Screening Our Politics

Screening Our Politics

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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.

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