Bogart and wife Lauren Bacall travelled to Washington with the intention of protesting investigations of Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  

It is sometimes said that even though Humphrey Bogart felt strongly about HUAC's investigation, it was Bacall's passion that persuaded him to go with her to Washington, but either way, the actors put their careers on the line in hoping they could generate some press by taking a stand against the panel's tactics.

Bogart and Bacall, and others like Danny Kaye, were representing a newly formed group they called the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA) — a nonpolitical group, they argued, which included some of Hollywood's biggest stars.  They were certainly not defending communism, because what they were protesting was the HUAC's methods.

In all, there were 29 members of this Committee in Washington, and the real force behind the CFA had been John Huston, William Wyler, writer Philip Dunne and actor Alexander Knox.  

Humphrey Bogart was probably the most high profile member of the CFA and Norman Corwin organized a CFA radio program which was called Hollywood Fights Back, which included Judy Garland, Myrna Loy, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra and John Garfield.  

Bogart and Bacall each taped segments for the show before they flew to Washington to attend the hearings as part of a CFA delegation, and Bogart's contribution was aired on a second show, on November 2nd:
This is Humphrey Bogart. We sat in the committee room and heard it happen. We saw it—and said to ourselves, “It can happen here.” We saw American citizens denied the right to speak by elected representatives of the people! We saw police take citizens from the stand like criminals, after they’d been refused the right to defend themselves.  We saw the gavle of the Committe Chairman cutting off the words of free Americans.  The sound of that gavel, Mr Thomas, rings across America, because every time your gavel struck it his the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Well, it was stirring stuff and what was so ghoulish about the whole affair, was that the HUAC members and Senators were eager at the chance to go up aagainst these actors and Hollywood types, and when they did, they usually did pretty well.  

The obvious side to this was that in persecuting this high-profile business, the HUAC committe was getting excellent publicity for itself.

The CFA had little effect in the end but it did raise some important questions in the press.  Editorials published in the New York Times on 23rd October and 2nd November mentioned three key issues, which were pertinent:
  • First, nobody can force a witness to declare their membership or allegiance to aprty that is legally recognised.
  • Secondly, everybody has the right to cross-examine.
  • Thirdly, did the House Committee intend to move on to Broadway, the press, or the radio . . . not to mention the opinions and private beliefs of ordinary citizens?

You can get a flavour of what it was like in Washington in those days from this video, which features Dalton Trumbo, Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor and a heroic performance from screenwriter John Howard Lawson.

Perhaps the most damaging effect of the activities of  HUAC and Senator Joe, lay beyond their destruction of individual lives via their kangaroo court methods, phone tapping, mail tampering, revocation of passports and forcing of friends to testify against each other, not merely in the film world, but in the universities, the civil service and elsewhere.  

They left a stinking black mark on history, and one that seems unbelievable today.



Speaking of John Howard Lawson, I got a great footnote. There was a nifty little period piece about some of this in 2001, called The Majestic, which stars Jim Carrey as a young screenwriter in 1951 who is a blacklisted but loses his memory.  

The film appeals to America's conscience by invoking the fallen of World War 2 (they defintiely did not die for this) and features some Freudian-style-stuff as the lead character tries in great mental anguish to erase the whole idea of cinema from his mind.

The Majestic not only features the John Howard Lawson footage, but it is also set in a fictional town called Lawson, and has a local newspaper in it called The Lawson Beacon, a fact which at least points to the fact that director Michael Sloane (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) was aware that the much maligned John Howard Lawson was due for more than a small bit of rehabilitation in the public eye.

In the end of the film, after making an impassioned speech (in the mode of Brecht, Trumbo and Lawson himself) the Jim Carrey character returns to Lawson and lives happily with a wife and kids.

This was sadly not the happy ending that anybody on the blacklist experienced, but an overall and in this dramatically satisfying conclusion to what is in the end a pleasing allegory about the whole damned thing. 

Watch the trailer to The Majestic on YouTube

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