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  • Unfriendly Witneses: Gender, Theater, and Film in the McCarthy Era
  • Chanelle Renee Vigue
Unfriendly Witneses: Gender, Theater, and Film in the McCarthy Era. Theater in the Americas Series. By Milly S. Barranger. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008; pp. 224. $37.50 paper.

In Unfriendly Witnesses, Milly Barranger fills a gap in the history of the McCarthy era by considering “McCarthy’s Women,” those female “subversives” investigated by the FBI, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and other anticommunist organizations in the 1950s. Her study examines the investigation, trials, and effects of McCarthyism on seven female stars of theatre, radio, television, and film: Judy Holliday, Mady Christians, Anne Revere, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Margaret Webster, and Kim Hunter. As a whole, this book exhibits Barranger’s excellent archival research and attention to the personal as well as public sides of each subject.

In most cases, after they were named in watchdog publications like Aware, Counterattack, or Red Channels, Barranger’s subjects experienced the same social and economic effects as the men investigated [End Page 133] by HUAC and blacklisted in Hollywood. Barranger argues, however, that gender bias was sometimes exploited to allow unfriendly female witnesses to avoid the citations or jail time faced by their male counterparts. The cases of Lillian Hellman and Judy Holliday most strongly support this theory. Barranger describes how Holliday channeled her “dumb blonde” character, Billie Dawn from the film Born Yesterday, during her hearing (17). The character apparently appealed to the committee’s image of female naiveté and ignorance; thus Holliday was able to deny knowledge or memory of any wrongdoing, despite her genius-level IQ. Hellman’s case was different, as she pled her Fifth Amendment rights when asked about others and would only answer questions about her own actions. Moreover, Hellman and her lawyer managed to make an official press statement. Few personal statements were released to the press or allowed to be read at all. Hellman’s tactical maneuver complicated the committee’s position and probably would have gotten another (male) witness cited for contempt. It refrained from citing Hellman only because, in the words of one committee member, “she’s a woman” (134).

A strength of Barranger’s study lies in her comparison of Hollywood to Broadway in terms of their respective responses to McCarthyism. She claims that unlike employers in film, radio, and television, who capitulated to pressure from advertisers, Broadway producers were able to continue employing subversive actors because theatre was not centrally funded. Barranger also notes the passivity of the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood division of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, comparing it to the outright denunciation of blacklisting in any form by Actor’s Equity, which essentially allowed its “subversive” members to go on working—if they could find a producer who would overlook their controversial status. Although she does not explicate it until late in the study, Barranger’s notion of the Broadway “graylist” is intriguing, as it points to the insidious nature of fear and suspicion that plagued those who were accused, rightly or wrongly, of being communists. To hire or work with a suspected communist was to risk being accused oneself; to open a show starring someone under suspicion was to invite protests and boycotts. Thus although there was no official Broadway blacklist--especially compared to the pervasive and publicly acknowledged one in the mass-media industries—the effects on the careers of the accused were still generally negative.

While HUAC was the most well-known of the anti-communist committees operating in the 1950s, Barranger also looks at several others: Senator Pat McCarran’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, McCarthy’s own “base of operations” (2)—the Senate Government Operations Committee—and Senator Jack Tenney’s California Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities. She notes that some people named were deemed too obscure by the senators to garner the desired press coverage, and also discusses the scrutiny given to the ethnicity or citizenship of witnesses in light of public support for pending immigration policies. Thus by identifying factors that motivated the choice of witnesses called to testify before each committee, Barranger convincingly connects...


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pp. 133-134
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