When Thomas Mann joined the West Coast galaxy of refugees from Hitler, he was writing Doctor Faustus—a study of, among other things, national character and demonology. The word meant roughly the same as what Michael Rogin means by it: the countersubversive drives that label, persecute, and sometimes eliminate pernicious forces in the body politic. In that bizarre Hollywood feudality that Otto Friedrich describes in his history, Mann was to discover the New World’s countersubversive variety, with himself cast as a demon. Unlike Bertolt Brecht, Mann was not summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he did respond to the hearings in a national radio broadcast. “Spiritual intolerance,” he said, “political inquisitions, and declining legal security, and all this in the name of an alleged ‘state of emergency’ is how it started in Germany.” Mann warned against this leading to war and even defended Marx as a thinker at least deserving to be read before being rejected. Many Americans felt Mann had chosen a strange way to display his gratitude: “Mr. Mann should remember,” Rep. Donald L. Jackson inserted into the VITAL SIGNS Congressional Record, “that guests who complain about the fare at the table of their hosts are seldom invited to another meal.” That was 1949; three years later, Mann moved to Zurich, saying: “I have no desire to rest my bones in this soulless soil, which I owe nothing, and which knows nothing of me.”

Friedrich’s title is taken from Brecht’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, a play whose stumblebum fugitives come upon a desolate region they decide to found and design (“It should be like a net,” says one) for the capture of worldly riches.

Anti-Communism, which drove out the Communist Brecht as well as Thomas Mann, blacklisted the Hollywood 10, became the instrument for unions to enlist moguls in an alliance against rival guilds. It ended as the theme of a series of undistinguished films, made in atonement for such earlier pro-Second Front war entries as Mission to Moscow and Song of Russia. Among the losers was Orson Welles, although he was surely kept out of Hollywood for more reasons than his past pro-New Deal politics (profligacy and arrogance, for instance); one has-been comedian attained the public ear by declaring the Boy Wonder “red as a firecracker.” He and many more were the losers. One winner was Ronald Reagan.

Friedrich and Rogin lay great significance upon Reagan’s choice of title for his 1965 autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me? That was his line near the end of the favorite of his films, King’s Row (1941), in which he wakes up after a terrible accident to learn that a vengeful surgeon has amputated his legs. Preparation for filming the scene was an actor’s ordeal that resulted in his finest celluloid moment. Michael Rogin takes this turning point as seriously as does Reagan, albeit with different aims in mind: “How, if your father is a failed shoe salesman, do you avoid stepping on his shoes?” The answer King’s Row provided was this: by cutting oil your legs. The Christian loses himself as body to find himself as spirit. Reagan was born again in Hollywood by relinquishing “part of myself” (Reagan later wrote) in King’s Row. And after years of disappointment as a Warner Bros, contract player, Reagan “emerged from . . . his filmed humiliations to enter the Cold War. Reagan, as he tells it, recovered his legs in the struggle to prevent a “Communist takeover of Hollywood,” that is, as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Of course, this Reagan’s-legs thesis is not meant to be taken lightly; his point is that the Chief Executive’s frame of reference clings to the imagery of legs, supports, props, vertical dependence. To substantiate his thesis, Rogin offers a pastiche of quotations that could be taken as a superb parody of literary criticisms. The Democrats’ alternative to his 1981 budget, said Reagan, was like “cutting your legs off at the knees instead of hips”; “I’ll put a cast on that lame leg,” said the lameduck President upon reelection, “and that will make a heck of a kicking leg”; and quite a few others, not excluding offhand quips. Surprisingly omitted from the list is Reagan’s “gift” to James Watt after his Beach Boys’ gaffe.

Rogin’s cliched thesis that Reagan’s world view, countersubversion, is based upon the plots of the movies he acted in; so those films, too, are his “legs.” The 1940 Murder in the Air is the most striking, SDI-presaging instance, for in it enemy agents want secret blueprints for a U.S. weapon which, says an admiral, will “make America invincible in war and therefore be the greatest force for peace ever invented.” The question is really whether it is the President or the professor who has confused illusion with reality.

Rogin’s cute mythologizing of the President can be read as a commentary on City of Nets. We are reminded of the feudal system of Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox, Harry Cohn at Columbia, and the rest rather hke overlords, with stars in their vassalage. Jack Warner demonstrated this conclusively when Bette Davis fought him in court to sever her seven-year contract.

Their power did not only make the studio bosses feel God-like over writers like Faulkner, Chandler, Cain, Dreiser, and Brecht, or composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg—but it also gave them a feeling of omniscience about what the American people wanted. The tones of their fulminations and self-justifications imparted the conviction that theirs was a sacred stewardship and that they were not solely kingpins of the market but kingpins of state as well.

Exalted, they denied their particularity. Baited by born-again Zionist Ben Hecht, David O. Selznick felt he had to deny his primary identity was Jewish; approached to produce the first films about anti-Semitism, Crossfire (1947) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1948), the moguls initially hesitated or refused. Flushed with success, they donned the mantle of—to use Rogin’s Marxian categories—”the citizen ideal” rather than that of “bourgeois reality,” and appealed “against conflict and diversity and for Americanism.” Theirs, too, was an immigrant consciousness, but they repressed it or turned it inside out: Friedrich twice refers to Mayer calling somebody a “kike.” Henry Ford’s way of seeing the world—threatened by a Jewish Communist conspiracy—was not his alone. The moguls were powerless against it. What they could do, as they discovered their kingpin pretensions, squeezed by HUAC into meekness, was to turn in their own—as Warner did to Mission to Moscow writer Howard Koch (who also had scripted Casablanca)—and make anti-Red pictures.

Ronald Reagan made a few of them. One was 1951’s Storm Warning, in which the subversives are, strangely, the Ku Klux Klan, though we are made to understand that their business is not to persecute blacks but some kind of nefarious racketeering. Rogin is right in saying that the best of the genre was director Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), a picture that was good, Rogin surmises, because its anti-Communism was detachable; the French version, in fact, replaced the original’s espionage plot with a criminal one without anyone being the wiser.

These sops may have satisfied HUAC, but Washington wasn’t through with the moguls, as Friedrich recounts. It broke the studios’ nationwide control over the theaters, giving new hope to independent franchises but sounding a death knell to the overlords.


[“Ronald Reagan,” the Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology, by Michael Paul Rogin (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press) $25.00]

[City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s, by Otto Friedrich (New York: Harper & Row) $25.00]