Monday, August 27, 2018
HOLLYWOOD COMMUNIST PARTY
HOLLYWOOD PARTY: HOW COMMUNISM SEDUCED THE AMERICAN FILM
INDUSTRY IN THE 1930s and 1940s (Roseville, CA.: Forum, an Imprint of Prima Pub., c1998)
Written by Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley
Rev. by Hugh Murray
There is much interesting material in Billingsley's party book, but after reading it, I am convinced it should have covered much more. For example, Billingsley practically begins his account with the creation of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL), a communist-front group in 1936. However, the Depression began in 1929, and by the early 1930s, the Communist Party made strident efforts to organize sharecroppers in the South; to organize the unemployed into councils that would restore the furniture of evicted tenants into their former homes; to organize unions beyond the AFL's craft associations; and especially to appeal to Blacks to end lynching and racist “justice” in the South. One case illustrated the Party's new militancy regarding Southern injustice – the Scottsboro, Ala. rape cases that began in 1931. The Communist-front International Labor Defense (ILD) wrestled the liberal National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to defend the 9 “boys” accused of raping two young white women while riding a freight train, on which they were all hoboing. Eight of the 9 were quickly found guilty and sentenced to death; the 14-year-old merely received a long sentence. ILD attorneys appealed to the US Supreme Court, and when they won new trials, the ILD hired Samuel Leibowitz, a Democrat and noted attorney to defend the youths.
At the same time they provided a high-powered legal defense, the ILD and the Communist movement turned the case into a world-wide cause celebre, even having the mother of 2 of the boys tour Europe to expose America's racist justice. In 1932 Mother Wright addressed radical gatherings in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Britain, and Moscow, urging support for the young Blacks who might again face the death penalty. Petitions demanding freedom for the defendants were signed by many of the leading literary figures of the time, as well as Albert Einstein, Mme. Sun Yat Sen, and in America, Chief Red Cloud. Poetry from Muriel Rukeyser and Langston Hughes celebrated the Scottsboro boys. A play, “They Shall Not Die!” almost recreating one of the court rooms with testimony, ran on Broadway with a lengthy, rave review from the New York Times. But there was no Scottsboro movie.
At the 2nd trial, one of the 2 white women “victims,” recanted her accusations of rape against the Blacks; now maintaining that the jazz found in her by the doctor was the result of a tryst with her white boy friend the night before the train ride, in a hobo camp in Chattanooga. The other woman stuck to her story that she had been raped by 6 of the Blacks. She proclaimed she was a victim, even when Atty. Leibowitz tried to punch holes in her story. When pressed under oath about certain details, Victoria Price simply “disremembered.”
During the trial, the attending physician asked to speak with the judge in private. While officers held the door to the men's room shut, the doctor explained to the judge why he thought that the 2 women had not been raped. They had semen in them, but during the examination they were giggling and laughing, not the normal reaction after being raped by 6 strangers each. The judge, James Horton, instructed the doctor to repeat this on the stand under oath. The doctor explained that to do so would ruin his reputation and his practice. He would not so testify, and if called to the stand he would lie about it. The doctor was not called. The jury found the Black defendant guilty. However, Judge Horton voided the verdict, and there would have to be a 3rd round of Scottsboro trials. The government found a new judge, and Judge Horton was defeated in his bid for re-election, undoubtedly a consequence of his voiding the popular guilty verdict.
The new judge was not as lenient as Judge Horton. He would not allow any probing into the past history of the women or any implied insults against their character. Modern feminists might cheer his shielding of the female accuser from the harsh questioning by Atty. Leibowitz. The Daily Worker had a less favorable view of the judge who upheld the chivalrous notion of the “victim” - the DW called him Judge Ku Klux Callahan. Leibowitz was limited by the judge's rulings as to how far he could delve into Ms. Price's statements that sometimes contradicted other evidence. And the other woman, Ruby Bates, did not want to return to the hostile atmosphere in Alabama, so her previous testimony denying any rape was merely read into the record. In the summary before the jury, the new prosecutor of the case, Alabama's Atty General made the issue clear, “Don't sell Alabama justice to Jew money from New York.” The jury did not, and found the Blacks once again guilty. More appeals to the US Supreme Court, which the defense won. More trials. The case went on for years. But still no movie was made.
This was the major Communist issue from 1931 through 1934 and beyond. Billingsley quotes Communist screen writer Dalton Trumbo writing in 1946 that while communists usually had the power to veto production of films critical of the Party, they did not have sufficient power to have their own pro-communist films produced. (p. 92-93) The notion of a film where 2 white women falsely accuse 9 young Blacks of rape, and the Blacks are defended by Communists, - who would have made such a film in the 1930s? And who would watch such a film? Even around 1961 in New Orleans, “Raisin in the Sun” did not play the large white movie theaters, and when a white friend and I went to the Carver, a Black theater, to see it, they would not sell us tickets to enter.
However, Scottsboro and films would have wider repercussions. Hollywood was the center of the most popular films world-wide, but especially after the arrival of the talkies, national studios produced films for their constituents in their native languages, and dialects. Germany's Babelsberg had created some of the most important films of the silent 1920s, but continued into the sound era with “Three Penny Opera,” “Blue Angel,” and others. They continued to make startling films even after many from their film colony fled Germany for Hollywood. France and Britain were centers of the world's largest empires, and they both sought to quench the thirst for films about and in the languages of empire.
And on to the London stage, and shortly after, the British film stages, appeared the American All-American foot ball player from Princeton, valedictorian there, a man with a law degree from Columbia U. with a deep baritone voice he used to sing Negro spirituals amid his blossoming acting career. The Black American, Paul Robeson, would now star in British films about Africa. He would also befriend some of the extras in these movies, often young Africans studying at British universities. In this way Robeson encountered Nnamdi Azikiwe and Johnstone Kenyatta, and later in different contexts, Kwame Nkrumah and the Indian, Jawaharlal Nehru. It was the 1930s, the Scottsboro rape cases dragged on, and to publicize the injustice, a Scottsboro Defence Committee was organized in Britain, with 2 co-chairs: Paul Robeson and Johnstone Kenyatta.
In 1935 the Hollywood musical “Show Boat” would hit the screens. Robeson had been popular enough so that the character of Joe was written into the stage version and then the film version just for Robeson. He had played it on the New York and London stages, and now in the movie in which he sang “Old Man River.” In 1939 Robeson returned to the US, and in the early 1940s, starred in Othello, which proved to be the longest-running Shakespearean play on Broadway till that time (and that record may stand today). However, because of the Hollywood blacklist of Reds, when MGM remade “Show Boat” in 1954, Robeson the radical was replaced by another baritone. When Orson Welles produced a filmed version of Othello in 1951, the Moor Wells played was quite light skinned. A very black Robeson would have been as out of place in this production as his politics. A Soviet version of 1956 also de-emphacized the racial aspects of the play. In 1965 the British did make a filmed version of the play with a Black Othello, but the Black was Laurence Olivier in make-up. If Robeson was being denied movie opportunities because of the anti-red Blacklist, he was seeking for other opportunities.
When Robeson returned to America in 1939, he was quite popular. He sang a patriotic cantata, “What is America to Me?” (“The House I Live In” is the official title) on CBS to a wide audience. He was acting in Othello. And he was speaking to young Blacks recently organized as the Southern Negro Youth Congress (the first “snick”), which aimed to increase civil rights. (In 1949, SNYC would be placed on Pres. Truman's Atty General's list of subversive organizations.) During WWII Robeson's sympathies for the Soviets, who were fighting and finally defeating the German Nazis, was often warmly received. President Roosevelt rhimself eferred to Stalin as “Uncle Joe,” and FDR's Vice President, Henry Wallace, along with many others in FDR's administration were openly friendly to the USSR. For the presidential election of 1944 conservative Democrats demanded that FDR replace Wallace on the ticket, and after a struggle at the Democratic convention, Harry Truman won the nomination for vice-president on the ticket. Wallace was demoted to Sec. of Commerce. Soon after the election, Roosevelt died and Truman became president. Then VE day, followed a few months later by the atomic bombing of 2 Japanese cities and the entrance into the war of the USSR; Japan sued for peace.
Billingsley points out, that the cold war began almost immediately. Billingsley connects the article by French Communist leader Jacques Duclos, echoing the thoughts of Stalin, that American CP leader, Earl Browder, had erred when he dissolved the CPUSA, and Browder was wrong when he implied that the friendliness of the wartime alliance would continue. Browder was ousted, and William Z. Foster, a hardliner replaced him as head of the American party. America was now viewed as incipiently fascist, and more determined Ccommunist struggle was required. So the Communist controlled unions in Hollywood looked for jurisdictional overlaps, where the red unions could push for open disputes with the non-communist organizations. The Cold War in Hollywood was evident by spring 1945 when the red-led CSU began a strike with picket lines to gain power in the film industry.
And in Europe, things were not returning to the pre-war era. Winston Churchill, who had led Britain throughout the war, was defeated at the polls by the Labour Party which discussed dismantling the British Empire! The chastened Churchill in 1946 visited the US and gave a speech asserting that an “iron curtain” had been thrust down by the Soviets, dividing Europe from Stettin to Triest. While many like Truman listened with interest, others like Sec. Wallace thought Churchill was simply trying to bolster the British Empire and promote rearmament at the expense of peace.
It was determined that the peace-loving Americans should take a stand, and to lead them, Henry Wallace showed his willingness. Truman fired Wallace from the Cabinet, and Wallace sought to create a new Progressive Party (PP), that would opposed the imperialisms of Britain, France, the Dutch, etc. It would strive for racial harmony, economic justice, even mild socialism. Above all, it would strive for peace with the USSR and hailed new “reform” elements fighting for power in China and elsewhere in Asia. To co-chair the new PP (which had the full support of the older, smaller, Communist Party, noted entertainer Paul Robeson accepted that post. The left-wing CIO unions supported Wallace, while the majority of the CIO stuck with Truman. Wallace gained the support of many civil rights organizations, the ILD, the National Negro Congress, SNYC, Robeson's Council on African Affairs, the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, etc. The NAACP, by contrast, had Democratic Pres. Harry Truman address its convention. When the only Black founder of the NAACP, W E B Du Bois, announced he was supporting Wallace rather than Truman, the NAACP fired Du Bois. With this purge, the NAACP essentially became a Democratic Party front group but it still pretends to be a non-partisan organization for tax purposes. Du Bois, openly Progressive, hostile to Western imperialism, supportive of anti-colonial revolutions, found that he was not even rehired at Atlanta U. The Progressive Party candidates campaigned in the South; it was the civil rights movement before the official movement. Many names of people involved in civil rights activities of the mid-1950s and 60s first came to prominence by partaking in civil rights connected with the campaign for Wallace and the PP. Even the enemies of civil rights. When PP Vice-Presidential candidate, Sen. Glenn Taylor visited Birmingham to campaign, he was scheduled to address a meeting of the SNYC, but Police Commissioner Bull Connor had him arrested when he entered the colored entrance of the building. Wallace, Taylor, Robeson were defying segregation laws when they campaigned in the South.
However, in November 1948 Wallace and the PP performed much below their expected vote (as did the anticipated winner, Thomas Dewey). Originally some thought Wallace might receive 5 to 8 million votes; he received only 1.1 million or 2.4%. Unions and organizations that supported the PP were now classified as subversive, and, especially in the South, jobs were lost. When Robeson scheduled a concert in a park outside of NYC, state troopers looked on as anti-Communists threw stones at the cars, blocking traffic, injuring many, and serving notice that Robeson, or any who sympathized with the Communists, would not be allowed to perform. The irony is that as Robeson thus began a period of isolation and lack of influence, blacklist, and denial of a passport, some of those whom he mentored were on the rise. Nkrumah was active in the Gold Coast, and when it declared independence from Britain in 1957, Nkrumah would become the first leader of the new nation of Ghana. Similarly, Robeson's friend, Azikiwe would soon be the leader of the new independent nation of Nigeria. It would take longer for Johnstone. He returned to Africa and was soon involved in a major uprising against British rule. But Johnstone, now known as Jomo, would give something back to the English – a new word, Mau Mau. When Hollywood made a film in 1957, “Something of Value,” it pitted 2 native Kenyans against each other – one, Rock Hudson, son of a white landowner, and the other, Sidney Poitier, a Black Kenyan who grew up on the land. Raised as brothers, they will end in a deadly struggle, one for Britain, the other for the Mau Mau. Of course, in the Hollywood film, the revolutionary Mau Mau leader looses. Yet, reality does not always follow Hollywood scripts. In time, Mau Mau leader Jomo Kenyatta would be recognized as the leader of an independent Kenya. (In the 1950s and 60s, with the collapse of colonialism, most assumed that the newly independent nations would soon rise from the Third World to the prosperity and democracy of the First. However, for many of the new nations, independence would soon mean corruption, starvation, return to slavery, and slaughter.)
Just as Robeson had nurtured African students in Britain in the 1930s, the CPUSA had nurtured Black artists in New York and beyond. Richard Wright was encouraged to write by the CP, and included real Communists, like Mary Dalton, in some of his fiction. The party would review his books, help in finding publishers, etc. But by the end of WWII, Wright had turned against the CP, and one of his essays was included in the anti-communist volume, “The God that Failed.” Claude McKay had earlier left the CP for the Roman Catholic church. George Padmore had left the CP for a more Black Nationalist approach. C L R James, author of the important history of the slave rebellion in Haiti, was a Trotskyist, a heretic, and the CP sought to isolate and destroy his influence. But in New York there were those in the CP or close to it who would become influential – Lorraine Hansberry, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier. Some of these would shoot to stardom with the Civil Rights Movement of the late 50s and 60s. Did the CP have such a group to encourage Blacks in Hollywood? I suspect they must have had special outreach for Blacks and Hispanics, but there is no mention of this in Billingsley.
There were 2 films “inspired” by the Scottsboro case, but they they were not produced until the 1950s, and the case was camouflaged to the point of distortion. In the Southern Gothic “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), which centers on the white attorney, appointed by a local Alabama judge, to defend a Black man accused of raping a white woman. Gregory Peck played the attorney. Alabama in the 1930s and long after was a segregated society. At one point, Peck must sit guard at the jail, as local townspeople want to lynch his client. With some ice breaking by his young daughter, Peck is able to get the crowd to leave, and leave his client alone. But there are threats against Peck, too, for defending the Black. Peck's skills in court readily expose the contradictions in the woman's story. But when on the stand, the accused Black admits that she kissed him when he had helped her chop wood, a taboo was broken. The Black was found guilty. Soon Peck is informed that when being transferred to another jail, the Black was shot dead while trying to escape. Soon thereafter, at Halloween, Peck's children, in costumes, are attacked, by one, and then another man intervenes to help them. The father of the accusing woman is later found dead in that area of the forest; presumably he was trying to harm the children, while a mentally crippled neighbor came to their defense and saved them. This was a good story, set in 1930s Alabama, but a long way from the Scottsboro case. Though the Harper Lee novel is often assigned in schools, though it avoids many of the issues raised by Scottsboro, it does show the difficulties of achieving justice in the deep South of the 1930s.
A closer rendition of the Scottsboro case was made earlier, in 1955, when “Trial” starred Glenn Ford. The scene is 1947 California and a Mexican, Angel Chavez, who attends the same school as an Anglo sees her on the beach and they talk. She has rheumatic heart problems, and when his hands wander onto her, she collapses, dies. Chavez is charged with felony rape and murder. As she was underage, even if she had consented, it would have been rape, and she died, so felony murder. The locals want to lynch the Mexican, but authorities assure the crowd he will be executed after his trial. Meanwhile, Ford, a professor of law, is now required to gain court-room experience to retain his teaching post. The naive professor is hired by a small law firm led by Atty. Castle to defend the young Chavez. Castle enlists Chavez's mother to help in raising funds for the cause. He even demands Ford come to New York to appear at a rally. It is a large rally for the Peoples Party (Progressive Party), and a W E B DuBois character makes a rare appearance in a Hollywood film – as the senile de la Farge who is to keep the crowd awake droning the party line before the main event and while most are still finding their seats. The cynics then make pleas for this cause and that. Angel Chavez's is a new cause, so Ford's speech and the mother's will bring in the cash. Ford is suddenly aware he is dealing with Communists. Castle's secretary explains that Castle's goal is not to save Chavez, but to maximize the publicity when he is convicted, to show the world America's murderous, racist judicial system. Too complex to reveal the maneuvers here, but to summarize, Ford is able to foil the communist plot by preventing Chavez's execution. Both films are quite interesting, but in one, there are no Communists; in the other the Communists are the villains. In reality, the Communists saved the Scottsboro boys from execution.
It is noteworthy that in the US, Hollywood has never produced a film directly about the Scottsboro case. It would be as unacceptable today to Hollywood values as it was in the 1930s, though for different reasons. The case was built upon the lies of 2 white women. But as early as the 1991 Senate hearings to confirm Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment against him, National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg assured listeners “Women do not make up stories.” In the era of “Me2!” women accuse, and men are considered guilty until proven innocent. For a man to challenge a woman on the issue, these days, only provides further proof of his guilt. Scottsboro is as politically incorrect today as it was in 1931.
Communists nurtured Black artists and intellectuals in the Harlem Renaissance and during the Depression in New York. Billingsley mentions nothing about such groups in Hollywood. I suspect they existed. Same with Hispanic groups. During the Progressive Party campaign of 1948 for the Wallace-Taylor ticket, there was a group organized, Bachelors for Wallace. Harry Hay, a Communist and a Progressive was a part of this. After the election, he wanted to organize a homosexual group. To do so he dropped out of the CP and founded the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights groups. While some communists might have welcomed such outreach, others probably deemed it more an embarrassment than an opportunity.
The point is, Billingsley fails to mention any of this kind of organizing in his book. He does mention several times the comedienne and actress Lucille Ball. But even this is deficient. When Ball registered to vote in California in 1936, she registered as a Communist. She did it again in 1938. Now, in Billingsley's volume, we learn that Lucille Ball was one of the first to cross the picket lines established by the communist run union the CSU in 1945. Billingsley also lists Ball voting in 1948 for Truman and the Democrats rather than Wallace and the PP. In 1951 “I Love Lucy” became the most popular program on television, and in 1953 members of HUAC quietly interviewed her at her home. She explained her grandfather had been a Eugene V Debs Socialist, and he was living with her in the mid 1930s and to keep the old man happy, she so registered. A party education program was held at her home, but she was not there at the time. Her husband said the old man might read editorials in the Daily Worker. Had she been a member of the CP, she would not have crossed the picket line in 1945 nor voted for Truman in 1948. Around 1953, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover pronounced “I Love Lucy” his favorite program.
But there is another aspect to the story. Lucille Ball is married to Desi Arnez, in real life, and in the comedy series. In 1948 when at least 30 of the 48 states forbid interracial marriages, there was Lucy and Desi. Most of the laws were to prevent black-white marriages, but in some states; Asian-white or Amerindian white. Most states had no category of Hispanics – they would be deemed black or white. Nevertheless, the Desilu production was pushing the envelop. Desi had a strong accent on the program. He did not look or sound regular American. And in an era when they could not even use the word “pregnant” on television, that couple was unique for the 1950s and long after. One of the surprises of when I moved to New York City in the early 1970s was encountering married, interracial couples. These were rare, so rare in I my experience, that I don't want to over-generalize, but in each case, the couples were Party members or in the Left-wing circles (and may have been in the Party when they married). Might the left-wing background of Lucille Ball have allowed her to open to the possibility of having a beau who was a Desi? Might that couple appearing weekly on the most popular television program of the early 1950s have changed the nation's attitudes on marriage? Of course, in 1961 in Hawaii an interracial couple married, Ann Dunham and Barack Obama, Sr.
When the Hollywood 10 Communists were blacklisted, they raised funds to create their own movie. With the help of a progressive union, Herbert Biberman directed the 1954 film, “Salt of the Earth,” about a union strike in New Mexico. When the miners of a zinc company are forbidden by a court injunction to man the picket lines, their wives “manned” the lines instead. This caused some marital conflicts, as the men thought it inappropriate for women to do the men's protest. Most of the strikers are Mexican Americans, and they believe they are not treated equally with the Anglo miners. Eventually, the zinc mining company negotiates with the striking miners. The International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, that had supported Henry Wallace in 1948 and was subsequently expelled from the CIO, sponsored the film. Paul Jarrico produced it. He is mentioned in Billingsley's book as one of the alleged Communists. Another blacklisted actress was considered for a leading role, Gale Sondergaard, the wife of Biberman, but instead the leading roles went to Mexican Americans. Most of the cast were non-actors, and some had partaken in the strike that formed the bases of the plot. The female lead, Rosaura Revueltas, was even deported. The film was blacklisted and few saw “Salt” in the 1950s. It was not Hollywood, but New Mexico. Yet, it was the Hollywood Party that made the film, and should have been discussed more by Billingsley. It also demonstrates the Party willingness to spotlight racial as well as class issues.
The Party also viewed “Salt of the Earth” as a pro-union response to Elia Kazan's “On the Waterfront.” Kazan had been a member of the CP in New York in the mid 1930s, but broke with it. And when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee after WWII, Kazan was a friendly witness and named the names of former comrades. Kazan went on to make some of the best films of the era (some would judge, of all time). The Communists and their supporters despised Kazan, not just in the 1950s, but decades later. Billingsley writes that the Academy Aware organization had a special program, Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist, some 50 years after the investigation of Communists in the film industry. In effect, it was a celebration of the defiance of the HUAC, a condemnation of “McCarthyism” (though the blacklist preceded Sen. McCarthy's investigations). At the event the elderly who had been blacklisted won applause, and major stars read some of the defiant statements of the blacklisted who had since died. Almost no one mentioned that the many of the (if not all) blacklisted had indeed been Reds. So by 1997 the blacklisted could feel vindicated.
Kazan also directed a labor film released in 1954, “On the Waterfront.” This concerns corruption in the International Longshoremen's Assn. (ILA), the union for dockers on America's east and southern coasts. In the film, a government crime commission is investigating the union, and Marlon Brando entices a worker into an ambush, and leaves. The union thugs, Brando thinks, are going to “teach the guy” a lesson, not to testify the next day. Instead of beating the dissident, the union squad kills him. Brando had been an aspiring boxer, but his brother, determined to make more money by betting against Brando, convinced Brando to throw the fight. Brando moaned lingering resentment to the brother in a car, “I coulda been a contender.” His brother works for the corrupt union boss. Brando meets and begins to fall for the sister of the slain docker, Eva Marie Saint. Karl Malden plays a priest who knows something is wrong on the docks and presents a terrific sermon on a ship. Brando tells the priest and Eva about his role in the death of her brother, ups, downs, another murder, beatings, Brando is shunned when word gets out he may testify. The priest gets Brando to testify and Eva reconciles, and though beaten up, Brando returns to work. Kazan said that this film was his justification for testifying before HUAC.
The left's hatred of Kazan, whom they deemed an informant, a snitch, a rat, was on display before a huge television audience. During the Academy Award telecast of 1999, the Academy presented Kazan with an Honorary Award, and while many stars in the audience stood and applauded like Meryl Streep, the legacy of the Left's hatred continued with some remaining seated, some standing and turning their backs to show their contempt for the many who would whistle blow on Communists. Among the dissenters – Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, and Ian McKellan. Kazan had directed numerous films, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gentleman's Agreement, Panic in the Streets, Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden, Splendor in the Grass, and many more. Many had received awards. One of the better parts of Billingsley's book is his contrasting the audiences of the 2 remembrances of the Blacklist era.
In the early 1930s the Communist movement was in one of its ultra-left periods, when it could have no alliance with Social Democrats because they were “social fascists,” and liberals were imperialists and defenders of oppression. However, events in Germany would revise the outlook of the Comintern. Assuming the appointment of Hitler as Germany's Chancellor in January 1933 would be short-lived, and the slogan, “Nach Hitler uns” (after Hitler, us) would be quickly fulfilled, events did not go as predicted. Following the burning of the Reichstag, Hitler was granted extra powers; he banned the powerful Communist party, organized concentration camps for dissidents, forced all unions into the Nazi approved organization, restricted the media, and prepared for rearmament. Stalin, viewing Germany as a potential threat, began a new policy for the Comintern, - to woo liberals; work together in the “popular front” against fascism and Nazism.
As part of the new Party strategy, the CP established the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL) in 1936. Billingsley describes its success in organizing rallies, relief efforts, producing radio programs, to expose the oppression of Hitler's regime. The HANL rallied protestors to condemn the leader of the Italian film industry when he visited Hollywood. This film chief happened to be Vittorio, the son of Benito Mussolini. The HANL also did what it could to demonize and blacklist (p. 70) another visitor, who was probably the most innovative woman in films in the 20th century. Her Olympic film is unsurpassed. But Leni Riefenstahl was a friend of Hitler, and arriving soon after the anti-Jewish violence of Kristalnacht, Riefenstahl's reception in Hollywood was less than spectacular. The HANL led protests against her.
Billingsley exposes the about faces of the American CP. Though CP leader Earl Browder scoffed at foolish reports in summer of 1939 that Stalin would make a deal with Hitler, after the deal was made, Browder quickly justified it. The CPUSA was no longer interested in anti-fascism, but anti-imperialism; the main enemies of the world's working class were no longer Hitler, but colonial and imperial nations like Britain, France, Belgium, etc. Although the HANL group had been extremely successful, even working with the local archbishop and with Jewish religious leaders, anti-fascism was now a hindrance. Stalin and Hitler were friends. So the Communist dominated HANL disbanded and elements were reprogrammed as the local chapter of the American Peace Mobilization, meant to prevent re-armament, and to prevent American from entering into any war on behalf of Britain or France. Because of Pres. Roosevelt's moves to aid Britain and entice the US into war, members of the APM picketed the White House with signs: “The Yanks Are Not Coming!”
During this period of German and Soviet non-aggression, there was considerable trade between the two powers. Many raw materials were shipped to Germany, which because of the British navy, could not be easily obtained elsewhere. The former foes sought to get along. After the fall of Belgium, for a time, the only legal political party in the small, German occupied nation was the Communist party. Billingsley reports: “During the Nazi-Soviet Pact the Communist Party was determined to prevent the United States from arming itself or its allies and it spearheaded strikes at defense industries,...(80) Yet Hollywood responded in a very biased way to the two tyrannies redrawing the map of Europe. Hollywood soon produced films about Nazi spies in the US and Nazi oppression abroad. The 1940 Hitchcock spy-thriller, “Foreign Correspondent” would win an Academy Award in 1941. There were also films dramatizing Nazi spies inside the US. But even during the Nazi-Soviet Pact era, Hollywood did not produce films showing Communist spies in the US. Nor were there any exposing the police-state tyranny that was the USSR. We have often heard that Hollywood is a dream factory. However, more important, it is our memory manufacturer. We may recall pictures in our minds from a newsreels or documentaries, but more likely, we will recall the incident with an image from a film that rouses our emotions, connecting that incident to us in the movie theater. So we recall, the Nazi spies of that era, both here and abroad. But there were no films made about the Soviet spies, and the far more influential Soviet agents of influence. There were a number of best-selling books in this era describing Communist spies; but none were transformed into films. The Trumbo crowd prevented such exposes of Communist perfidy. So, there are holes in our nation's memory, because those films were not made to remind us of important aspects to American history. (See Diana West's American Betrayal for her insights into this topic.)
In June 1941 Hitler attacked the USSR. The Comintern policy changed again. Now the CPUSA wanted the US to enter the war to help Stalin's domain. The American Peace Mobilization was suddenly the American People's Mobilization, and now the White House picketers demanded that Yanks be dispatched to Europe! In June 1941 the CP began to sound like other liberals – America should prepare for war and help those already fighting against the Nazi menace. The CP writers could now write war pictures, glorifying those who fought against Nazi oppression. And after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US was officially in the war.
The Roosevelt Administration asked Hollywood for films promoting the Allied cause, and for some sympathetic to the USSR. Several such films were produced, the most famous based upon the diaries of Joseph Davies, Roosevelt's Ambassador to the USSR. “Mission to Moscow.” justified Stalin's attack on Finland in 1939, and it accepted the Stalinist view of the famous show trials in Moscow that old-time Party leaders, and leaders of the Soviet military, were German spies and Trotskyists. Billingsley includes the quip that the film might better have been titled, “Submission to Moscow.” “North Star” begins with everyone happily enjoying life on a collective farm with no scarcity in the USSR - until the barbarous German sneak attack of 1941.(89) These films were the exceptions, however, for most of the Hollywood glorified the American war effort, and Communists were doing their part in writing or acting to promote an Allied victory over fascism.
There are revisionist historians who argue that both the US and the USSR are responsible for the Cold War, or that the fault lies mainly with the United States. However, we may gain some insight into the origins by reading Billingsley's book. The Soviets controlled the CPUSA, and when in the 1920s the American leaders opposed Stalin's policies, those leaders were quickly removed from office and the Party. As the war in Europe wound down, Jacques Duclos, leader of the French CP wrote an article, undoubtedly at Stalin's behest, criticizing Earl Browder's leadership of the CPUSA. Browder had assumed the close friendly relations between the US and the USSR would continue after the war. Duclos warned that with the oncoming defeat of fascism, the US might take up its mantle; by contrast, the class struggle and the struggle to free colonial peoples would continue under the banner of socialism. When leaders of the American Party realized that Duclos was speaking for Stalin, Browder was expelled from the CPUSA, and a hard-liner, William Z. Foster replaced him.
Even before V-E Day and V-J Day, while war in the Pacific still continued, with the possible loss of millions of lives if the US would have to invade the Japanese home islands, in spring 1945 the Communists launched their effort to take control of the film industry. Hollywood was a dream factory, but Communists emphasized the factory and union workers aspect of the reality. Although there had been a no-strike pledge during the war, and though the war was still a very hot one in the Pacific with no end in sight, the Communist unions initiated labor disputes and jurisdictional conflicts with non-communist unions. On 12 March 1945 began the “Great Studio Strike,” (p. 93, 106) in which the Communist-led Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) took on the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IA). Herbert Sorrell led the CSU, while Roy Brewer, a “New Dealer with socialist leanings,” headed the IA. Sorrell could count on the help of a fellow Communist, (though kept secret at the time to avoid deportation) of Harry Bridges, leader of the West Coast dockers' union, the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen Union (ILWU). At times during this strike, Bridges provided Sorrell with muscle to insure that the CSU could win some of the picket battles. Also important for the CSU, a secret Communist was on officer of the National Labor Relations Board, so his rulings at time could sway things in favor of the CSU.
Sometimes there was considerable violence on the picket lines, and the CSU promised to boycott actors who crossed the lines. Despite the threats, John Wayne, Lucille Ball, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Maureen O'Hara, and others all crossed the Red-led picket lines.(121) There was violence, but the stakes were high. If the Communists could control the Hollywood unions, they could exert enormous pressure to prevent the making of any “reactionary” films, while promoting “progressive” films and insertions of propaganda into general films. Billingsley spends considerable pages on this important strike, but the times were against the CP. When Congress began its investigation of Communism in Hollywood, initially, there was considerable push-back. But when the liberals began to realize that the accused probably were members of the CP, some like Bogart simply felt “used” by the radical groups pretending to be liberals.
The Communists lost the strike, and suffered from the Blacklist. Their hope to control the film industry through their unions failed. But 50 years later, when Hollywood Remembered the Blacklist, the CP stalwarts felt vindicated. When many in another audience disrespected Elia Kazan when he received another award, the CP may have assume it had won the battle in the long run.
Some aspects of Communist activities in Hollywood are unexplored in Billingsley's book. And some of these may have actually been beneficial to America. Others, for example, the films that were not made because the Communists vetoed them, blacklisting ideas deemed anti-Soviet, probably distorted America's national memory of the era. The Communists supported Stalin's expansion in Eastern Europe, Communist expansion in Asia, and anti-colonial movements in Africa. The American CP was subsidized by Moscow, and some members were more interested in advancing Soviet interests rather than America's. I think Kazan and others did the proper thing to name names of the Communists before the HUAC. The Blacklisted suffered, but ultimately, their suffering was on behalf of a cause that was murderous and tyrannical.