Culture

Anti-Communist Films of the ’50s

James Arness and John Wayne in Big Jim McLain

It is widely believed on the left that the anti-Communist films of the 1950s were hysterical and unprofitable. This characterization originated with blacklisted Hollywood Communists. Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo — both of the Hollywood Ten, the group of Communist screenwriters convicted and jailed for refusing to cooperate with the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee — wrote that these films advocated anti-humanistic, even fascist messages. This theme was expanded by Nation writer Nora Sayre, who argued that Cold War–era Hollywood depicted Communists as deviants, hypocrites, and murderers.

Even more recent reviewers, such as Gwendolyn Audrey Foster of Sense of Cinema, promote this line of thinking. Examining the admittedly awful My Son John (1952), Foster characterizes the film as representative of the anti-Communist genre as a whole:

Every character is a stereotype, every other line of dialogue is a patriotic speech, and the camerawork does the awkward heavy lifting of one-sided propaganda. Plots are often ridiculous and fantastic. Acting is often painful to watch. Every minute of these films is a lecture on the evils of Communism and subversion.

But when Foster lists examples of the anti-Communist genre, she simply excludes films that challenge her thesis. There are many anti-Communist movies that stand the test of time.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s very profitable North by Northwest, for example, the Communist agents aren’t screaming agitprop merchants but smooth upper-class American agents. Protagonist Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant), when he finds out that the woman he loves is an American agent tasked with bedding down a Communist spy, criticizes the Cold War for making her perform these acts. The focus of the film lies not in peddling one-dimensional patriotism, but in depicting the net slowly enclosing fugitive Thornhill — a net composed not just of Communist agents, but also of the American establishment.

Another Cold War film, released in 1953, arguably the height of McCarthyism, was profitable and complex. Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953) didn’t portray Communists as neurotic fist-clenchers, but as wealthy and cultured Americans. Pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) doesn’t go to war with the Communist agents for home and country; he attacks them because they killed his friend, an essentially harmless old grifter played by Thelma Ritter. McCoy dismisses the police trying to enlist him in fighting Communism as “wrapping me in the flag,” and his one anti-Communist outburst is pretty muted: “You people are supposed to have all the answers,” he says to one of the Communist agents. Against Sayre and company’s view that anti-Communist characters were always portrayed as virtuous and God-fearing, McCoy is a bastard, slapping women and lifting their pocketbooks. He is hardly John Wayne.

Speaking of Wayne, his major — and also profitable — entry in the genre, Big Jim McClain, hardly disdained liberal politics. Playing the titular character, Wayne laments that the Bill of Rights is being corrupted by Stalinist Americans whose eventual goal is to destroy it; but he nevertheless realizes that he has to expose them by following the Constitution. The Communist agents in the film again aren’t hysterics and neurotics but smoothly functioning and well-heeled people, with the exception of one Communist agent who uses a racial slur against blacks. At the film’s conclusion, Wayne’s message isn’t for Americans to lock arms and march and Bible-thump; instead he argues that it is America’s melting pot that is the best defense against Communism. This message was echoed by Wayne critic and liberal Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

What is striking about these films is that, murder aside, they are very close to the mark in depicting American Communists. As Jim McClain suspected, for example, screenwriters such as John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo, while publicly defending the Bill of Rights, privately amended it. Behind closed doors, Lawson declared that “fascists” (a term defined rather broadly in his lexicon) were ineligible for free-speech protections. Trumbo would later brag to comrades of how he kept anti-Communist films from being made and of how he suppressed anti-Communist submissions to a Hollywood journal he edited during the war. Far from supporting free speech as editor, he told an anti-Communist writer that “free speech” was what had led to the gas chamber in Germany.

In other words, although there were some specimens of hysteria, by and large the anti-Communist films of the ’50s were reasonably restrained — especially given the Soviet acquisition of the atom bomb, China going Communist, and the Korean War raging.

— Ron Capshaw writes from Midlothian, Va.

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