Scripting Blacklist History
Students will write screenplays describing the history of Jewish radicalism in the entertainment industry, the persecution of Jewish creative talent by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, and the blacklists in the 1940s and 1950s. These screenplays should be geared to a 7th–12th grade audience, and they can be in the form of the documentary or as “dramatized” through one of the genres listed below.
Jewish filmmakers during the first half of the 20th century used the genres of science fiction, horror, romance, comedy, war, and the musical to make movies that reflected on the American Jewish experience and which sometimes portrayed left-leaning political perspectives. For example, The Jazz Singer, made in 1927, depicted a young, Jewish cantorial student being forced to choose between the life of a synagogue cantor or as a popular singer. On the one hand, he would be doing what was expected of him by his father’s immigrant generation; on the other, he would be leaving behind the traditions to become an assimilated American Jew. Another example is Frankenstein, made in 1931, in which the “monster” might be a metaphor for the sympathetic and misunderstood Jew.
Below is a partial list of films by genre. Choose one or two of each genre to show students clips, so they can get a feel for the dialogue and atmosphere. Alternatively, you might break students into groups to look at clips in small groups, or assign clip viewing for homework. Be sure the versions of these films that you and your students choose are from the first half of the 20th century.
A caution: these movies were released before there was a rating system, so it is important for teachers to know the content of the films, as well as to have viewed her/himself any films if the teacher is showing the film clips in the classroom. For example, some of the subject matter and images of the horror films, in particular, may be inappropriate for the classroom.
Prepare students by telling them that these film clips may appear very unsophisticated to their 21st century eyes, but these films are significant because they were made by Jews, with Jewish actors, and about issues of concern to Jews in the first half of the 20th century, such as civil liberties, the role of the immigrant in society, the plight of the working man, what it means to be American, the alienation of people perceived as out of the mainstream, and questions of “good” and “evil.” You may suggest that they pay particular attention to lighting, casting, and costuming so you can see examples of how movies looked and sounded at this time period. These clips are cultural documents that we can use as research when we are writing our own screenplays. Pay close attention to dialogue and how the actors speak as well as how sound, music, and lighting effects help to set the mood of the scene.
Have students work in small groups to first identify a topic for their screenplays. Alternatively, the class can brainstorm a list of topics based on the background essay and the primary sources for this lesson, and then break into small groups to do the writing. Topics might include: testifying before HUAC, the response of the Jewish community to McCarthyism, or the experience of being blacklisted.
Next, have students create storyboards in their small groups, either computer- or manually-generated. A storyboard is a series of rough sketches identifying the “action” that will take place in each scene of their screenplays. (For more information about storyboards, see this page from the Digital Animation Mentoring Program at Ohio State University.) A well-thought-out storyboard will show the arc of the plot, from exposition and rising action to climax and then resolution. Tell students that good film is created through conflicts that eventually force something to change so that the hero is different at the end from how s/he was at the beginning. Such tensions might be classified as “human against nature,” “human against society,” or “human against human,” for example.
Once the students have their storyboards worked out and approved by teachers, they can begin to work on the actual dialogue that will become their screenplays. Have them choose the genre in which they will tell the history, draft the screenplay, and then “test” a scene or two by acting it out or even just reading it aloud and then doing re-writes.
These screenplays can be “shot” with video cameras in the classroom or for homework. Encourage students to find appropriate costumes and props and to experiment with different kinds of shots and lighting. Alternatively, the students can write and perform plays, rather than screenplays, live in class.
Make a bunch of popcorn and watch each video or performance as a class, critiquing for historical accuracy as well as for depth and breadth of content. Referencing the chart of arguments made in Part 1 of the lesson for analysis of what each student video’s message about the era was will reinforce the depth of learning to be gained by watching the videos. And make sure everyone claps after each group’s presentation!
Possible Movies by Genre:
- Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
- All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
- Edge of Darkness (1943)
- That Midnight Kiss (1949)
- Mr. Skeffington (1944)
- Abie’s Irish Rose (1928)
- Dracula (1931)
- Frankenstein (1931)
- The Devil-Doll (1936)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- The Black Cat (1934)
- The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
- The Jazz Singer (1927)
- Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
 The list of films cited was compiled from chapters in two books: Wagner, Dave, “The Social Film and the Hollywood Blacklist,” pp.37-59 in Paul Buhle, ed., Jews and American Popular Culture, Volume I: Movies, Radio, and Television (Wesport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007) and Buhle, Paul and Dave Wagner, Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story of America’s Favorite Movies (New York: The New Press, 2002).
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Scripting Blacklist History." (Viewed on January 20, 2017) <https://jwa.org/node/15196>.