Books & the Culture

Just Radical - Not Chic


The current relevance of issues raised in Radical Hollywood is easy to identify. Authors Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner expertly chronicle liberal film artists and their work from the early days of sound pictures through the blacklist era with an emphasis on the obstacles created by stifling censors, uneducated critics, and financial priorities. As current filmmakers contend with similar problems, this recounting of the struggles faced by their leftist predecessors feels timely and appropriate.

The fight against film censorship, a formidable obstacle in one form or another since the advent of motion pictures, began in earnest when the Hays Office formalized “the Code” in 1931. The authors refer to founder Will Hays as the “taste czar of product-control.” Joseph I. Breen, the man who eventually ran the office’s Production Code Administration, was determined to squash any film “that somehow lowered the moral standards of the audience.” The authors offer a perfect example of mandated changes intruding upon artistic intent–the film Dead End, based on a play by Sidney Kingsley.

In the stage version, a mobster falls for a prostitute suffering from syphilis. In the film, her occupation is dropped and the disease is changed to tuberculosis (partially through the addition of artificial coughing to the soundtrack). As the plot hinges on the mobster (played by Humphrey Bogart) being rejected by his mother for courting the sick woman, the film makes little sense. Censors and their restrictive guidelines effectively buried the meaning of the movie.

Rather than presenting the limited options available to (and subsequent bigotry toward) the impoverished, cinema audiences were asked to believe that tuberculosis was a social stigma.

Radical Hollywood contends that left-leaning screenwriters learned to battle these restrictions by creatively hiding social commentary beneath the surface of popular genre films. Musical, horror, and (in particular during the early sound days) gangster pictures such as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy featured malcontents railing against the system in between crowd-pleasing dance, chase, and gunfight scenes. A false moment of Hollywood redemption tacked onto the ending completed the smokescreen.

If the authors have a failing (aside from a curious and rather lazy dismissal of “would-be auteur” filmmakers in the time since the blacklist), it is in the unconditional praise of their subject matter. They are able to completely separate a Hollywood ending from the rest of the picture, and don’t allow for the fact that many audience members might be confused by the film’s mixed message. Buhle and Wagner do not concede that James Cagney regretting the error of his ways in a film’s final reel in any way colors the opinion of those who have been rooting for him as he shot his way to such a conclusion. It is enough that he first gave voice to the poor, marginalized, and disenchanted people among them.

The authors really hit their stride when Radical Hollywood delves into the artful self-criticism that the liberal filmmaking community afforded itself during their openly successful years immediately following the second World War. Leftist efforts like The Best Years of Our Lives were finding mainstream audiences. Film, still a young medium, had finally matured to the point where its artists could look inward and provide one another with thoughtful, qualified critiques.

The authors quote director William Wyler on the subject: “There is no recognizable aesthetic for our contemporary fiction film, the kind people are going to see nowadays. The people who make pictures, and face problems, have to solve them on their own hook, without any connection or communication with other minds on the creative level.” Screenwriter Dudley Nichols was more blunt: “One of the great lacks of the cinema so far has been its deficiency in perceptive criticism.”

This sentiment grew until creative industry professionals like Nichols, John Howard Lawson, Howard Koch, and John Houseman (among others) began the Hollywood Quarterly and opened the door for the advanced criticism that followed. Never before had an American publication so intelligently examined film as art and literature. Buhle and Wagner do a fine job of describing how ably HQ filled the critical vacuum without inflating its importance, as it only survived in its purest form for a few years. This same movement, perhaps borne initially to provide a forum for fashionably Marxist critiques, led also to the re-energizing of the League of American Writers‚ Hollywood branch. Radical Hollywood details the tough questions a more liberal old guard taught younger screenwriters to ask themselves:

What were the consequences when a writer succumbed to pressure to write shallow characters and plot? Can movies that contain only male actors really develop full characterization? Is a love relationship justifiable as the center of a story, or a mere diversion from the social side? How could writers in a commercial industry with inescapable managerial supervision survive without cynicism and perhaps even do (at least some) memorable work?

Perhaps more than any other, this last question will always be a unique and unfortunately essential aspect of screenwriting. No other storytelling medium has ever required such a large amount of capital to reach its audience, and financiers will always seek assurances that a return will be made on their money. Filmmakers decide on the level of their own responsibility and determine whether or not their work can flourish despite the burden. A community that recognized this dilemma, accepted it as a serious problem, and worked together to find a satisfying solution deserves our attention.

And herein lies the strength of Radical Hollywood. Buhle and Wagner have drawn a complete picture of talented men and women committed to advancing the art of film despite being victims of a dangerous political prejudice which would ultimately succeed in stealing away their livelihoods.

Their bravery is needed today. The Motion Picture Association of America, the contemporary version of the Hays Office, routinely practices a form of economic censorship by passing moral judgment through their ratings board. The process is voluntary, but no major theater chain in the United States will carry an unrated movie, making it box office suicide for a studio to bypass the system. Directors cut their films around the arbitrary guidelines set down by the MPAA in order to secure a PG-13 rating and the promise of the highest possible gross. The ratings board self-righteously determines what material will be suitable for younger audiences, curtailing moments of gay affection or the aftermath of realistic violence.

How many of today’s film artists are intent upon protecting their freedom of expression? The legacy of Radical Hollywood will be to remind us of a time when men and women faced more dire circumstances and decided to fight back.

Eric Gravning is an independent filmmaker.