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Reds in Tinseltown: The Cold War, Hollywood, and Blacklisting

Author: Matthew Menschner


Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts

Year: 2018

Seminar: History of Hollywood

Grade Level: 9-12

Keywords: American History, Cinematography, Cold War, Entertainment industry, Media, Media Strategies, Media Studies, Politics, Pop culture, Propaganda, World politics, World War II

School Subject(s): English, Literature, Social Studies

This unit seeks to engage students with a crucial piece of modern American history. The Cold War is often excised by history teachers as a nonessential topic that can be trimmed in favor of other, subjectively more important topics. Many students today may not have heard of the Hollywood 10, but they have heard of household names such as Walt Disney and President Ronald Reagan, who both testified in front of HUAC. Because the historical narrative of the HUAC and Hollywood 10 has roots in World War II and the Cold War, there are ample opportunities to cover multiple topics and time periods in a US History course. Furthermore, for teachers, the unit employs critical media strategies that extend beyond the scope of the unit. Film clips viewed in context is far more meaningful than viewing an entire film over consecutive class periods with a set of simple analysis questions.

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Full Unit Text

The students I teach come from a myriad of socioeconomic backgrounds. Many students are far below the appropriate literacy level for their age and grade. Despite this, I have observed in my time at this school that content-related interest and audiovisual supplements increase student engagement and overall success in a textually-dependent course such as U.S. History. As stated above, many students may not know much about the Cold War, McCarthyism, HUAC or the Red Scare, but they are familiar with popular figures such as John Wayne, Walt Disney, Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan. One of the intended goals of this unit is to impress upon students the necessity of exploring a topic or series of events from multiple perspectives, including, but not limited to, political, social, cultural, and economic contexts. The incorporation of film, verbal testimony, artistic imagery and propaganda will be utilized in an effort to build student engagement in a topic that many contemporary high school history classes barely gloss over.


Following World War II, in a period of tense foreign relations and espionage known as the Cold War, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union reached an all-time high. Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted a political witch hunt against alleged communists in the United

States. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) questioned thousands of Americans during the 1950s regarding their loyalty to the Communist Party; while McCarthy’s investigation sought out supposed communists in the U.S. government, HUAC eventually conducted an investigation into Hollywood, looking for subversive messages in film. HUAC did so by targeting the writers, producers, and actors who made them. During World War II, Hollywood produced wartime propaganda films that entertained soldiers, assisted with recruitment efforts and shaped public opinion regarding the war. In the postwar period, concerned with film’s potential for pro-communist subversion, committee legislators turned their gaze toward Hollywood. A group of 10 members of the Hollywood film industry refused to testify and publicly denounced the investigation, on the grounds that it was a violation of their First Amendment rights. The group that came to be known as the Hollywood Ten was paid in kind with jail sentences ranging from six months to a year and fines of up to $1,000.

Hollywood and World War II

Following World War II, in a period of tense foreign relations and espionage known as the Cold War, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union reached an all-time high. Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted a political witch hunt against alleged communists in the United

States. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) questioned thousands of Americans during the 1950s regarding their loyalty to the Communist Party; while McCarthy’s investigation sought out supposed communists in the U.S. government, HUAC eventually conducted an investigation into Hollywood, looking for subversive messages in film. HUAC did so by targeting the writers, producers, and actors who made them. During World War II, Hollywood produced wartime propaganda films that entertained soldiers, assisted with recruitment efforts and shaped public opinion regarding the war. In the postwar period, concerned with film’s potential for pro-communist subversion, committee legislators turned their gaze toward Hollywood. A group of 10 members of the Hollywood film industry refused to testify and publicly denounced the investigation, on the grounds that it was a violation of their First Amendment rights. The group that came to be known as the Hollywood Ten was paid in kind with jail sentences ranging from six months to a year and fines of up to $1,000.

Hollywood in the Cold War Era

“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

After the conclusion of World War II, there was a widespread wave of paranoia slowly encompassing the United States. The geopolitical rivalry known as the Cold War had enveloped American affairs and caused a fissure among the Hollywood community. Contrary to the bolstering role film played with regard to New Deal programs and the war effort, during the Cold War Hollywood fell under intense scrutiny as the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated producers, actors, and screenwriters in an effort to oust suspected communists. The HUAC hearings were at the forefront of contemporary media, taking over newspaper headlines and creating a television spectacle on a national scale.

Many would use the HUAC hearings for political gain or as a weapon in personal vendettas. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Ayn Rand and Walt Disney were just a few of the individuals who testified as friendly witnesses in an effort to oust Communists in the Hollywood community. Beginning by targeting the Anti-Nazi League, HUAC would eventually shift their focus to well-known actors and directors; finding subversive messages in films and taking on major Hollywood executives proved to be more trouble than it was worth. One noteworthy testimony by head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Eric Johnston, asserted that while Communists did exist in Hollywood, they had the right to hold controversial political views as long as they proved harmless to American democracy. The unfortunate reality was that many individuals under investigation found their civil rights and career prospects in jeopardy.

Witnesses that testified against alleged communists were “friendly,” as they supported the notion asserted by HUAC that subversive individuals and messages were present in Hollywood. Russian-born Ayn Rand, for example, testified Hollywood films did in fact exhibit procommunist messages. Critical of the 1944 film Song of Russia, Rand asserted that the film was pro-communism simply due to the fact that it showed Soviet citizens in high spirits. Rand would explain in detail that Song of Russia was pro-communist propaganda because it presented a idealistic view of life in the U.S.S.R.

Rand would later write a pamphlet called Screen Guide for Americans, with the purpose of teaching moviegoers how to identify communist propaganda in films. The pamphlet was published by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, who contained a large number of HUAC-friendly witnesses. The organization included members such as Gary Cooper, Cecil B. Demille, Clark Gable, Leo McCary, Ronald Reagan, and John Wayne. HUAC would go on to question Jack Warner about Mission to Moscow, which defended Soviet premier Joseph Stalin. The film even received his endorsement after its release. Warner encouraged HUAC to aggressively investigate Hollywood, and they relinquished their intense inquiries into him.

HUAC had difficulty pursuing pro-communist messages in films and as a result turned their attention to writers, producers, directors and actors in the industry. It was not simply enough to admit to being a communist, individuals called before HUAC who made such admissions were also asked to oust others in the industry, or “name names.” The simple act of being named could have disastrous repercussions; many were blacklisted from Hollywood and could not find work again. One HUAC-friendly witness, Elia Kazan, directed On the Waterfront. Starring Marlon Brando, the film made a strong case for informing and is a powerful example of the direct effect that HUAC had on Hollywood. Kazan would later receive an honorary Oscar, though many would lambast this decision on behalf of the Academy.

Not all witnesses were friendly. One group who came to be known as the Hollywood Ten refused to testify and were rewarded with jail sentences lasting from six months to a year, and $1,000 fines. The Hollywood Ten included Alvah Bessie, Herbert J. Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo. HUAC found the belligerents to be in contempt of Congress and many studios tried to separate themselves from the Hollywood Ten. Some studio heads legitimately feared communist infiltration, but the environment also bred contempt and gave studios greater control over their employees. Being blacklisted during the Cold War meant it would be near-impossible to find work; being labeled a communist was perhaps one of the most financially devastating punitive measures that could be inflicted on an individual.

The studios quickly distanced themselves from the unfriendly witnesses, as they were already dealing with the financial burdens brought on by the prevalence of television and resumed antitrust investigations. In the words of MPAA head Eric Johnston, reflecting HUAC and industry attitudes at the time, “the performance of the ‘unfriendly’ witnesses was a ‘tremendous disservice’ to the film industry…” (Ceplair and Englund 326) While appearing as an unfriendly witness could certainly destroy someone’s reputation and livelihood, some writers were able to persist in the industry through fronts and pseudonyms. In 1976, The Front, starring Woody Allen, epitomized the risk and reward scheme of the HUAC-era climate. Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, spent time in jail, went broke, and even moved to Mexico for a time after being blacklisted. While he received far less for writing scripts via fronts, he was still about to subsist in an otherwise uninhabitable work environment.

Several anti-communist films were released between 1942 and 1953. Movies like The Iron Curtain, The Red Menace, Conspirator, My Son John, and The Steel Fist exemplified that communists had replaced the Nazis as Hollywood villains. Westerns like High Noon contained allegorical messages regarding Cold War and HUAC tensions. In response to High Noon, John Wayne made Big Jim McLain, showing HUAC investigators in a more heroic and admirable light.

Other films took a more comical and satirical approach. Dr. Stangelove, satirized the tensions of the Cold War and mutually assured destruction via nuclear warfare, while Charlie Chaplain’s A King in New York told the near-true story of a HUAC testimony that he narrowly avoided. In a period of intense political and personal investigations, hindsight shows that these films appeared to take an appropriate response to the madness of the day. The usage of films as a propaganda tool took an about-face in the Cold War era; after rallying support for New Deal programs and the war effort, politically-fueled messages in film and the individuals who made them became the enemy. While many careers and lives were ruined by the HUAC investigation and subsequent blacklisting, Hollywood films still remained a powerful weapon in the arsenal of those involved.


This unit is intended for students in a 10th grade U.S. History course, but is also applicable to other humanities courses. This year, students meet on a rotating A/B schedule, with 90 minute periods. Teachers operating under a period schedule, with classes that meet every day, can amend the activities to fit their allotted time.

The objectives for this unit include the following:

  • Establish a timeline of key events occurring before, during and after the Red Scare
  • Contextualize these events within the greater history of Hollywood
  • Examine the usage and development of Hollywood films as propaganda, including their relevance and impact on the HUAC investigations
  • Examine multimedia such as film, music, etc. as it pertains to Hollywood and the HUAC investigation
  • Make connections between the development of attitudes among the establishment in the Cold War era and today


This unit will require students to develop and make use of critical viewing, listening, reading and thinking skills as we examine a wide range of film clips, scripts, primary sources and more in an effort to gain understanding of Hollywood’s role and influence throughout WWII and the Cold War.

Students will be asked to access and assess a myriad of information in multiple formats via a variety of strategies:

Critical Vocabulary
It is essential to establish a critical vocabulary of film grammar so that students may adequately and appropriately analyze the films shown in class. The vocabulary serves the dual purpose of providing students with a language to assess film, while also fostering authentic dialogue as students analyze media with industry terms.

Students learn cooperatively by splitting into pairs or groups for reading and/or viewing assignments. They can be assigned into groups by reading levels, proximity, etc. Each student or group is responsible for either a complete text, or a portion of an article that they will then explain after rotating to a new group or the entire class.

Graphic Organizers
For this unit, I will be utilizing a Cornell Note taker graphic organizer for most of the direct instruction in class. Other graphic organizers include, but are not limited to, KWL charts, Venn diagrams, Frayer models, 10% summaries, brainstorm webs, and cause-and-effect charts.

Film/Clip Analysis
An integral part of this unit, films and clips will be shown as they relate to the material covered in class. At some points it may be necessary to show isolated clips from a film, other situations may call for a film to be shown in its entirety. Judicious use of film is encouraged, as this unit attempts to utilize various media with an authentic and contextually appropriate methodology.

Parking Lot
Sticky notes will be provided for students individually or in groups, depending on the activity. They can use them to write down any questions they may have and they can place their question on the chart paper “parking lot” on the wall. This prevents constant interruptions to answer individual questions that could potentially be cleared up before the end of the lesson.

Socratic Seminar
Socratic Seminars and fishbowl activities encourage whole-class discussions and foster critical thinking. Students will be required to discuss scenes, clips or films as they relate to the unit content. Guiding questions are provided as an impetus for dialogue for students in the inner circle. Students sitting in the outer circle transcribe conversations, take notes and formulate ideas for the next phase of the activity.

Classroom Activities

Lesson One: Film Grammar, Critical Vocabulary

Objectives: Students will be able to define and critically examine industry vocabulary in order to build an essential terminology by which to assess unit content. Students will record vocabulary terms in their notes and complete a Frayer Model graphic organizer to generate examples and images to illustrate the meaning of each term.

Materials and resources

Yale Film Analysis Web Site:




  • Teacher-selected clips or still images provided as examples for each term

Frayer Model: A graphic organizer for building student vocabulary. Students will define the terms and generate examples and non-examples, i.e. what each term is and is not. On the backside of the graphic organizer students either draw an image or find a film clip exemplifying the vocabulary term.

Vocabulary terms:

  • Mise-en-scene
  • Editing
  • Framing
  • Focus
  • Cinematography

Step One: Explain that the purpose of this lesson is to develop a critical vocabulary which will be utilized throughout the rest of the unit. The first activity will take place over one class period and will consist of multiple parts. The categories listed above have numerous terms that can be broken down in greater detail with examples for each.

Step Two: At the front of the room, display either a still image from a scene or a short clip. Ask students to record what they observe in the scene, being as detailed as possible. Guide students by suggesting that they list as many things as possible, no matter how seemingly obvious they may appear. Ask students to share some of the items they listed. Explain to students that there is a set of industry terms that can be used to describe the scene, including set pieces, editing techniques, colors and more.

Step Three: Distribute the Frayer Model graphic organizers. Display the terms on the board for students to copy. Alternatively, a list of terms can be provided for students, while they independently search and copy them using the Yale Film Analysis Web Site. Individually or in small groups, students will complete the Frayer Models, providing restated definitions in their own words, characteristics, examples and non-examples.

Closing Activity: Have students sketch a scene that exemplifies the defined terms. Alternatively, using the computer, students may curate a set of still images or film clips that exemplify each term using Youtube or the Movieclips website.

Lesson Two: Propaganda Defined

Objectives: Students will be able to define propaganda and its uses in order to understand the role it played in raising domestic support for the war effort. By completing a primary source analysis, students will generate ideas about what messages are embedded in propaganda and what motivations creators may have had in their production.

Materials and Resources

Film: Why We Fight: Prelude to War

Books: Propaganda: The Art of Persuasion World War II – Anthony Rhodes

Student-curated photographs or advertisements

Step One: As a homework assignment, ask students to bring in a photo, advertisement or other image that has had an effect on them. Perhaps the image changed their mind somehow or convinced them to buy a product or enroll in a program. Spend 5-10 minutes discussing how these images have influenced students and if they were successful in their intended goals.

Step Two: Explain to students that media such as images, film or broadcasts can have a substantial effect on an individual or a population. Just as advertisements convince consumers to buy goods, propaganda during wartime influenced Americans to support the war effort and oppose the Axis powers during World War II. Direct students to the front of the board, displaying an image of Nazi propaganda such as the Third Reich or heroic poses of Adolf Hitler. Describe how these images were used to rally the German people around nationalist ideology and popular support.

Step Three: Divide the class into small groups and distribute a series of images to each group. Using the Rhodes book select 2-3 images from each chapter, paying special attention to American, German, Soviet and Japanese propaganda images. Using a timer, give students approximately 30 seconds with each image, instructing them to write down as many things they notice. Students should pay attention to things like the use of color, how people are posed, whether they are depicted positively, negatively, weak, strong, etc. After the conclusion of the activity, reconvene as a class and discuss the findings for each image.

Step Four: Show clips from Prelude to War, part of the Why we Fight series. Pay particular attention to clips depicting the Nazi propaganda machine. Explain that propaganda became an effective tool to raise support during World War II among Americans. Director Frank Capra created the series of films in response to a Nazi propaganda film called Triumph of the Will. Clips from Triumph can be shown in juxtaposition to Prelude to War. Using a Venn diagram, students will identify similarities and differences based on criteria and discussions covered thus far in class.

Closing Activity: Have students create propaganda images of their own. Utilizing ideas from prior activities, remind students that color, posture and message are critical in forming effective propaganda. Students can present their images to the class to stimulate further discussion.

Lesson Three: World War II in Film

Objectives: Students will be able to analyze and discuss film clips from the World War II era in order to understand how film was used to inform the American public and raise support for the war.

Materials and Resources


  • Confessions of a Nazi Spy
  • Objective Burma!
  • Three Brothers (Private Snafu)
  • You, John Jones!

Step One: For a hook activity, ask students to describe a film that has made an impact on them. It could be a film that they viewed with family, something that made them laugh, cry or elicited an emotional response. Discuss with the class the effects that film can have on individuals.

Step Two: Instruct students that president Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw Hollywood as an effective tool in the war effort. The Office of War Information was widely politicized on June 13, 1942 and solidified Hollywood film as an effective medium through which to inform and rally support among Americans. Film was used to inform about specific battles, educate and entertain soldiers, spread anti-Axis propaganda and more.

Step Three: Show clips from Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Stimulate discussion over Nazis and their role in Germany’s rise to power in the 1930s and 40s. Confessions was the first anti-Nazi film from a major American studio. Have students discuss the merits of film as an effective propaganda tool.

Step Four: Use You, John Jones! as an example of American propaganda. The film can be shown in its entirety, due to the 11-minute runtime. You, John Jones! exemplifies American fears of air raids and violence. The recital of the Gettysburg Address is meant to elicit feelings of patriotism and confidence in American ideals. Have students critique the film as propaganda.

Step Five: Show Three Brothers. Students may recognize a cameo from Bugs Bunny in the film. Explain that films in the Private Snafu series were designed to education and instruct servicemen in the United States armed forces. At the end of the film, Private Snafu returns to his job of sorting boots, proclaiming his seemingly mundane task is important. Have students discuss the merits of Private Snafu relative to its intended goal of educated servicemen.

Step Six: Objective, Burma! can be used to exemplify the experience of soldiers during World War II. Films such as this were used to entertain, but also to educate about specific engagements such as the six-month raid in the Burma Campaign.

Closing Activity: Have students rank, in their opinion, the overall effectiveness of each film as a propaganda tool. Provide criteria such as education, persuasion, entertainment, etc. Inform students that films such as Objective, Burma! were nominated for academy awards and had generally positive reviews.

[Please see PDF attached above for additional lesson plans & appendices]

Works Cited

Buhle, Paul, and Dave Wagner. Blacklisted: the Film Lover’s Guide to the Hollywood Blacklist. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Written by two experts of the blacklist period, the book details the era and its aftermath. The book explains where many blacklistees ended up after being driven out of Hollywood. This book is useful regarding the latter portions of the unit, particularly for providing context and analysis of The Front.

Ceplair, Larry, and Steven Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-60. University of Illinois Press, 2003.

An indispensable book for background knowledge acquisition. As the title expresses, the piece details the prevalence and influences of politics in film throughout Hollywood from before World War II and into the Cold War period.

Decherney, Peter. Hollywood: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2016.

A concise, detailed and enthralling account of the history of Hollywood. Covering everything from Edison to YouTube, the book serves as a fantastic primer for the uninitiated, or those looking to refresh their knowledge of the industry’s evolution. Teachers are recommended to read the book in its entirety for the acquisition of necessary background knowledge. Excerpts from the book could be used for classroom activities, as the innate brevity lends itself well to time constraints in the classroom.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: a New History. Penguin Books, 2007.

The preeminent scholarly work on the history of the Cold War. Gaddis details an exhaustive account of both American and global perspectives of the conflict. The book also includes great photographs which could easily be used as primary sources for lesson activities.

Stanley, Jason. How Propaganda Works. Princeton University Press, 2017.

A complex breakdown of propaganda, its many forms, and the way it is utilized in contemporary societies. Stanley’s book is useful for developing a working definition of propaganda, which can be a difficult task.

Annotated Bibliography

Boyer, Paul S. American History: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2012.

A useful primer for those looking to brush up on their knowledge of American history, or simply looking for concise summaries of various historical periods. Excerpts could be pulled to use for in-class activities or discussions.

Dmytryk, Edward. Odd Man out: a Memoir of the Hollywood Ten. Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

A firsthand account of the life and career of one of the Hollywood Ten. Director Edward Dmytryk was fired by RKO after being held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify. A myriad of passages can be cited for classroom activities. Dmytryk explores prejudices of the factions involved with the congressional hearings, as well as interactions with other members of the Hollywood Ten.

Orwell, George. You and the Atomic Bomb. The Complete Works of George Orwell,, Accessed 20 February 2018.

An excellent and concise essay on the atomic bomb and its destructive capabilities. Orwell’s piece is especially relevant to the unit because it helps readers to empathize with national attitudes about the atomic bomb. This resource can be used to show students how mutually assured destruction and the military-industrial complex fueled fears alongside the Red Scare during the Cold war.

Rhodes, Anthony. Propaganda: The Art of Persuasion World War II. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1976.

An exhaustive collection of World War II propaganda. Contains invaluable resources and examples of propaganda from both the Allied and Axis sides. The resources contained within are incredibly useful as primary sources and supplementary pieces to be used throughout the unit.

Shull, Michael S., and David E. Wilt. Hollywood War Films, 1937-1945: an Exhaustive Filmography of American Feature-Length Motion Pictures Relating to World War II. McFarland & Co., 2005.

As the title suggests, an in-depth list of films related to World War II. This book is an excellent resource in deciding what films and clips to discuss throughout the unit.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.

A detailed history told from the perspective of the individual, rather than the whole. Howard Zinn argues that the popularity of and support for World War II was manufactured by institutions of American society. Excerpts from this chapter would coincide well with the lesson on WWII propaganda in film. An excellent book to consult for any history class.


Capra, Frank, director. Prelude to War. Office of War Information, 1942.

Curtiz, Michael, director. Yankee Doodle Dandy. Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1942.

Freleng, Friz, director. Three Brothers (Private Snafu). Warner Bros., 1944.

Kazan, Elia, director. On the Waterfront. Columbia Pictures, 1954.

LeRoy, Mervyn, director. You, John Jones! Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, 1943.

Litvak, Anatole, director. Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Warner Bros., 1939.

Ludwig, Edward, director. Big Jim McLain. Warner Bros., 1952.

Ritt, Martin, director. The Front. Columbia Pictures, 1976.

Walsh, Raoul, director. Objective Burma! Warner Bros., 1945.

Zinnemann, Fred, director. High Noon. United Artists, 1951.


Arts and Humanities:

9.2 Historical and Cultural Contexts

9.2.3.A Explain the historical, cultural, and social context of an individual work in the


9.2.3.B Relate works in the arts chronologically to historical events.

9.2.3.C Relate works in the arts to varying styles and genre and to the periods in which

they were created.

9.2.3.D Analyze a work of art from its historical and cultural perspective.

9.2.3.E Analyze how historical events and culture impact forms, techniques and purposes

of works in the arts.

9.2.3.F Know and apply appropriate vocabulary used between social studies and the arts

and humanities.

9.2.3.G Relate works in the arts to geographic regions.

9.2.3.J Identify, explain and analyze historical and cultural differences as they relate to

works in the arts.

9.2.3.K Identify, explain and analyze traditions as they relate to works in the arts.


1.3 Reading, Analyzing and Interpreting Literature

1.3.3.A Read and understand works of literature.

1.4 Types of Writing

1.4.3.B Write informational pieces using illustrations when relevant.

1.6 Speaking and Listening

1.6.3.D Contribute to discussions.

1.6.3.E Participate in small and large group discussions and presentations.

1.6.3.F Use media for learning purposes.