Quantcast

Screening Our Politics | The Nation

  •  

Screening Our Politics

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Like Pop-Up Video--one of the many things the movie-industry left
never anticipated--ancillary factoids keep imposing themselves on Paul
Buhle and Dave Wagner's Radical Hollywood:

1. When the oft-dubbed "revolutionary" Lew Wasserman (longtime MCA mogul) died this past June 3, obit writers made the old archcapitalist
sound like he'd been the happy end of a Bolshevik dream--the man who
finally took the power away from the studios and gave it to the people
(OK, very rich, well-placed people).

2. Wasn't it Ronald Reagan--"FBI collaborator," the man deemed "too
dumb" for membership in Hollywood's CP of the 1930s and the star of the
blacklisted screenwriter Val Burton's last movie (Bedtime for
Bonzo
)--who helped decontrol the studios' ownership of movie
theaters, i.e., the means of distribution?

3. Showing that memory is fleeting even among the most
progressive-minded people, the Stockholm International Film Festival of
1997 jumped the gun on the Academy Awards and hosted a retrospective of
work by friendly witness Elia Kazan--its organizers claiming, quite
convincingly, that they were completely unaware of the then-raging (sort
of) Kazan Kontroversy.

4. Showing that memory is as tenacious as the ego it's attached to,
Hollywood Ten member Ring Lardner Jr., honoree of the
screenwriter-centric Nantucket Film Festival of 1998, still had the
energy to rail against the system--although the preponderance of his
outrage was not over his HUAC-imposed prison time but the liberties
Joseph Mankiewicz and Louis B. Mayer had taken fifty-odd years before
with his script for Woman of the Year.

If there are unwritten messages within Radical Hollywood, one
might be that artistic vanity and general cupidity are neither exclusive
nor native to a particular political persuasion, nor even the movie
industry itself. And that nothing ever changes. Current cinephiles fear
and loathe the fact that in today's movie business, "business" takes
precedence over "movies." But by 1933, after the bankruptcies of Fox,
Paramount and RKO, the money men had already taken over. (As the authors
write, "Bankers were good at firing studio workers...but were notably
untalented at making films." Make it "lawyers" and it might be 2002.)
Back in 1919, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary
Pickford organized the first independent-of-the-studios Hollywood movie
company, United Artists--the DreamWorks of its time. Last year's
threatened strike by the Writers Guild--which, together with the strike
threat by the Screen Actors Guild, is still affecting studio production
schedules--was largely about credits, because they translate into
salaries; in 1933, meeting secretly, Hollywood's leading screenwriters
(including such leftist lights as John Howard Lawson, John Bright,
Samuel Ornitz and Lester Cole) gathered to organize, largely over the
issue of credits, and for the same reason. Variety, Hollywood
"bible" and noted mangler of the English language, played the game with
the mobbed-up craft union IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical
Stage Employees) back in Depression-era Hollywood. It plays plenty of
games today.

And then (sigh) there's that oh-so-predictable outcry over pop cinema's
influence on/instigation of sociocriminal behavior--the knee-jerk
finger-pointing at Hollywood every time a Columbine happens (but never,
you may notice, a 9/11). This is hardly a newsflash either: The release
of such hard-nosed gangster thrillers as The Public Enemy,
Scarface and Little Caesar in the early 1930s helped lead
to the establishment of the Legion of Decency, the Production Code, the
Hays Office, the bluenosed rule of in-house censor Joseph Breen and
decades-long cultural prosperity for those who preferred their movie sex
infantilized and their view of America strained through fine mesh. How
the Christian right does long for those thrilling days of yesteryear.

The story of the left in Hollywood, in other words, is the story of
today in Hollywood; but if you're looking for correlations and parallels
you won't find many in Radical Hollywood. Not that parallels are
always what you need: As the blacklisted writer/director Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil, Body and Soul,
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here) told interviewer David Walsh a few
months before his death in 1999, "In the old days, if something like
this [the Kazan Oscar] was going on, you'd make a few telephone calls,
you'd have a thousand people there. No more. Nobody believes in
anything, except in the finance capitalist." Did anyone in the whole of
Hollywood--or the entire United States Congress, for that matter--make a
peep of support for the recent and quite reasonable California appellate
court decision on the Pledge of Allegiance? If they did, it was drowned
out by the sound of scuttling feet, heading for the political lifeboats.

This last episode was certainly too late for inclusion or comment in
Radical Hollywood, but it points up both the stasis and mutation
in what we have to recognize, however reluctantly, as the cultural
capital of the country--and whose history is far more alive than this
book would imply. Encyclopedic in the most frightening sense, RH
is thorough and wide-ranging, and fairly exhaustive in ferreting out
every possible leftist association in any vaguely relevant movie
produced by Hollywood from the New Deal through the postwar Red Scare.
But the authors are also straitjacketed by their own theses: One, that
there was a leftist subtext imposed on many of the movies that
the right held in fear and contempt. (Who knew?) And two, that the
movies were simply superior during the more or less lefty days of
Hollywood.

They may be right. "The content of films was better in 1943 than it is
in 1953," Hollywood Ten-ster Dalton Trumbo is quoted as saying, and the
authors contend that "any reasonable calculation" would confirm what
Trumbo says. But reasonable calculation has nothing to do with the very
subjective business of judging art. One might as well reduce the entire
argument to a single question: What do you prefer? Movies with the
left-leaning Humphrey Bogart? Or movies with Ronald Reagan? It may not
seem to be a contest. But it wouldn't be an example of the scientific
process, either.

Despite their tabloidy subtitle--"the untold story behind America's
favorite movies"--Buhle and Wagner don't dabble much in the anecdote,
gossip or movie-set story that would have lubricated their prose or
perhaps even parted their sea of subordinate clauses. Still, famous
names abound. "As FBI reports suggested," Lucille Ball, Katharine
Hepburn, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Danny
Kaye, Fredric March, Bette Davis, Lloyd Bridges, John Garfield, Anne
Revere, Larry Parks (The Jolson Story), the wives of March and
Gene Kelly, and Gregory Peck's fiancée--to say nothing of the
scores of writers Buhle and Wagner profile and analyze, or their more
loosely affiliated or merely sympathetic directors and stars--were all
in or close to the Communist Party. Why? For one thing, the authors say,
because these were the people of 1930s and '40s Los Angeles who were
smarter, consequently more liberal, and enjoying a more egalitarian and
humanistic worldview than their constipatedly conservative counterparts.
But it was, they point out, also a result of Hollywood's (and America's)
bigotry and its effect on social life: The comically titled West Side
Writing and Asthma Club, an ostensibly nonpolitical alternative for Jews
barred from Los Angeles's beach clubs and marginalized in the better
restaurants, became a hotbed of anti-Nazi sentiment (which, of course,
made it politically suspect). Eventually, through the Asthma Club, even
one of the world's leading, albeit largely apolitical, Marxists
(Groucho) could channel donations to the Popular Front.

That the Communist Party in Hollywood was largely a "social agency," as
the authors call it, was what helped make the McCarthy-era hearings and
HUAC roundups so wide-ranging and terrifying, even if, after the
Hitler-Stalin Pact, the LA branch of the party "had died...but simply
not known it," as the exiled Carl Foreman (High Noon) put it. How
such screenwriters, who are Buhle and Wagner's principal subjects,
maintained their political principles while clawing their way up the
studio ladders is something left amorphous. Lardner, ever aware of the
contradictions in being a high-priced proletarian, said in his
autobiography I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (his famous response
to J. Parnell Thomas about why he wouldn't name names) that he picketed
Warner Bros. when Mussolini's son came calling, and told David O.
Selznick not to make Gone With the Wind because it was pro-Klan.
But he was an artist, too, a hungry one, and a man who knew the siren
song of fame and fortune never quite harmonized with "The
Internationale."

The authors exhibit a weakness for locating leftist content and
associations where they need to and and shoehorning certain movies into
their theses (their view of Universal's horror catalogue as anti-Wall
Street seems particularly windy). But by the time Radical
Hollywood
gets to the era of film noir--which they call "arguably
the only fully realized American 'art film' genre"--it feels as if the
rest of the book has been prologue. Clearly, the authors know and love
the period and what it did to American cinema in the aftermath of World
War II--countering the forced fairy tale of Hollywood with a new, frank,
sexually liberated, sexually sophisticated, sexually metaphorical take
on the dark view of postwar, postnuclear existence (although, strangely,
Radical Hollywood never analyzes noir via the A-bomb, despite the
celebrated apocalyptic imagery of such genre classics as Robert
Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly). That noir also refashioned the
traditional portrayals of the sexes--at a time when, the authors point
out, the country's postwar recovery and strength were being
propagandized as dependent on the American male and his renewed sense of
self--made it one of the most important cultural developments of the
twentieth century, if not the nation's entire cultural history. No
wonder it fell victim to the strangling effects of creeping McCarthyism.

Radical Hollywood, whether or not it's "the untold story behind
America's favorite movies," certainly puts a new spin on those films,
especially for those already familiar with them--readers who,
unfortunately, will be those most distracted by the authors' rather
habitual way with the errant fact. Some are trivial: Edward G. Robinson
didn't say "Mother of God..." at the end of Little Caesar; he
said "Mother of Mercy," as any schoolchild knows (any schoolchild,
granted, with an unnatural obsession with movies). William Randolph
Hearst may have "attributed the 'subversive' label to anything that
smacked of egalitarian liberalism," but he didn't do it in the pages of
the Los Angeles Times, because he never owned the Los Angeles
Times
. In assessing the populist perspective of Destry Rides
Again
, Buhle and Wagner seem oblivious to the fact that James
Stewart's character is the son of the more famous Destry. The
famously Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (director of the
leftist-written Casablanca, among many others) is identified at
one point as a "German refugee." John Wayne's "first major screen role"
wasn't in 1938's Pals of the Saddle, but Raoul Walsh's 1930
The Big Trail. Warner Bros.' "self-serving prologue" at the
beginning of The Public Enemy may have been self-serving--it
mentions the social impact of the studio's own PE and Little
Caesar
while omitting UA's Scarface--but it wasn't on the
original 1931 print; it was added for a re-release several years later.

Jean Renoir's The Southerner marked William Faulkner's "only
notable screenplay contribution"? How about The Big Sleep?
Mildred Pierce? And let's not forget To Have and Have Not,
in which he rewrote Hemingway, by all reports to their mutual delight.
And Katharine Hepburn didn't lose the "box-office poison" appellation
after Holiday but after The Philadelphia Story, whose film
rights she bought because she knew it would remake her career.

But let's imagine this litany of errors is itself a metaphor for the
intrinsic unreality of the left in Hollywood. It's a subject that Buhle
and Wagner have attacked with energy and all the right intentions; the
reader may wish that he or she were given a bit more reason to stick
with the book through its thicker moments, but there's no denying the
authors' enthusiasm, erudition and engaging way of summarizing plot
lines and associations. Still, it's a weird tale they're telling. As
they relate early on, Polonsky recounted in his later years that one of
the oft-discussed issues among the Hollywood left wing was what, in
fact, they were all doing there. Should they be in Hollywood, making pap
and trying to inject it with a social conscience? Or secede from the
union and create film art independently? As Polonsky put it, the answer
was simple: "Filmmaking in the major studios is the prime way that film
art exists." And so it was. And is. And unfortunately--thanks to an
American indie movement that has lost its lure for youth, a dissipated
market for the once-hip foreign film and a general tendency toward
divorce between American art and American politics--so it is likely to
remain.

Subscriber Log In:

Subscribe Now!
The only way to read this article and the full contents of each week's issue of The Nation online on the day the print magazine is published is by subscribing. Subscribe now and read this article—and every article published since 1865 in our 148 year digital archive—right now.
There's no obligation—try The Nation for four weeks free.

 

 
  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.