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Unfriendly Witnesses: Gender, Theater, and Film in the McCarthy Era (review)

From: The Velvet Light Trap
Number 65, Spring 2010
pp. 82-83 | 10.1353/vlt.0.0088

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“It is hard to have a witch-hunt without witches,” Ellen Schrecker writes in her book The Age of McCarthyism. This insight begins Milly S. Barranger’s new account of the complex web of politics and ideological warfare of the McCarthy period. Unlike other accounts of the period, however, Barranger is primarily interested in the experiences of female witnesses brought before HUAC, dubbed “McCarthy’s women” by the press. As Barranger notes, these seven women—actresses Judy Holliday, Mady Christians, Anne Revere, and Kim Hunter, director Margaret Webster, and writers Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker—were simultaneously infantilized and demonized by committee members. Of these McCarthy “witches,” Barranger provocatively asks, “Why did the women arrive in the political cauldron as unfriendly witnesses while the male majority, with few exceptions, walked into the corridors of power as cooperative or friendly witnesses?” (xiv).

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In the cover artwork for Barranger’s book an inset box features Federal Theatre Project director Hallie Flanagan Davis in an accusatory pose—her finger outstretched and pointed slightly upward, her lips pursed, and her gaze fixed on the off-camera space. Davis’s gesture and gaze direct the viewer to an oversized, unfocused image of Martin Dies, then-chairman of the Special House Committee on Un-American Activities. The David-and-Goliath image bespeaks the book’s central project: uncovering and analyzing the role of female victims of the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era. Through archival research and textual analysis informed by a slight dose of feminist theory, Barranger tells the story of how seven prominent women of stage and screen attempted—through irony, performance, and outright accusation—to topple the giant that cast its shadow over the entertainment industry.

In her account of Judy Holliday’s blacklisting, Barranger usefully details the vastly hegemonic nature of paranoia, suspicion, and character assassination. Holliday’s exclusion was not limited to the public spectacle of the HUAC hearings or even in FBI documents like Counterattack: The Newsletter of Facts to Combat Communism. Indeed, Barranger notes that some of the most damaging attacks came from industry documents like Red Channels, a de facto blacklist delivered to advertising executives before shows were cast. Other incendiary accusations came from gossip columnists Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and Jimmy Tarantino, the last of whom elided Holliday’s persona with her celebrated Born Yesterday role, stating, “Judy only acts dumb. She’s a smart cookie . . . The Commies got her a long time ago” (qtd. on 14). Indeed, Barranger suggests that Holliday in fact played up her Billie Dawn “dumb blonde” persona during the trials and extraneous interviews, eliding persona and role in order to escape suspicion.

In her section entitled “Death by Innuendo” Barranger examines the career of Mady Christians, who was dubbed “controversial” or “untouchable” (in terms of her hiring) by several publications like Counterattack. One of the more interesting revelations in Barranger’s text is the economic industry of smear campaigns—Counterattack, for instance, offered to reprint corrections or retractions in its publications for a price, essentially creating a cottage industry of accusation and blackmail. One difficulty with the book and its structure is that each of the accounts moves in more or less the same narrative: introduction, biography, early accusations, testimony, aftermath, and addendum. By the time the reader reaches Anne Revere, Margaret Webster, and Kim Hunter, however, some variation seems necessary to hold the reader’s interest.

Barranger is best when she manages the fiery personalities of Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker, whom she dubs “The Defiant Ones.” Like the Sidney Poitier/Tony Curtis film she references, both Hellman and Parker were primary targets of the McCarthyism machine for their perception as aggressive and troublesome characters. Indeed, both women were dubbed “key figures” by the FBI, which announced them as suspected active members in the Communist Party. However, despite their vociferous presence, the women still managed to be infantilized by the bureau. In defending his choice to not send Lillian Hellman to jail for not testifying, for instance, HUAC Chairman John Wood explained, “Why cite her for contempt? After all she’s a woman.” However, I would say that if this is the most dynamic and...