Fifty years have passed since the orgy of squealing and sanctimony, of perfidy and posturing, that begat the Hollywood blacklist. What a cast of characters paraded before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC): at this table, communist screenwriters making $2,000 a week scribbling claptrap and convincing themselves that it was revolution; and at that table, stool pigeons betraying their friends, creating on the American right the nauseating figure of the noble Judas, whose name has been Elia Kazan and Whittaker Chambers and Linda Tripp.

None of this would have happened if the film industry had been decentralized; if “local photoplayers in Topeka, or Indianapolis, or Denver” made the movies, as Vachel Lindsay once prophesied. But the coal shortages of the First World War drove movie production to Southern California, and the rest was—alas, for those who love our country—not history.

The HUAC hearings destroyed careers: one highlight of Tender Comrades, the new oral history of the Hollywood blacklist by Paul Buhle and Patrick McGilligan, is a lively chat with the feisty Abe Polonsky, writer-director of the commie-noir classic Force Of Evil (1948). Cinephiles grieve over all those films that Polonsky & Co. never made.

But there are other Hollywood censorship stories that never get told; for instance, the tale of Tennessee Johnson. (Not available on video, the movie pops up now and then on the Turner Classic Movies cable network.)

Tennessee Johnson, an MGM biography of President Andrew Johnson, was released in January 1943. Directed by William Dieterle, whose credits include the dreamlike The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), one of the finest movies ever made, Tennessee Johnson starred Van Heflin as the cussed tailor of Greeneville and Lionel Barrymore (one of Hollywood’s great New Deal-haters) as Thaddeus Stevens, Johnson’s radical Republican nemesis. The movie received the sort of respectful notices often given to earnest historical films. Commonweal judged it “a sincere visualization of American democracy”; Time‘s reviewer thought it was “one of Hollywood’s grown-up moments.” It was also one of Hollywood’s most craven moments.

The film originally was titled The Man On America’s Conscience. The script, by John L. Balderston and Wells Root, took the traditional Claude Bowers view of Reconstruction and Johnson’s impeachment: that is, that Johnson “fought the bravest battle for constitutional liberty and for the preservation of our institutions ever waged by an executive” against Pennsylvania congressman Stevens, the brilliant but hateful clubfoot who wished to mistreat the conquered Southerners like a vast peonage. (Stevens, rechristened Austin Stoneman, also played the devil to the archangel Abraham Lincoln in Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s notorious KKK romance The Clansman, translated to the screen by D.W. Griffith as Birth of a Nation.)

Enter Walter White, secretary of the NAACP. White was annoyed, and understandably so, by Hollywood’s depiction of blacks as scraping and bowing simpletons. When he learned that MGM was producing an anti-Reconstruction film, White complained to Lowell Mellett, director of the Bureau of Motion Pictures of the Office of War Information. The OWI, a propaganda agency created by one of FDR’s executive orders, requested a copy of the screenplay from Louis B. Mayer. Mayer complied, piously assuring Walter White that “I live and breathe the air of freedom and I want it for others as well as myself”

When Mellett and White previewed the unedited film, they hit the roof Mellett demanded that key scenes be reshot or removed. Thad Stevens, the screenplay’s villain, was humanized; one new scene had him kissing and petting Andrew Johnson’s grandkids. A scene in which Stevens plied Johnson with drink before his legendarily incoherent vice presidential Inaugural Address was left on the cutting room floor. Rewritten dialogue assured us that Stevens was “sincere” if a mite vengeful. The essential character of Lydia Smith, Stevens’ mulatto housekeeper and probable mistress, disappeared. Despite the changes, a gang of Hollywood liberals—Ben Hecht, Zero Mostel, Vincent Price—petitioned the OWI to destroy the picture, in best fascist fashion, in the cause of national unity.

Tennessee Johnson—the OWI demanded a conscience-less title—was released in its denatured form. It’s a fairly standard biopic; Johnson, nicely played by Heflin, is the runaway tailor’s apprentice and self-styled champion of “poor white trash” who is only trying to act upon his predecessor’s wise policy of malice toward none and charity toward all. With the exception of Jefferson Davis, secessionists are depicted as huffy churls and hotheads. Lionel Barrymore plays Thad Stevens as though he’s rehearsing for the role of Mr. Potter. Growling, snarling, commanding a wheelchair as he would in It’s a Wonderful Life, he seems to regard Johnson as a mere irritant who exists only to distract him from his real quarry: George Bailey and the Building and Loan.

Nevertheless, Tennessee Johnson is far better than a contemporaneous “President movie,” The Remarkable Andrew, which was written by the soon-to-be-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. The Remarkable Andrew is a witless fantasy in which Andrew Jackson, played as a whiskey-swilling lout by Brian Donlevy, materializes to assist William Holden in rooting out corruption in a Colorado town. The film presents Jackson as the first New Dealer; think of it as a slapstick version of Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson.

One consequence of Walter White’s protest was the omission of Lydia Smith, a meaty role for a black actress. The part was recast as the corpulent “laws a mercy!” black maid of stereotype. (There are parallels with today’s Hollywood, in which black actors can never play complicated villains, only bland authority figures or the jivey sidekick of the white hero. Will Smith, meet Walter White.) The excision of Lydia Smith not only warred upon truth, it also made Stevens’ Negrophilia less comprehensible. Love, after all, is always a higher afflatus than political principle.

Walter White’s autobiography makes no mention of his role in altering Tennessee Johnson. The title is absent from a shelf full of books on censorship and the movies; censorship, it seems, only worked one way in Hollywood. The most intelligent review of Tennessee Johnson was written by Manny Farber in the New Republic, of all places. “The picture looks to have been pretty thoroughly censored, so as not to rake up any coals still burning,” wrote Farber, who concluded, “censorship is a disgrace, whether done by the Hays office and pressure groups, or by liberals and the OWI.”

The bluenoses and red-baiters of the Hays office, HUAC, and the Legion of Decency have gotten their historiographical due; when, if ever, will Lowell Mellett and the OWI get theirs?