The illustrious newcomers included “Bert Brecht”, credited with helping to rewrite Fritz Lang’s movie Hangmen Also Die!, a wartime drama from 1943 in which the citizens of Prague unite against the Nazi occupation. The film was inspired by a real-life incident and succeeded, according to the authors of Radical Hollywood – lecturer Paul Buhle and journalist David Wagner – in “creating the collective protagonist that left-wingers had discussed for a decade”.
The left in Hollywood, according to this thesis, was involved in a struggle to inject a radical political consciousness into the creative products of a culture that increasingly reflected rampant individualism. That such a project was articulated at all is evidence not of a Communist conspiracy, as right-wing Congressmen would claim, but of an increasingly homogenous popular culture that tolerated only the narrowest spectrum of political views.
Yet the war years, especially after the US entered the conflict in 1941, represented a brief interlude when the political mood shifted. It was even possible to make positive movies about America’s new ally, the USSR. Three films in particular – Mission to Moscow, Song of Russia and The North Star, all made in 1943 – would be singled out as blatant examples of Communist propaganda. According to the authors, Mission to Moscow was more or less forced on Hollywood by the American ambassador to the USSR, Joseph E. Davies, who wanted to see a dramatised version of his visits to Moscow.
The movie’s low point comes when Walter Huston, as Davies, attends the Moscow show trials and is persuaded that Trotsky is about to join forces with the fascists to overthrow
Stalin; studio boss Jack Warner later insisted the film was made “only to help a desperate war effort and not for posterity”. Pro-Russian films actually formed a tiny minority of Hollywood studio production, at a time when the industry was churning out patriotic films by the dozen.
Some of the latter were written by Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo scripted the wildly sentimental movie A Guy Named Joe, made with the co-operation of the War Department, in which Spencer Tracy plays a dead pilot who returns as a ghost. In 1947, Trumbo was among 19 directors and screen-writers who received subpoenas from J. Parnell Thomas, chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Members of HUAC were almost as obsessed with “the Jewish question” as they were with Communists. John Rankin, a congressman from Mississippi, accused left-wingers of putting “loathsome, lying, immoral, anti-Christian filth” in front of American children. HUAC’s targets included Brecht, who led a creative exodus to Europe. He was followed by Jules Dassin, who was warned to leave by Darryl Zanuck. Zanuck turned up at Dassin’s apartment and handed him the script for Night and the City, a classic film noir that became one of the first British productions by the exiles. It is clear that HUAC’s investigations did the European film industry a favour, prompting many who were not on the official blacklist to leave – among them Joseph Losey, who went on to great success in the UK.
It was certainly Trumbo’s view that the blacklist inflicted severe creative damage on Hollywood. What the industry lost, according to Michael Wilson, Oscar-winning writer of A Place in the Sun, was not Communist propaganda but “honesty and humanism”. This is in essence the case that Buhle and Wagner set out to make and their “untold story” consists of the careers, aspirations, successes and failures of the people who made up the Hollywood left at the time. In that sense, they are attempting a similar task, if from a different angle to the Cold Warriors who set out to alarm the public about left-wing influence on mass culture.
Both projects involve dissecting hundreds of movies, looking for evidence of radical ideas in plot, dialogue and structure. Plot summaries apart, the effort required to discern left-wing influence in more than a handful of significant films seems to bear out Michael Wilson’s verdict that it was “extremely difficult to do a truly progressive and honest film in Hollywood”. What the book does succeed in creating, however, is a chronicle of the impact of Cold War paranoia on one of the country’s most creative industries.
It is a tale of frustrated talents and lost opportunities, as directors and writers from Europe went into exile a second time. Others stayed and gave evidence against friends and colleagues, in one of the most unpleasant chapters of 20th-century American history. Buhle and Wagner have given that story a human face, even if their claims about the achievements of the Hollywood left seem in the end rather inflated.