"Radical Hollywood" by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner

Two academics are so eager to find socialist themes in classic Hollywood films that they wind up lending credence to McCarthyism.

By Michelle Goldberg
Published June 4, 2002 5:53PM (EDT)

Joseph McCarthy and the bottom-feeding red-baiters of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) saw signs of subversion in even the most anodyne Hollywood product. Most observers have interpreted their inability to view art as anything but a conduit for politics as symptomatic of their fascist philistinism. After all, for the past several decades, the conventional wisdom has been that Hollywood's reds were unable to smuggle their ideology past studio censors and market imperatives. As Larry Ceplair wrote in "Political Companion to American Film," "For the most part ... movies written, directed or produced by communists are not politically or stylistically distinguishable from those by non-communists."

Yet if the authors of "Radical Hollywood" are correct, the House Un-American Activities Committee was on to something. Not that authors Paul Buhle, a lecturer at Brown University, and Dave Wagner, former political editor of the Arizona Republic, apologize for McCarthyism. Quite the opposite -- they celebrate cinema leftists as the soul of old Hollywood, makers of the most moral and complex movies in history.

But the analysis they employ to tell the story of the Hollywood left in the '30s and '40s is one borrowed from the most stultifying corners of academia, and it leads them into a critical dead end with surprising parallels to the worst Cold War thinking. Scanning hundreds of wildly diverse films, including gangster pictures, horror flicks, women's weepies, westerns, war films, society comedies and serious political dramas, Buhle and Wagner search for covert lefty messages. In their view, these movies really did threaten capitalist complacency, though they see that as a good thing. "However hilariously inaccurate the FBI (and much later personal testimony to HUAC) might be and often was in details ... they grasped the larger threat of seriously written pictures," they write. "'The Grapes of Wrath,' 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,' 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and the like were subversive to the America as seen and protected by Hoover and his spies."

In some films, the authors argue, the "subversion" was overt, while in many others it was hidden in seemingly innocuous entertainment. "Radical Hollywood" offers itself as a kind of secret decoder ring for finding the embedded sedition in Turner Classic Movies fare. "The information needed to make sense of the political clues hidden in these films has been lacking," they write.

Yet in more than 400 pages of such information, "Radical Hollywood" fails to make much sense of anything, save the inadequacy of the "cultural studies" model popular in certain sectors of academia. The book addresses one of the most fascinating milieus in American history, one crammed with Brobdingnagian egos negotiating the ricocheting collisions among art, commerce and politics, and flattens it with a simplistic quasi-deconstructionist analysis. There is no original reporting in "Radical Hollywood," no scene-setting or investigations of the nuances of conflicted characters. Worse still, by reading evidence of Communist influence into every film with a rich villain, a corrupt politician or a dispossessed hero, "Radical Hollywood" inadvertently makes McCarthy and HUAC seem more rational than they really were.

Cultural studies has long made a fetish of "subversion," lionizing pop phenomena like skateboarding, sampling and Madonna videos -- anything that seems to stick it to the Man, however obliquely. Often this sort of lionizing is vapid but harmless. Here, though, it has real consequences, lending weight (at least retrospectively) to a crazy witch hunt that eviscerated lives.

The authors actually use red-baiting FBI reports and congressional statements to back up some of their assertions, revealing the weird intellectual netherworld where academic wishful thinking meets right-wing hysteria. Explicating the revolutionary shadows in B westerns, they write, "No wonder the FBI, a few years later, reported warnings of an industry informer that a suspicious tone had entered the seemingly innocent format, locating 'a villain in the character of the local banker, crooked rancher with money or other capitalist always behind the plot to rob the ranchers, rustle cattle, prevent farmers coming to the country ... etc.'"

To be fair, the authors sometimes modulate their central idea, noting that on close examination of movies like "Mission to Moscow," "Song of Russia" and "The North Star," "later accusations of Hollywood's Communist subversion properly seem not only wildly disproportionate but downright ironic." Furthermore, it is not outrageous to suppose that left-wing screenwriters imbued their work with populist, humanist ideals. The authors quote Dalton Trumbo, a wildly successful screenwriter and member of the so-called Hollywood Ten, offering proof that left-wingers accomplished something real in Hollywood, saying, "the content of films was better in 1943 than it is in 1953." That's certainly true, as is the fact that the blacklist decimated Hollywood's creative core.

Yet it is a huge leap from there to the notion that the McCarthyist view of Hollywood was "wildly exaggerated but not entirely false." The problem is that Buhle and Wagner claim way too much ground as the exclusive domain of the left. In their view, movies that celebrate community-mindedness become secret advertisements for collectivism, and tales of rebels and loners are critiques of capitalist uniformity. They ignore the importance of both anti-authoritarianism and the celebration of civic virtue in mainstream American culture, defining progressivism so broadly that it becomes both all-encompassing and meaningless.

Still, there are arguments that could be made in favor of some of their pronouncements. "Angels With Dirty Faces," one of the films they cite, stars James Cagney as a charming, essentially good-hearted thief who enters the penal system as a kid, lives a life of crime and dies in the electric chair. Until the very end, the tenement kids who idolize him seem bound for a similar fate. The young gang may very well be, as the authors claim, "symptoms of social distress," but such an interpretation can't simply be taken for granted. After all, Cagney's youthful confrere grows up to be an upstanding priest, suggesting that class isn't destiny after all. But Buhle and Wagner don't bother to offer cogent support for their interpretation -- they just call the film left-wing and leave it at that.

Similarly, "The Wizard of Oz" is clearly a story about little people freed from oppression. Yet it doesn't automatically follow that the song "The Wicked Witch Is Dead" has "the feeling of liberation that [writer Yip Harburg] and his fellow Popular Front artists dreamed for a Europe free of fascism and for colonial citizens across what became known as the Third World, free of colonialism, both political and economic." Such an argument has to be made, not simply stated or inferred from the filmmakers' political affiliations.

If Buhle and Wagner fail to make their case even when there's a case to make, their book shades into surrealism when they try to stretch their central thesis to fit the widely disparate films left-wingers worked on. "The Philadelphia Story" is a 1940 classic romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn as a socialite whose ex-husband (played by Cary Grant) tries to thwart her remarriage to a staid, unexciting man. Somehow, though, our authors see a righteous social message beneath the champagne buoyancy, writing, "the psychological plight of both the useless rich and the powerless outsiders ... suggests the need for some other possibility."

It gets worse. Because it showed off the skills of the technicians on its crew, "Citizen Kane" is credited with "implicitly lifting up the dignity and revolutionary self-consciousness of the workers in a future film industry." In the 1948 noir "Force of Evil," the corrupt lawyer protagonist tells a woman that, "You're wicked ... 'Cause you're squirming for me to do something wicked ... take the childishness out of you, to give you money and make you sin." From that, Buhle and Wagner deduct, "No better statement could be made about a post-war American society emerging as the behemoth of the planet, flattening the opposition of the weak everywhere, using up the natural resources and the hopes of would-be imitators while insisting all along upon its own lack of resemblance to earlier, now-fallen empires."

Meanwhile, while artists with lefty credentials are lionized whether they made great films like "Force of Evil" or stuff like "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," right-wingers are subject to unsupported insults. Describing the obstacles progressive screenwriters faced even during their heyday, the books says, "Hammy and plainly unintelligent acting by politically conservative stars like Ginger Rogers and Robert Taylor ... had a way of muffling the best-intended scripts." Are Buhle and Wagner suggesting that these actors were purposely sabotaging their movies' political messages? Or that conservatives can't act? There's no way to tell. Either way, such grasping critical Manichaeism might have embarrassed McCarthy himself.

One reason that "Radical Hollywood" is so radically disappointing is because right now is a good time for a measured consideration of the effect that the political climate has on movies. We're currently mired in one of the most conservative periods in American history, with a government gunning for various military adventures. Movies like "Black Hawk Down," in which our enemies are depicted as a dark mob seething with irrational hate, bolster the administration's position. So do cathartic revenge fantasies like the recent Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle "Collateral Damage."

As during World War II, in the aftermath of Sept. 11 there was a rapprochement between Hollywood and Washington, with the film industry pledging to help support the war effort. The question of how that's going to affect the movies that get made and the attitudes of the people who watch them is one worth exploring, and an investigation of the past is an excellent place to start. After all, one of the great paradoxes of Hollywood is that it's a supposed bastion of liberalism, yet it unabashedly celebrates greed and militarism.

This contradiction could have made for a compelling book. In a section about a Communist-organized writing workshop, Buhle and Wagner write that participants grappled with the question of how "writers in a commercial industry with inescapable managerial supervision [could] survive without cynicism and perhaps even do (at least some) memorable work?" Had "Radical Hollywood" really engaged with that issue, it might have been an important book. After all, the amazing thing about Hollywood's leftist ferment isn't so much that radicalism was smuggled into our movies, but rather that radicals created the foundation of a culture that is anything but.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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