Cancelling Credits in Cold War Hollywood
“Cancel Culture” is not new to Hollywood. During the Cold War, Hollywood tried to “cancel” its best and brightest talent. The results were both absurd and horrifying. This history should be studied as a lesson for today.
[Since the term “Cancel Culture” itself has become a Rorschach Blot, let me be clear about what I am referring to. By “Cancel Culture” I mean a moral judgment (whether for racism, communism, or any other reason) passed on a person, and the “consequence” imposed of “cancelling” that person’s work or legacy from our culture.]
BACKSTORY — THE GRAPES OF WRATH
John Steinbeck’s story of the Joad family’s journey from individual despair to hope in the form of collective action paralleled the surge of collective action during the Great Depression and New Deal. Denounced as “obscene and subversive,” the book was banned in several places, and actually ordered burned in East St. Luis. When the Associated Farmers of California got wind that this subversive book was going to be made into a movie, they called for a boycott of all Twentieth Century Fox releases. Instead of “cancelling” the movie, Darryl F. Zanuck assigned the script to Nunnally Johnson.
Johnson happened to be one of the early officers of the Screenwriters Guild, now known as the Writers Guild of America. The Screenwriters Guild was born out of a meeting of ten writers at the Knickerbocker Hotel, on February 3, 1933. Among their core demands was the right to control credits, and to receive royalties for their work.
The gala event we know today as the Oscars was originally conceived as a way to undermine these unionizing efforts in Hollywood. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded at a dinner party hosted by Louis B. Mayer at the Biltmore Hotel on May 11, 1927. After dinner, Fred Niblo (director of the 1925 silent version of Ben Hur) announced his plan to head off unionization by creating an organization which would ostensibly represent the talent, but would really be under the control of the producers. To build morale…