Communism and Hollywood
S]ince the Berlin Wall fell,… no Hollywood film has addressed the actual history of communism, the agony of the millions whose lives were poisoned by it, and the century of international deceit that obscured communist reality. The simple but startling truth is that the major conflict of our time, democracy versus Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism — what The New York Times [once] called “the holy war of the 20th century” — is almost entirely missing from American cinema. It is as though since 1945, Hollywood had produced little or nothing about the victory of the Allies and the crimes of National Socialism. This void is all the stranger since the major conflict of our time would seem to be a natural draw for Hollywood.
Though of global dimension, the conflict encompasses millions of dramatic personal stories played out on a grand tapestry of history: courageous Solidarity unionists against a Communist military junta; teenagers facing down tanks in the streets of Budapest and Prague; Cuban gays oppressed by a macho-Marxist dictatorship; writers and artists resisting the kitsch of obscurantist materialism; families fleeing brutal persecution, risking their lives to find freedom.
Furthermore, great villains make for great drama, and communism’s central casting department is crowded: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hönecker, Ceaucescu, Pol Pot, Col. Mengistu — all of cosmic megalomania — along with their squads of hacks, sycophants, and stooges, foreign and domestic.
A few English-language films have drawn on this remarkable material, especially book-into-film projects based on highly publicized works, among them One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich … and, of course, Doctor Zhivago (1965). But many other natural book-to-film projects remain untouched….
The reason this ample supply of stories remains unfilmed is not ignorance. Though its films may not often reflect it, Hollywood is filled with knowledgeable writers and producers. The reasons lie elsewhere, especially in Hollywood’s own convoluted political history, a history that has passed through many stages. Perhaps the most pertinent of those stages involves the “back story” of communism’s own largely uncharted offensive in the studios.
The cinema’s great potential for persuasion excited Stalin and his wholly-owned American subsidiary, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), which lived off Soviet cash until it criticized Gorbachev’s reforms as “old social democratic thinking class collaboration.” […] Members of the CPUSA made some documentary films in the 1930s, but nothing that could compete with the American commercial cinema, which the party set out to co-opt.
“One of the most pressing tasks confronting the Communist Party in the field of propaganda,” wrote the indefatigable Comintern agent Willi Muenzenberg in a 1925 Daily Worker article, “is the conquest of this supremely important propaganda unit, until now the monopoly of the ruling class. We must wrest it from them and turn it against them.” It was an ambitious task, but conditions would soon turn to the party’s advantage.
The Depression convinced many that capitalism was on its last legs and that socialism was the wave of the future. In the days of the Popular Front of the mid-’30s, communists found it easy to make common cause with liberals against Hitler and Spain’s Franco. In 1935, V.J. Jerome, the CPUSA’s cultural commissar, set up a Hollywood branch of the party. This highly secretive unit enjoyed great success, recruiting members, organizing entire unions, raising money from unwitting Hollywood liberals, and using those funds to support Soviet causes through front groups such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. “We had our own sly arithmetic, we could find fronts and make two become one,” remembered screenwriter Walter Bernstein … in his 1996 autobiography, Inside Out.
During the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, for example, actor Melvyn Douglas (Ninotchka) and screenwriter-director Philip Dunne (Wild in the Country) proposed that the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, a conclave of industry Democrats, condemn Stalin’s invasion of Finland in late 1939. But the group was actually secretly dominated by Communists, and it rejected the resolution. As Dunne later described it in his 1980 memoir, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics, “All over town the industrious communist tail wagged the lazy liberal dog.”
“There was never an organized, articulate, and effective liberal or left-wing opposition to the communists in Hollywood,” concluded John Cogley, a socialist, in his 1956 Report on Blacklisting. As former party member Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) put it, the party was “the only game in town.” But even though the Communists were strongest in the Screen Writers Guild, influencing the content of movies was a trickier matter.
Communist cultural doctrine cast writers as “artists in uniform,” producing works whose function was to transmit political messages and raise the consciousness of their audiences. Otherwise, movies were mere bourgeois decadence, a tool of capitalist distraction, and therefore subjugation. Party bosses V.J. Jerome and John Howard Lawson (a co-founder of the Screen Writers Guild and screenwriter of Algiers and Action in the North Atlantic) enforced this art-is-a-weapon creed in Hollywood, as they had done earlier among New York dramatists. Albert Maltz (Destination Tokyo) was to challenge the doctrine in a 1946 New Masses article, arguing that doctrinaire politics often resulted in poor writing. Responding to the notion that “art is a weapon,” Maltz suggested, “An artist can be a great artist without being an integrated or logical or a progressive thinker on all matters.”
As a result of such heresy, the party dragged him through a series of humiliating inquisitions and forced him to publish a retraction. Maltz trashed his original article as “a one-sided, nondialectical treatment of complex issues” that was “distinguished for its omissions” and which “succeeded in merging my comments with the unprincipled attacks upon the left that I have always repudiated and combated.” […]
Dalton Trumbo (Kitty Foyle), a Communist Party member and for a time the highest-paid screenwriter in town, described the screenwriting trade as “literary guerrilla warfare.” The studio system, in which projects were closely supervised, made the insertion of propaganda difficult if not impossible. Hollywood did not become a bastion of Stalinist propaganda, except as part of the war effort, when Russia was celebrated as an ally. Ayn Rand, then a Hollywood screenwriter and one of the few in the movie community who had actually lived under communism, was to point out that, in their zeal to provide artistic lend-lease, American Communist screenwriters went to extraordinary and absurd lengths. In such wartime movies as North Star and Song of Russia (both 1943), they portrayed the USSR as a land of joyous, well-fed workers who loved their masters. Mission to Moscow (also 1943), starring Walter Huston, went so far as to whitewash Stalin’s murderous show trials of the 1930s.
But if Comintern fantasies of a Soviet Hollywood were never realized, party functionaries nevertheless played a significant role: They were sometimes able to prevent the production of movies they opposed. The party had not only helped organize the Screen Writers Guild, it had organized the Story Analysts Guild as well. Story analysts judge scripts and film treatments early in the decision making process. A dismissive report often means that a studio will pass on a proposed production. The party was thus well positioned to quash scripts and treatments with anti-Soviet content, along with stories that portrayed business and religion in a favorable light. In The Worker, Dalton Trumbo openly bragged that the following works had not reached the screen: Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and The Yogi and the Commissar; Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom; and Bernard Clare by James T. Farrell, also author of Studs Lonigan and vilified by party enforcer Mike Gold as “a vicious, voluble Trotskyite.”
Even talent agents sometimes answered to Moscow. Party organizer Robert Weber landed with the William Morris agency, where he represented Communist writers and directors such as Ring Lardner Jr. and Bernard Gordon. Weber carried considerable clout regarding who worked and who didn’t. So did George Willner, a Communist agent representing screenwriters, who sold out his noncommunist clients by deliberately neglecting to shop their stories. On a wider scale, the party launched smear campaigns and blacklists against noncommunists, targeting such figures as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, and Bette Davis.
These were among the many actors defying the party-backed labor group, the Conference of Studio Unions. The CSU, which was trying to shut down the industry and force through jurisdictional concessions that would give it supremacy in studio labor, clashed with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and its allies, who were trying to keep the studios going. Katharine Hepburn stumped for the CSU, reading speeches written by Dalton Trumbo, while Ronald Reagan, then a liberal Democrat, headed the anti-communists in the talent guilds.
These were the true front lines of the communist offensive, and bloody warfare broke out in the streets outside every studio. The prospect of communist influence in Hollywood got Washington snooping, but in classic style, the politicians got it backward.
The first head of what eventually became the House Committee on Un-American Activities was New York Democrat Samuel Dickstein. As the recently declassified “Venona” documents (decrypts of Soviet cables) reveal, Dickstein moonlighted for Soviet intelligence–not out of ideology but for money. […]
Eager to exploit Hollywood for publicity, the committee stupidly made film content the issue, ignoring the party’s vast organizing campaigns in the back lots despite convincing testimony from, among others, Walt Disney. More important, the committee ignored the reality that it wasn’t what the party put into North Star and Song of Russia that really mattered but the anti-communist, anti-Soviet material it kept out.
While the committee welcomed the publicity, the beleaguered film industry circled the wagons. Studio bosses, although adamantly anti-communist, asserted defiantly that no congressman could tell them how to run their business. A celebrity support group, including such figures as Humphrey Bogart and Danny Kaye, journeyed to Washington to defend their own.
The hearings featured a series of angry harangues by Stalinist writers who came to be known as the Hollywood Ten. Dalton Trumbo, who joined the party during the Nazi-Soviet Pact and even wrote a novel, The Remarkable Andrew, to support the Pact, bellowed, “This is the beginning of the American concentration camp.” […]
Studio bosses, fearful of bad publicity, announced that they would indeed fire communists, which they had previously refused to do. This was the beginning of the blacklist, Hollywood’s version of the conflict of our time, enshrined in such films as The Front (1976), starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel and written by Walter Bernstein, and the star-studded but bland Guilty by Suspicion (1991). Viewers of such fare could easily conclude that communism scarcely existed except as a source of boundless optimism in the hearts of the country’s most creative writers. Much the same message emerged from Julia, the 1977 Jane Fonda vehicle based on an autohagiographical memoir by Lillian Hellman. […]
As it plays out in the movies, the blacklist story is vintage Hollywood: black hats vs. white hats. The evil government committee rides into town and, for no apparent reason, makes life miserable for a group of noble artists. In one subplot, the victims survive by selling scripts under fake names. […]
By the 1960s the blacklist was over; Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger restored the names of blacklisted writers to the credits of the films they actually wrote. The Hollywood Ten and other communist writers were on their way, as Philip Dunne put it, to being “virtually deified.” Dunne had been through it all and found the revisionist accounts so distorted that, he said, “I could almost believe that I was reading the chronicle of some mythical kingdom.”
The legend of the blacklist, sanitized of all references to Stalin or to the Communist Party’s actual record in the studios, became a continuing influence on Hollywood’s political life. Hollywood had entered its period of anti-anti-communism, a well-known phenomenon in American cultural and intellectual life. […]
According to Hollywood, American anti-communism derived not from any deficiencies of socialism or threat from the USSR but from paranoia, xenophobia, and the nefarious influence of Nazis who entered the United States after the war. That was the theme of Walter Bernstein’s 1988 The House on Carroll Street, which featured a score more appropriate for a ’50s monster movie. Bernstein, incidentally, shows up in the Venona decrypts, which reveal that he was a willing collaborator with the KGB. […]
On the rare occasion when life under communism is portrayed, its characteristic brutality is virtually never actually represented. Consider, for instance, Warren Beatty’s Oscar-winning Reds (1981), a psalm to Lenin acolyte John Reed. In that film a character concedes that the Soviet regime “violates human rights” but none of these violations appears on the screen. Likewise, audiences don’t see the Khmer Rouge murdering any of their nearly 2 million victims in The Killing Fields (1984). Indeed, the real villains in that tragedy, we learn, are Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and U.S. foreign policy. […]
* The text above is excerpted from “Hollywood’s Missing Movies,” by Kenneth L. Billingsley (June 2000).
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