Day Twenty of Noirvember: The Noir of HUAC

Larry Parks testifying before HUAC.

In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) launched an investigation into Communism in the motion picture industry, throwing Tinseltown into a paranoid panic and ruining the lives of countless artists.

During secret testimony before HUAC in 1951, actor Larry Parks, best known for playing the title role in The Jolson Story (1946), alleged that several of his fellow film performers were involved with the Communist Party. Among the actors and actresses named by Parks were a number of film noir veterans, including Lee J. Cobb, Howard DaSilva, and Sterling Hayden.

Today’s Noirvember post takes a look at the impact that the HUAC hearings had on the careers of these three stars.

Lee J. Cobb

Cobb starred with Jane Wyman in The Man Who Cheated Himself, shortly before he was named in testimony before HUAC.

Initially, upon being named, Lee J. Cobb vehemently denied any involvement in the Communist Party. Two years later, though, he changed his story, admitting that he’d joined the Party in the early 1940s at the invitation of Phoebe Brand and Morris Carnovsky, who’d both worked with Cobb in New York’s Group Theatre. He also testified that he’d discontinued his membership in the Party a few years later because of his “general disenchantment with the Party methods.” Cobb went a step further and identified several others who’d been members, including Lloyd Bridges, Jeff Corey, and Gale Sondergaard.

Cobb in his Oscar-nominated performance in On the Waterfront.

Between Cobb’s initial denial of Party membership in 1951, and admitting his involvement (and naming names) in 1953, he only appeared in one film, The Fighter (1952). Prior to that, he’d been featured in as many as five films in a year. After his 1953 testimony, his career began to pick back up, and the following year, he landed his first Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, for On the Waterfront.

Throughout his career, Cobb seldom spoke publicly about his experiences, but he did give an interview to the New York Times in 1968, in which he spoke frankly about the effect of HUAC.  “They have unspeakable ways – very special ways I couldn’t describe to you – to force you to do what they want,” Cobb said. “My personal life was shattered. When I finally went the Committee, they already knew what I had to tell them, so the whole thing was a farce. But I had to make the gesture – to survive. Afterwards, it meant starting a new life, making a new set of friends. When I realized what I had to do, I set about doing it and I felt strong again.”

Da Silva was outstanding in one of my favorite noirs, They Live By Night.

Howard Da Silva

In addition to being named by Larry Parks, Howard Da Silva was also named by actor Robert Taylor, who told the committee that Da Silva “always seems to have something to say at the wrong time.” When Da Silva was called to testify, he refused to answer questions and was promptly blacklisted. All of his scenes were cut from the film he’d recently completed, Slaughter Trail (1951), and reshot with Brian Donlevy, and he would not be seen on the big screen again for close to 10 years.

Da Silva was one of the performers named by Robert Taylor during his testimony.

Da Silva turned instead to the stage, appearing in a variety of productions, and was scheduled to appear on a live television broadcast in 1960, but after he was slammed by a columnist in the New York Journal-American for his “communist sympathies,” the program never aired. He finally returned to feature films in 1962, portraying a psychiatrist in David and Lisa, for which he earned a nomination from the British Academy Award of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

Like Lee J. Cobb, Da Silva seldom discussed HUAC in later years, but in 1976 he admitted that he had compassion for his colleagues who named names. He added, however, that there were some people “who shall remain forever nameless, that I will never forgive. Never.”

Hayden in one of his best films, The Asphalt Jungle.

Sterling Hayden

When Sterling Hayden was called before the committee, he admitted that he joined the Party in 1946, saying that he did so because he “wanted to do something for a better world.” He said he’d renounced his membership, though, less than a year later, calling it “the stupidest, most ignorant thing I ever did in my life.” Hayden also named several others, including screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, who penned the noir classics Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948) – both starring John Garfield, who himself was hunted and haunted by HUAC. Blacklisted because of the hearings,

Hayden testifying before the Committee. He later called it his “one-shot stoolie show.”

Polonsky wouldn’t have a screenwriting credit for the next 20 years.

Hayden was praised for his “honesty and frankness” by none other than Ronald Reagan, then president of the AFL Screen Actors Guild (and later president of the United States). But Hayden deeply regretted his actions, calling it his “one-shot stoolie show.” In his 1963 autobiography, Wanderer, the actor stated: “I was a real daddy longlegs of a worm when it came to crawling. Not often does a man find himself eulogized for having behaved in a manner that he himself despises.”

Just the mention of the HUAC acronym evokes a period of unimaginable fear, suspicion and betrayal, where countless artists were forced to make a choice between turning on their friends and colleagues or suffering the loss of their livelihood, or worse. (Larry Parks, incidentally, reportedly begged the committee not to force him to testify. After he finally offered his tearful testimony, he was blacklisted anyway, and was dropped from his contract with Columbia. His acting career never recovered.)

I have always been careful to never pass judgment on the actions of anyone in that era who was accused of Communism or called on to testify – I can’t fathom what it must have been like. I can only hope that it represents a time in our history that will never be seen again.

Join me tomorrow for Day 21 of Noirvember.

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~ by shadowsandsatin on November 20, 2018.

7 Responses to “Day Twenty of Noirvember: The Noir of HUAC”

  1. The Noir of HUAC was the darkest (and scariest) of them all.

  2. Careers shattered. Always important to remember this time.

  3. The tactics used by that committee were as “Un-American” as anything they ever supposedly exposed.

  4. This was a frightening and appalling time.

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