“All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.”
In 1947, an executive director of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals deplored the “sizable doses of communist propaganda” in many films of the day. Leaving aside the question of whether “American ideals” could be identified—much less preserved—in the revolutionary medium of film, we would nevertheless yawn today at the nomination of such turkeys as Watch on the Rhine, The North Star, and Mission to Moscow. Of course they were propagandistic films, written by left-wingers and even by Stalinists. But also on his list was a sentimental bit of Americana, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Was it “communist” to show the ex-sergeant, played by Frederick March, lending money from the bank to a hard-pressed farmer?
Better yet, was it “communist” to render the psychological stress of the ex-bombardier, played by Dana Andrews, as he sat in the nose of a junked B-17 and fantasized that the engines were once again turning over? It was an unforgettable scene that said much not only about trauma but about the transition from a war economy. The coordination of elements in the junked-bomber scene transcends in its impact any ideological considerations, dramatizing a truth about war’s aftermath. In an emotional Hollywood movie, that was—and is—a powerful piece of pure film.
Another film on the 1947 list was The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), remembered today, perhaps, as Kirk Douglas’s first movie and Lizabeth Scott’s second, or, better, as a second-rate film noir, remarkable for its conflation of sex and violence. But where is the communist propaganda? The film suggests that great wealth is built on crime and deception. The guilt is expressed by the alcoholic wimpiness portrayed by Douglas for the first and last time in his career. All in all, the class conflict shown in this melodrama is straight out of Charles Dickens and other 19th-century sources of the popular imagination, and it is strictly routine. To write off The Strange Love of Martha Ivers would be to censor Great Expectations and Bleak House. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was barking up the wrong tree in at least some cases, probably because they judged by intention rather than by effect. Left-wing motivation was assumed to be culpable, regardless of the aesthetic experience. As we shall see, the assumptions of HUAC still prevail, though with the values reversed.
The anticommunist hearings of 1947 and 1951 are still with us, and for many reasons. The recent Hollywood hissy fits over an Oscar given to Elia Kazan only emphasize the point. The overwrought lamentations about the witch-hunt, the black list, the informers, and all the rest of it are oddly and revealingly overplayed. Hollywood still insists that it serves the community by making films with progressive values, just as the corporations do in their embrace of quotas and identity politics. Such inauthentic authenticity can be highly lucrative, but there is an ideological, as well as a financial, motivation. The “red diaper babies” have been replaced by “red Pampers babies,” and the old game is played with new but familiar cards. Today, the story of the parlor pinks of Hollywood has become an academic matter when it is not just logrolling, and, in that spirit, Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner have attempted to account for decades of left-wing creativity in the movie industry.
To its authors’ credit, Radical Hollywood is an extended, even scholarly treatment of a knotty and controversial topic. They might have done better, however, if they had taken on less. They have dealt, I think, with every active Hollywood left-winger in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, and with the changing politics of the New Deal, the war, and the Cold War from the point of view of those left-wingers. These were, indeed, the best years of American film, though it would be a mistake, I think, to attribute Hollywood’s limited success altogether to left-wing talent. Buhle’s and Wagner’s best work is done in obscure areas, such as old issues of the Hollywood Quarterly, and in attention to such relatively neglected figures as Irving Pichel. Their elaboration of almost-forgotten contexts and issues is sometimes impressive, but their treatment of the movies themselves is disappointing, and the climactic chapter on film noir is a letdown. In effect, Buhle and Wagner have presented a picture of the Hollywood radicals as they saw themselves, and largely in an uncritical spirit.
The story behind a great many movies is, in, fact untold by Buhle and Wagner, whose writing is so opaque from unbalanced sentences, pointless nuances, and semantic equivocations that they can hardly be said to have told much of anything. The heavy lifting required to translate their tome into sense or into English may be justified, however, though not for their declared reasons—or, rather, for what seem to have been their possible or presumptive reasons. The justification could be either an interest in film or an interest in the history of left-wing obsessions in 20th-century America, since Buhle and Wagner have used the first to cover their central commitment to the latter.
This dynamic duo has recommended, rightly enough, “When in doubt: See the movie.” But seeing the movie does not help their case, if they have one. I mean, I was in doubt, and I saw the movie, and the movie said more and said it differently than Buhle and Wagner do. Of the eponymous Maltese falcon, they say, “Hammett had never conceived of a more brilliant device for illustrating commodity fetishism than this miniature statue, a miserable fake despite all the crimes committed to possess it.” But it is not miniature, being life-size, and as “the stuff that dreams are made of,” it is more than the Marxist reduction of itself, being surrounded by Christian imagery. Buhle and Wagner also think that “Gone With the Wind, Hollywood’s biggest film for a decade, would be hard to beat as historic justification of a system vastly more widespread, brutal, and lasting than Stalinism.” Implying that the success of the film was simply ideological, they scant the melodrama, the irony, and the charisma that sold tickets. Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen have not been used before to justify Stalinism, as far as I know; then again, justifying Stalinism is
a strange reason for watching movies, as well as a bizarre reason for just about anything else. “Miz Scarlett, you quit that Trotskyite backslidin’ and get in the house!”
Of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934)—to pick a superb example of campy Gothic—they say,
Ulmer made Lugosi the maddened former German commander who has returned to the site of his military triumph (and human disaster), where the commander of the rival army, played by Karloff, has kept the wife of his nemesis and a growing daughter away from the world.
They call the Boris Karloff character “paternally incestuous” and go on to add, “We might see it as reminiscent of Poe’s collapsing southern mansions, but Ulmer himself described the film as allegory.” Yes, but an allegory of what? In order to address that question, we need to get a few things straight. In the film, as distinct from Buhle’s and Wagner’s addled fantasy, the Karloff character (“Hjalmar Poelzig,” an engineer) is not the rival commander (who would have been Russian, but has no role or mention in the film) but the treacherous Austrian commander of the Austro-Hungarian fortress. Bela Lugosi (“Dr. Vitus Werdegast,” a psychiatrist) is an Hungarian officer (not a German commander) who was imprisoned in Russia as a result of military and other betrayals, and his Hungarian identity is underlined not only by Lugosi’s own origins but by Hungarian conversation and music. Further, Karloff, though a devil-worshipping maniac, is not “paternally incestuous,” because the daughter in question is that of Lugosi. Again, Poe wrote of only one collapsing mansion, and it is not located in the South, because it is not located anywhere. Finally, the allegory is clarified if we realize that the politics of the film concerns the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the charnel house of World War I. This has less to do with left-wing obsessions than with history itself, particularly as seen from the experience of Southeastern Europe. Way off base in their perception of the film, Buhle and Wagner are in no position to interpret it.
Their failure to apprehend or remember Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948) correctly is also astounding, for that remarkable film should have played right into their hands. “[O]ur protagonists are destroyed along with any potentiality of love or redemption. . . . [N]o hope could be found here: It was a noir world indeed.” Maybe that should have been true about a radical noir that equates business with crime, but it is not true about the film that was released. Not only is there a redemptive ending for the protagonists, but music and imagery are employed to reinforce the point. Buhle and Wagner ignore the positive ending because they have been blinded by their ideological commitment to the film that Polonsky should have made. The rest of us are left with the actual MGM release, and quite a movie it is. Similarly, their haste to allegorize Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947) as a critique of liberal betrayal, and the warden as a caricature of Roosevelt, scants all the Nazi imagery, Wagnerian music, and the torture scene, as well as the doctor’s concluding words. Here again, the film cannot be contained by the political agenda in which they have tried to box it.
When Buhle and Wagner are on more familiar ground, as with Zinneman’s High Noon (1952), we find that the mountain has brought forth a mouse. Everyone knows that Carl Foreman (who was blacklisted soon after the film’s success) declared that his script was an attack on McCarthyism. Once again, however, the test is in the effect, not the intention. The American public did not buy into a radical agenda when they responded to the coordinated elements of music and cinematography, brilliant acting in large and small parts, and sustained suspense. Though Foreman and producer Stanley Kramer had their own agenda, what is beheld is individual cour-age in a situation in which the law is wrong—the killer has been freed. The citation of business considerations, the ambiguity of law and order, and even a visit to church—all touch on matters that are more familiar to Americans than left-wing ideology. Having my own agenda in mind, I once asked a cinéaste to identify the single thing that High Noon was all about, and he immediately replied, “Gary Cooper’s sleeves.” He was right, in his way—I had Gary Cooper’s trouser legs in mind at the time. At least he did not say, “a critique of capitalist society.”
The account of film noir, which is the reason I read Radical Hollywood, is disappointing. What is new and different about it is an emphasis on the “poetic realism” of the French Popular Front. La chienne (1931) becomes Scarlet Street (1945), though directed by Fritz Lang, and Le jour se lève (1939) becomes Anatole Litvak’s The Long Night (1947), a film that was rarely seen until its recent rehabilitation on DVD. Buhle and Wagner have traced the term “film noir” further back than the usual attribution to Nino Frank in 1946—to Georges Altman in 1939—and that is a notable contribution. But French poetic realism of the 1930’s has conventionally been acknowledged as a source of noir, though subordinated to German expressionism of the 1920’s and to the best American tradition of pulp fiction. Again, ideology, not eyes and ears, dominates theory, because Buhle and Wagner see Le jour se lève as a left-wing allegory of the failure of blue-collar solidarity.
Of course, I do not mean to deny any truths that Buhle and Wagner have iterated about Hollywood, film noir, and the radical presence. Nevertheless, I was and am a great deal less than satisfied with a view (not so much of film as of America) that is more than a bit exclusive, and even ostrich-like, in its selective politics. By the time that the 1947 and 1951 hearings are more or less written off as “anti-Semitic,” the reader can only be puzzled by the preceding sustained accounts of the disproportionate presence of Jews both in Hollywood and in radical circles. Perhaps in this context, “anti-Semitic” is a euphemism or dysphemism for something else—the substantial Jewish presence in the anti-Stalinist and anticommunist movements of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Jewish-American institutional and intellectual leaders and others, as viewed from the left, “betrayed” a gnostic view that could not then and cannot now—at least in Buhle’s and Wagner’s account—be questioned. So much for “anti-Semitic,” a term much too serious to be allowed to become merely a substitute for “anticommunist.” I must add that it does not play very well as juxtaposed so often with the unqualified use in this tome of the term “redneck.” Perhaps Buhle and Wagner could clarify the privileges of their code of ethnic abuse a bit more explicitly for the second edition.
And if they are not exhausted by that task, as well as the daunting one of revising all of their errors about specific films, I think that they should also give attention to other minor matters, such as the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War. Specifically, if the Roman Catholic Church in America must be portrayed as favoring Franco, I would recommend just the slightest mention of the hundreds, even thousands, of atrocities committed by communists in Spain against nuns and priests. If the fascist intervention in Spain must be cited, then Soviet as well as international communist intervention should also be discussed and the Soviet betrayals of left-wing comrades made clear. This would lend a touch of what is sometimes called “perspective,” not only to the historical sense, but specifically to the context of Blockade (1938). “[A] fair estimate of Spanish sentiment versus invading German and Italian fascists” might also have included some sentiments about invading communists from Italy, France, England, and the United States, had that film not been propaganda-scripted by a communist, John Howard Lawson. World War II could be seen as something more or less than the fulfillment of Popular Front dreams, and the Soviet role in starting that war in connivance with Hitler might also rate a mention. Similarly, some responsibility for the Cold War might be affixed to Stalin rather than to Harry Truman. In this regard, the incursion into Iran, the atomic bomb, the civil war in Greece, and the tension involving West Berlin would be worth highlighting, if such an emphasis did not conflict too embarrassingly with the larger agenda.
Radical Hollywood is an ambitious work, not so much as a study in the micro-history of film as an essay in establishing the myth that modern popular culture is based on left-wing obsessions. But it is in the nature of obsessions to destroy those that hold them, as Captain Ahab discovered. The artistic accomplishments of radical Hollywood were a mixed bag at best, and the fatuity of the Hollywood Ten as they defended themselves suggests something about their lacks. This episode has been treated in a balanced manner by Otto Friedrich in City of Nets (1986), and there is little enlightenment to be gleaned from Buhle’s and Wagner’s account, except, perhaps, for the reflection that the witch-hunters were as right as they were wrong. The presence of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in those days still roils the spleen of the left-liberals, so that the revisionism of Buhle and Wagner seems more like compulsive repetition than inquiry.
The authors have, to some degree, acknowledged that the Hollywood left was involved in at least two paradoxes: They were working for high-handed capitalists, and they were involved in motion pictures, which have a way of creating their own reality, regardless of the intentions of their collaborative makers. Thus, the radicals went against both the means of production and the nature of the medium. But the authors have not acknowledged that radical Hollywood (like the worldwide left of the 30’s and 40’s) was also in conflict with serious political theory as well as with manifest reality. The progressive pursuit of the elusive goals of “justice” and “equality” would logically require social engineering on a vast scale, and that itself would entail tyranny and mass murder. But if Stalin was “right” and you cannot make an omelet without breaking any eggs, then why was Hitler not “right” as well? “Idealism” and “humanitarianism” did not justify totalitarianism then anymore than they do now, and revisionism will not justify it, either. The most remarkable thing about the Hollywood Ten is not their victim status or their purported talent but their willful political blindness. A recent British/ Spanish production, One of the Hollywood Ten, presents Herbert Biberman as a martyr and saint, so the revisionism is widespread. At the time, however, Billy Wilder said of “the unfriendly witnesses” that “Only two of them have talent. The rest are just unfriendly.”
That having been said, I also want to declare that a left-wing provenance does not determine the merit of a movie, any more than its opposite does. Film is too dynamic and even too ambiguous to justify ideological blinders. Dramatic force, conflict, projection of emotion, precise images, intonation, and rhythm—these are decisive. In the dark, in dreams, in the pantheon of cinema, removed from all political considerations, John Garfield is forever the stressed hero; Ida Lupino, the tough babe; Dan Duryea, the slumping, sniveling pimp; and Luther Adler, the sensitive, exotic mobster. Edmond O’Brien is still trying, in a sweaty panic, to figure out who murdered him, and Edward G. Robinson sees something in Joan Bennett (I wonder what) that he just does not have at home. Ava Gardner does Burt Lancaster wrong, and so does Yvonne DeCarlo. Glenn Ford hates Rita Hayworth’s guts, but that pickpocket, Richard Widmark, has a thing for Jean Peters. Dick Powell is cornered, and Robert Mitchum is making eyes at Jane Greer with his lids at half-mast. James Cagney is racking the slide on a .45, and even Mickey Rooney is packing a rod. In that hermetic space, I do not care about anybody’s agenda. I just want to watch those pictures move.
[Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies, by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner (New York: The New Press) 460 pp., $29.95]