Until people began to figure out the awful truth, I used to get regular mass e-mails from friends and acquaintances who assumed I was naturally on their side about various issues so dear to lefty hearts. Once I got fed up and told a film critic who’d put me on his list that he might at least consider the possibility not all members of the media, even here in Hollywood, are fellow travelers.
”You ought to be careful flinging around” the phrase “fellow travelers,” he informed me, helpfully explaining (in a listen-here-missy tone) the McCarthyist history of the term. He naturally presumed that not only I needed to be enlightened but that I hadn’t used the phrase on purpose just to tweak him.
Despite such true believers, not everyone in Hollywood toes the party line, and over the years I’ve noticed an improvement (or least resignation) about tolerating dissent. But it’s been a slow process. Director Elia Kazan, who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ’50s, had been persona non grata in Hollywood for decades when the Academy decided to present him an honorary Oscar in 1999; despite masterpieces like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and On the Waterfront, the American Film Institute had refused to approve a proposal to similarly honor Kazan some ten years earlier.
Still, Hollywood institutions like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Writers Guild of America, West remain filled with aging loyalists–or perhaps the simply naïve–who apparently assume that any mention of inconvenient history would be tasteless red-baiting. You still hear a lot from them about Joe McCarthy, but not much about, say, the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.
But Ronald and Allis Radosh write in their fascinating new book, Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance With the Left, about what happened here when Hitler made his non-aggression deal with Stalin. Almost overnight the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League was transformed into, as the Radoshes put it, “a ghost organization” where the few stubborn, principled liberals who dared criticize Nazis were “drowned out by a cascading echo of boos and hisses”–shades of the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend thinking in Hollywood today, where the isolationist worldview of people like Michael Moore or Sean Penn often seems indistinguishable from that of Pat Buchanan.
Things turned around, of course, in 1941–not after Pearl Harbor, but a few months earlier on June 22, when Hitler’s army marched into the Soviet Union. The Radoshes describe Lillian Hellman arriving at the Bel-Air home of friends that day to announce excitedly, “The Motherland has been attacked!” By the time the United States finally entered the war, the Radoshes write, “the Communist Party essentially remade itself into the left wing of FDR’s New Deal coalition,” supporting the internment of Japanese-Americans and opposing a March on Washington in support of civil rights for blacks as divisive.
The WGA, West remains filled with unreconstructed apologists for American Communists. Last summer, when a 91-year-old screenwriter named Robert Lees was murdered at home in Hollywood by an random intruder, the Guild’s magazine, Written By, remembered that Lees had blacklisted in the ’50s for refusing to name names–and therefore was not only the victim of a horrible crime but also something of a saint. So the magazine dug up a posthumous Q&A with Lees (culled from interviews writer Ed Rampell had done in 2002 and 2003) and published it, with a deadpan introduction informing readers that “the life of the Party is no more.”
I have no real beef with Lees’s answers in this interview–he was who he was (an Abbott and Costello writer, mostly) and I suppose never changing your mind about anything in 90-plus years on earth is something of an accomplishment–but Rampell’s questions crossed the line from gently lobbed softballs to outright shilling. He goes right from “Why did you join the Communist Party?” to “Tell us about the Hollywood Blacklist,” with no mention of that pesky Nazi-Soviet Pact and Hollywood’s reaction–or indeed of anything else that came between anti-fascist ’30s idealism and ’50s McCarthyism.
Then there are the bizarre typography decisions:
Rampell: What do you think of websites that urge audiences to boycott productions with pro-peace actors?
Lees: It blows my mind that such a thing has taken place… [There’s] now the war of Christianity against the infidels. We had that same war against godless Russia. The Great Satan has now been switched to mean the Arabs, and we are on the side of god…
Evidently the Guild rethought its insistence on that lower-case “god,” especially after upper-case “Satan,” because this was changed in the website version of the article. (“Pro-peace” was also changed to the more conventional “anti-war.”) But the website also includes examples of the Guild’s agenda-driven thinking that aren’t in the hard copy of the magazine I got, like this question from Rampell: “In Hollywood today, do you think there’s a political litmus test for those against the war and Bush?” (Answer, basically: Well, of course!)
Those who complain about supposed crushed artistic freedom or wartime propaganda “in Hollywood today” might consider the very real and dishonest influence Communists had on expression in the ’40s. The films Mission to Moscow, Song of Russia, and North Star, in which Lillian Hellman’s script imagines happy Ukrainian peasants dancing on their bountiful collective farms, are just three of the most laughable examples.
Budd Schulberg was similarly disillusioned when the Daily Worker ordered its reviewer to write a second, negative opinion of Schulberg’s 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? to counter the original positive one. (The party’s problem with Sammy? Even though the pro-union Schulberg sympathetically described the birth of the Writers Guild, the novel didn’t deal with back-lot workers and was therefore elitist.)
Ronald Radosh was on a “Hollywood and the Reds” panel last weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. On his side was Time film critic Richard Schickel; against him were Larry Ceplair, who curated an exhibit about the Blacklist for the Academy, and The Nation’s Victor Navasky.
“Larry Ceplair referred to the persecution of ‘alleged Communists’ in Hollywood,” said Radosh, speaking at a Wednesday Morning Club lunch in Los Angeles this week. “He couldn’t even admit there were real Communists. Victor Navasky brought up the ‘great myth’ of Communist propaganda films–as if everyone involved in Mission to Moscow were just non-Communist liberals. But [Screenwriter] Howard Koch was a fellow traveler and totally dedicated Stalinist. To his credit, Richard Schickel said, ‘Can’t you stop lying to us, Victor?’ The audience didn’t like that. They were all on the other side.”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.