No temptation seems more irresistible to film critics than the pithy summation of a decade in movies. Ask a critic about a cinematic year and you’ll get a top-ten list. Ask about a decade, though, and you’ll likely get a broad political correlation: can-do Depression cinema, alienated Nixon cinema, or flashy Reagan cinema (Democratic presidents do not earn negative correlations). Critics will make these zeitgeist assertions given the barest excuse, asserting that the political spirit of an age has, through intention and circumstance, ineffaceably insinuated itself into its movies.
In recent years, as this tendency has become increasingly ridiculous — a 2006 article in Interview magazine conscripted the comedies Sideways and Broken Flowers in support of its thesis that “road movies are back in vogue, perhaps because alienation is as common in Bush’s America as it was in Nixon’s” — it has been easy to forget that there was a time when these characterizations made more sense. J. Hoberman’s new book, An Army of Phantoms, about the early Cold War era, describes a case in point — but even in this case, there are serious limits to the broad characterizations.
In the period Hoberman is discussing, only eight studios produced nearly all domestic films that had a hope of wide exposure; so, theoretically, the agreement of a handful of executives could shape the nation’s whole cinematic output. Such agreement did in fact come about for enforcement of the Hays Code (setting moral rules for films) and the issuing of the Waldorf Statement (the root of the famous blacklist of Hollywood Communists). Yet, as the book makes clear, these agreements were exceptions to the rule: Hoberman’s outline of the era’s vibrant cinema stands as a sure retort to the all-too-common sketches of that period as one of creativity crushed under McCarthyite censorship.
Moviemakers did endure a certain amount of lobbying, in a variety of forms. Government figures had pressed for bald-faced World War II pro-Soviet propaganda such as Mission to Moscow and Song of Russia, and, after the war, for overheated Red Scare pictures such as The Red Menace and I Married a Communist (the titles alone supply essentially everything you need to know). Yet plenty of room for maneuver existed even in cases near the government thumb: Sam Fuller got his gritty Korean War drama Steel Helmet into theaters without the approval of the Breen office (the movie industry’s morality watchdog at the time), and with the use of Signal Corps stock footage, even as a Department of Defense memo characterized the film as “subtle communist propaganda.”
While the production world of that time may have been less complicated than today’s, it certainly wasn’t simple: Many individuals were capable of leaving an ideological stamp on a film, and government was far from the only party with an ideological agenda. Hoberman offers few judgments in his matter-of-fact account of the blacklist and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings; his approach leaves some valuable context unexamined, but is nonetheless a welcome deviation from most treatments of the blacklist, which paint the blacklistees in few shades other than those of complete innocence. (The most prominent recent film on a member of the Hollywood Ten blacklistees, 2007’s semi-documentary Trumbo, neglected to mention that its hero, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, was in fact a member of the Communist party.)
Hoberman, in a detail often skirted in other accounts, makes clear how active the Hollywood Ten were in crafting much of the narrative of their fates that endures today. In 1953, the CBS TV series You Are There premiered. It dramatized episodes from history, many of which had to do with persecution: the Salem witch trials, Joan of Arc, Galileo, Socrates, and the Dreyfus case. Who were the authors? None other than blacklistees Arnold Manoff, Abraham Polonsky, and Walter Bernstein, writing through a front. Most histories of the period have explicitly sanctioned such self-serving persecution analogies, and the historiography collectively resembles nothing so as much as a Foxe’s Book of Martyrs for the modern Left; it’s useful to be reminded that the blacklistees themselves wrote the first draft, and that subsequent historians made few major changes to the story.
In its portrait of the political context of the blacklist, Army of Phantoms falls short of the one invaluable revisionist account of the period, Ron and Allis Radosh’s Red Star over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left, which did a better job both of depicting the self-serving manipulativeness of the Hollywood Communists and of acknowledging their frankly ideological and coordinated aims. But Hoberman does detail the ideological policing that Hollywood Communists engaged in. To take just one example, the Hollywood Ten held a meeting to call Robert Rossen to task for directing and adapting All the King’s Men. Hoberman quotes director Edward Dmytryk: “The reason behind the attack was never verbally expressed, and it took me some time to recognize it: Rossen was really getting hell for exposing the evils of dictatorship, the rock on which the Communist party was founded.”
Whatever fate the blacklist entailed for those listed, another fact Hoberman makes valuably clear — this is a book about movies, after all — is the dizzying range of films still under production amidst the HUAC proceedings. The blacklist stalled or smashed some careers, but HUAC even at its most fearsome wasn’t strong enough to stop a tide of films inflected by the experience: for example, Otto Preminger’s The 13th Letter (1951), which Hoberman calls a “spectacle of a town driven mad by a series of anonymous accusations,” and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), in which “the movie colony is an environment of smashed careers and free-floating paranoia.”
Message pictures, of a variety of stripes, continued to be made, but most, as almost always, came in varied shades of grey, which Hoberman ably dissects. High Noon (1952), which John Wayne declared the “most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” was loved by Dwight Eisenhower, who watched it at least three times in the White House. Sam Fuller’s noir classic Pickup on South Street (1953) offers concurrent condemnations of informing and of Communism, and was attacked, from different quarters, as both left-wing and McCarthyite. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), too, “lent itself to both right- and left-wing readings — either a drama of Communist subversion or a parable of suburban conformity, unfolding in a hilariously bland atmosphere of hypervigilance.” Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) “parodied college-educated fellow travelers” while also standing as a “generic antifascist scare film — stridently dramatizing, in a suitable popular form, everybody’s worst fears regarding the American culture industry.”
The book features many fascinating vignettes about the intertwining of politics and the movie industry. Actor Robert Montgomery helped to tweak Dwight Eisenhower’s television ads: “Montgomery replaced Eisenhower’s eyeglasses, powdered his forehead, and supervised the mise en scène of these twenty-second spots.” Dore Schary, MGM’s production chief, served as the entertainment director for the 1956 Democratic convention, where, “at the suggestion of TV newsman Edward R. Murrow, [he] recruited Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts to narrate the Democrats’ keynote film The Pursuit of Happiness. The 39-year-old Kennedy was subsequently put forth as a candidate for vice president, and although he lost out to Estes Kefauver, he was tabbed as an obvious up-and-comer — and even as a frontrunner for the 1960 nomination.”
Hoberman, in writing about movies that “best crystallize, address, symptomatize, or exploit their historical moment,” realizes that any era in cinema history is complicated and fragmented. There certainly are crude stock characters in this story, but their interactions were not simple: “In the national Dream Life, this war was fought by archetypal figures: the Christian Soldier and the Patriot Roughneck were pitted against an Implacable Alien Other, as well as the Wild One, and sometimes themselves.” This book is a welcome acknowledgment of how complicated the story of one particular period really is, and reminds us that a cinematic dream life, even in black and white, is never as simple as we might recall.
– Mr. Paletta is an editor for the Center for the American University at the Manhattan Institute.