In January 1945 the House of Representatives established a permanent standing committee called the House Un-American Activities Committee to replace various temporary committees investigating communism that had met since 1930. Part of its mission was the investigation of the amount of communist influence in Hollywood.
On May 8 and 9, 1947, a sub-committee of the HUAC consisting of Rep. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ) and two others, held closed hearings in Los Angeles at the Biltmore Hotel. Fourteen film industry personalities testified voluntarily with the promise of confidentiality. These included Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, Lela Rogers (mother of Ginger), Jack Warner and Adolphe Menjou.(1)
Despite the committee’s promise that all testimony would be private and confidential,
Thomas immediately released Robert Taylor’s testimony to the media. He reported that Mr. Taylor had testified that he had been forced to make the movie Song of Russia. According to Thomas, “Mr. Taylor testified that he was going into the Navy at the time and that the government went so far as to keep him out of the Navy until he completed the picture.” He added that Taylor’s testimony proved that “persons in the government were aiding and abetting Communism to the extent of getting prominent actors to play parts they protested.”(2)
Robert Taylor was, understandably, outraged by this betrayal. He had spoken honestly and believed that the public report made him look “silly” at the very least. To add to Taylor’s discomfort, his boss, friend and mentor Louis B. Mayer publicly disavowed him by inviting members of the committee to a private showing of Song of Russia. Mayer said they could see for themselves that it was “simply a love story.” This is the only time in nearly twenty years that the two were seriously at odds.(3)
Following this betrayal, Robert Taylor was adamantly opposed to testifying at the public hearings in Washington D.C. in October of 1947. He was not a very friendly witness, a friendly witness or even a reluctant witness (the latter two are official HUAC categories). He was a subpoenaed witness.
Anticipating this, on September 23, 1947 Mr. Taylor sent a letter to H. A. Smith, a private investigator working for the HUAC who was assessing potential witnesses to weed out crackpots. Smith had informed Taylor that he would probably be subpoenaed. Taylor replied:
“I’ve never cared a whole helluva lot for politicians, whether they be Republican or Democrat. And I’ve certainly never believed it inherent in my job as a motion picture actor to aid in feathering any of their nests for them via publicity from my name.
“These investigations, the way they’re being run in Washington at the moment, remind me more of a 3-Ring Circus than of a sincere effort to rid the country of a real threat…..
“If I am subpoenaed and I sincerely hope that something can be done to pigeon-hole that subpoena—I shall, naturally, go to Washington for the investigation. I will feel utterly ridiculous and shall resent every minute of the whole thing…Moreover as a “friendly” witness, I shall be friendly to the cause; as far as being friendly to the Committee itslef [sic] is concerned that possibility went out the window the last time I was ‘crossed up.’”(4)
Two days later the following was issued:
Communism in the Motion Picture Industry
Exhibit 39, Subpena[sic]—Robert Taylor
Marshall’s Civil Docket, No. 32080, Vol. 58, p. 486
By Authority of the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States of America
To: Robert E. Clark United States Marshall
You are commanded to summon Robert Taylor, 807 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, California (residence), to be and appear before the Un-American Activities Committee of the House of Representatives of the United States, of which the Hon. J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey is chairman, in their chamber in the city of Washington, on Forthwith, at the hour of, then and there to testify touching matters of inquiry committed to said Committee; and he is not to depart without leave of said Committee.
Witness my hand and the seal of the House of Representatives of the United States, at the city of Washington, this 25th day of September, 1947.
(Signed) J. Parnell Thomas
Attest: John Andrews, Clerk
(United States Congress, House Committee on un-American Hearings regarding the communist infiltration of the motion picture industry, Hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress, first session. Public law 601)
If a person ignores such a subpoena, he or she can be held in contempt of Congress. “Following a contempt citation, the person cited is arrested by the Sergeant-at-Arms for the House or Senate, brought to the floor of the chamber, held to answer charges by the presiding officer, and then subjected to punishment as the chamber may dictate (usually imprisonment for punishment reasons, imprisonment for coercive effect, or release from the contempt citation).(5).
Having secured Robert Taylor’s participation in the hearings by threat of imprisonment, the Committee promptly announced the date and time of his appearance. This was not done for any other witness. They also officially reclassified him from a reluctant witness to a friendly witness.
The following newspaper reports capture the atmosphere of the hearing:
“Hundreds of sighing women crammed into the hearing room of the House Un-American Activities Committee on Wednesday to see and hear the screen lover, Robert Taylor, denounce Communism in Hollywood. Taylor, who was the only person in the room unconcerned over the dazzling Klieg lights and whirring cameras, completed his evidence in 25 minutes. Police had to escort him through the surging crowd, some of whom shouted ‘Hooray for Robert Taylor.’”(6)
“The tone for Taylor’s appearance was set when he lifted his hand to take the oath to tell the truth. ‘Get your hand back,” yelled a photographer. You’re hiding your face.’ Taylor complied as if his favorite director was[sic] giving orders.”(7)
“Taylor arrived outside the committee room about 15 minutes before the start of the afternoon session. Preceded by a corps of motion picture and still cameramen, he paused at the entrance for photographs, much to the delight of hundreds of spectators who had waited hours to see him. The crowd clapped and cooed as Taylor smiled and the motion picture cameras whirred. When he entered the committee room, the crowd behind him surged forward, but was halted at the door. Taylor settled into the witness chair, lit a cigaret….” (8)
What exactly did Robert Taylor say that day? Fortunately the entire hearing was recorded and transcripts are widely available.
Mr. Taylor is first asked by Robert Stripling (Attorney for the HUAC) whether he has been concerned about the influence of communists on the motion picture industry. He replies that he has, possibly referring to the CSU strike. He is then asked if he has noticed any possible communist activities in SAG. His reply:
Mr. Taylor. Well, yes, sir; I must confess that I have. I am a member of the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild. Quite recently. I have been very active as a director of that board. It seems to me that at meetings, especially meetings of the general membership of the guild, there is always a certain group of actors and actresses whose every action would indicate to me that if they are not Communists they are working awfully hard to be Communists. I don’t know. Their tactics and their philosophies seem to me to be pretty much party-line stuff.
Stripling then asks what kind of actions at meetings Taylor is referencing. Taylor replies that they bring up irrelevant points and drag meetings out for hours. Stripling asks if Taylor can name anyone who disrupts meetings this way. Taylor replies:
Mr. Taylor. Well, yes, sir; I can name a few who seem to sort of disrupt things once in awhile. Whether or not they are Communists, I don’t know.
Mr. Stripling: Would you name them for the committee, please?
This question, and the later question about writers, are the basis of the entire Robert Taylor controversy. When Stripling asked for names, Robert Taylor had three choices:
1. Refuse to answer and risk a contempt of Congress citation.
2. Lie and say he didn’t know any names. This would not have been believable.
It would also have been morally unacceptable to someone of Mr. Taylor’s character.
3. Answer the question honestly.
Mr. Taylor. One chap we have currently, I think, is Mr. Howard Da Silva. He always seems to have something to say at the wrong time. Miss Karen Morley also usually appears at the guild meetings.
Mr. Stripling. That is K-a-r-e-n M-o-r-l-e-y?
Mr. Taylor. I believe so; yes, sir. Those are two I can think of right at the moment.
Ironically, although Mr. Taylor did not call either Da Silva or Morley Communists, both of them were. Howard Da Silva joined the party in the 1930s (9)and was associated with a number of communist front organizations including the National Conference of the Arts, Sciences and Professions.(10) Ronald Reagan recalled Da Silva menacing John Garfield after Garfield had failed to toe the Communist line at a meeting.(11)
Karen Morley’s explanation was simpler. “In [an] interview at the time of the 1999 [International Film] festival, she told the San Francisco Weekly: ‘I was what you’d call a ‘pillow red.’ I became a communist because I fell in love with a man who was a red and entered the Army to take care of the fascists, and I knew it would please him if I became one.”(12)
The Committee then moves on to Song of Russia. After some discussion of Mr. Taylor’s objections to the picture, he says the following:
Mr. Taylor. [M]ay I clarify something?
Mr. Stripling. Yes; go right ahead.
Mr. Taylor. If I ever gave the impression in anything that appeared previously that I was forced into making Song of Russia, I would like to say in my own defense, lest I look a little silly by saying I was ever forced to do the picture, I was not forced because nobody can force you to make any picture. I objected to it but in deference to the situation as it then existed I did the picture.
This Clintonesque explanation depends on the definition of “force.” Nobody can hold a gun to someone’s head and force him to make a picture. However, “in deference to the situation as it then existed” could certainly refer to Mr. Taylor’s being threatened with the cancellation of his Navy commission if he didn’t cooperate. Mr. Taylor’s joining the navy was not being postponed– he was in the navy. He was not allowed to report for duty until he finished Song of Russia. This is certainly a form of coercion or force.
Later, the questioning turns to writers. Robert Taylor is asked whether he is personally acquainted with writers who are communists. He says:
Mr. Taylor. I know one gentleman employed at the studio at which I am employed. Mr. Lester Cole, who is reputedly a Communist. I would not know personally.
This is a very odd answer. Lester Cole wrote Robert Taylor’s movie High Wall earlier in 1947.
Later in his testimony Mr. Taylor says he would never knowingly work on a movie with a communist. I can only surmise that Taylor was unaware of Cole’s politics when they worked together but had since learned of his affiliation. Taylor would have felt betrayed if MGM, knowing his views as they did, had teamed him with a communist.
Once again, Robert Taylor did not call someone a communist, although he came closer than he had with Da Silva and Morley. In his autobiography Hollywood Red: the Autobiography of Lester Cole(Ramparts Press, 1981), Cole confessed that “The niche he achieved, finally, was that of an open, unreconstructed Red. He had wanted, he writes, to disclose his C.P. affiliation in 1942 (‘But the Party ruled against it’–lest I ‘harm my effectiveness’ as a Screen Writers Guild official); but in 1972 he came ‘out of the (political) closet’ (13)
After some back and forth with committee member Richard Nixon about possible reprisals from the left for Mr. Taylor’s testimony, which will be discussed in part three of this article, Robert Stripling asks whether Mr. Taylor would approve of outlawing the Communist Party in America. The answer:
Mr. Taylor. If outlawing the Communist Party would solve the Communist threat in this country then I am thoroughly in approval and accord with it being outlawed.
To summarize, Robert Taylor felt betrayed by the HUAC after they leaked his supposedly confidential testimony in May 1947. He regarded the October hearings as a “three-ring circus” and would only participate if forced to by subpoena. Mr. Taylor answered questions for twenty-five minutes. He was straightforward about his hatred for communism and its influence on the motion picture industry. He “named names” only in response to direct questions. Robert Taylor did not call anyone a communist.
1. Remembering the Hollywood 10 by Ed Rampell, http://www.truthdig.com. October 8, 2007.
2. Menjou and Taylor Flay Movie Reds, San Jose News, 1947.
3. Robert Taylor’s Challenge on Communism Met,Sidney Morning Herald, Australia, May 20, 1947, p. 3.
4. Records of the House Un-American Activities Committee,quoted by Jack D. Meeks in a Dissertation for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of Maryland, 2009, p. 155.
5. Contempt of Congress from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
6. The Examiner,Launceston, Tasmania, October 24, 1947.
7. St. Petersburg Times, October 23, 1947.
8. The Miami News, October 22, 1947.
9. John Simkin, Gus Hall and the American Communist Party. The Educational Forum online.
10.Review of the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace, by the HUAC, April 19, 1949.
11.Bob Hertzberg, The Left Side of the Screen: Communist and Left-Wing Ideology in Hollywood, New York, McFarland, 2011, p. 175.
12.Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2003.
13.Kirkus Review of Hollywood Red: the Autobiography of Lester Cole, Ramparts Press, 1981.