You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, is back for a new season. When each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in an excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 3 below, on Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, and John Huston, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.
At the close of World War II, Humphrey Bogart was Warner Brothers’ most valuable star. He was in his late 40s, and newly married to Lauren Bacall. The pair, who had met on the set of Bacall’s first film, To Have and Have Not, would soon prove their on-screen chemistry was no fluke with their second and third collaborations, The Big Sleep and Dark Passage, released in 1946 and 1947. Bogart had his share of misses mixed within the hits, but he also had enough power and capital that he was able to team with his friend Mark Hellinger to start a production company to help launch projects he loved that studios were less enthusiastic about. This was a huge deal because Warner Brothers wasn’t MGM; Jack Warner didn’t care about stars, and he refused to coddle even his most famous specimens. Both Bogart and his female counterpart at the studio, Bette Davis, were constantly being put on paid suspensions for attempting to protect their own star power by refusing to appear in low quality movies that the studio needed a big star to legitimize.
The first film to benefit from Bogart’s helping hand was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the passion project of Bogart’s friend and Maltese Falcon director, John Huston. The film, about greed and paranoia among American gold prospectors in Mexico, was shot in the spring of 1947, in Tampico on the Gulf of Mexico. Bacall was on set. Bogart’s co-star would be Huston’s father, Walter Huston. Jack Warner first saw a cut of Sierra Madre in the fall of 1947, and he loved it. He was sure it would do great business. Which it did.
But Warner and the Sierra Madre principals soon found themselves on opposite sides of a divide. Jack Warner would be the first person to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in September 1947. He wasn’t subpoenaed—he volunteered. He had spoken to the committee that spring, in closed-door sessions, and had admitted to John Huston that he had named the names of “a few” people he “thought might be communists.” When Huston told Warner he didn’t approve, Warner showed remorse. But then, when the public hearings were announced, Warner was literally first in line to offer testimony.
When Warner volunteered to speak to HUAC, he was being proactive—going on the offensive so he wouldn’t be forced to play defense. It’s possible that he went intending only to clear his studio’s name. But according to his son Jack Jr., in front of the committee, under the lights, surrounded by cameras, Jack Warner panicked—and that’s when he started naming names. Jack Jr. said his father was essentially grasping names out of thin air. As they were walking out of the congressional building, Jack Warner said to his son, “I didn’t do good, did I? I shouldn’t have given names. I was a schmuck.” Jack Warner, Jr. thought, but didn’t say, “Yes, you were.”
As late as that summer, no one had taken HUAC all that seriously. Bogart, who had been questioned and cleared the first time the committee’s then-chair came to Hollywood, assumed this go-round would be just like the last time: The politicians would glom on to some celebrities looking to get their own names in the headlines, and then once that was accomplished, they’d head back to Washington, with no real harm done save for the usual waste of taxpayer dollars.
J. Parnell Thomas, now leading the HUAC committee, was certainly an attention seeker. But unlike his predecessors, he realized he could dominate the media for even longer if he actually managed to get something done. And so subpoenas were sent, and Hollywood suddenly had to scramble to figure out how to respond.
The first meeting of what would be called the Committee for the First Amendment took place at Ira Gershwin’s house. Everyone was there — or at least, everyone who wasn’t a member of the right-wing Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, so: Rita Hayworth, Groucho Marx, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, and Mr. and Mrs. Bogart. The cause that united this starry group was not communism. If you asked most of them, this move into activism was not politically slanted one way or another. The group was united behind the principles of free speech and free assembly. They believed that American citizens had the right to believe whatever they wanted without having to answer to Congress for it. Many of them also believed—or, at least, would claim afterward that they had believed—that the Unfriendly 19 were innocent of the charges against them. After the hearings, some members of the Committee for the First Amendment would claim they didn’t realize they were lending their support to actual communists—who, of course, as American citizens, were also entitled to the protections of the first Amendment, at least in theory.
For many who participated in the Committee for the First Amendment, it wasn’t a question of supporting communists or attacking anti-communists so much as it was about standing up for the film industry itself, which was being smeared on newspapers nationwide, day and night. So first, the committee bought their own space in newspapers, and used it to publish a statement of their beliefs, which were mostly constitutional, but also included the insistence that while the group opposed communism, “mass hysteria is no way to fight it.” It was the most reasonable contribution that anyone had made to this debate in awhile, so of course, it had no impact.
Then came Hollywood Fights Back, a nationwide radio show produced by a host of writers and stars. They performed the labor after hours, semi-clandestinely—Lew Wasserman arranged to leave the front door of his agency MCA open after 7 p.m. so that the committee could use his offices as a production headquarters—but the studio heads knew the show was happening and didn’t try to stop it. Nor did anyone complain when the Committee for the First Amendment sponsored a rally at the Shrine Auditorium in honor of the 19. Spirits in the room were so high that night that, as Hollywood Ten member Alvah Bessie later put it, “You would have thought we had the House Committee licked to a standstill before we ever got into the ring.”
The other outcome of the formation of the committee was the decision, spearheaded by Huston, Dunne, and director William Wyler, to send a brigade of stars to Washington in support of the Unfriendly 19. This came after a portion of the group gathered at Wyler’s house one night to listen to Hollywood Ten member Adrien Scott describe on speakerphone how things were going in Washington. Lauren Bacall remembered Scott’s description of J. Parnell Thomas’ gavel pounding. She got the impression that the accused had been set up to fail, and her heart bled. “How dare that bastard Thomas treat people this way?” Bacall thought. “What was happening to our country?”
Again, this trip was not intended as a pro-communist statement—Dunne, who as the writer of the 10th highest grossing film of the year, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, had a bigger current hit than anyone else on the trip, was a fervent anti-communist who was against HUAC strictly as matter of free speech principle.
“This has nothing to do with communism. It’s none of my business who’s a communist and who isn’t,” Bogart said in a statement in advance of the journey. “The reason I am flying to Washington is because I am an outraged and angry citizen who feels that my civil liberties are being taken away from me and that the Bill of Rights is being abused and who feels that nobody in this country has any right to kick around the Constitution of the United States, not even the Un-American Activities Committee.”
A number of participants in Hollywood Fights Back, including Huston, Wyler, Bogart, Bacall, Gene Kelly, and Marsha Hunt, pre-recorded their segments and then hopped on a chartered TWA plane, generously provided at a low cost by Howard Hughes, who personally called Huston at the Brown Derby to offer it. That Hughes, who soon started making a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s fiercest and financially reckless supporters of HUAC and enemy of so-called subversives, would do this, seems to offer the best evidence that before takeoff, no one believed that casting one’s lot against the hearings was the equivalent of supporting communism.
The plane made several stops throughout the country to refuel between Los Angeles and Washington, and everywhere they stopped, the celebrities on board met regular Americans who voiced their support. On the plane, the stars gathered in the cockpit, where they could listen to the Hollywood Fights Back broadcast over the radio. This is the beginning of the broadcast, featuring contributions from Charles Boyer and Judy Garland:
This would be the high point of the trip for many. Their lofty ideals came crashing down to Earth soon. There’s something a little cringe-worthy about all of these stars up in the stratosphere admiring the power of their own performances, when down on the ground, a few days later, their reviews of their supposed compatriots, the writers and directors called to defend themselves before HUAC, were withering.
John Huston perhaps had the earliest change of heart. The cumulative effect of watching one man after another engage in a futile shouting match with Thomas’ gavel disillusioned Huston quickly. He later observed, “It was a sorry performance. You felt your skin crawl and your stomach turn. I disapproved of what was being done to the ten, but I also disapproved of their response. They had lost a chance to defend a most important principle.”
Bacall and Bogart remained fired up by the principle, if not the performance. Bogart appeared on a second installment of Hollywood Fights Back the following week:
Bacall wrote an essay published in the Washington Post in which she delivered what might have been the first glimpse the general public got into the climate of fear that had already permeated Hollywood:
The only way I can think of to point up the seriousness of this is to explain to you what will happen to the motion pictures you go to see two or three times a week. You have no idea of the fear that has overtaken Hollywood. A producer is afraid to produce, a director is afraid to direct, and a writer is afraid to write for fear anything he might say or do will be controversial to the point that he might be accused of the same thing that the witnesses who have been called here have been accused of. Which means in simple language that good adult entertainment flies out the window and shallow water flows in the door.
Before the Committee for the First Amendment arrived in Washington, they felt they had the media on their side. But by the time they left Washington that had changed. The press had mocked the movements of the rich movie stars who came to defend the communists. The message that the movie stars thought they were defending the Constitution and not communism got completely lost.
Bogart apparently felt the change in the air pretty quickly. Some reports say he lashed out at his fellow committee members on the plane home, while other suggest that many members of the brigade booked their own flights home early, out of embarrassment. Certainly, the right wing press—and in this climate, virtually everything save for the Daily Worker was leaning right—started attacking the unfriendly witnesses and their supporters in real time. After Congress voted to indict the Hollywood Ten for contempt, Bogart, allowed a statement to be syndicated to Hearst papers under the headline, “As Bogart Sees It Now,” which read in part:
I am not a Communist sympathizer. ... I went to Washington because I thought fellow Americans were being deprived of their Constitutional Rights, and for that that reason alone. That the trip was ill-advised, even foolish, I am very ready to admit. At the time it seemed the thing to do. I have absolutely no use for Communism nor for anyone who who serves that philosophy. I am an American. And very likely, like a good many of the rest of you, sometimes a foolish and impetuous American.
Many who remained loyal to the Hollywood Ten and/or the Communist Party assumed that the studio heads had threatened the members of the Committee for the First Amendment to back off, or risk losing their own jobs. Abe Polonsky said that President Truman had actually sent a general to Hollywood to intimidate the studio heads into threatening their Committee for the First Amendment Stars. According to Polonsky, this intimidation worked, because most stars were totally dependent on their salaries and couldn’t risk breaching their contracts. Ira Gershwin hosted a second meeting of the Committee for the First Amendment after the hearings, and according to Polonsky, it was a comparative ghost town. Most of the stars had been scared off. Bogart showed up furious. He got up in Danny Kaye’s face and yelled, “You fuckers sold me out!” before storming away.
To hear the rest of the story, listen to You Must Remember This, Episode 74: “The African Queen: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, and John Huston.”