This month’s Little Blog of Horror is a true horror story: The Hollywood Blacklist was a list of people in the entertainment industry denounced by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). Anyone suspected of ever having had Communist sympathies could be arrested, vilified – and never allowed to work again in the US. Roy Frumkes looks at The Whip Hand, 1951, and some of the most terrifying years in Hollywood history.
I came across a fascinating film on DVD, called The Whip Hand. It’s being released by Warner Archives as a MOD (manufactured on demand), but we should have it in the 4th floor library. It has no supplementals, but the Warner Archive restoration department is an excellent one, and the disc is in very nice condition.
Now what is it about this 1951 film that’s so alluring? Well, have you heard of the Communist witch hunt of the 1940s & 50s? It was a difficult time in the US, with government hearings designed to out communist sympathizers, and it particularly targeted the arts because busting a supposed commie with a high public profile would do more good than busting a waiter or a taxi driver.
Hollywood got behind the purge, sometimes glumly, sometimes obdurately, but every day after I got back from grade school, I could see the B&W image on our TV covering the hearings. There weren’t but a few channels back then, and so tuning in to the House Un-American hearings was impossible to avoid. I don’t specifically remember famous filmmakers like Elia Kazan testifying and ‘naming names,’ but one of the names named was Arnaud D’Usseau, who taught screenwriting at SVA for many years, and he told me that although he met his future-wife in Paris after being forced to leave the country, and had a family he greatly loved, he still would never forgive Kazan for naming him and so many others, many of whom never worked in the industry again.
A number of feature films were made in Hollywood in those years which reflected the ‘cold war’ fears, and these films only flamed the cold flames. A few starred John Wayne, and the posters make it appear that fighting the commies is good old-fashioned fun like one of his Westerns, in which native-Americans were his target.
Another was The Whip Hand, in which communist sympathizers infiltrate the U.S., and are experimenting with something lethal that could wipe us all out. A non-entity of a protagonist, ostensibly on a solo fishing trip, stumbles upon this operation and, at first, just finds it odd. But slowly he wises up, and as a result his life is put in peril.
The film has a sort of Hitchcock feel, but in fact it was directed (initially) and production designed by the great William Cameron Menzies. Menzies pioneered the filed of Production Design, and a book has just come out about his career by James Curtis called ‘William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come.’ In the version of the film that he directed, the villains were Nazis, and a Hitler-in-hiding even made an appearance in act three (none of that footage remains, I gather). However, studio boss Howard Hughes had a bad habit of re-filming scenes and playing musical chairs with writers and directors after films were completed, and this project was no exception. Apparently he decided that Nazis had seen their day in Hollywood, and it was now the Communists’ turn. The ending, and other scenes, were re-filmed, and not a trace of a Nazi remained (except that the peripheral bad guys all looked suspiciously like blonde Arians…).
At the time, the cast and crew were livid at Hughes’ interference. But today, this film is a fascinating glimpse back in time to a frightful period in our country’s history, when the populace felt its shores were very likely being invaded. There is a real sense of hysteria in the black & white images, and in the intensity of the acting, that describes that 50s state of mind.
I actually like the film quite a bit, but it’s impossible to separate the subject matter from pure aesthetics. For another look at this subject, this time with the paranoia just under the surface as subtext, check out Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released in 1956 when a great many filmmakers were still barred from the industry. The black list wouldn’t be broken until 1960, by Kirk Douglas, Otto Preminger, and Stanley Kubrick.