Bannon Verdict: Former Trump Strategist Guilty of Contempt of Congress
Contempt of Congress is rarely prosecuted and even more rarely leads to jail time. The last time anyone was sentenced to confinement was during the “Red Scare” at the start of the Cold War.
The 10 men known as the “Hollywood Ten” were screenwriters, directors and film producers who refused to tell the controversial House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) if they were communists.
In October 1947, the panel’s House caucus room became Hollywood on the Potomac when motion picture industry executives testified at hearings conducted by Chairman J. Parnell Thomas (RN.J.) on an alleged communist infiltration in industry.
The first week featured what the committee called “friendly” witnesses — those seen as reliable anti-communists. The first was Jack Warner, vice president of Warner Bros., who said he fired six writers for trying to inject “un-American tendencies” into his studio’s scripts. But Warner said “he had never seen a Communist and would not know any if he saw him,” United Press reported.
The next day, the star witness was 57-year-old actor Adolph Menjou. “Nattily dressed in a brown double-breasted suit with white chalk stripes,” the mustachioed Menjou told the committee.
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Rep. Richard M. Nixon (R-California), a member of the committee, asked the actor what tests he uses to spot a communist. Menjou replied, “Well, I would consider attending a meeting where Paul Robeson appears, applauding him and listening to his communist songs would be good.” (Robeson was a black singer and civil rights activist who had been accused of being a communist.)
All 397 committee room seats were filled, mostly by women, for the third session with 36-year-old actor Robert Taylor. “The famous lead actor took the witness chair, lit a cigarette and said to members of Congress, ‘There is always a certain group of actors and actresses whose every action would tell me that s ‘They’re not communists, they work awfully hard to be one,’ the AP reported. Ahead of the next hearing, the AP wrote, Thomas obtained an additional detail from Capitol police after several ” were bruised and jostled by a rush of women sighing to see Robert Taylor”.
The fourth day of hearings brought together an all-star cast, including Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan, 36, then president of the Screen Actors Guild. The Communists, said Reagan, had tried to “take hold” of the film industry, but had not succeeded. He added, “I hate communist philosophy. … However, as a citizen, I hope that we will never be prompted by fear or resentment of the Communists to compromise any of our democratic principles in order to fight it.
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After the hearing, actor John Garfield passed off a statement from a new Hollywood First Amendment committee condemning the investigation as “defamation.” Band members included movie stars Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Danny Kaye, Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Eddie Cantor.
The hearings ended with Walt Disney testifying that the Communists had once “taken over my studio,” United Press reported. “The 46-year-old creator of ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Donald Duck’,” said a labor leader who Disney said “was a coco” tried to take control. But according to Disney, “currently, its studio is 100% American”.
The following 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, President Thomas refused after seeing the first sentence, which the New York Times said read, “Rational people don’t argue with dirt.” Lawson got into a shouting match with lawmakers and accused the committee of using “Hitlerian techniques to create fear.” When he declined to say whether he was a communist or to name others, the committee quoted him with contempt.
The next day, the panel quoted three other writers with contempt: Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie and Dalton Trumbo, author of the 1944 film “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” During the third hearings of the week, four other men were named: screenwriters Herbert Biberman and Samuel Ornitz, as well as Edward Dmytryk, director of the film “Crossfire” (about anti-Semitism), and the film’s producer, Adrian Scott .
On the final day of hearings, writers Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr. also refused to cooperate. When Lardner, the Oscar-winning author of the 1942 film “Woman of the Year,” was ordered to answer the question about being a communist, he replied, “I could answer that, but I would hate myself in the morning if I did.”
On November 5, the House overwhelmingly approved the contempt orders, and in December a federal grand jury indicted all 10 men. Early in 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 the mid-1950s, all 10 men had been sentenced to prison. Eight of them received a one-year sentence and a $1,000 fine, or about $12,000 today. Dmytryk and Biberman received six months in prison.
In early 1951, Dmytryk won his freedom by again appearing before the HUAC and naming 26 alleged communists. He returned to work, directing films such 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 scripts Oscars under fictitious names for ‘Roman Holiday’ in 1954 and ‘The Brave One’ in 1957. After being lifted from the blacklist, Lardner won a second Oscar in 1971 for co-writing the film ‘M*A*S *H”.
In 1957, the Supreme Court, in a 6-to-1 decision, curtailed the powers of HUAC by overturning the conviction of labor organizer John Watkins for refusing to appoint Communists to 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 for these charges.
Whether Bannon will be imprisoned remains to be seen. In 1950, two of the Hollywood Ten – Cole and Lardner – got some consolation when they served time at the federal petition in Danbury, Connecticut. One detainee was former HUAC chairman Thomas, who was convicted of padding the congressional payroll. Prior to his sentencing, Thomas had refused to testify before a grand jury on the grounds that he might incriminate himself.