Academic journal article The Historian

From the Masses to the Mainstream: The Hollywood Left and the Movement for Social Democracy

Academic journal article The Historian

From the Masses to the Mainstream: The Hollywood Left and the Movement for Social Democracy

Article excerpt

In early 1938, writer and activist Ella Winter took stock of the momentous political awakening in the film community in Hollywood. Once the wife of Lincoln Steffens, Winter was now married to screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, which gave her a unique outsiders' perspective on the idiosyncrasies of the Hollywood community. In an essay published in The New Republic, she wrote that "[t]here is hardly a tea party today, or a cocktail gathering, a studio lunch table or dinner even at a producer's house, at which you do not hear agitated discussion, talk of 'freedom' and 'suppression,' talk of tyranny and the Constitution, of war, of world economy and political theory." Winter used her essay to remind the artists of the labor struggles in California, the threat of vigilante violence, and the raw coercion that the Growers' Associations and local authorities wielded against any effort to organize agricultural workers. Reviewing the genesis of activism in the film community, she highlighted the contributions of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, which Stewart just happened to chair. The frenetic activism of the elites had galvanized some forty other craft guilds into action, encouraging them to apply for certification from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). "It appears that the very salaries which were meant to keep movie people contented and drugged in their golden-goose existence have made them aware of the essential powerlessness in the modern world of mere triple garages and double feather beds." Wealth had not purchased nearly as much power as the Hollywood parvenu might have imagined. (1)

Winter's whimsical account of Hollywood activism did not preclude a sincere commitment to social democracy and anti-fascist activism. Nonetheless, this commitment has frequently been lost in treatments of the Hollywood Left. Historians have sought to revise the caricatures of fellow-traveling bons vivants parroting the Stalinist line, but the image persists, in part because of a resilient strain of anti-communism in the literature. (2)

It also persists because of the relative lack of attention to the grass-roots organizing engaged in by Hollywood activists and their allies as part of their campaign to move the New Deal to the left. By exploring the front-line community organizing and political mobilization of groups such as the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, we move beyond some of the more invidious generalizations about Hollywood activism toward an understanding of how screenwriters, actors, musicians, and stage hands built a network of political action grounded in local issues, but tied to a national network of social democratic action. At the same time, we come to see that the alliance of 'liberals' and 'radicals' was more than the sum of its parts. In the ideologically amorphous era of popular front activism, when socialists and independent leftists coordinated with communists and New Deal liberals in multiple campaigns, the left in the film community forged a social democratic movement rooted in its commitment to working-class democracy. More than reformers, but something other than subversives, these activist intellectuals built alliances to a mass movement that aimed at a structural transformation of American society. (3) Paralleling the white-collar activism of popular front groups such as the National Lawyers Guild, and engaging in what historian Michael Denning has described as the "politics of labor defense," Hollywood activists helped build a movement for economic democracy and racial equality that measurably advanced the working-class movement of the era. (4)

ELLA WINTER SURVEYS THE HOLLYWOOD AWAKENING

In the precis of what Winter hoped would develop into a book, she foregrounded the anti-fascist organizations that had transformed celebrities like Dorothy Parker, Gloria Stuart, and Eddie Cantor into political neophytes. This was not mere political dilettantism. What impressed Winter--a cosmopolitan, left bohemian if there ever was one--was the evidence that Hollywood had "grown conscious of the outside world. …

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