THE MAJESTIC is about a Hollywood screenwriter who is blacklisted as part of an anti-Communist witch-hunt. It is set during the period of McCarthyism which gripped the US at the start of the Cold War.
Film-makers and artists were among those targeted for ‘subversiveness’. If they didn’t identify alleged Communists and denounce them, they were banned from working and even imprisoned. The Majestic is good at poking fun at the movie studio system and the injustice of the show trials of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Like the films of Frank Capra, which it is modelled on, it celebrates the ‘little man’ standing up to the establishment.
But, also like Capra, it takes comfort in idealising smalltown life. The film stars Jim Carrey, but don’t let his record of rotten films put you off. Here Carrey plays a screenwriter who loses his memory. The remote town of Lawson mistakes him for a missing war hero.
The whole town chips in to help him and his ‘dad’ rebuild the Majestic cinema. This is a sentimental film where the black usher never experiences racism and a young woman training to be a lawyer faces no obstacles. The town of Lawson is what the film-makers would like the US to be, not what it was, or is.
But if you can get past the lack of realism this is an enjoyable film with an important message.
BELOW ARE some excellent films that show the impact of McCarthyism in the movie industry.
THE FRONT is a film made in 1976 starring Woody Allen. Allen works in a diner until he meets up with a longtime friend who is blacklisted for sympathising with Communists.
Allen agrees to be a front for his friend and eventually two other writers. The witch-hunt atmosphere is revealed when the bosses hire someone to investigate their employees for any ‘un-American’ leanings.
Then Woody Allen’s character has the spotlight turned on him in a film that is both moving and funny. Some of the film’s actors were themselves blacklisted in the 1950s.
FELLOW TRAVELLER was made in 1989. It is about movie star Hart Bochner, whose suicide is shown at the start of the film. The story flashes back to show his friendship with a blacklisted writer. The film then follows the writer’s life.
He begins working in Britain under a false name to avoid testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The series he writes is The Adventures of Robin Hood. This is the 1960s TV show that the real life blacklisted US writer Ring Larnder Jr was hired to write for.
GUILTY BY SUSPICION is a film made in 1990, and stars Robert De Niro as a 1950s film director. He returns to Hollywood after a trip to be told by his boss he has been summoned to appear before McCarthy’s committee.
De Niro’s character refuses to help the committee as it will mean wrecking his friend’s career. But, as the pressure of being blacklisted grows, will he cave in and testify?
THE WITCH-HUNT against the left in the US in the 1940s and 50s under McCarthyism was not just aimed at those in the movie industry, writers and academics. Thousands of trade unionists lost their jobs.
All union officials had to declare they were not Communists or be kicked out of the union under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Workers employed by the government, like teachers and college lecturers, were sacked if they refused to sign these ‘loyalty oaths’.
The anti-Communist hysteria spearheaded by Senator Joe McCarthy led to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, two Communist Party members, being executed after they were accused of spying. The Cold War provided the background to the attacks on the left.
But it was fuelled by a determination by the US ruling class to take on the workers’ movement. The influence of the left had grown inside workplaces, with the unionisation drive and strikes that broke out in the 1930s Great Depression and mass strikes after the Second World War.
Republican and Democrat politicians and the bosses in the US seized the opportunity to undermine that resistance.
It destroyed the growing confidence of left wing activists. It also allowed the US trade union leaders to become entrenched as highly conservative and bureaucratic.
Senator McCarthy’s zeal eventually became an embarrassment for the US establishment, who sidelined him in the mid-1950s. But films and books about McCarthyism expose how brutal that period was, and how US rulers can cynically whip up hysteria for their own ends.
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