An earlier version of this article incorrectly said no one had been jailed for contempt of Congress since the Hollywood Ten. In 1961, two activists named Frank Wilkinson and Carl Braden went to prison after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The article has been corrected.
Contempt of Congress is rarely prosecuted and even more rarely leads to jail time. Among the last people to be locked up for it were the 10 men known as the “Hollywood Ten” — movie writers, directors and producers who refused to tell the controversial House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) whether they were Communists.
In October 1947, the panel’s House caucus room became Hollywood on the Potomac as film industry leaders testified at hearings led by Chairman J. Parnell Thomas (R-N.J.) into alleged Communist infiltration in the industry.
The first week featured what the committee called “friendly” witnesses — those seen as reliable anticommunists. First up was Jack Warner, vice president of Warner Bros., who said he had fired six writers for trying to inject “un-American leanings” into scripts for his studio. But Warner said “he had never seen a Communist and wouldn’t know one if he did see him,” United Press reported.
The next day, the star witness was 57-year-old character actor Adolph Menjou. “Nattily garbed in a double-breasted brown suit with white chalk stripes,” the mustachioed Menjou told the committee that “Hollywood is honeycombed with Communists who ‘rigidly’ follow the Moscow Party line,” the Associated Press reported.
Rep. Richard M. Nixon (R-Calif.), a committee member, asked the actor what tests he used to spot a Communist. Menjou responded, “Well, I would consider attendance at a meeting where Paul Robeson is appearing, applauding him and listening to his Communist songs would be a good one.” (Robeson was a Black singer and civil rights activist who had been accused of being a Communist.)
The committee room’s 397 seats were filled, mainly by women, for the third session with 36-year-old actor Robert Taylor. “The famous leading man settled into the witness chair, lit a cigarette and told the Congress members, ‘There is always a certain group of actors and actresses whose every action would indicate to me that if they’re not Communists, they’re working awful hard to be one,’ ” the AP reported. Before the next hearing, the AP wrote, Thomas secured an extra detail of Capitol police after several “were bruised and shoved about by a stampede of sighing women to see Robert Taylor.”
The fourth day of hearings featured an all-star cast, including Gary Cooper and 36-year-old Ronald Reagan, then the president of the Screen Actors Guild. Communists, Reagan said, had tried to “muscle in” on the movie industry but hadn’t succeeded. He added, “I abhor the Communist philosophy. … However, as a citizen I hope that we never are prompted by fear or resentment of Communists into compromising any of our democratic principles in order to fight it.”
After the hearing, actor John Garfield passed out a statement by a new Hollywood Committee for the First Amendment condemning the inquiry as “a smear.” Members of the group included movie stars Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Danny Kaye, Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Eddie Cantor.
The hearings concluded with Walt Disney testifying that Communists once “took over my studio,” United Press reported. “The 46-year-old creator of ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Donald Duck’ ” said a union leader who Disney believed “was a commie” had tried to gain control. But according to Disney, “at the present his studio is 100 percent American.”
The next week, the committee heard from “unfriendly” witnesses, including Hollywood writers and others who had been identified in testimony or in the panel’s own investigations as Communists or Communist sympathizers.
When screenwriter John Howard Lawson asked permission to read a statement, Chairman Thomas refused after seeing the first sentence, which according to the New York Times said, “Rational people don’t argue with dirt.” Lawson got into a shouting match with lawmakers and charged the committee with using “Hitler techniques of creating a scare.” When he refused to say whether he was a Communist or to name others, the committee cited him with contempt.
The next day, the panel cited three more writers with contempt: Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie and Dalton Trumbo, writer of the 1944 film “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” At the week’s third hearings, four more men were cited: screenwriters Herbert Biberman and Samuel Ornitz, along with Edward Dmytryk, director of the movie “Crossfire” (about antisemitism), and the film’s producer, Adrian Scott.
On the final day of the hearings, writers Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr. also refused to cooperate. When Lardner, the Academy Award-winning writer of the 1942 film “Woman of the Year,” was ordered to answer the question about being a Communist, he replied, “I could answer it, but I’d hate myself in the morning if I did.”
On Nov. 5, the House overwhelmingly approved the contempt orders, and in December, a federal grand jury indicted all 10 men. In early 1948, Trumbo and Lawson were convicted. They appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which in April 1950 declined to hear the case.
By mid-1950, all 10 men had been sentenced to prison. Eight of them received one-year sentences and a $1,000 fine, equal to about $12,000 today. Dmytryk and Biberman got six months in prison.
In early 1951, Dmytryk obtained his freedom by going before the HUAC again and naming 26 alleged Communists. He returned to work, directing such films as “The Caine Mutiny.”
The others were blacklisted in Hollywood but continued to work under assumed names after being released from prison. Trumbo won two screenwriting Oscars under fictitious names for “Roman Holiday” in 1954 and “The Brave One” in 1957. After the blacklist was lifted, Lardner won a second Academy Award in 1971 for co-writing the movie “M*A*S*H.”
In 1957, the Supreme Court in a 6-1 decision scaled back the HUAC’s powers by overturning the conviction of labor organizer John Watkins for refusing to name Communists in the labor movement. Since then, only two people have pleaded guilty to contempt of Congress charges: Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy and former Nixon attorney general Richard Kleindienst. Neither went to jail on those charges.
Whether Bannon will get jail time remains to be seen. In 1950, two of the Hollywood Ten — Cole and Lardner — got some consolation when they served time at the federal penitentiary in Danbury, Conn. An inmate there was former HUAC chairman Thomas, who had been convicted of congressional payroll padding. Before his conviction, Thomas had refused to testify before a grand jury on the grounds that he might incriminate himself.