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Reds and Radicals In Hollywood

ISSUE:  Winter 2003

Radical Hollywood, by Paul Buhle and David Wagner. The New Press. $29.95.
Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s, by Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley. Prima. $25.00.

Neil Gabler’s book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988) chronicled the story of the eight or nine Jewish immigrants who were the effective founders of the motion picture industry. As a group they were super-patriotic, voted Republican, and were determined to distance themselves from their Jewish origins. The “moguls,” as they have come to be known, alert to the prevailing anti-Semitism that was endemic throughout much of the country in the decade prior to America’s entry into World War II, were sensitive to the potential of motion pictures to indoctrinate, let alone, promote ideas that would challenge existing American values. As a consequence, they maintained tight control over the product they produced lest they be accused of using the movies to influence change in American society. To paraphrase Samuel Goldwyn, when he was criticized for not producing films that dealt with social issues, “if you want messages, go to Western Union.” The moguls believed that the function of movies was to entertain, and not confront the social and political issues that troubled the country during the Depression years, and the subsequent Nazi seizure of power in Germany.

But if the Goldwyns and the Mayers were sensitive to attacks from such watchdogs of public morality as the Catholic Legion of Decency and later Joseph Breen’s Production Code Administration, this was not the case with the Hollywood screenwriters who wrote the scripts for the movies. Some of Hollywood’s most creative scriptwriters were not only Jews, but a number of them were also Communists who followed the directives from the Soviet Union. During the mid-1930’s, they adhered to Moscow’s support for the anti-Fascist Popular Front, in which the Soviet Union suspended its objectives of class war and revolution for cooperation with the capitalist democratic governments of the West against the growing threat of fascism and Nazism. This change in Soviet tactics enabled Communists screenwriters to not only support the New Deal, and ally themselves with political liberals in the fight against the economic royalists, but to also back the Roosevelt administration’s fight in behalf of the have-nots of American society. Some of Hollywood’s finest films, which were written both during and after World War II, incorporated themes of social justice and the fight against fascism. A list of such motion pictures would include Casablanca, Crossfire, Gentleman’s Agreement, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Even the character of Hopalong Cassidy was conceived by its creator, Communist scriptwriter Michael Wilson as an FDR-like character.

Radical Hollywood records the history of these writers, 19 of whom would eventually become “unfriendly” witnesses before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which first investigated Hollywood in November 1947 and then returned for a second round in 1951. Eventually ten of the writers who refused to testify before HUAC about their political affiliations were blacklisted. They included John Henry Lawson, Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, Edward Dmytryk, Sam Ornitz, Ring Lardner Jr., and Robert Adrian Scott.

For the reader willing to overlook some stilted prose, Radical Hollywood has its rewards as it surveys the influence of the Left on the making of motion pictures, from silent films to those produced in the post World War II decade. Paul Buhle, the co-author of the Encyclopedia of the American Left, and Dave Wagner, a journalist and film critic, document how many of Hollywood’s most successful films were scripted by writers who were members of the Communist Party, if not sympathetic to leftist politics in general. In focusing on the 19 Hollywood screenwriters who were unfriendly witnesses before HUAC, the authors remind us that 15 of them were Jews. Because of the proportionately large presence of Jews in Hollywood, anti-Semites, as well as some in the Catholic Church, the Hearst press, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, concluded that the movie industry harbored a Jewish conspiracy to undermine “American” values. Although most American Jews eschewed the radical politics of the Left, and only a minority of the Communist Party identified itself as Jewish, the prevailing belief among the political right, especially among Hitler’s admirers in the United States, was that the nexus between Jews and radicalism was inescapable.

The story of the “Hollywood Ten” and the blacklisting of writers who were suspected of being Communists has been told before in many books as well as in film. What is often overlooked, however, is the question whether those who belonged to the Communist Party influenced the making of American films or was their political affiliation incidental to their craft as writers, and, ultimately, did these writers represent a threat to the American way of life? Buehle and Wagner inform us that Communist leaders and intellectuals viewed Hollywood films as escapist products of bourgeois culture, and as a consequence never seriously attempted to influence film content.

Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, the author of Hollywood Party, has a different take on the efforts of Hollywood’s Communist scriptwriters to promote the Moscow line in films. The author, a journalist who writes for prominent conservative periodicals, argues that radical screenwriters, such as John Howard Lawson, never tried to write an entire pro-Communist film, lest it be censored by the more conservative studio management, but sought to include about five minutes of the Party line in every script. Lawson urged his fellow Party writers to stick the five minute segment in an expensive set with high-priced stars, so that it would be too costly to cut. Thus, if someone like Gary Cooper were given lines that the studio executives found unacceptable, the scene would have to be re-shot at great expense. Hollywood’s Communist writers were also discouraged from displaying initiative in regard to their craft. For example, writers interested in story lines with a psychological approach were forbidden by the Party to script this type of film because its message suggested that illness is not in the social system, but within the individual. Clearly, for Billingsley, Hollywood’s Communist scriptwriters may have been creative artists, but their talents were clearly subordinate to the dictates of the Party.

Following the Party line also meant blocking anti-Communist content in films. Billingsley informs us that the Party recruited story analysts who were positioned to read incoming scripts and reject anti-Communist material. Indeed, there is some support for his contention that despite the documented crimes perpetrated by Stalin, few films have been produced that depict the excesses of the Soviet dictator. The omission becomes even more apparent when one considers that after World War II, Hollywood produced a great many films about Hitler and the evil of the Nazi regime, and almost none about Stalin. Billingsley attributes the absence of films critical of the Soviet Union to the influence of the Hollywood Communists who focused their scripts on Hitler and the Nazis, rather than on the victims of the Gulag, even during the height of the Cold War. Billingsley, however, may be exaggerating the ability of the Communists to dictate the subject of films. After all, from the moguls, to those who fought the “Reds” within the Hollywood community (see, for example, the 1955 anti-Communist film Trial which was written by Don Mankiewicz), it was never easy for Communist writers to easily promote the Party line in the scripts that they wrote for the screen. The number of films about the Nazis, therefore, may be attributable to the fact that the country had just fought a war against the Third Reich, and as the public became aware of the atrocities perpetrated by the Hitler regime, audiences responded to movies that depicted the Nazi excesses that culminated in the Holocaust. A list of Hollywood films about Nazi Germany would reveal that the genre actually commenced following America’s entry in World War II.

During the period from the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 to the outbreak of World War II, Hollywood’s Jewish moguls shied away from making films that depicted the Nazi persecution of Jews. Perhaps fearing a backlash from the isolationists or the mogul’s own sensitivity that such scripts would call attention to their Jewish origins, Hollywood simply did not address issues relating to Germany or the Jews, even during the years of the Popular Front. This was also true among Jewish Leftists, who avoided writing scripts dealing with Hitler’s treatment of the Jews (especially after the Hitler-Stalin pact which lasted from August 1939 to June 1941), let alone about Stalin’s Russia. Only two films prior to our entry into the war, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), dealt with the threat of Nazism, and marginally mention the persecution of the Jews.

Between 1941 and 1945 the United States and the Soviet Union were allies, and the Roosevelt administration called on Hollywood to make pro-Soviet films. The release of the controversial pro-Stalinist film Mission to Moscow (1943), and North Star (1943), had less to do with the efforts of Communists to glorify the Soviet regime than the president’s wish that the films be made to bolster public support for our Russian ally. Subsequently, to hype the war, Hollywood, made a great many films that depicted the evils of the Nazi regime.

Following the end of World War II, the Party line required American Communists to end their cooperation with the forces of capitalism, and resume the objectives of class struggle and revolution. Billingsley dates the 1945 directive from Moscow as the true origin of the Cold War, nearly a year before Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech which he presented in Fulton Missouri in March 1946. The response of Hollywood’s Communists to the new Party line remains a controversial episode in the history of the culture of the Cold War. Following the end of the war, a large number of films that dealt with social issues such as anti-Semitism, racism, and inequities in American society were made by the Hollywood studios whose scripts were written by Leftists. This brought about a Congressional investigation that sought to uncover the influence of communism in the film industry. The refusal of the “Hollywood Ten” to answer HUAC’s questions about their political affiliations, made them heroes among the Hollywood Left, if not righteous victims of a Congressional Committee which was characterized as consisting of right-wing zealots and anti-Semites, who were determined to deprive the unfriendly witnesses of their basic Constitutional rights. Others in Hollywood, however, viewed Communists, such as John Henry Lawson, and Henry Biberman as agents of the Soviet Union who insidiously used their talents to promote the Moscow line in their films. These two views are complicated by the fact that in many instances, the objectives of both the Party and political liberals were not that far apart. On issues of race, for example, the Communists had been promoting the cause of equality since the 1930’s. Following the desegregation decision in the Brown case in 1954, which precipitated the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle for racial equality was supported by Communists and liberals alike. Under these circumstances, it was not difficult for radical screenwriters to provide scripts that depicted the evils of racism. In fact, left-wing screenwriters had already established a record of creating African-American characters in their scripts that elevated the stereotype of blacks in films. In films such as Huckleberry Finn (1939), Casablanca (1942) and In This Our Life (1942), black images were far removed from those of the happy and superstitious darky, the catering maid, the comical thief, or the shuffling and lazy Stepin Fetchit, Sambo like Negro. Similarly, Party stalwart Herbert Biberman’s 1953 film, Salt of the Earth, which dealt with striking New Mexico mineworkers, and also included a pro-feminist viewpoint, was viewed by right-wingers as a motion picture that promoted the Communist line. But the themes dealt with in the film would become commonplace among liberal film-makers in the next decade.

Both books under review agree that the Hollywood Ten, and the “unfriendly nineteen” emerged as heroes in Hollywood history. The friendly witnesses, and those who “named names” before HUAC, such as Elia Kazan, consequently, were depicted as the villains in the drama that unfolded during the so-called “witch-hunts” of the McCarthy era. The authors disagree, however, on the significance of Hollywood’s Communists on the film industry. Both Buhle and Wagner contend that the personal and political beliefs of the leftist film-makers made no indelible political marks on American values, but did make a decisive impact on the golden age of American film. Some of America’s most popular films, such as The Maltese Falcon, and Lassie Come Home, were scripted by Hollywood Communists, who also contributed to the genre known as film noir. Furthermore, many of their movies went well beyond entertainment, and elevated film to a serious art form which conveyed deep truths to audiences about morality, justice and injustice.

Billingsley argues that Hollywood’s Communist screenwriters were able to cast themselves as martyrs by refusing to answer questions before HUAC, but at the same time cleverly disguised their agenda which was to prevent Hollywood from dealing with the atrocities of the Soviet system. The author notes that not a single Hollywood film has dealt with the Ukraine famine, the Moscow trials, the Zhdanov purges, the Hungarian uprising against the Soviets nor any other of the many acts of oppression that characterize Soviet history. The Communists, Billingsley writes, realized that a film that had as its subject the atrocities of communism, in which anti-Communists are heroes, might lead some to conclude, post facto, that HUAC was right, and “it would violate the legend of the blacklist.” Billingsley concludes that in the area of film content, the Party won.


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