Screening Communists


By the 1920s, men who pledged fealty to the Party had gained a toehold in – even a headlock on – the American movie industry. But that Party was Republican. Studio heads were immigrant social climbers who craved respectability, and association with the rapacious patriots who put Harding and Coolidge into office certified success. During the Depression, Louis B. Mayer, who – falsely – claimed the Fourth of July as his birthday, was paid the highest salary in the United States, and he trusted Republicans to protect his economic interests. Herbert Hoover’s interests were served by support from Hollywood, and, after victory in 1928, he signaled his gratitude by making the Mayer family the first dinner guests in his White House.

Yet in 1947 and again in 1951, the Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives singled out the movie business for inquisition. It is true that Mission to Moscow romanticized Russia, but at the time it was made, 1943, the United States and the Soviet Union were allied in urgent military action against Germany. It is easy to claim that American movies were poisoning the public with alien ideologies – if you never see an American movie. Even the most overt accounts of alien infiltration, the countless pictures about invaders from outer space, celebrate Yankee pluck and independence.

Yet harassment, imprisonment, and blacklisting of screenwriters, actors, directors, and others destroyed careers and even lives. It was, in Lillian Hellman’s phrase, a “scoundrel time,” when bull-headed politicians saw red everywhere, especially at the Bijou. By attacking Hollywood, Mississippi Congressman John Rankin thought he could extirpate Jewish influence from American culture, while many of his colleagues were merely star-struck, and eager to strike back. Arthur Miller was advised that his subpoena would be withdrawn if Marilyn Monroe agreed to be photographed with Pennsylvania Congressman Francis E. Walter. Miller declined the deal, but committee hearings rarely elicited sterling performances from anxious witnesses, friendly or not. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten who defied Congressional interrogation, concluded: “In the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, do things he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us – right, left, or center – emerged from that long nightmare without sin.”

Though he quotes these careful words uttered by Trumbo in 1970, at a dinner for the Screenwriters Guild (but neglects to mark the speech in his index), Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley begins and ends his book with a different event: a 1997 Beverly Hills gala called Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist. It was an elaborate pageant that remembered the blacklist as a black-and-white affair: philistine inquisitors vs. virtuous artists. Despite the proliferation of nuanced histories and memoirs (many of which he pilfers for his story), Billingsley complains that Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist now stands as the official narrative. Instead of “the simple, feel-good tale of the evil Committee and its victims,” he offers Hollywood Party as an antidote to simplifications and distortions.

But, fraught with misspellings (“John Housemann,” “crie de coeur,” “Singing in the Rain” – sic, sic, and sic!), inaccuracies (a casual pronouncement that “the Nazis did not wrap their wrath in populist pieties”), and unattributed quotations and assertions, Billingsley’s book does not inspire trust. “Stalin reportedly claimed that he could easily convert the world to Communism if he controlled the American movie industry,” contends Billingsley, without identifying the reporter. He asserts, without proof, that Stalinists drove actress Frances Farmer crazy. Oblivious to the pandemic of Cold War films that demonize Commies (Rambo, The Deer Hunter, Dr. Zhivago, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, etc.), he announces that “not a single Hollywood film has ever shown Communists committing atrocities.”

Billingsley states, twice, that the leftist League of American Writers “even managed to enlist Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the President of the United States,” without explaining what that means. At least we know they did not enlist Franklin Delano Roosevelt the taxidermist. He concludes his account of actress Dorothy Comingore’s hostile testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (for which he alternates between the acronyms H.U.A.C. and H.C.U.A.) with the terse innuendo: “Later that year Comingore was arrested on a prostitution charge.”

Billingsley, a California correspondent for the Moonie-owned Washington Times and editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy (a San Francisco think tank promoting private enterprise and limited government), rejects the metaphor of the Witch Hunt, popularized by Miller’s allegorical play The Crucible. There were no witches in Salem, he notes, while Hollywood was lousy with Communists. Does that justify hunting them? By 1939, the Communist Party of the United States had 60,000 members, and movie lots were particularly fertile ground for recruits. Though membership meant assent to liquidation of the kulaks, the Moscow show trials, the gulag, the alliance with Hitler, state-sponsored anti-Semitism, the invasion of Hungary, and other abominations, many joined merely to advance their careers or meet sexual partners. Many believed, naively, in Stalin as humanity’s best hope to eradicate injustice and war. “Our brutal history defines patriotism as my country right or wrong,” observed screenwriter Paul Jarrico, whose faith in American democracy survived disillusionment with Stalinism. “Our noble history defines it as my country, right the wrong.” Whatever their motivations, Hollywood Communists were exercising their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly.

Billingsley justifies his project by promising recent revelations from Soviet archives. Yet, exhaling second-hand smoke, Hollywood Party never catches fire. Billingsley, who does not seem to read Russian, offers no original research. He merely cuts and pastes (with glue derived from kicking dead horses) other texts, including the raw files of H.U.A.C. and a copy of True Detective. Nothing he has gleaned from others’ visits to K.G.B. archives alters significantly the picture of an American Inquisition run amok, a shabby premonition of the Starr prosecution. Though he characterizes Hollywood as “a sunny Siberia” and denounces the studio system as “the closest version of an absolute monarchy ever to exist in America” (what about the Rockefeller dynasty?), Billingsley does not succeed in rationalizing repression against citizens of the United States.

Hollywood Party does retrace the sordid, violent history of labor strife within the movie trades, personalizing it as an ugly struggle between Herbert Sorrell, founder and head of the Conference of Studio Unions, and Roy Brewer, California representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Sorrell was a Communist and Brewer a New Deal anti-Communist, and their two organizations fought fiercely, on picket lines and in court rooms, for the allegiance of the rank-and-file. Hollywood Party is a record of triumph, and despite the efforts of Ward Bond, John Wayne, Adolphe Menjou, John Ford, and other conservatives, the war that it recounts ended in a victory by liberals over Communists. Billingsley details the treachery and bullying committed by American Stalinists, mostly against one another, but none of it justifies the suspension of civil liberties that occurred when individuals were sent to prison for refusing to name names or denied employment for being a name – or a casual acquaintance of someone who was.

It is safe now to name names, and Billingsley begins his book with a roster that is unintentionally ludicrous in reducing the lives of accomplished men and women to the kind of card they carried. Charlie Chaplin, for example, is identified baldly as: “Actor; supporter of Communist Party and U.S.S.R.” Katharine Hepburn is merely “Actress; C.S.U. [Conference of Studio Unions, Sorrell’s Communist group] supporter.” Paul Robeson is “Actor; singer; Communist supporter.” If Pablo Picasso had lived in California at the time, Billingsley might have identified him as “Painter; Communist supporter.” Imagine Jesus as “Martyr; Communist sympathizer.”

Elia Kazan, whom Billingsley describes as “Director; actor; writer; novelist; onetime Communist Party member who later publicly recanted,” did name names. On April 10, 1952, Kazan, repudiated the Stalinist ideology he had embraced by not only publicly renouncing communism but also informing on colleagues who had shared his affiliations. In 1952, being called a communist had consequences, and it is understandable that Kazan abruptly lost friends. Nevertheless, the director of On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and East of Eden is a major figure in movie history. And board members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted unanimously to present Kazan with an honorary Oscar during the annual festivities on March 21. This apotheosis of a snitch would never have occurred if the leftist interpretation were, as Billingsley complains, the official history of Hollywood communism. Billingsley is right to insist that the blacklist era was a complex blend of idealism, opportunism, and perfidy. But instead of a blend, his book is a muddle.

Steven G. Kellman is Ashbel Smith Professor of Comparative Literature at U.T.—San Antonio, and a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. He writes on film frequently for the Observer and the San Antonio Current.