by John Sbardellati

Cornell University Press. 256 pages. 17.50. ISBN 978-0-8014-5008-2 

Reviewed by Jim Burns


In 1959 Warner Brothers, one of the leading Hollywood studios, decided to make a film called The FBI Story, based on a book by Don Whitehead. J.Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, had sent copies of the book to the three Warner brothers in 1956, presumably in the hope that they would want to make a film version of it. The FBI had participated in films before in an advisory role, but with The FBI Story the organisation insisted that it gave clearance for all those who would work on it, especially the producer, director, and writer. It also demanded that the script should be approved by the FBI before filming started.

Interference at that level might seem unusual, but the FBI had been interested in what Hollywood was doing for some time. Censorship of various kinds was not unknown in the film capital, though the FBI only usually took note of the content of films when politics, mostly of a left-wing nature, was thought to be evident in the scripts. Writers were often a target for surveillance, though directors and actors could also come under suspicion. Charlie Chaplin attracted attention as early as 1921 because of his support for left-wing causes and his generally disrespectful attitude towards authority.

It was in the 1930s that the question of radical influence on the content of films really began to be a matter of concern for the more-conservative elements in the film industry. What initially engaged their attentions, however, were the attempts to organise writers into a union, The Screen Writers Guild. Communists and people who later became Party members were among the leading activists. John Bright later recalled: "There was no real Communist Party in Hollywood at that time, but several of us had working-class backgrounds or left-wing origins that we hadn't forgotten. Hell, we'd all come out of the Depression. We were all New Deal Progressives." The studios fought hard to oppose the SWG and organised a smear campaign against known radicals. Conservative elements among the writers formed a rival union which was backed by the employers. It's worth bearing all this in mind when looking at events in the late-1940s and early-1950s.

Complaints about alleged communist propaganda grew in the 1930s, with, for example, Blockade arousing negative comments from the Catholic community and right-wing Hollywood elements. With a screenplay by John Howard Lawson, later to be a leading Hollywood communist, it was supposed to be about the Spanish Civil War, but the Product Administration Code, the industry's censorship body, ruled that no direct references could be made to either the Loyalists or Franco's rebels. There were more than a few people in Hollywood and elsewhere who were of the opinion that films should be pure entertainment and that political statements had no place in them.

In 1943 Hoover issued an instruction to his West Coast operatives in which he told them that they should investigate "the extent of the Communist Party's influence and participation in the production of motion pictures." Russia may have been an ally in the struggle against fascism, but it was still treated with suspicion. And by 1943 the Communist Party was well established in Hollywood, and Party members, such as Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, and Alvah Bessie, all soon to be among the Hollywood Ten, were busy with screenplays that Hoover suspected might contain examples of communist propaganda. It wasn't much later that Lela Rogers, mother of the famous Ginger, claimed that her daughter had been made to utter communist ideas when, in the film Tender Comrade, she said, "Share and share alike, that is democracy." Dalton Trumbo had written those words, and Edward Dymtryk, another communist, had directed the film. Lela Rogers appeared to be in agreement with J. Edgar Hoover in believing that anything written by a communist must, by definition, be communist propaganda. 

There were, it's true, films from Hollywood during the war years which offered a sympathetic picture of Russia, and watching them now does incline the viewer to think that left-wing writers glossed over some unpalatable facts. Mission to Moscow, with its flattering portrait of Stalin and its acceptance of the guilt of those accused during the notorious show-trials of the late-1930s, was written by Howard Koch, not a Party member but sympathetic to its ideas. North Star had a screenplay by Lillian Hellman, whose pro-Stalinist leanings were obvious, and showed life on a collective farm as full of fun. And Song of Russia had contributions from Richard Collins, Paul Jarrico, and Guy Endore, all communists, and gave another favourable version of village life in the Soviet Union.  The right-wing writer Ayn Rand was particularly incensed by Song of Russia, having been born in Russia and knowing something of the realities of life there. To be fair to the writers of the films referred to it needs to be recorded that the Roosevelt Administration actively supported their production. The FBI viewed them differently and its report on Mission to Moscow claimed that the Russian Embassy in Washington had exercised control over the script.

Another wartime morale-booster, Action in the North Atlantic, came under suspicion because it was written by John Howard Lawson. It does have a couple of minor scenes where some pro-Russian sentiment can be seen or heard (a Russian fighter flying over an American ship is described as "One of ours," and an American sailor refers to the word "comrade" as good) but they hardly constitute propaganda in any real sense of the word. Sahara, another film with a Lawson script, came to the attention of the FBI because it appeared to make what John Sbardellati says was a "rather moderate call for progress in race relations." He points out that Hoover monitored black activists and organisations in much the same way as he monitored communists. Both blacks and communists represented a threat to the kind of white conservative supremacy he supported.

The wartime co-operation between Russia and America petered out once Germany and Japan were defeated. The old doubts about Russian intentions had never really gone away, and the post-war mood became one of deep suspicion. Even while the war was still raging an organisation called The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals had been formed to challenge alleged communist influence in Hollywood. An opposition group, The Council of Hollywood Guilds and Unions, was then created to counter the allegations of anti-American content in films. The scene was being set for the more-vicious battles that would soon take place in the Hollywood community.

Although the FBI had been carrying out its own investigations into communist activity there had been a degree of reluctance on its part to officially involve the organisation in providing information to other bodies. This policy began to change in the post-war period. And there was an event, if we can call it that, within the Hollywood branch of the Communist Party which, although seemingly some sort of internal matter, attracted wide publicity and probably did a great deal to convince many people that the Party was a totalitarian outfit which was not inclined to tolerate any opinions that it had not sanctioned.

In February 1946, the communist cultural magazine, New Masses, printed an article by Albert Maltz entitled "What Shall We Ask of Our Writers?" In it Maltz raised the question of how far a writer should go in using his art as a weapon in the class struggle. Maltz suggested that the Left in America had taken the "art as a weapon" doctrine to an extreme where it limited a writer's capacity to deal with his material honestly. A rigid adherence to Party policy meant that writers were judged by it and not by the quality of their work. All this may seem difficult to comprehend now, but seen in context it makes sense.

The American Communist Party had been dissolved in 1944 by its then leader, Earl Browder, and re-started as the Communist Political Association with a policy of adapting to local conditions and when necessary co-operating with liberal organisations. Maltz may have thought that this also signalled a loosening of the demands on writers to conform, and he wasn't prepared for the furious reaction to his seemingly moderate comments. But what had happened was that in May 1945 a leading French communist, Jacques Duclos, wrote an article in Les Cahiers du Communisme which attacked Browder and his ideas and more or less stated that there could be no accommodation with capitalism. It was understood that Duclos would have been acting on instructions from Moscow when he prepared his repudiation of Browder. The American communists quickly deposed Browder, re-established the American Communist Party, and installed a hardliner, William Z. Foster, as their leader. Browder was expelled from the Party as a "social imperialist."

Browder's expulsion took place just a week before Maltz's article appeared, and it was obvious that his views did not correspond to the new, or revived, Party policy. He was quickly attacked, with Party stalwarts like Howard Fast, Alvah Bessie, Mike Gold, and John Howard Lawson going into print to point out the errors in Maltz's thinking. In Hollywood, he was hauled up before what was essentially a kangaroo-court run by Party officials and attended by many of Maltz's fellow-communists among the writers. Accounts of the meeting tell how he was heckled, insulted, and reviled, and anyone daring to speak in his favour was shouted down. Leopold Atlas, a writer who was present, later said: "The wolves were loose and you should have seen them. It was a spectacle for all time." In due course, Maltz recanted, made a public admission of his sins, and wrote another article for a Party publication in which he virtually disowned his earlier piece.

The Maltz affair did have an impact outside the narrow confines of the Hollywood Communist Party. It led to disillusionment among people who may have been sympathetic towards the communists. And it attracted the attention of the Hollywood anti-communists who could use it to show how communist writers had to toe a Party line. There were reports about it in the national press, and the FBI certainly took note of what had happened. Hoover was increasingly concerned about supposed communist infiltration of the studios, and the FBI was, through its contacts in Hollywood, sometimes being given copies of screenplays by left-wing writers before the films went into production.

By the time the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began its hearings into communism in Hollywood in 1947 it was clear that it was receiving information from FBI sources. When the Hollywood Ten, as they were called, refused to answer questions about their membership of the Communist Party, the details (provided by the FBI and including membership numbers and much more) were simply read into the record by the Committee. According to Sbardellati, this information had been obtained by burgling Party offices and the homes of Party officials. Also, the FBI had "at least one confidential informant within the Los Angeles Communist Party," and a series of others who offered details of the activities of suspected Party members. The FBI wiretapped the telephones of attorneys acting for the Hollywood Ten, just as later they tapped the telephone of Abraham Polonsky, a writer/director involved with such outstanding late-1940s films as Force of Evil and Body and Soul.

When HUAC resumed its investigations in 1951 the mood in America was virulently anti-communist. Russian development of the atom bomb, the discovery of wide spying networks, Soviet threats in Europe, and the Korean War had built up a feeling of hysteria. Sbardellati points out that the new hearings focused on individuals said to be communists and little was said about the contents of any films they had worked on. It was obvious that the intention was to get people to name names, to confess in public, and to wreck their own careers if they refused to testify. It's also Sbardellati's contention that the Committee, insofar as it looked at actual films, really wanted to target what he terms "the more voluminous body of social problem films," rather than just the few that could be said to be pro-Russian or favourable to communist ideas. Criticism of bankers and businessmen and politicians was thought by HUAC and the FBI to be as subversive as any kind of overtly left-wing ideology, very little of which ever found its way into films, in any case.

The FBI continued to monitor the lives and work of communist screenwriters, even though most of them had been forced out of the film industry, along with others who hadn't been Party members but had shown signs of left-wing leanings or had, on principle, refused to co-operate with HUAC. A "gray list" operated alongside the better-known blacklist, so that anyone who hadn't conformed might find work drying up. Some of the writers affected did manage to sell scripts through "fronts," people who were sympathetic to their situation and allowed their names to be used. Others left the country. Joseph Losey made a name for himself in Britain, and Jules Dassin in France.

Sbardellati suggests that a lingering effect of the anti-communist drive in Hollywood was the "death of the social problem film." And there were claims by blacklisted writers, who might be said to have had a vested interest in making them, that the quality of films generally declined because the best writers had been forced out, and those who held onto their jobs weren't likely to rock the boat. But is either of these claims true? It might be true to say that the Popular Front ideology that permeated at least some of the films of the late-1930s and the war years was no longer in evidence, but good films continued to be made alongside the second-rate and the shallow entertainment that was always Hollywood's main stock-in-trade. There is, in Alan Casty's Communism in Hollywood (Scarecrow Press, 2009) a useful discussion of this topic. Casty provides several lists of films made in Hollywood between 1948 and 1961, the years which more or less cover the blacklist period. The lists are impressive and include many films which a disinterested enthusiast might well consider among the best ever made. And social problems, such as racism, juvenile delinquency, political corruption, and crime were evident in many of  them.

I've largely concentrated on the way in which writers, directors, producers and actors were affected by the purge of Hollywood radicals, and to be fair to Sbardellati he does mention how other workers in the film industry (carpenters, electricians, painters, etc.) came under attack. There were major strikes in Hollywood in the immediate post-war years, often involving inter-union struggles and a great deal of violence. There's no doubt that the FBI kept a close eye on these events, and fed information about left-wing union activists to the studios. Detailed accounts of the strikes, and of the roles played by criminal elements among conservative union leaders, can be found in Gerald Horne's Class Struggle in Hollywood 1930-1950 (University of Mexico Press, 2001) and Hollywood's Other Blacklist (British Film Institute, 1995) by Mike Nielsen and Gene Mailes. What happened to the hundreds of union members who were blacklisted rarely gets the attention that is given to the HUAC hearings and their consequences.

John Sbardellati has written an interesting book, though without coming up with any startling new information. I think it has always been known that the FBI provided information to the studios and HUAC relating to communists in the film-making community. But he has delved into the FBI archives in a useful way to give examples of the activities of that organisation.