Academic journal article Film & History

J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Gold War

Academic journal article Film & History

J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Gold War

Article excerpt

John Sbardellati J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Gold War Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2012. 256 pp. Hard Cover

If once-secret FBI files are any gauge, Hollywood's propagation of Communist doctrine was more cunning and pervasive than imagined. Vigilant FBI agents and informants detected the taint of Communism everywhere-in such disparate pictures as Warner Brothers' Pride of the Marines (1945), Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Paramount's Roman Holiday (1953). But the FBI found few pictures more insidiously Marxist than Universal's Buck Privates Gome Home (1947). While the Abbott and Costello vehicle seemed a "rather inoculous [sic] film," its true intent, the surveillance report stated, was to raise the specter of "class consciousness." This sinister purpose, explained the report, was effected by crosscutting between a general's party and a buck private on KP duty. In such fashion did FBI surveillance merge into film theory and criticism.

As John Sbardellati's J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies details, the Bureau unwittingly began nibbling at the edges of media theory in the silent era while monitoring movies for "radicalism." Although that first Red Scare faded, J. Edgar's Hoover's fears never abated. Rather, they so intensified during World War II that Hoover launched a sweeping secret investigation of Hollywood that lasted from 1942 to 1958. J. Edgar Hoover documents the severity and extent of the FBI's unilateral covert operation. Had people in the 1950s known what the Bureau's files contained, asserts one historian, McCarthyism would most likely have been called Hooverism. Making excellent use of FBI documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Sbardellati, a historian at the University of Waterloo (Ontario), has fashioned a brisk, multi-faceted narrative of historical and cultural significance.

On one level, J. Edgar Hoover is a paean to cinema. Like their Soviet counterparts, American police agencies and politicians were quick to recognize film's power, which only intensified as the industry developed. The secret October 1943 report to Hoover (from a special agent in Los Angles) called the motion picture industry the greatest '"influence upon the minds and culture, not only of the people of the United States, but of the entire world.'" Thus, concludes Sbardellati, the FBI grasped the truth of Benedict Anderson's concept of "imagined" communities "years before" those scholars who would argue that national cinemas-and their surrounding discourses-are vital to the fabrication of national identities.

The October 1943 report states that Moscow had ini 935 directed the Communist Party USA to infiltrate Hollywood labor unions and "'the so-called cultural and creative fields' in order to 'determine the type of propaganda to be injected into the motion pictures.'" The report further delineates an eight-pronged attack. However, says the author, the Bureau failed to develop a proper methodology to support the premises that Communist propaganda was successfully injected into movies being made during World War II, and that their putative Red slant posed a national threat. In the main, the FBI anticipated the "hypodermic needle" theory of audience reception-namely, that audiences are passive, uncritical monoliths into whom messages might be injected to lasting effect. Validity aside, extending this metaphor to encompass the idea of "infection" affords an apt view of Hoover's mindset. His FBI treated Communism as a highly mutable virus spread by even the slightest, tangential contact. A good review in the Daily Worker, for example, was enough to place Charlie Chaplin's Hmelight (1952) on the FBI's "suspect" list. (FBI analysts, it seems, studied film reviews with the same zeal as anxious producers.) The Daily Worker review, according to FBI files, had called Hmelight one of Chaplin's best movies, containing his "real thinking about the world we live in, as well as his appeal for more fellowship among human beings. …

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