Red Star Over Hollywood by Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh
Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance with the Left
by Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh
Encounter. 309 pp. $29.95
Even the most casual observer of American film culture is aware of the degree to which Hollywood remains in deep thrall to the Left. Over the last 30 years, aside from its well-publicized extracurricular involvement in assorted left-wing causes and political campaigns, the industry has served up an almost uninterrupted menu of anti-business, “environmentalist,” and “anti-imperialist” fare. To add insult to injury, it also still regularly casts itself as the aggrieved party—as, in short, an innocent, put-upon victim of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. After all, Hollywood types like to remind us, it happened before, didn't it?
The “it” in question is of course the events of the 1940's and 1950's known collectively as “the blacklist.” This episode—when persons of known or suspected Communist affiliation were denied the ability to work in Hollywood, or at least to work under their own names—has dominated the industry's image of itself ever since. And by means of movies about the suffering of blacklisted writers, like The Front (1976), Guilty by Suspicion (1991), and The Majestic (2001), Hollywood has done everything it can to keep its storied martyrdom alive in the minds of the American public.
In Red Star Over Hollywood, Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh have now returned to the scene of the crime, examining with care and discrimination the events of the blacklist era and those leading up to it. Professional historians with a longstanding interest in the cold war, the Radoshes have ranged far and wide in their research. In addition to interviewing many of the surviving participants, they trawled through the records of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), the University of Southern California film collections, and the theater and film collection at the University of Wisconsin Historical Society. Nor have they neglected the mountain of scholarship on the era that has been accumulating for many years now. The story they tell is far more complex, and compelling, than one might have anticipated.
Almost from the very beginning, the Radoshes show, members of the California film colony—particularly screenwriters—were fascinated by the Soviet Union and especially by the artistic innovations of the Moscow Art Theater and the motion pictures of Sergei Eisenstein. Before this romance could bear fruit, however, history intervened. As Stalin consolidated his power in the late 20's and early 30's, Communists worldwide were ordered by Moscow to assume an ultra-radical posture; involvement with “fellow travelers” and “bourgeois leftists”—circumlocutions for mere liberal sympathizers with the “great Soviet experiment”—was frankly discouraged.
Only when the Soviet dictator switched gears in 1935, instructing Communist parties to join with liberals and others on the Left in a “popular front,” did Hollywood's relationship with the American Communist party reach its fullest flower. The rise of Nazism in Germany and, above all, the Spanish civil war provided a sudden burst of new recruits for the party—most of whom were told to keep their membership secret—and, even more importantly, a flood of financial resources as most high-salaried members agreed to donate a percentage of their income to the cause. At its peak in this period, the party became so entrenched in the unions and guilds of the film industry as to foreclose the possibility of non-Communists organizing themselves independently of its influence.
Then, in 1939, four years after the inception of the Popular Front, the tide was suddenly reversed again. The Hitler-Stalin pact—an event that shocked the faithful all around the world—caused a hemorrhaging of support and, by indirection, encouraged the emergence of an anti-Soviet Left within the film community. But still more reversals were to come. In June 1941, the party's sagging fortunes were abruptly revived by Hitler's betrayal of the 1939 pact and invasion of the Soviet Union—“the Motherland,” as the playwright Lillian Hellman, the party's leading literary eminence, uninhibitedly referred to it.
With Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entrance into the war on Stalin's side, all restraints were loosened. Hollywood cranked out a slew of pro-Soviet productions, the most egregious of which were Mission to Moscow (1943), North Star (1943), and Song of Russia (1944). The script to this last film, written by Hellman herself, depicted (in the Radoshes' words) “a thriving collective farm of healthy, happy Soviet peasants, all of whom look and act like Americans, and who frequently and spontaneously burst into silly songs.” The songs were composed by Aaron Copland.
But victory in World War II was followed by the collapse of the U.S.-Soviet alliance and the onset of the cold war. Matters now took another turn. Long before congressional committees would begin poking around Hollywood to find subversives, a group of Hollywood liberals, led by Ronald Reagan, the president of the Screen Actors Guild, moved to challenge Communist penetration of the industry. Most of the leading figures in this initiative were, like Reagan himself, registered Democrats and supporters of the Truman administration; but they vigorously disputed the notion, shamelessly retailed by party members, that America's postwar opposition to Soviet ambitions was a harbinger of domestic fascism, and they were determined to let no such political line dominate the industry.
Unfortunately, the House Un-American Activities Committee, instead of letting the industry police itself, now stepped in to roil the waters. Setting up shop in downtown Los Angeles, the committee proceeded to subpoena witnesses in a slapdash attempt to ferret out Communist influence. In their account of this dreary episode, the Radoshes trace more or less the same trajectory as Sam Tanenhaus in his 1997 biography of Whittaker Chambers.1 In effect, for many unscrupulous Republican partisans, most notably HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas, the real target of the investigation turned out to be not so much the Communist party as the Democratic party, in the form of the New Deal and the Roosevelt administration.
Some in Hollywood who had been victims of the Communists during their hegemonic days in the Screen Writers Guild and elsewhere—the Radoshes go into considerable detail on the Communists' methods of controlling who got work in Hollywood and who did not—were happy to cooperate with HUAC and to tell what they knew. A group of ten Hollywood screenwriters and directors, following Communist-party instructions to appear before the committee and make a spectacle of themselves by invoking the Fifth Amendment, ended up serving prison sentences for contempt of Congress. Still others fled abroad—not, of course, to the great socialist motherland but to more comfortable climes like Mexico, England, and France, where they were often able to find productive work.
The eventual outcome of the HUAC hearings was the creation of a blacklist, consisting mainly of actors, directors, and screenwriters, whom the studios were forbidden to employ—although not immediately, and not without a fight. As the Radoshes show, the studio heads were not prepared simply to roll over for the committee. Whatever their personal politics, they were accustomed to unquestioned authority in their own domain, and in general were less interested in the politics of their writers than in scripts that would lead to success at the box office. Thus, even after they had supposedly buckled to political pressure, the studio heads continued to employ some of the blacklisted writers under fictitious names.
By the late 1960's, the political and cultural tide within the United States had turned sufficiently for many of the blacklisted to resume work under their own names. Those who had gone to prison for contempt of Congress were rehabilitated as martyrs to the cause of political and cultural freedom. Subsequent generations, ignorant of the historical details, and nudged along by such mendacious films as The Front, have all too readily bought into the myth of innocent liberals on the run; in fact, the real liberals, like Reagan, had all along been on the other side of the fence.
As for those writers and filmmakers who had cooperated with HUAC, they wouldstand condemned in the court of Hollywood opinion. The classic example was the late Elia Kazan, the director of such landmark Broadway plays and/or Hollywood movies as Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof On the Waterfront, Gentleman's Agreement, Viva Zapata!, and East of Eden. As recently as 1999, a huge scandal was provoked when the board of the Motion Picture Academy voted to grant Kazan a special award for distinguished artistic achievement. Marlon Brando even tried to prevent the showing of clips from one of Kazan's movies in the presentation of the award.2
It speaks volumes about the current moment in American culture that the single afternoon Kazan spent testifying before a congressional committee—an afternoon, moreover, without serious consequences for particular Communist writers—should be considered enough to outweigh a lifetime of extraordinary contribution to American theater and film. But such, as I noted at the beginning, is the nature of Hollywood's continued enthrallment to the illiberal Left. The Radoshes' Red Star Over Hollywood is an indispensable account of how this enthrallment came to be.
1 I reviewed Whittaker Chambers in the February 1997 COMMENTARY.
2 The film critic and historian Richard Schickel begins his engrossing and authoritative new book, Elia Kazan: A Biography (Harper Collins, 489 pp., $39.95), by revisiting this sorry episode.