Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner. Radical Hollywood. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 2002.
The authors claim that Leftist authors wove their political beliefs into screenplays. The book discusses many of these films, such as how screenwriter Michael Wilson, who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951, wrote the screenplay to the 1843 movie “Colt Comrades”, a movie where Hopalong Cassidy uncovers a banker monopolizing the cattle market. The authors claim Hopalong Cassidy was meant to symbolize Franklin Roosevelt. “The Wizard of Oz” was based on a Populist book with the rainbow, then a pro-radical sign understood by audiences, written into the movie. Other examples the authors discuss are “Border Patrol” which showed a hateful silver mine owner and “Salt of the Earth” about miners uprising against mine owners.
These authors discuss how several Westerns had Marxist themes, such as “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here” by screenwriter Abraham Polonsky. In 1943, State Sen. Jack Tenney claimed Communists were subverting the film industry. The film industry quickly gathered to deny the allegations. The authors claims there were many Left Wingers in the film industry along with indifferent industry leaders. The authors note, though, that these radicals were not dangerous and that even most Communists did not expect a workers’ revolution to occur in the U.S.
The authors discuss the international radical movement that existed in Russia, Europe, and the U.S. from the 1920s through the 1950s. Hollywood was little impacted during the 1920s. German liberal and radical Expressionist filmmakers left Germany as the Nazis emerged in Germany in the 1930s. Many went to Hollywood where they influenced American filmmakers. Jean Renoir was among those who successfully reached out in the films to the global market.
Among the claims of this book as that the American Popular Front and leftist social movements communicated their ideals to audiences through film. Orson Welles worked with Communist members in producing “Citizen Kane” which ridiculed a conservative American publisher, William Randolph Hearst. Leftist film people worked with Dudley Nicholas on producing several films. The film noir movement was an attempt to show the worsening conditions of U.S. materialism.
The authors note that not everyone brought before HUAC were blacklisted. The Leftists who cooperated and named which fellow associates were part of the movement escaped the blacklist. Informing on associates is presented by the authors as more of a matter of personal ethics than a political decision, as informing meant ruining the lives of others. About 80% called before HUAC refused to testify, even though many of them were no longer affiliated with Communist organizations.
This strong refusal to cooperate with HUAC led people such as Rep. Richard Nixon, columnists Louella Parsons and Walter Winchell, and author Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to conclude that American movies were tainted by Communist ideas. Yet, only a few pro-Russian films and a few lines from movies were found to outwardly express communistic ideas. Michael Wilson claims Left Wingers tried to create progressive films, but not ones filled with Communist thought, but of “honesty and humanism”.
The authors claims at least 1,500 movies were created by “a certified left-winger”. They claim this “is Hollywood’s biggest secret.”
During silent films, directors and leading actors often created the movie plots. When talking films created a role for separate writers, greater attention remained on the actors and directors. There were open debates in the 1920s about the role of film in taking the public attention away from social change.
The world Leftist movement did not initially embrace movies. Some U.S. Communist leaders denounced the mass commercial culture of films. German Social Democrats denounced movies as illusions that took people away from literature. Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein demonstrated how films could be used for propaganda.
Several Leftists and radicals began working in independent film companies. Some Marxists favored propaganda films designed to agitate viewers. Other Leftists found value in creating non-agitating films with mass appeal.
Many of the filmmakers in Russia, Italy, France, and Germany were leftists, and many of their films focused on social movements protecting people from the dangers of growing industrialization and capitalism. American films often wanted audiences to empathize with the poor.
In 1922, Will Hays was hired by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America to establish a censorship office to protect public morals in film. Several conservative organizations, many linked to Protestant churches, objected to this self-censorship as a conspiracy to evade conforming to public values.
In 1934, the Catholic League of Decency called for boycotts of films they found morally offensive which had passed the Hays Code.
Anti-Semitism played a factor in some of the religious attacks, as some within these groups believes that many Jewish people were producing and influencing the scripts of the movies to which they objected.
Several mobster films, such as “Little Caesar” released in 1930 and “The Public Enemy” released in 1931 and written by an “intermittent communist” John Bright, served to discredit capitalists and elected officials. Other leftist screenwriters saw how these scripts could inform the masses. “Taxi!” released in 1932 presented class struggle issues by showing cab drivers seeing the need for unionization. “The Accusing Finger” attempted to sway the public to oppose the death penalty. “Back Door to Heaven” released in 1939 concerned social class struggles from a Christian Socialist viewpoint.
Many films with strong female roles were written with themes exploring Leftist ideas of gender oppression and class oppression.
“Blockade”, an anti-fascist film produced in 1938, upset some studio executives fearing losing revenues from German and Italian audiences that would refuse to show the movie due to the fascist references.
A conservative union that worked with studios to avoid strikes was the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). In 1933 craft unionists within the IATSE went on strike in spite of their disapproving union leadership. Some studios closed briefly yet used strikebreakers to crush the strike. The craft employees were forced to take 20% pay cuts. This created awareness among studio employees of the need for increased unionization. The IATSE went from several hundred members to over 5,000 members. This also helped drive screenwriters to form the Screen Writers Guild. Actors created the Screen Actors Guild which affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. The newspapers owned by William Randolph Heart’s companies warned the public of growing communist infiltration in society.
President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) thought movies were an American entertainment form. Movie studio executives generally supported FDR. FDR’s New Deal policies were generally embraced by Leftists. Movie executives become more wary of FDR when the US Justice Department filmed an anti-trust law suit in 1938 challenging the right of studios to own theater chains. The suit would take a decade before the result would require studios to divest their theaters.
The Stalinist Communists of the 1930s called for the rise of working class intellectuals. Revolutionary Yiddish and Jewish theaters blossomed before radicals accepted the idea of working in films.
The U.S. Communist Party created a documentary film division in 1930, the Working Film and Photo League. It was renamed the Film and Photo Board, was mostly Jewish in membership, and it included Langston Hughes and Erskin Caldwell on its Advisory Board.
A number of Leftist exiles came to America and then gathered collectively, including film directors Fitz Land and Ernst Lubitsch and “soft left” actor Peter Lorre.
Anti-fascism grew in popularity in the U.S. in the late 1930s and in Beverly Hills. The Communist Party became “quite the fashionable organization.” FBI files suggest its membership included Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Olivia de Havilland, Lloyd Bridges, and Danny Kaye. The authors note that most Hollywood Communists were not engaged in the unionizing or electoral activities that involved most other Communist Party locals. Hollywood Communists were generally more sources of fund raising for various Leftist causes. Several Hollywood Communists were active with the Screen Writers Guild.
In 1937, the U.S. Communist Party claimed 40,000 members nationally but about 50 members in Hollywood. These 50 members together raised about $10,000 per month for leftist causes. Ronald Reagan was a participant in some of these causes. There are unsubstantiated rumors that Reagan applied for Communist Party membership but was rejected for not being intellectual enough. It is noted that membership required attendance at meetings. John Wexley notes he was told he would be more useful as a pro-union screenwriter than as an active party member. Hollywood careers often did not provide the time required for Communist Party membership. In Hollywood, the Communist Party lost 80% of its members annually due to lapsed membership.
The Communist Party had no prescription as to what the aesthetics of movies should be. Most Communist Party leaders had little sense of how movies were made. The Communist Party opened several writers school, namely the League of American Writers School (1940-41) and the People’s Educational Center (1943-44). Several thousand studio executives and people seeking studio employment enrolled along with several dozen FBI agents. The authors conclude the Hollywood Left consisted of several small social circles that kept themselves mostly underground.
“The President’s Mystery” released by Republic in 1936 with a screenplay by Lester Cole and Nathaniel West is presented by the authors as the most leftist leaning film that could be accepted by studio executives and the Hays Office. The movie showed a Wall Street lobbyist trying to stop an FDR initiative. The owner of Republic was a supporter of Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1936 election and he delayed the release of the film until after the 1936 elections.
In 1940, the film industry was the 12th largest industry in the U.S. Studio executives battled screenwriters over labor issues with the National Labor Relations Board siding with the writers. The authors note this era created new visions nationally of employees challenging their control by capitalist bosses as well as screenwriters visualizing changes within their own film industry.
Dalton Trumbo was one of the most successful Leftist writers. He joined the Communist Party in 1943. His scripts included stories of lower middle class people challenging an oppressive system. His script for “Kitty Foyle” released in 1940 is considered by some scholars as one of the first “feminist” movies for its portrayal of a middle class woman attempting to enter the white collar world.
The NAACP and liberal 1940 Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie called for better portrayals of African Americans in movies. In 1942, the Federal government’s Office of War Information, seeking to keep a racially divided nation united during wartime, made similar requests. Some subsequent films, often written by Leftist screenwriters, no longer stereotyped African Americans as in previous movies as always being happy, being superstitious, maids who were very talkative, chefs who did humorous things, or comically out of place men acting as gentlemen. Still, many of the these films portrayed African Americans as “good Blacks” and likely only created one more stereotype.
Leftist screenwriters often developed scripts with themes ridiculing capitalism. While conservatives and the FBI noticed this, the authors note these sentiments were found as part of a larger public belief.
It is noted that, over the decades, Leftist writers went from post-World War I pacifists to advocates of entering World War II with the Soviet Union against fascism. These various sentiments are reflected in several films.
After World War II, Leftist screenwriters wrote scripts showing social issues, including the struggles of returning veterans readjusting to society. The authors note that while there were several Leftist screenwriters, there were also conservative and anti-communist liberal studio executives who exerted greater control over film policies.
The U.S. Communist Party perceived tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It dissolved in 1945 and reemerged as the Communist Political Association with a goal of working with liberal and labor alliances.
The Leftist movement was halted and then weakened by FBI actions, HUAC, conservative press attacks, and the rise of many local anti-Communist organizations.
The film noir movies partly reflected the feelings of social isolation and despair that fell upon Hollywood during this period. A studio strike in 1946 was crushed. The failed strike was another major blow to Hollywood Leftists. The rise in censorship in movies further enhanced the desire of film noir movies to convey ambiguous lines that get could past censors yet be recognized by audiences as having sexual connotations or negative thoughts about current society.
In 1948, the Supreme Court rules that studios would have to divest their theater chains. Many studio executives, seeking to regain political favor, offered to assist the FBI in their investigations into Communists in the film industry.
The film industry found itself to be a financially declining industry from 1946 to 1949, which further caused a sense of panic among studio executives.
HUAC sought to root out Communists in the government, labor unions, and the film industry. A new Republican majority in Congress elected in 1946 sought to convince voters that the Democratic Administrations of FDR and Truman had allowed Communists to subvert society. “Dubious evidence” of Communist infiltration into movies was presented to HUAC.
The Taft Hartley Act of 1947 required union officials to sign affidavits stating they were against Communism. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which was never considered to have been influenced much by Communists but were tolerant of Communists, voted out its few Communist office holders. The Screen Writers Guild, who had more Communist office holders than did SAG, followed and they too expelled all Communists from Guild positions. “The Hollywood Reds went out with a flash.”