Show Tri­al: Hol­ly­wood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist

  • Review
By – May 30, 2019

In Show Tri­al, Thomas Doher­ty applies his tal­ent and insight as a film his­to­ri­an to the sto­ry of the Hol­ly­wood black­list, teas­ing out shades of gray from a top­ic that has gen­er­al­ly been pre­sent­ed in black and white.

The book is divid­ed into three parts. The first sec­tion, Back­sto­ries,” presents a clear pic­ture of the labor dis­putes in Hol­ly­wood in the 1930s, set­ting the stage with col­or and tex­ture. Part two, On Loca­tion in Wash­ing­ton,” takes us direct­ly into the court­room and shows us the day-to-day devel­op­ments dur­ing the nine days of hear­ings and lib­er­al Hollywood’s attempts — all of them unsuc­cess­ful — to fight back. The final sec­tion, Back­lash,” con­cerns the after­math of the hear­ings, when the movie busi­ness was dev­as­tat­ed by the hun­dreds of play­ers who were black­list­ed or jailed. A fair num­ber of pages are devot­ed specif­i­cal­ly to anti­semitism, an entry with sev­er­al sub­cat­e­gories in the well-orga­nized index.

Instead of sim­ply retelling the sto­ry, Doher­ty does some­thing much more cre­ative. He pro­vides col­or­ful por­traits of a large and var­ied cast of char­ac­ters, such as Ayn Rand and Bertolt Brecht, who have nev­er been deeply explored before in this con­text. Rather than unwind­ing the sto­ry of the black­list in a tra­di­tion­al­ly sequen­tial way, he tells it through the indi­vid­ual char­ac­ters and how it altered their lives. The quotes and anec­dotes he offers are invari­ably amus­ing and piquant, and we fol­low them like a trail of bread­crumbs through the narrative.

Doher­ty also describes how the con­flict between nation­al secu­ri­ty and free­dom of expres­sion was at stake in the noto­ri­ous and high­ly pub­li­cized House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee (HUAC) hearings.

Doher­ty writes ear­ly on that he feels the Hol­ly­wood black­list is an era in film his­to­ry that is poor­ly under­stood and his excite­ment to explain it all adds a lumi­nous sheen to his nar­ra­tive. The Hol­ly­wood left, in par­tic­u­lar, comes to life as we tra­verse his expla­na­tions of the back­ground of the HUAC hear­ings, held for nine days in Octo­ber 1947. Through behind-the-scenes report­ing, he high­lights the ongo­ing strife between labor and the film stu­dios as the polit­i­cal cli­mate in the U.S. splits them into two oppos­ing camps.

With the fresh mate­r­i­al he has unearthed in his expert research, Doher­ty has cre­at­ed a very enter­tain­ing book. He stays true to his theme: how polit­i­cal alle­giances, and not tal­ent, became the main deter­min­ing fac­tor in employ­ment. Doher­ty not only gives us a new take on his­to­ry but also deft­ly ties the con­flict to today’s politics.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions