Reds and Radicals in Hollywood

By Fischel, Jack | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Reds and Radicals in Hollywood

Fischel, Jack, The Virginia Quarterly Review

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 Hop-along 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 UnAmerican 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. …

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