In the immediate aftermath of World War II, with Cold War tensions spiking and the Soviet Union draping its Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) embarked on a nationwide crusade to uproot all supposed Communists ensconced within the fabric of American society.
Hollywood was quick to follow suit. After harboring a number of known or clandestine leftists throughout the thirties and forties, the major studio heads, in response to the HUAC hearings, endeavored to purge the red menace pulsing within the American movies. Thus the Hollywood blacklist was born, putting a number of promising film careers on hold.
Many of these exiles, in particular the “Hollywood Ten,” a passel of directors and screenwriters, among them film noir maven Edward Dmytryk and future Spartacus scribe Dalton Trumbo, who had refused to “name names” when called to testify, were belatedly championed as martyrs for American liberty.
As a consummate film scholar, documentarian Thom Anderson cares considerably less about the mystique surrounding these casualties of McCarthyism.
Instead, in his astute, comprehensively researched 1996 film essay Red Hollywood, a collaboration with equally erudite film critic Noel Burch, Anderson aims to establish what, if anything, is the ultimate artistic legacy of these Hollywood Reds.
Prone to acrid jests, renowned director Billy Wilder cynically observed that “of the [Hollywood] ten, two had talent, and the rest were just unfriendly.” Was a revolution percolating in tinsel town, or were these men merely hacks peddling party propaganda?
To Anderson and Burch, the answer is neither. Indeed, the contours of this eponymous Red Hollywood were shaped not by a dictated political agenda (most American communists split with the Soviet Union in the late thirties after Stalin signed a short-lived non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler) but by a singular sensibility – one that emphasized class hierarchies and sinister power structures in an ostensibly classless American democracy.
Using an archeological trove of film clips and interviews with former blacklistees (most prominently screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr., Abraham Polansky and Paul Jarrico), the directors trace the rise and fall of Communist ideals in Hollywood.
The chronology spans from their Great Depression peak – when liberal and radicals alike united under the banner of a popular front against poverty at home and fascism abroad – to postwar nadir, when such stances were at odds with the rejuvenated capitalist credo of America’s burgeoning middle class.
The film’s analysis is itself divided into seven subcategories, including sections that parse the Hollywood communist perspectives on gender, race and crime. Broader themes of social oppression and economic disparity are interwoven throughout.
To make their case, Anderson and Burch rely increasingly on long-forgotten curios of film history such as Success Story, John Howard Lawson’s pre-code tale of didactic seduction, and Dalton Trumbo’s wartime portrayal of female communal living, Tender Comrade.
Moreover, when a widely acknowledged masterpiece like Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront appears, it serves as an exemplar of mainstream Hollywood’s typically reactionary attitudes (towards crime, towards female empowerment, towards racial parity).
Implicit in this perspective is that movies are never mere entertainment. Nor is the process of canonization – selecting which films to preserve for posterity’s sake – isolated from the realm of politics.
Despite its timeless scholarship, Red Hollywood is very much a product of our current post-Cold War epoch. Anderson and Burch do not consecrate the Hollywood communists. They do, however, suggest that much good would come if people saw the world–and the movies through Red-tinted glasses.