Book Review

Radical Hollywood – The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies! by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, New Press, 2002, 460 pp

In recent years an increasing number of books have come out addressing the Communist Party USA’s role in the cultural arena during the 1930s and ’40s, when the party was at the height of its influence. Radical Hollywood – The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies!, the latest fascinating study in this area, sheds light on Hollywood’s hidden radical history.

From the 1930s to the 1950s Communist and left-wing screenwriters contributed scripts for 1,500 Hollywood films with underlying progressive and critical messages, many of which still make the rounds today on cable TV.

It was not easy for left-wing writers to get their scripts accepted by studio moguls, and doing so often involved considerable stealth, Buhle and Wagner write. Criticisms of capitalism or the upper classes or any other social critique had to be ambiguous enough to thwart studio censors. Despite these obstacles, Hollywood “reds” succeeded in producing a range of critical films in all genres: horror, crime, war, western, family and noir.

John Bright’s Blonde Crazy shows James Cagney rising out of the slums to become a gangster because he rejects becoming a “wage slave” and sees nothing wrong with robbing the rich who steal from others. In Frankenstein, Francis Faragoh satirizes upper-class mannerisms. Irwin Shaw and Sidney Buchman’s The Talk of the Town has Cary Grant playing a small town radical who condemns the local mill owner’s abusive behavior. The owner frames Grant for arson but in the end Grant is vindicated.

Westerns provided Communist writers with a unique vehicle for social criticism. In contrast to mainstream westerns that portrayed settlers as innocent victims ravaged by blood-crazed Indians, Communist writers created stories in which big business became the main villain, stealing land from small farmers and mistreating Native Americans. Westerns also allowed Communists to portray Native American Indians in a sympathetic light, as in Albert Maltz’s Broken Arrow, in which Jimmy Stewart plays a former cavalry scout trying to ensure peace between the government and Native American Indians on the Arizona frontier. The movie insists that Indian culture and sovereignty must be recognized and preserved. Carl Foreman’s High Noon, in which the inhabitants of a small town succumb to bandits and turn against their reliable sheriff, Gary Cooper, in order to attract outside investment, was a parable of McCarthyism in Hollywood.

The onset of McCarthyism failed to still the literary output of Communist writers. Even with intensifying repression against the CPUSA after World War II, which Buhle and Wagner say killed the Hollywood left by 1947, good progressive films continued to be made “very often by those on their way out of the CP but not out of the left.”

The book illuminates the Communist-created Popular Front milieu of pre-1946 Hollywood, when the CPUSA was a fashionable organization to belong to or associate with. The great depression, the party’s commitment to unionism and anti fascism, and its program of social change won the support of actors, directors, screenwriters and set workers. Orson Welles, Lucille Ball, Katherine Hepburn, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Danny Kaye, Bette Davis and Lloyd Bridges were among the well-known figures who became CPUSA members or supporters. Although “the Hollywood left was an ‘underground’ within the party, hidden inside the LA Communist apparatus out of fear for job loss …” Buhle and Wagner write, the party became an organizing center in Hollywood for many causes.

This lively, well-argued book, backed by extensive research, is a welcome and valuable contribution to film scholarship. It deserves a place in every film buff’s library.

– Tim Pelzer
The author is a freelance writer and longshoreman from Canada.
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