Imagine one day you’re writing movies or acting in a major studio’s film, and the next, you can’t find work anywhere. Such is the way of blacklisting. The practice, in one form or another, is still active today but not nearly as rampant as it once was. For an accurate Hollywood Blacklist definition, we need to go back to the ’40s & ’50s in Hollywood. But what does blacklisted mean and how much of an issue is it today? Let’s dive into the concept that upended the careers of Charlie Chaplin, Dalton Trumbo, and many others.
Watch: McCarthyism and The Hollywood Blacklist
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First, let’s define blacklist
A quick clarification: we’re not talking about The Black List, a valuable resource for screenwriters. The Hollywood Blacklist was something different entirely. For the true blacklist definition, we have to go way back in time to the 1940s.
What is the Blacklist?
Blacklisting is the process of denying employment to actors, directors, screenwriters, and musicians for a variety of factors. The term originated in Hollywood in 1946 when William R. Wilkerson published a column in The Hollywood Reporter listing Communist sympathizers, including Dalton Trumbo, Howard Koch, and Lester Cole. It became known as “Billy’s Blacklist.”
Drawing upon Hollywood blacklist names, The House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed many people working in Hollywood to testify. The committee wanted to investigate whether Communist agents in Hollywood had planted propaganda in U.S. films. While the people known as the “Hollywood Ten” did not testify, Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, who was president of the Screen Actors Guild at the time, did.
While this official blacklist eventually died out, the concept remains in use today. Now it generally refers to anyone who has been barred from working in Hollywood for an array of factors from prominent drug use to angering the wrong person.
Hollywood Blacklist Names: The Hollywood Ten
- Dalton Trumbo
- Alvah Bessie
- Lester Cole
- Herbert Biberman
- Adrian Scott
- Edward Dmytryk
- Samuel Ornitz
- Ring Lardner, Jr.
- Albert Maltz
- John Howard Lawson
This practice ruined lives and stifled creativity in Hollywood for years. And years later, ironically enough, a movie would be made about the valiant efforts of Dalton Trumbo to get rid of the blacklist. Here's a clip starring Bryan Cranston as Trumbo.
But let’s look deeper into the blacklist meaning and how it gained a stronghold in Hollywood for so long.
BLACKLIST DEFINITION IN US HISTORY
Origins of the Blacklist
So, what was the Hollywood Blacklist? The practice has roots going back to the 1930s. Hollywood producers and unions met impasses during two huge film industry strikes. In fact, Walt Disney took out an ad in Variety claiming that “Communist agitation” was the cause behind a recent animators and cartoonists’ strike.
However, many historians believe that the true cause of the strike was due to Disney’s overbearing high-handedness and insensitivity to his workers’ needs.
It was around this time that the Communist Party of the United States of America reached all-time support. Membership reached 50,000 people, but the benevolence toward the ideology didn't last long.
After World War II ended, Americans once again began to fear and hate communism. Walt Disney helped co-found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. This organization provided information to producers on how to avoid placing subtle Communist touches on their films.
Some of these actions included “Don’t deify the ‘common man’” and “Don’t smear the profit motive.” In 1946, the official Hollywood blacklist would begin in earnest with William R. Wilkerson’s article.
CHaplin is Blacklisted
The Tramp gets the boot
One of the most famous victims of the Hollywood Blacklist was Charlie Chaplin. While many Hollywood writers, directors and actors found themselves ensnared in the Red Scare by association, Chaplin was a lot more vocal about his political stance.
Chaplin wasn't just blacklisted, he was essentially kicked out of the country and wouldn't return for two decades. For the full story on what it means to be blacklisted according to Chaplin, this video recaps his tragic story nicely.
Chaplin's story is certainly tragic. But when you consider his own poverty and abandonment as a child, his vocal support for the downtrodden and disenfranchised makes complete sense.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE BLACKLISTED?
Height of the Blacklist
The Hollywood blacklist reached its zenith in 1952 when the Screen Writers Guild allowed movie studios to omit the names of any individuals who were seen as communist sympathizers. An embargo, a common blacklist synonym, was in effect. For example, Albert Maltz wrote the screenplay for The Robe in the 1940s, but he didn’t receive any credit when the film came out in 1953.
This period in Hollywood went hand-in-hand with the practice of McCarthyism. Hundreds of Americans, many of whom were government employees, were accused of being Communists or Communist sympathizers. In many cases, these claims were exaggerated. Many people, not just writers and actors, lost their jobs, and some were even arrested.
It was during this time that some artists began to act out. Carl Foreman was a screenwriter who refused to testify to the committee, and he ended up writing High Noon. That film centers around a town marshal who finds himself abandoned by the good citizens when a group of outlaws come to terrorize the town.
With the citizens of that fictional town being viewed as "Hollywood" and the outlaws viewed as the HUAC committee, the parallels become clear. For an interesting reflection on that time period, here's John Wayne discussing his position on the subject and his thoughts on High Noon.
WHAT IS BLACKLISTED MEAN?
Dissolution of the Blacklist
Eventually, the Hollywood Blacklist began to lose its grip on the industry. Cracks in that foundation of the Blacklist could be seen in 1957 when Alfred Hitchcock hired blacklisted actor Norman Lloyd for his anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Other people gained employment despite their associations with the Blacklist. But the true end of the era didn’t come until 1960. It was announced that Universal Pictures would give Dalton Trumbo a screenwriting credit for his work on Spartacus, a decision that was largely made possible thanks to the interference from star Kirk Douglas.
Exodus was released later that year, also bearing Trumbo’s name. The Hollywood Blacklist was ending, but it hasn’t gone away entirely.
WHAT WAS THE BLACKLIST?
Blacklisting in the Present
The term “blacklist” today is used more colloquially compared to the Blacklist of the 1950s. Various industry professionals will say they have been blacklisted due to an array of factors.
For example, Charlie Sheen claimed in court documents that he’s effectively been blacklisted from the entertainment industry. There are plenty of other blacklisting examples in recent memory, including Mo’nique, Isaiah Washington, and Katherine Heigl.
The modern blacklist definition was expanded a bit. People aren’t blacklisted for political reasons in so much as angering the wrong people or becoming uninsurable.
Despite winning an Oscar for her role in Precious, Mo’nique has had trouble finding work since. She told The Hollywood Reporter that she was told she’s been blackballed because she “didn’t play the game.”
So, when you get your big break, be careful whose toes you step on. It’s incredibly difficult to get a career in this industry, and it’s much easier to lose one.
The best screenwriting books
Now that you know how to lose a career in Hollywood, it’s time to look into something most people will actually want to accomplish. Getting a career in Hollywood is a tremendous feat. You need skill, connections, and a lot of luck. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to hone your craft and learn how to become an even better screenwriter. See which books you should read to develop your writing skills.