17 April 2014

Chaplin's support for The Hollywood Ten

Left photo: John Howard Lawson; right: Charles Chaplin
The late 1940s and early 1950s are often referred to as the darkest years in Hollywood history. During this period, also known as the McCarthy era, anyone suspected of having communist ties was investigated. In 1947, the HUAC (House on Un-American Activities Committee) began its investigations into Hollywood communism through high-profile, public hearings at which people in the film industry were forced to testify. Ten screenwriters and directors, later known as The Hollywood Ten, refused to cooperate with the HUAC, and were consequently sent to prison for contempt of Congress and blacklisted. Screenwriter John Howard Lawson was one of The Hollywood Ten, appearing before the HUAC on 29 October 1947 (interesting footage of Lawson's testimony can be seen here). Found guilty of contempt of Congress, Lawson spent a year in prison and was fined $1,000. After his release from prison, he moved to Mexico where he continued to work under pseudonyms. 

Along with The Hollywood Ten, more than 300 artists (actors, directors, but mainly screenwriters) were blacklisted. Charlie Chaplin, known for his communist sympathies since WWII, was one of them. He was forced to settle in Europe after he had gone to England in 1952 and his reentry permit to the U.S. was revoked. On 9 September 1955, having taken up residence in Switzerland, Charlie Chaplin wrote a letter to his friend John Howard Lawson. In the letter Chaplin not only praises Lawson for his courageous actions, but also conveys his concern on America's political climate:


9th September, 1955

This message, John, on your sixtyfirst Birthday, is a small token of appreciation to you as an artist and a man of outstanding courage and integrity; a man who has stood resolute against those who would attempt to control thought and desecrate the true American spirit.
In these days of trumped-up hysteria, I think it is important and essential that the artist and intellectual unite and consolidate against these political forces that have instigated this deplorable police system, which attempts to turn the United States into a nation of informers.
Such morbidity, if allowed to continue, will grow into a cancer that will not only destroy American democracy, but will also destroy the soul of the American people.
Nevertheless, the true American spirit as exemplified in such men as yourself, Paul Robeson, Dalton Trumbo and legions of others, exalts my faith that the eventual outcome will be a victory for those who believe in true Americanism. 
Good health and good luck to you John, and my salutations to everyone present.

Charles Chaplin (signed)

Note: the handwritten address and comment were, judging by the handwriting, not added by Chaplin himself.

The Hollywood Ten with John Howard Lawson in the middle row, second from the left.

1 comment:

  1. Great letter from Chaplin. What a time it was in America.