Reisman uncovers Hollywood Ten in documentary, lecture

October 30, 2014

On Wednesday evening, Oct. 29, Arnie Reisman ’64 spoke about the Hollywood Blacklist, a talk titled “When Red was a Scary Color: Hollywood and the Blacklist,” and sponsored by the American Studies Department. Reisman is the screenwriter of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Hollywood on Trial.” He is an award-winning writer, producer and performer and a current panelist on the NPR quiz show, “Says You!” He was also recently selected as a Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate for a two year period.

In the 1950s, the Red Scare was in full swing in America. It had severe implications in Hollywood, where hundreds from all branches of production were targeted for alleged involvement in the Communist Party. They were refused work and many were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). A group of 10, dubbed the Hollywood Ten, refused to answer questions in court and were cited for contempt. The case reached the Supreme Court, whereupon the Hollywood Ten were sentenced to jail time.

Reisman’s documentary on the blacklist paints a detailed portrait of these events. In Wednesday’s lecture, he relayed his extensive knowledge on the subject and discussed the extensive process of constructing his film.

Reisman began by introducing one main source of inspiration for the project, a book written by Hollywood producer Gordon Kahn. He also mentioned an encounter he had with Kahn’s oldest son, Tony.

“The reason I even got to have this book, my whole reason for getting interested in what was the Hollywood blacklist was meeting Tony … and finding out from this Jewish kid next to me that he grew up in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘You ever heard of the Hollywood blacklist?’” Reisman said. He replied in the negative, and Tony Kahn began to tell him the story of his father. After the decision came down from the Supreme Court convicting the Hollywood Ten, these citizens began to comprehend the severity of their predicament. As such, they began to flee. Gordon Kahn was nearly called to testify before HUAC, and he lost his job at Warner Brothers. Thus, he moved with his family to Mexico.

Early on in the filmmaking process, the crew flew to Los Angeles and meet with a Variety staff member to discuss the project. Reisman explained that he expected to find the story tucked somewhere around page 48 of the daily, “a little box that says we’re making a documentary, but the next day, banner headline, printed right on the cover of Variety which basically said: Cambridge film crew to unearth Red Scare.”

Reisman will never forget the first call they made after the article came out. It was made to former governor and future President Ronald Reagan. Reisman doubted whether Reagan would ever agree to an interview. He was then shocked to receive a call from Reagan exclaiming, “I think this is a fantastically good idea. It’s a story that needs to be told.”

“We start seeing this huge storm that’s going to open up, because you can’t believe that this actually happened,” said Reisman.

Throughout the lecture, Reisman relayed many fascinating memories and anecdotes that he collected throughout the process of constructing the film. He has managed to capture the confounding events that plagued the streets of Hollywood during the Red Scare.

He shared the little known tale of a secret meeting among lawyers, representatives of the U.S. government and all the major studio heads. During these meetings, they decided, in order to protect their industry and prove their patriotism, they would administer loyalty oaths or clean house.

“They’re going to find everybody who’s ever done anything that looks remotely radical, and they’re going to get rid of them,” said Reisman.

Reisman powerfully articulated the culture of fear that spread throughout Hollywood when it became clear the Red Scare would be a long-standing operation. As the blacklist kicked in, Reisman explained, many were left without a business, their life suddenly altered dramatically. Someone seen even talking to the wrong person could never get a job again. Reisman highlighted the life of Otto Preminger, a producer and director, who dined out one evening with a member of the Hollywood Ten. Upon returning home, he received a mysterious phone call warning him to avoid all such interactions, or he would soon be history.

Reisman described the ugliness and chaos that ensued when people chose to give names. He told the story of Elia Kazan, a director who decided he wanted to keep working in Hollywood. He went to Congress and named about 20 people, appeasing both the government and the studio heads. Perhaps the most upsetting part of the story is that many of the names Kazan provided were of those he had personally recruited to join the Communist Party. When Kahn reached out to Kazan for an interview, he cursed profusely and hung up the phone. Reisman explains there were many similar people infuriated by his attempts to contact them.

It was an immensely stressful time in Hollywood. If people talked, they could go to prison or lose their jobs. But if they remained silent, the same was possible. Over the years, Reisman gained up-close and in-depth knowledge of the relationship between the Red Scare and Hollywood, which he conveyed to Brandeis in an engrossing lecture.

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