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When Hollywood Was Right:
How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics

By Donald T. Critchlow
Cambridge University Press, 240 pages

The idea of an era in which Hollywood exerted a substantial influence in Republican politics seems almost science-fictional. Donald Critchlow’s new book, When Hollywood Was Right, offers an insightful examination of just such a strange proposition.

It’s not news that some of the most famous and notorious studio heads in Golden Age Hollywood were Republican; after all, Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, and the like are the villains of any of the countless histories of the blacklist under which your local bookshop’s shelves are groaning. This, Critchlow convincingly argues, is an oversimplified narrative that has not only muddled accounts of the blacklist but also obscured the larger significance of Hollywood to the American right. “By focusing the Hollywood Red Scare in the early Cold War years,” Critchlow writes, “the larger story of Republican mobilization in postwar California has been neglected.” 

The only truly golden days for the right in Hollywood coincided with the silent era and ended soon after its close. In 1928, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 600,000 to 217,000 in the 15 counties surrounding Los Angeles. Those madcap Buster Keaton chases through a fresh Los Angeles were witnessed mainly by Republicans. This rapidly changed; despite the strenuous efforts of Louis B. Mayer and other tycoons, Franklin Roosevelt carried the state with a 58.4 percent margin, one larger even than his national percentage.

The continued viability of Republican politics in an industry and state rapidly filling with liberals was due in large measure to these very studio heads. The 1934 gubernatorial candidacy of the muckraking journalist/novelist Upton Sinclair, an unashamed socialist, roused the studio bosses to action. The previously muted Walt Disney assembled his staff to caution against “the danger of a Communist revolution rolling through California if Sinclair got elected.” Conservative Roosevelt voter W.S. Van Dyke (director of The Thin Man) affiliated himself with the liberal Democrat Joseph L. Mankiewicz (later the writer-director of All About Eve) to organize an MGM branch of the Young Crusaders, an anti-Sinclair organization. Louis B. Mayer, in a decided excess of zeal, imposed a one-day tax on his employees to donate to Sinclair’s opponent.

Cecil B. DeMille, a Roosevelt supporter in 1932 who shifted rightward as the decade progressed, briefly considered a 1938 Senate campaign. Earl Warren, a California GOP hack long before he became chief justice of the Supreme Court, attracted prominent support in his first gubernatorial campaign, including the aid of ubiquitous Hispanic character actor Leo Carrillo, with his “Loyal Democrats for Warren.”

Republican ranks in Hollywood had swollen by 1944, Critchlow reports:

As the campaign between Roosevelt and Dewey heated up, the Hollywood Committee organized a spectacular mass rally for Dewey that filled the Los Angeles Coliseum, a classical outdoor stadium built for the World Olympic Games in 1932. An estimated 93,000 fans turned out to see their favorite actors take the stage, among them Don Ameche; comedians Gracie and George Burns; and movie stars Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Fred MacMurray, George Murphy, Raymond Massey, Adolphe Menjou, Ray Milland, William Powell, Ginger Rogers, and Barbara Stanwyck. Producer David O. Selznick gave a rousing speech. It was the grandest evening that Republicans had enjoyed in Hollywood since the days of Herbert Hoover.

It was a grand evening, although election night was notably less grand for Dewey.

The House Un-American Activities Committee emerged soon after, and with it the investigation of Communist political influence in Hollywood. HUAC certainly increased the polarization of Hollywood into recognizable political factions, but not nearly so plainly as one might think. Critchlow does a valuable service in providing reminder of the considerable range of negative opinion in relation to HUAC. It wasn’t just Stalinists who disliked it.

Republican Robert Taylor was incensed at the committee’s casual treatment of confidential testimony he had provided, calling the hearings “utterly ridiculous and a waste of time.” Eric Johnston, Republican head of the MPAA, said HUAC had left a “damaging impression.” Studio heads took umbrage at the committee’s suggestion that they were producing Un-American films. 

One man was present with a dual mission. Critchlow writes that studio chief

[Jack] Warner came in for some tough questioning before Richard Nixon came to his rescue. He asked Warner if his studio had made anti-Nazi films before and during the war, and if the films were made “to protect free speech and the free press in America.” Warner answered affirmatively. Then, in a long-winded question, Nixon asked if Warner opposed the infiltration of propaganda by either fascists or Communists in the movies. Nixon apologized for the length of the question, to which Warner replied, “It was a good statement; it was the statement of a real American, and I am proud of it.”

Nixon wasn’t simply red-hunting; he was there to defend California’s film industry.

He was a great beneficiary of considerable organized links and support within Hollywood from the start. The hoofer George Murphy (later a senator himself) was an influential liaison between Nixon and Hollywood in his 1948 Congressional and 1950 Senate runs. During that race, against actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hooper hosted a broadcast of “Women for Nixon.” Stars were dispatched to varied corners of the state: “Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Dick Powell, and others were sent to Fresno, La Jolla, San Diego, Redondo Beach, San Luis Obispo, Long Beach, San Bernardino, and Pomona to attend rallies and events for Earl Warren in his race for governor, Goody Knight running for Lieutenant Governor, and Richard Nixon.”

Nixon’s inclusion on the Eisenhower ticket provided an incentive to Hollywood Republicans; one of their own would be in (or near) the White House. Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck, and Sam Goldwyn established an “Entertainment Industry Joint Committee for Eisenhower-Nixon.” Zanuck offered sustained media and organizational advice. The actor Robert Montgomery provided guidance on public appearances, joining the administration subsequently as media adviser.

After that, the Republican Party in Hollywood had a demographic base much resembling contemporary opera companies; replenished to an extent by aging patrons but steadily dwarfed by other youthful enthusiasms. Frank Sinatra, Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. moved right just as their claims to youth and hipness were fading. Republicans had Edgar Bergen but the Democrats had Candice; for every liberal Henry Fonda there seemed to be an even more liberal offspring. Republicans could muster plenty of cowboys, but the average age of support was accelerating fast.

There was life in California yet, in mobilization for Nixon (who won California narrowly in 1960) and in the Goldwater campaign, which coincided with George Murphy’s successful run for the Senate and the pronounced arrival of the Hollywood right’s greatest avatar, Ronald Reagan. As Critchlow notes, “what differentiated the Hollywood Right from the Hollywood Left is that film industry Republicans in 1964 produced politicians who would go on to win elected office.”

In his successful 1966 gubernatorial campaign against Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan made fuller use of Hollywood connections than any prior candidate. Critchlow writes:

One campaign ad entitled, “The People Who Work with Reagan Say…,” placed in newspapers across the state, listed more than 160 actors, entertainers, musicians, and studio executives who endorsed Reagan for governor. The ad cleverly wove in celebrity names who could speak directly to Reagan’s abilities as a union leader. Prominent among those signing the ad were popular celebrities such as Pat Boone, James Cagney, Chuck Connors, Bing Crosby, Yvonne De Carlo, William Demarest, Buddy Ebsen, John Ford, Joel McCrea, Walter Pidgeon, Dale Robertson, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Fred MacMurray, Randolph Scott, Jack Warner, John Wayne, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr.”

It was a respectable ad, but in many ways a valedictory. Very few of the celebrities above would work much again if at all. Other Republican celebrities would emerge, but with the exception of Charlton Heston and (occasionally) Clint Eastwood, few would assume the political visibility of their predecessors. The top tier of Hollywood came soon to resemble all of the others in its political enthusiasms in the rising age of Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the like. Still, even today, most of the left’s legislators have only appeared on the silver screen, while those from the right have served in actual capitals.

About the Author

Anthony Paletta writes the Spaces column for the Wall Street Journal

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