Review: Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist

Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist

by Kevin Brianton    

Reviewed by Judith Reveal | Released: October 4, 2016

Publisher: University Press of Kentucky (174 pages)

“an interesting book . . .”

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, it can be said that nothing was more terrifying to the United States than the “Red Scare”—that is, the fear that Communism lurked in every corner of American lives and there was only one way to stop it: government intervention. 

Kevin Brianton’s Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist takes the reader into one of the dark corners of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee chamber of horrors as it affected the arts, in particular, the film industry.

Brianton starts the book with an overview of the myth of the story. It’s short and gives the reader of sense of what was happening in the industry in the years immediately after World War II and just as the Cold War was heating up. After this tantalizing introduction, he gets right into the deep water of conspiracies and deceit, and takes the reader into the nitty-gritty of the book. 

When the HUAC investigations began in October of 1947, collusion was the name of the game with Hoover and DeMille sharing information on leftist activities in the film capital, especially with regard to the directors. The investigation started with a list of “friendly” anti-Communist witnesses, then turned its attention to a group of nineteen “unfriendly witnesses.” Of these, ten testified and were later blacklisted and referred to as the “Hollywood Ten.” They refused to answer questions about membership in the Communist Party and eventually were jailed for contempt.

Although Brianton focuses his attention on the Screen Directors Guild (SDG) meeting of October 22, 1950, it is clear that the 1947 HUAC investigation of Communist intrusion in the industry foreshadowed that meeting.

Three Hollywood heavy hitters: Cecil B. DeMille, Joe Mankiewicz, and John Ford garner most of the attention in this story, but other important directors played various key roles as well. The setting is Hollywood at its best, “the anti-Communist whirlwind following the Second World War . . . brought this trio of Hollywood’s top directors into open conflict . . . with its witch hunts and paranoia about Communism, the film industry was in turmoil.” Added to this concern, and lurking in the dark background was FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover who believed that the film industry was rife with Communist sympathizers. 

Brianton lays out the specifics of events that led to the SDG meeting in minute detail. Two issues are at play here: the loyalty oath and the blacklist. “The loyalty oath was the first step in a campaign to purge the Guild of Communists as well as any leftist liberals . . . Those who resisted and did not sign would be put on a blacklist and be unable to find work again in Hollywood or anywhere else.”

At issue were two factions: the archconservatives, led by Cecil B. DeMille, and the liberal left, led by SDG President Joseph Mankiewicz.

Although DeMille had had Mankiewicz installed as president, expecting him to be nothing more than a puppet to DeMille’s whims, Mankiewicz turned out to be much stronger than expected. 

As the loyalty oath became more of an issue, Mankiewicz and several other strong, senior figures in the Guild rejected the requirement for signature. DeMille, realizing that Mankiewicz was not the instrument he expected, then made a move to have Mankiewicz removed from his position as President. 

To say that DeMille’s actions were underhanded would be to give him great credit for honesty. Many moves were conducted in the dark in an attempt to keep Mankiewicz and his supporters unaware of the recall until it was a fait accompli. 

But as it happens with most good stories, all of DeMille’s best-laid plans went awry, and the meeting became public knowledge. 

Brianton’s chapter “The Screen Directors Guild Meeting” is brilliantly portrayed through the participants’ own words. It is clear that the blacklist was more of an issue than the loyalty oath, as many of the attendees agreed that they would sign such an oath of their own accord. But to attach blacklisting to the oath went a step too far. 

Mankiewicz’s supporters stood firm and spoke in his defense at retaining his position. The meeting resulted in several resignations and reinstatements but Mankiewicz retained his position as President. The board as a whole resigned, and a committee was assigned to investigate the details of the recall of Mankiewicz that started the entire SNAFU. 

But the end of the meeting is not the end of the book. At the opening of the book Brianton told the “myth of the meeting” and in that myth, John Ford is portrayed more of a rowdy hero who slew the DeMille dragon, when the reality is that Ford was more of a calming affect—a person who took control of the meeting and actually prevented DeMille from being tossed about like a boat in a storm. 

Brianton’s depiction of the meeting is based on written records, not on word-of-mouth stories handed down over several decades. The chapter “Mankiewicz and the Making of the Myth” is a fascinating account of the time after the meeting, and how Joseph Mankiewicz saw the meeting unfolding. As the years passed, he fell out of favor in terms of his directorial career and in an interview in 1967, almost two decades after the meeting, that Mankiewicz’ view took a decided turn to the fabulous.

Other directors also presented varying versions of the meeting in books, articles, and even documentaries—versions based on perhaps fuzzy memories. Accounts were revised over and over as the years passed but most of the myth sprang from Joseph Mankiewicz’ words and memories.

Brianton spends considerable time taking apart Ford’s actual participation at the meeting and what he accomplished, and comparing it to the myth that seems to have a life of its own. In his words, Brianton sums up Fords role as: “Ford was a figure of integrity and unity, but not quite in the way he has been depicted. [He] had the integrity to stick with his friend DeMille when all others had abandoned him.” Ford’s final actions post-meeting were to stand by his friend (DeMille) and act to unify the Guild.

In the final chapter, “DeMille as Anti-Communist Ogre,” Brianton details DeMille’s deep conservatism and his activities as a HUAC supporter. He was a known supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy as well as an informant for J. Edgar Hoover. Over three decades after the SDG meeting, DeMille found himself faced with accusations of another sort—that of anti-Semitism. The veracity of these claims is in question, but once levied, they were hard to disprove.

Brianton ends the story with a classic line about the SDG meeting and the impact it had on DeMille: “DeMille’s greatest opponent at the SDG meeting was not John Ford, George Stevens, or Joseph Mankiewicz. DeMille was the architect of his own downfall.”

Kevin Brianton has done an exceptional job at bringing the facts of this meeting and the role of the Screen Directors Guild in the “Red Scare” to light. This is an interesting book and belongs in the reader’s library.  

This book review was prepared for the New York Journal of Books and is reprinted with their permission. Please visit their website: www.nyjournalofbooks.com for a complete listing of book reviews.

Reviewer: Judy Reveal lives in Maryland. She is the author of Around Greensboro and the Lindsey Gale Mystery series including Cheating Death, The Music Room, A House to Kill For, and historical fiction (2013) The Brownstone.

© Roy Bartels 2012