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The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers

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The Independent Producers Face the Hollywood Blacklist

Introduction to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)

by J. A. Aberdeen

Walter Wanger member of SIMPP and an early protestor of the anti-communist movement. (Aberdeen collection). To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

The Hollywood blacklist in the late 1940s illustrated the complexities that SIMPP faced as the group walked the narrow line between independent production and the industry mainstream. While keeping distance between itself and the House Un-American Activities Committee, SIMPP unavoidably became embroiled in the controversy. However, the diversity of political views of the independent producers made SIMPP’s participation in the industry’s anti-Communist activities somewhat uneven.

Back in 1944, Walter Wanger lead the liberal Free World Association as it antagonized the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the anti-Communist group cofounded by Walt Disney. Interestingly, not only was Wanger a partner with Disney on the polo field and at SIMPP, but Wanger also revered Disney as a filmmaking demigod in numerous articles and public addresses. However, during World War II, Wanger demoralized the Disney-supported Motion Picture Alliance. Wanger claimed that the right-wing political group had “linked throughout the nation the words ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Red’ and without proof”—to which the Alliance replied that the Communist influences in Hollywood had done a perfectly able job of that without their association’s aid. The Motion Picture Alliance included other independents such as Leo McCarey, while the Free World Association claimed Orson Welles and James Cagney

Walter Wanger (in front, swinging at the ball) and Walt Disney (in back right) at the Riviera Polo Grounds in the mid-1930s.

CLICK HERE to read the Motion Picture Alliance "Statement of Principles"

McCarey and Disney both appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the first week of the October 1947 anti-Communist hearings. Charlie Chaplin, his public image then mired in political trouble, was subpoenaed, but after several postponements was never officially called to testify. The unpredictable Sam Goldwyn, who was subpoenaed as a friendly witness, likewise never testified. “The most un-American activity,” Goldwyn told the press even before the blacklist, “which I have observed in connection with the hearings has been the activity of the Committee itself.”

After a month of combative testimony before the Congressional hearings, ten “unfriendly” witnesses—including two directors, seven writers, and one producer—with alleged Communist associations evoked their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid incriminating themselves and their colleagues. The industry expected that in the prevailing political climate the House would vote to hold in-contempt the Hollywood Ten, as they were called, to be subjected to fine and/or imprisonment. The heads of the major film companies rushed to New York City on November 24 for a two-day conference to come to a unified consensus.

Originally the Hollywood executives had intimated their support for the Ten, denouncing the HUAC as a politically-motivated smear campaign. But by the time the industry leaders gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the studios had caved to pressure, largely from the investment community, to take a more mainstream stand in opposition to Communism. The Waldorf agreement denounced the behavior of the Hollywood Ten, and pledged that they, the signatory Hollywood executives and producers, would not knowingly hire a member of any politically subversive group. Thus began the Communist blacklist in Hollywood.

The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York (photo taken about 1946), the location of the famous meeting of Hollywood brass that led to the blacklist in the film industry.

The three main groups present at the conference were the MPAA, AMPP, and SIMPP. At the time, SIMPP was considered the representative organization of a significant segment of Hollywood, and had been building important bridges with other leading industry groups like the Association of Motion Picture Producers. Among those independents present at the legendary meeting were Donald M. Nelson (SIMPP president at the time), Samuel Goldwyn, James Mulvey, and Walter Wanger.

At the Waldorf conference, supposedly only three producers objected to the blacklist agreement—Sam Goldwyn, Walter Wanger, and Dore Schary—in events that have been famously retold by Schary and others. However, despite the vocal objections of these producers, all attending industry representatives became signers of the Waldorf agreement in a “unanimous” consensus. In fact, during the conference, Wanger was selected for what was called the Committee of Five that would go to Hollywood to present the declaration to the actors, directors, and writers guilds. Wanger and Schary visited the unions and invited their cooperation in the blacklist, much to the confusion of the industry talent who had counted the two producers among Hollywood’s most ardent liberals. Later Wanger became Los Angeles chairman of the anti-Communist group Crusade for Freedom, and in 1950 made amends with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. He publicly acknowledged a previous “error in judgment” on his part, and hoped “to bury old disagreements and unite to face the common enemy.” 

The blacklist grew to include writer-producer Sidney Buchman, the most direct SIMPP casualty from the HUAC era. Buchman was once the golden boy at Columbia Pictures, and a close friend of Harry Cohn. While a card-carrying Communist in 1938, Buchman wrote Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the freedom-touting Frank Capra film. At the end of World War II, Buchman resigned from the Communist Party, became an independent producer, and joined SIMPP in 1946. Held in contempt for refusing to name names, he avoided jail sentence on a technicality.

Even though Goldwyn, Wanger, and other independents had signed the Waldorf agreement, SIMPP reserved for its members the right to decide on their own. “The matter of determination of who is a Communist in respect to present and future employment,” Nelson told the members, “is left entirely in the hands of each individual producer and studio.” Regardless it was an uneasy situation for the Society to be associated so affirmatively with the conference. (Years later Goldwyn, writing to Wanger, recommended against hiring one of the Hollywood Ten. Even though neither of them harbored any personal animosity against the victimized former Communists, Goldwyn reminded Wanger that both the producers’ signatures were still on the Waldorf agreement.)

Furthermore, SIMPP had to distance itself from the industry when the blacklist came under fire. In June 1948—evidently after the less-than-successful persuasive efforts of the Committee of Five—the Screen Writers Guild protested the Waldorf agreement in an antitrust lawsuit, denouncing the blacklist as a conspiracy between the three main motion picture trade associations: AMPP, MPAA, and SIMPP.

That same year, a $65 million damage suit enacted by the Hollywood Ten listed SIMPP as a principal defendant. On December 13, 1948, the day that Ellis Arnall became the new SIMPP president, the Society made a break to forever disassociate itself with the blacklist. In a surprise disclosure, SIMPP denied that the Society itself had ever been a party to the blacklist, and sought dismissal from the suit. Not the least of the surprises was that the statement was delivered by Gunther Lessing, the arch-conservative legal presence of Walt Disney Productions. “SIMPP has at no time entered into any of the alleged conspiracies set forth, nor is this organization adhering to any such conspiracy,” SIMPP’s statement also claimed. “Nor has it created a blacklist. Whether any individual member of the Society chooses to employ or not employ any person is, as it has always been, entirely up to him.”

After the press release, the counsel for the Hollywood Ten removed SIMPP from the lawsuit. The blacklisted artists applauded the move as a decisive split in the united industry front. Their attorneys declared that Hollywood’s blacklisting days would soon come to an end, but the prophesy proved premature.





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Hollywood blacklist: Donald M. Nelson to All SIMPP Members, December 1, 1947, WWP; the letters gives a brief account of the conference, SIMPP attendance, a transcription of the declaration, and mentions Wanger on the Committee of Five; also see French, The Movie Moguls, pp. 119-124. “The most un-American activity”, Goldwyn at the conference, and letter to Wanger: Berg, Goldwyn, pp. 433-439, 549.
Free World Association, Wanger at the conference, and views on HUAC: Bernstein, Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent, pp. 193, 227, 268; Schary, Heyday, pp. 164-167.
Motion Picture Alliance and Free World Association: Confidential Report, September 21, 1944, FBI 100-22299—see Trethewey, Walt Disney: The FBI Files, pp. 53-57. “Linked throughout the nation”: see “Erred, Wanger Letter Admits,” LAT, September 8, 1950, p. 18. “To bury old disagreements”: “Wanger Assured of MPA Cooperation,” Hollywood Citizen-News, September 11, 1950.
Wanger on Disney: see Walter Wanger, “Mickey Icarus, 1943: Fusing Ideas with the Art of the Animated Cartoon,” Saturday Review of Literature, September 4, 1943, pp. 18-19; reprinted in Smoodin, Disney Discourse, pp. 44-46. Wanger on the polo field with Disney: see Finch, The Art of Walt Disney, p. 118.
SIMPP accused of blacklist, denies blacklist: “Movie Companies Sued By Writers,” NYT, June 2, 1948, p. 22; “SIMPP Denies ‘Ten’ Blacklist,” HR, December 16, 1948, p. 1, 10, includes statement by Lessing, and plaintiff’s reaction.

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