Radical Hollywood:

The Untold Story Behind

In September 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenaed 40-some film-industry movers and shakers to testify about allegations that the Communist Party had planted propaganda in popular films such as The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and Song of Russia. Ten of 19 “unfriendly witnesses” refused to answer questions about party membership and were subsequently held in contempt of Congress. (Another, Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht, fled to East Germany the day after his testimony.) The “Hollywood Ten”—including director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson—shortly became the first entries on the industry’s infamous blacklist. Less than two months later, in the infamous Waldorf Statement, the CEOs of the major film studios announced that they would not hire anyone either suspected of Communism or refusing to cooperate with the investigation. By the time HUAC completed its second round of hearings, in 1951, the blacklist had grown to hundreds of people, all barred from working (at least under their own names) in films.

The McCarthy-era image of Hollywood as a hotbed of subversive intellectuals harnessing a popular medium to spread proletarian ideology was much exaggerated. Tinseltown was in fact always more an exemplar of capitalism writ large than an artists’ colony or communal utopia. Moguls such as Louis B. Mayer, who earned $1.3 million in 1937, tightly controlled production and lorded over underpaid technicians and screenwriters, who enjoyed about same the job security as your average ditch-digger. Indeed, Hollywood had become a mecca for big studios in the early years of the 20th century precisely because of Southern California’s anti-union environment, where labor costs were approximately three-quarters of those in New York. (The 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times offices by unionists had lost popular sympathy for the movement, setting labor progress back several years.)

Yet the vision of Golden Age Hollywood inflamed by Communist crusaders has captured the imagination of many leftist historians, including Paul Buhle, co-author of the Encyclopedia of the American Left, and Dave Wagner, former political editor of the Arizona Republic. The pair previously collaborated on a hagiographic biography of Marxist screenwriter and director Abraham Polonsky, to whom their current title, Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies, is dedicated. The new book traces the genealogy of the Hollywood branch of “the Party” (they always capitalize the P), parading the names of seemingly every film celebrity (and wannabe) to have ever attended a happy hour organized by a Communist front group. Citing this evidence of the Reds’ social ties in Movieland, they posit widespread ideological influence over classic films—and proceed to make their case with McCarthyite fanaticism (except that they have rather different views on Communism), if scant evidence from the actual films.

Like any creative occupation, screenwriting tended to attract original thinkers, who consented to relatively low pay in order to do something they found interesting. Excepting the few “stars” who made it big, these creative underlings found themselves largely powerless and replaceable in the eyes of the studio chiefs. Their collective experience of feeling intellectual aspirations squashed by box-office demands tended to also alienate them from the studio management and make them left-leaning as a group. However, just being sympathetic to leftist causes doesn’t transform every starving artist into a Bolshevik ideologue.

Communism’s entry into Hollywood was relatively late and slow to take off. In 1932, novelist Samuel Ornitz, a transplant from New York, the party’s national center, began holding private Marxist discussion groups at his home, attracting a small circle of intellectuals. Four years later, Stanley Lawrence was dispatched from New York by V. J. Jerome, head of the party’s Cultural Commission, to serve as a liaison between the Hollywood branch and the party’s national headquarters. Hoping to attract celebrity members, Jerome decided to give Hollywood affiliates a special pass on the drudgeries of phone-banking local officials and selling copies of The Daily Worker, duties imposed on most party members. That same year, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL) was founded as a front group for party supporters to oppose Nazism. But despite the increased visibility of movements such as HANL, the party still claimed less than a hundred official members in Hollywood by the late ’30s.

Rather than being a tightknit group of revolutionary strategists, the Hollywood branch of the Communist Party became an organizing center for a variety of liberal causes, from opposing Hitler to fighting anti-Semitism at home (especially important for the large Jewish population in the industry’s upper echelons). Its success, in this regard, was partly because of lack of competition from other well-organized activist groups in generally apolitical Hollywood. More than anything, the party fronts provided a social network for left-leaning, though not explicitly Communist, idealists by organizing cocktail parties and banquets in support of various causes, as well as supplying career contacts for aspiring starlets. “When I joined the party, I was handed ready-made: friends, a cause, a faith and a viewpoint on all phenomena…” screenwriter Richard Collins later recalled, “a one-shot solution to all the world’s ills and inequities.” A few local haunts, such as Stanley Rose’s bookstore, became well-known as liberal meeting spots.

Although many movie veterans moved within these circles—even B-movie hunk Ronald Reagan flirted with the fringes of the party—the degree to which these associations helped usher Communist propaganda into major films is questionable at best. HUAC was hard-pressed for evidence, despite its army of moles digging through piles of contracts and documentary footage. The investigation relied on the likes of Ayn Rand to tell them that the smiling children in Song of Russia were inaccurate portrayals of her homeland—ergo, a plot to glorify the Bolsheviks and revolutionize America. If actor Lionel Stander so much as whistled a few bars from a Soviet marching anthem while waiting for an elevator in No Time to Marry, it was obviously a rallying cry for Moscow, as Buhle has argued elsewhere.

Though the authors desperately want to demonstrate Communism’s widespread ideological influence, their examples from films are hardly persuasive. Their movie-critique method works like this: First identify a film whose talent (actors, directors, or writers) can in any way be linked with leftist causes, then study every last gesture, set piece, and sound clip until some hint of Communist sentiment becomes evident. By their account, Casablanca is not about Rick and Ilsa (Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) sacrificing personal desires to a cause, but specifically about the “commitment to defeat fascism and create a new world no matter the personal cost,” thanks to principal screenwriter Howard Koch. Likewise, leftist Hugo Butler’s screenplay for 1943’s Lassie Come Home, in which two children (Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor) pine after an English collie that their parents sold to a wealthy family, was “obviously written to inspire strong feeling in American audiences for their embattled British cousins” during the war and “expressing British and Communist as well as Hollywood wartime values in bridging…class lines.”

Although Buhle and Wagner have done a fabulous job as Red gossip columnists, reporting duly on the guest lists of every Communist-sponsored cocktail party, their film analysis proves that ideologues don’t necessarily make the best critics. Their tendency to equate radical politics exclusively with Bolshevism skews the book’s historical perspective. They point to the World War II years, when films depicting Russia favorably were encouraged by a president trying to sell the American public on a Russian-American alliance, as “the Left’s Hollywood moment.” As the authors gleefully explain, “The decree that studios should ask, ‘Will this help win the war?’ was to validate, over the next four years, scenes and emphases, from Nazi sadism to evocations of the heroic Red Army, that could not possibly have passed muster previously.” 1943’s Mission to Moscow, for example, based on the memoirs of the ambassador to Russia and “virtually assigned to Hollywood” by FDR’s wartime propaganda department, celebrates Soviet culture while whitewashing Stalin’s crimes, including the staged trials and murders of his former revolutionary comrades. Generally speaking, following orders from Washington—making superpatriotic wartime films that glorify our allies and gloss over real atrocities—does not constitute revolutionary behavior. However, for Buhle and Wagner, a favorable portrayal of Moscow is the only litmus test for radical content. CP