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  • Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist by Thomas Doherty
  • Justin Gautreau
Thomas Doherty, Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 424 pp. $29.95 hardcover.

Reading Thomas Doherty's Show Trial is like time traveling to October 1947 with an expert film historian by your side. A prequel of sorts to his earlier book Cool War, Cool Medium (2003), Show Trial retraces the many steps that led to Congress's investigation of communist infiltration in Hollywood, only without "the lenses of left and right" that tend to frame other histories of HUAC (356). Not always satisfied with the official Congressional Record, for instance, Doherty turns to several contemporaneous sources, ranging from periodicals to studio correspondence, for a fuller understanding of events, in the process revealing just how "cinema-centric" the hearings could be (355). Show Trial's commitment to detail not only brings the spectacle to life but also retrieves the complexity of a period that has become too black and white in cultural memory.

To preface his section on the hearings themselves, Doherty chronicles the extensive labor disputes of technicians and screenwriters in the 1930s, all of which unfolded in the context of the Popular Front movement. Given that the Front's most ardent members were communists, the battle between studio heads and screenwriters ultimately boiled down to a question of political alliances, a conflict that would lay the foundation for the 1947 hearings: "Reopening old wounds that never really healed, and exacting payback for grievances long nursed," Doherty explains, "the dueling testimony was about the political past as much as the political present" (14).

Aside from inspiring labor disputes at the studios, the Popular Front also gave communists in Hollywood a stage to "project their vision" in the form of activist groups, most notably the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (14). Enthusiastically backed by the stars, such publicity soon gained the attention of Congress in Washington, D.C., where Texas representative Martin Dies was busy monitoring political radicalism on domestic soil. In 1938, Dies launched the first official investigation of subversive activity in Hollywood, but the hearings soon lost steam after the committee accused nine-year-old Shirley Temple of endorsing communism. Still, as Show Trial's following chapters show, the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 would make the Communist Party in the United States all the more susceptible to federal persecution.

The second part of Show Trial, "On Location in Washington," recounts the infamous J. Parnell Thomas committee hearings in detail, dedicating a section to each of the forty-one witnesses, friendly and unfriendly alike. Woven throughout this section is the fascinating rise and fall of the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA), a liberal group fronted by such stars as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Indeed, as its cover image suggests, Show Trial might be considered as much about the CFA's battles as the Hollywood Ten's. "[S]triv[ing] to straddle the space between HUAC and the Unfriendlies" (176), the CFA flew from Hollywood to Washington to protest the Thomas committee while vocally distancing themselves from communism. In the eyes of the press (and therefore the public), however, the fact that CFA members arrived just in time for the unfriendly testimony and not a day sooner made their un-American affiliation clear. Immediately after screenwriter John Howard Lawson's heated exchange with Thomas in the caucus room, members of the CFA found themselves between a rock and a hard place, unable to protest HUAC without being linked to the "obnoxious and disrespectful" communists (216). To make matters worse, the Hollywood Ten later credited the CFA with having supported their cause. Doherty writes, "In the public mind, the two groups were joined at the hip" (314). For the sake of [End Page 76] its members' careers, the CFA had little choice but to disband a few months after the trials. Bogart even told the press that he regretted the D.C. trip altogether, albeit through gritted teeth.

The bleak fate of the Committee for the First Amendment reflected the binary mentality of the time, one that left no room for a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9922
Print ISSN
0360-3695
Pages
pp. 76-77
Launched on MUSE
2019-09-10
Open Access
No
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