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Hollywood Dark Days: Jean Muir & the Blacklist

By John C. Alsedek:



If you’re wise enough to limit the volume of social media you consume, you’ve probably missed this, but it’s commonplace in certain online circles to refer to anyone with a differing opinion on the U.S.’s military spending or health care system as either a "Russian bot" (by liberals) or a "Communist" (by conservatives). Unfortunately, this isn’t limited to the Internet, as has been demonstrated by commentators on such mainstream television channels as Fox and MSNBC over the past few years.


But there was a time when such "red-baiting" had very real consequences: specifically in the late 1940s and first half of the 1950s, when "McCarthyism" (named for Senator Joseph McCarthy) was running rampant. The era saw people losing their livelihoods at the merest hint that they might be Communists, no matter how flimsy—or even nonexistent—the evidence might be. The most visible example was the Hollywood Blacklist, and its very first victim was actress Jean Muir.


Born on February 13, 1911, in Suffern, New York, Jean Muir had been a notable film presence throughout the 1930s. Tall (she’s listed as 5’9” on IMDB) and strikingly beautiful, Muir was already a high-end model and a Broadway actress before her 20th birthday. These accomplishments had attracted the attention of Warner Bros., who signed her to a contract and put her in an amazing fourteen films in just three years, casting her opposite the likes of Franchot Tone and Paul Muni. But by the end of the thirties, she had become disillusioned with the industry and had returned to Broadway; her last film credit was in 1943’s The Constant Nymph, which starred Charles Boyer and Joan Fontaine.


Muir most likely would have remained on the stages of Broadway if not for the advent of television in the post–World War II period. But with most early TV shows broadcasting live from New York City, it seemed like a perfect venue for Muir to return to a national audience while still performing onstage. And it went well in 1948 and 1949: Muir co-starred in an episode of Starring Boris Karloff, as well as two episodes of The Actor’s Studio and one of The Philco Television Playhouse. She was even cast as Mrs. Aldrich on a new series, The Aldrich Family, and played the role in the first episode.


But then it all came crashing down because of one pamphlet.



Jean Muir was named as a "Communist sympathizer" by the far-right-wing publication Counterattack, who published her name in the pamphlet Red Channels as one of 151 actors, writers, musicians, and others who were working in the public sphere to advance the cause of Communism. The basis for this accusation? Muir had been a member of the Congress of American Women, a women’s rights organization that had been targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948. As a result of the Red Channels posting and an ensuing handful of phone calls (20–30 total) to NBC protesting Muir being on The Aldrich Family, show sponsor General Mills insisted that she be replaced; despite thousands of calls protesting the decision and supporting Muir, the decision was upheld, and Muir was blacklisted from film and television for nearly a decade.


It was a deeply disturbing period in the industry. Some leading names in Hollywood, including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, and John Huston, organized the Committee for the First Amendment in protest to the House Un-American Activities Committee. But for every Bogie, there were a couple of Ronald Reagans, who were more than happy to throw their fellow performers under the bus based on little-to-no actual evidence; actress Jane Wyman admitted in her biography that his often-baseless accusations against friends and co-workers played a major role in her later divorcing Reagan. Muir was just the first victim of many.


In a way, she was the perfect "example" to be made. Muir was a recognizable figure in the public eye, yet was also largely divorced from the Hollywood system, since she’d spent most of the previous decade in New York. She’d also been viewed as something of a malcontent by studio bigwigs due to her involvement in the early days of the Screen Actors Guild, as well as her public questioning of the way the film industry was run and her refusal to pose for publicity photos. So, while there may have been many who were sympathetic to Muir’s plight, they largely kept quiet, lest they become suspect themselves.


Jean Muir eventually got back on television in 1958, appearing in a production "The Story of Marcia Gordon" on NBC’s weekday anthology show Matinee Theater. She would end up guest-starring on two more series in the following three years, but her time as a TV and film actress was at an end, and her spot on the March 21, 1962, episode of the popular crime drama Naked City (an episode entitled "The One Marked Hot Gives Cold") would end up being Jean Muir’s final TV/film credit.


At age 51, Muir left Hollywood and moved on to the next phase in her life. For several years, she learned a different sort of craft: teaching, back in New York, running drama classes and directing plays at community centers. This paved the way for her to become the Master Acting Teacher at Stephens College, a private women’s school in Columbia, Missouri; she would hold this position until she reached the college’s mandatory retirement age, earning her own college degree along the way. Her final position was as a teacher at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1981, following which Muir went into retirement. She passed away on July 23, 1996, in a Mesa, Arizona, nursing home; Jean Muir was 85.


We mentioned two of the three shows that Jean Muir guest-starred on following her return from the blacklist. The third was Route 66, starring Martin Milner and George Maharis. We’ll be taking a drive through the history of that surprisingly offbeat program next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!

 

SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.

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