Red Star Over Hollywood:
The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left
by Ronald and Allis Radosh
(Encounter Books, 309 pages, $25.95)
Hearing Ronald Radosh interviewed on radio, one would think that Red Star Over Hollywood provides a comprehensive account of Hollywood’s fling with radical leftism. The book’s subtitle, The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left, leads potential readers in the same direction.
In actuality, this short but heavily documented work focuses on Hollywood figures who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s and paid a price for that affiliation when they failed to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The book has almost nothing to say about contemporary political proclivities in Tinseltown. Instead, its pages are filled with names like Budd Schulberg, Maurice Rapf, and Dalton Trumbo.
By following the ideological journeys of numerous industry leftists, Radosh and wife Allis dispel the popular notion that HUAC investigations succeeded only in tarnishing the reputations of well-intentioned idealists. In truth, many dedicated communists who stuck with Stalin to the bitter end testified before the committee — alongside persons whose romantic attachments to the party waned earlier.
Indeed, the authors show that the Communist Party in Hollywood had become a “growth industry” by the mid-’30s — with approximately 300 members. The influence of this disciplined cadre was as evident in various Popular Front organizations as it was in the party’s assignment of a “cultural commisar” to oversee the theatrical product of its underground comrades. Though Stalin’s pact with Hitler in 1939 temporarily destroyed the anti-fascist coalition of communists and liberals, America’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union reunited these groups.
During the latter period Hollywood reds achieved several propaganda coups — the most infamous being Mission to Moscow. Contrary to Victor Navasky’s partisan assessment, this Warner Brothers film was shaped by a clutch of party members or sympathizers who collaborated with the useful political idiot, Joseph Davies — a former U. S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union who wrote the memoir on which the movie was based and assisted in preparing the perfidious script. So blatant was the film’s whitewash of Stalin’s showtrials and invasion of Finland that the critic Dwight Macdonald called it “the first totalitarian film to come out of Hollywood…that could have been made in Moscow.” Other wartime movies presenting an idyllic view of life in the Soviet Union were Song of Russia (a production lambasted by Russian emigre Ayn Rand) and comrade Lillian Hellman’s North Star.
Beyond portraits of individuals who willingly toed the party line, the authors also provide examples of writers who were pressured to make their work reflect Moscow’s orthodoxy du jour. The post-war case of Albert Maltz is a classic example of how a servile retraction was obtained via browbeating and fraternal pressure. On the other side of the coin, the Radoshes present artists like Robert Rossen who told party enforcers exactly where to stuff their ideological objections.
The heart of Red Star Over Hollywood is devoted to the HUAC hearings and their aftermath — especially to the consequences of various testimony strategies. A few witnesses, like Lloyd Bridges, were eminently successful at turning truth on its head and emerging unscathed. Others, like the Hollywood Ten, employed defiant or non-responsive statements that resulted in prison stints and mangled careers. On the other hand, Elia Kazan, a friendly witness whose testimony has often been misrepresented, continued to employ his directorial genius but is now vilified by industry leftists. Hollywood’s blacklist, of course, was crucial in determining which careers would suffer — and for how long. Thus, the authors focus considerable attention on the words and actions of studio heads who eventually instituted and gradually lifted these hiring bans.
Contrary to what its title would lead one to expect, this book isn’t a partisan rant. Instead, it provides an objective, even sympathetic, account of the trials endured by individuals who juggled integrity, self-interest, emotionally satisfying political attachments, excommunication threats, and a visceral unwillingness to implicate associates. The authors also acknowledge, anecdotally for the most part, the ruthlessness of the totalitarian philosophy to which these privileged Americans pledged allegiance. This splitting-the-baby perspective is reiterated in a concluding chapter where HUAC’s hearings and Hollywood’s blacklist are seen as events that undermined legitimate anti-Communist concerns.
Though one might have wished for more truth in advertising, this book does provide a historical service by detailing the activities of dozens of Hollywood reds in the ’30s and ’40s and by showing how these individuals succeeded in influencing the American movie industry. What the work lacks is a clear presentation of the larger picture against which these individual vignettes play out. Specifically, the authors don’t directly address these critical questions: “How much influence did Hollywood reds actually exercise?” and “What would likely have happened if, in the absence of flawed investigations, there had been no investigations or blacklists at all?”
The book’s final chapter moves in the direction of looking at the forest rather than focusing on individual trees, but this tip of the perspectival hat doesn’t compensate for its earlier absence. After all, one can fairly assess the merits and demerits of HUAC’s investigation and Hollywood’s blacklist only against a backdrop that takes into account the potential contribution of America’s film industry to the staggering atrocities perpetrated in the name of Stalin’s utopia.
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