Singer, Actor, and Horticulturalist: An Analysis of Will Geer’s Pre-Blacklist Work
Before Will Geer’s famous role as Grandpa on The Waltons, his advocacy for leftist politics on and off-screen promptly landed him on Hollywood’s Blacklist in 1951. Hailing from Frankfurt, Indiana, Will Geer was a horticulturist, singer, actor, and activist. His six-decade-long career on Broadway, film, and radio reflected his social and political views based on humanism. Most notably, Will Geer’s involvement in the social protest theatre movement, his friendship with Woody Guthrie, and acting in politically conscious films contributed to the suspicions of his communist involvement during the Red Scare.
In the 1930s, Geer directed and acted in agitprop theatre as a call to action for social change. Geer sailed to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), where “the strong state’s support for the people’s theatre” impressed him (Cohen 132). Many successful plays during the social conditions of the Great Depression in the United States were agitprop, which takes inspiration from the “Russian theatre of the Revolution when the Soviet Communist Party’s Agitation and Propaganda Department was very active” (Anton-Pacheco 23). Therefore, Geer took leadership and starred in productions, which addressed local problems or concerns of working-class life and the growing class consciousness in fast-paced performances to instill communist values in the audience.
Playwrights, directors, and actors manipulated “theatre as a tool of operating changes within the social reality in order to dissolve the relationship, between individuals, centered upon the oppressive-oppressed principle” to channel and increase American’s political awareness (Teampau 169). These productions were informal and occurred during meetings or on the streets to access a wider audience. Geer also worked on agitprop projects with the Federal Theatre Project (FTP).
Birthed from the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) established the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) to extend work to directors, actors, musicians, stagehands, and writers during the Depression era. The FTP strived to produce uncensored and noncommercial American theatre, but they drew criticism from Congress (Click). For example, the WPA canceled the opening night performance of Marc Blitzstein’s proletarian musical, The Cradle Will Rock, in 1937. The WPA claimed the cancelation was due to general relief cuts but appeared as censorship from Congress due to the play’s topic about a mining company’s attempt to crush a labor union.
Will Geer’s work with agitprop and association with the FTP contributed to his communist suspicions. Ignoring the order to cancel The Cradle Will Rock, actors Will Geer and Howard da Silva entertained the audience out front of the locked Mercury Theater (Denning 285). Later that night, the crew moved the audience twenty-one blocks away to the Venice Theatre, where they performed The Cradle Will Rock without sets, costume, or a pit orchestra (Denning 285). The success of the minimal staging led to the continuation of spotlighting the actors among the audience to make them feel like they were part of the performance. However, one year later, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) investigated the FTP for communist infiltration due to their direct leftist commentary on social and economic issues. Thus, congressional action terminated the FTP in 1939. Nevertheless, the abolishment of the FTP kickstarted Geer’s musical and political friendship with Woody Guthrie.
Left-wing political activists and communists viewed folksingers and their songs as a way to spread their ideology. The folk music scene frequently stimulated “worker enthusiasm for union drives, collective labor activity, and anti-fascism” (Reuss 95). Geer met folk songwriter and humanitarian activist Woody Guthrie in 1939. They traveled to government work camps to perform (Library of Congress). The two of them brought attention to the plight of Dust Bowl migrants (“About Woody Guthrie”).
Directed by John Ford, the 1940 film, The Grapes of Wrath captured the nation’s attention of the “Okie exodus” where migrant workers traveled to California’s factories and fields. The popularization of the film and increased representation of migrant workers’ stories fueled a major cotton strike in the San Joaquin Valley in October 1939 (Denning 261). Geer and other actors banded together to support the strikers. Later, Geer organized the John Steinbeck Committee for Agricultural Workers. At this event, he introduced Guthrie to Pete Seeger (another folk singer and activist) and New York city’s leftwing and folk music communities (Coehn 135). Geer’s recommendation of Guthrie as a ballad singer resulted in Guthrie’s collaboration with the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Songs.
Therefore, Geer’s association with agitational musicians like Guthrie and Seeger made him a target of suspicion of communist involvement. Geer and Guthrie released a compilation album together called Bound for Glory. The album entails Geer’s narrated introduction to excerpts from Guthrie’s writings, his life philosophy, and his most famous songs (“Bound for Glory”). The duo also performed songs at political rallies, union meetings and appeared at American Communist Party fundraisers. After touring with Guthrie, the two parted ways for a short while as Geer returned to the screen as a character actor.
Throughout the late 1940s, Geer starred in films with social-oriented topics. He moved his family to Santa Monica, where he acted in around twelve films in three years. Just as he injected his theater performances with his social consciousness, the movies he performed in often advocated for social reform. One such film, which Geer starred in, is Broken Arrow, a 1950s Hollywood western film directed by Delmer Daves. The film takes place in the new Arizona Territory, where the Apache Indians and white settlers struggle to find peace.
One could consider Broken Arrow as one of the first films to show Native Americans positively and empathize with them. The Chiricahua Apache Chief Cochise offers guidance and comfort to ex-scout Tom Jeffords, using complete sentences. This depiction contrasts with other films stereotypically portraying Native Americans speaking pidgin English. The film also emphasizes the importance of tolerance and peace by showcasing the dignity of both the Apache and white settlers. Additionally, this film enabled audiences to better understand a story from a Native American perspective.
In 1951, Will Geer appeared before HUAC because of his participation in agitprop theatre, his contribution to the revival of folk music, and his performances in films focused on social change. Geer appeared before the committee, where he invoked his 5th amendment right to not self-incriminate. According to AP Television Writer Jerry Buck, “Geer told the committee, which had asked if he had ever been a member of the Communist Party, ‘The word ‘communist’ is an emotional word like the word ‘witch’ in Salem’” (Buck). As a result of his court appearance, Geer was blacklisted.
The aftermath of Geer’s blacklisted status allowed him to put his horticulture degree to use. He cultivated a garden to sell produce and founded the Theatricum Botanicum in California. This garden theatre served as a haven for other blacklisted folks to perform Shakespeare, folk literature, and music (Nagourney). Today, Will Geer’s legacy lives on through this theatre. The Theatricum Botanicum has blossomed into a professional repertory theatre company and still stands today, nurturing the actors and playwrights of the future.