The actual history of communism -- the agony of the millions whose lives were destroyed by it -- is almost entirely missing from American cinema. The reason for this rests in Hollywood's own convoluted political history, a history that includes the "back story" of communism's own largely uncharted offensive in the studios.
The cinema's great potential for persuasion excited Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), which Stalin controlled. "One of the most pressing tasks confronting the Communist Party in the field of propaganda," wrote the indefatigable Comintern agent Willi Muenzenberg in a 1925 Daily Worker article, "is the conquest of this supremely important propaganda unit, until now the monopoly of the ruling class. We must wrest it from them and turn it against them." It was an ambitious task, but conditions would soon turn to the party's advantage.
The Great Depression convinced many that capitalism was on its last legs and that socialism was the wave of the future. In the days of the Popular Front of the mid-1930s, communists found it easy to make common cause with liberals against Germany's Hitler and Spain's Franco. In 1935, V.J. Jerome, the CPUSA's cultural commissar, set up a Hollywood branch of the party. This highly secretive unit enjoyed great success, recruiting members, organizing entire unions, raising money from unwitting Hollywood liberals, and using those funds to support Soviet causes through front groups such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. "We had our own sly arithmetic, we could find fronts and make two become one," remembered screenwriter Walter Bernstein in his 1996 autobiography, Inside Out.
During the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, actor Melvyn Douglas and screenwriter-director Philip Dunne proposed that the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, a conclave of industry Democrats, condemn Stalin's 1939 invasion of Finland. But the group was actually secretly dominated by communists, and it rejected the resolution. As Dunne later described it in his 1980 memoir, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics, "All over town the industrious communist tail wagged the lazy liberal dog."
"There was never an organized, articulate, and effective liberal or left-wing opposition to the communists in Hollywood," concluded John Cogley, a socialist, in his 1956 Report on Blacklisting. As former Communist Party member Budd Schulberg put it, the party was "the only game in town." But even though the Communists were strongest in the Screen Writers Guild, influencing the content of movies was a trickier matter.
Communist cultural doctrine cast writers as "artists in uniform," producing works whose function was to transmit political messages and raise the consciousness of their audiences. Otherwise, movies were mere bourgeois decadence, a tool of capitalist distraction, and therefore subjugation. Party bosses V.J. Jerome and John Howard Lawson (a co-founder of the Screen Writers Guild) enforced this "art-is-a-weapon" creed in Hollywood, as they had done earlier among New York dramatists. Screenwriter Albert Maltz was to challenge the doctrine in a 1946 New Masses article, arguing that doctrinaire politics often resulted in poor writing. Responding to the notion that "art is a weapon," Maltz suggested, "An artist can be a great artist without being an integrated or logical or a progressive thinker on all matters."
As a result of such heresy, the party dragged Maltz through a series of humiliating inquisitions and forced him to publish a retraction. As a result, Maltz trashed his original article as "a one-sided, nondialectical treatment of complex issues" that was "distinguished for its omissions" and which "succeeded in merging my comments with the unprincipled attacks upon the left that I have always repudiated and combated."
Dalton Trumbo, a Communist Party member and for a time the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, described the screenwriting trade as "literary guerrilla warfare." The studio system, in which projects were closely supervised, made the insertion of propaganda difficult if not impossible. Hollywood did not become a bastion of Stalinist propaganda, except as part of the war effort, when Russia was celebrated as an ally. Ayn Rand, then a Hollywood screenwriter and one of the few in the movie community who had actually lived under communism, was to point out that American Communist screenwriters, in their zeal to provide artistic lend-lease, went to extraordinary and absurd lengths. In such wartime movies as North Star and Song of Russia (both 1943), they portrayed the USSR as a land of joyous, well-fed workers who loved their masters. Mission to Moscow (also 1943) went so far as to whitewash Stalin's murderous show trials of the 1930s.
But if Comintern fantasies of a Soviet Hollywood were never realized, party functionaries nevertheless played a significant role: They were sometimes able to prevent the production of movies they opposed. The party had not only helped organize the Screen Writers Guild, it had organized the Story Analysts Guild as well. Story analysts judge scripts and film treatments early in the decision-making process. A dismissive report often means that a studio will pass on a proposed production. The party was thus well positioned to quash scripts and treatments with anti-Soviet content, along with stories that portrayed business and religion in a favorable light.
Even talent agents sometimes answered to Moscow. Party organizer Robert Weber landed with the William Morris agency, where he represented Communist writers and directors such as Ring Lardner Jr. and Bernard Gordon. Weber carried considerable clout regarding who worked and who did not. So did George Willner, a Communist agent representing screenwriters, who sold out his noncommunist clients by deliberately neglecting to shop their stories. On a wider scale, the party launched smear campaigns and blacklists against noncommunists, targeting such figures as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, and Bette Davis.
These were among the many actors defying the party-backed labor group, the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU). The CSU, which was trying to shut down the industry and force through jurisdictional concessions that would give it supremacy in studio labor, clashed with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and its allies, who were trying to keep the studios going. Katharine Hepburn stumped for the CSU, reading speeches written by Dalton Trumbo, while Ronald Reagan, then a liberal Democrat, headed the anti-communists in the talent guilds.
These were the true front lines of the communist offensive, and bloody warfare broke out in the streets outside every studio. The prospect of communist influence in Hollywood prompted Washington to investigate. The first head of what eventually became the House Committee on Un-American Activities was New York Democrat Samuel Dickstein. As the recently declassified "Venona" documents (decrypts of Soviet cables) reveal, Dickstein moonlighted for Soviet intelligence -- not out of ideology but for money. Initially concerned with pro-fascist groups in the late 1930s, the Committee after the war was dominated by right-wing Republicans.
In 1947, while investigating Comintern agent Gerhart Eisler, whose brother Hanns was a composer in Hollywood, the Committee found movie people coming forth with stories of Communist Party intrigue and decided that there was enough to justify hearings. They selected fewer than 50 witnesses of various job descriptions and political profiles, including party heavyweights John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo.
Eager to exploit Hollywood for publicity, the Committee unwisely made film content the issue, ignoring the party's vast organizing campaigns despite convincing testimony from, among others, Walt Disney. More important, the committee ignored the reality that it was not what the party put into films such as North Star and Song of Russia that really mattered, but the anti-communist, anti-Soviet material it kept out.
While the Committee welcomed the publicity, the beleaguered film industry circled the wagons. Studio bosses, although adamantly anti-communist, asserted defiantly that no congressman could tell them how to run their business. A celebrity support group, including such figures as Humphrey Bogart and Danny Kaye, journeyed to Washington to defend their own. The hearings featured a series of angry harangues by Stalinist writers who came to be known as the Hollywood Ten. Dalton Trumbo bellowed, "This is the beginning of the American concentration camp."
After another series of hearings in the early 1950s, studios produced a string of now largely forgotten, mostly low-budget anti-communist films, among them Big Jim McClain and My Son John, in which Helen Hayes informs to the government on her son, Robert Walker. These dealt with communism as a kind of domestic political mafia but left actual conditions under communist regimes largely unexplored. More important was Hollywood's internal reaction.
Studio bosses, fearful of bad publicity, announced that they would indeed fire communists, which they had previously refused to do. This was the beginning of the blacklist, enshrined in such films as The Front (1976) and Guilty by Suspicion (1991). Viewers of such fare could easily conclude that communism scarcely existed except as a source of boundless optimism in the hearts of the country's most creative writers. Much the same message emerged from Julia, the 1977 Jane Fonda vehicle based on an autohagiographical memoir by Lillian Hellman.
As it plays out in the movies, the blacklist story is vintage Hollywood: black hats vs. white hats. The evil government committee rides into town and, for no apparent reason, makes life miserable for a group of noble artists. In one subplot, the victims survive by selling scripts under fake names. The story carries considerable appeal, though it misses the irony that those who thought capitalism evil continued to take advantage of the kind of market that did not exist in the socialist regimes they extolled.
By the 1960s the blacklist was over; Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger restored the names of blacklisted writers to the credits of the films they actually wrote. The Hollywood Ten and other communist writers were on their way, as Philip Dunne put it, to being "virtually deified."
The legend of the blacklist, sanitized of all references to Stalin or to the Communist Party's actual record in the studios, became a continuing influence on Hollywood's political life. Hollywood had entered its period of anti-anti-communism, a well-known phenomenon in American cultural and intellectual life. Those motivated by this ideology have vilified such critics of the Soviet Union as Robert Conquest and Sidney Hook, while venerating such leftists as journalist I.F. Stone, whose 1952 Hidden History of the Korean War parroted the party line that South Korea had invaded the North. Anti-anti-communism demonizes anti-communists, however truthful their revelations, as paranoid and on the wrong side of history, while praising apologists of totalitarianism as well-meaning idealists, however mendacious and servile their record.
According to Hollywood, American anti-communism derived not from any deficiencies of socialism or any threat from the USSR, but from paranoia, xenophobia, and the nefarious influence of Nazis who entered the United States after the war. On the rare occasion when life under communism is portrayed in film, its characteristic brutality is virtually never actually represented.
Adapted from "Hollywood's Missing Movies," by Kenneth L. Billingsley (June 2000).