Edited by David J. Hogan

McFarland & Co. 258 pages. £41.50. ISBN 978-0-7864-9904-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

In the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis film, Artists and Models (1955), Lewis, the zany one, somehow memorises the secret formula that certain foreign agents (Communists? They’re never actually named as such, but we can all assume they are), want to obtain, and is injected with a truth drug in an attempt to make him blurt out the appropriate information. As part of the process leading up to the injection he’s been vamped by a beautiful spy.

The female foreign agents always appeared to be attractive and intriguing, just as were the femme fatales in film noir. And when I was young they certainly interested me more than the seemingly straight-laced ladies that the heroes finally got around to marrying, if they weren’t already hitched to them. In Artists and Models, Jerry Lewis has all the luck, and not only does he have a liaison with the spy, he also ends up with the delightfully oddball Shirley MacLaine, who is anything but straight-laced. Dean Martin, in the meantime, has been wooing, and eventually winning, the pretty but relatively conventional Dorothy Malone. I always figured that Jerry Lewis got the best deal.

Hollywood writers didn’t only put a dose of anti-communism into a light-hearted romp like Artists and Models, they also enlisted Roy Rogers and The Three Stooges in the crusade against communism. In Bells of Coronado (1950), Rogers and Trigger, his faithful horse, foil attempts by a bunch of outlaws to steal a wagon load of uranium ore. So far, it seems a conventional cowboy film, but Roy turns out to be an agent for the US Government and his job is to ensure that the ore doesn’t fall into the hands of…..well, it isn’t specified , but we all know what uranium ore is needed for, and as Roy explains, “To some unfriendly power without a uranium supply, it’d be worth a fortune”.

A second Rogers film, Spoilers of the Plains (1951), similarly exploited the idea of unpatriotic Americans being willing to sell secrets to a foreign power (not named, and referred to by the leading badman as his “customers”), but being stopped in their tracks by Roy, Trigger, and a dog called Bullet. The horse and the dog dislike communists as much as Roy does.

As for The Three Stooges, they made their madcap way through Fuelin’ Around, where one of the trio is mistaken for a famous scientist (think of Larry, the Stooge with all the hair – he looks like the popular idea of a bemused boffin), and is kidnapped, along with his companions, and taken to an unnamed Eastern European country to be forced to divulge details of a “new super rocket fuel”. Needless to say, they eventually outwit their captors. Even slightly-idiotic Americans can teach the communists a thing or two.

There were, of course, many more films which offered a less-humorous account of what communists were supposedly getting up to, even if they sometimes pushed the limits of disbelief with outlandish characters and unlikely plots. There always seemed a contradiction at work in the notion advanced by dedicated anti-communists, that a communist could be anyone – your next-door neighbour, the man across from you on a bus, the woman serving you in a shop – and the Hollywood  version where, as in westerns and thrillers, they needed to be visually identified as suspect (black hats for cowboys and square-cut suits for communists). Communists rarely smiled, and if they did, it was usually in a cynical or menacing way. They weren’t much different from gangsters in that respect, and in fact they were very much seen as such in films like The Woman on Pier 13 and Pickup on South Street.

But why the sudden spate of films in the 1950s identifying communists as a threat to the American way of life? There had been a few in the late-1940s once it became evident that, as the Soviet Union spread its control across Eastern Europe, the so-called “Iron Curtain” came down, the Berlin Blockade developed, Russia got closer to making an atom bomb, and the Korean War erupted, that the wartime consensus was no more. You couldn’t imagine Hollywood making films like Mission to Moscow, North Star, Action in the North Atlantic, and Song of Russia after 1945. And some of those who’d worked on them, when friendliness to “our gallant Russian allies” wasn’t looked on as a crime, paid for it in later years when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) came to town.

HUAC started its post-war investigations into communism in Hollywood in 1947, and by the early-1950s, when a second round started, the film community was frightened. In the wider world, Senator Joseph McCarthy was unearthing supposed communists in government, the press, and even the armed forces. Labour unions were under attack and purging their ranks of communists. and company bosses were only too happy to use allegations of communisms against militant workers. Put in a pay claim and you were a commie.  It was not a good time to be controversial, or to not make it obvious where you stood in relation to Russia and communism.

It’s true that there were good grounds for being suspicious of communists. There’s no doubt that the Russians had caught up in terms of technical know-how in relation to the atom bomb thanks to information supplied to them by scientists working at Los Alamos. Klaus Fuchs was a notable example, though he was tried and imprisoned in Britain. Theodore Hall perhaps did as much damage when it came to a question of the quality of the details provided¸ but he was never prosecuted, either in the USA or Britain, where he eventually came to live. The most sensational trial that took place was that of the Rosenbergs, who were relatively small-fry in the overall scheme of things. But their conviction and execution became a cause célèbre around the world.

On both a national and local level, communists, fellow-travellers, or those just not fitting in (bohemians, for example) were identified, vilified, fired from their jobs, and sometimes imprisoned. According to David J. Hogan, the Cold War “encouraged anti-intellectualism”, which led to a tendency to suspect anyone not associating with what the crowd wanted. Modern art was suspect and books, music, and films going beyond the popular were likely to raise doubts in the minds of many. Conformity - of tastes, interests, and beliefs - was considered desirable.

It was in this atmosphere that film producers encouraged writers to turn out scripts that would make it clear that Hollywood no longer made heroes out of communists or misfits, and that they knew they were bad and not to be trusted. Were the producers, directors, and writers genuinely concerned (some were, and always had been), or were they just opportunistic and knew a good bandwagon when they saw one? Or simply covering their backs by making anti-communist statements?

Whatever the motives behind them, the films began to roll out of the studios. Interestingly, more than a few of them used a science-fiction format to feature aliens invading earth, and in particular America, and attempting to impose their values on god-fearing democrats. Target Earth (1954), Not of this Earth (1957), When Worlds Collide (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and others, were all designed to heighten fears of some sort of take-over by a hostile body, be it of this earth or not. Some aliens were freaks to human eyes, but others could look disturbingly like us. How could you tell the difference?

One of the best of this genre was Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which might be about aliens arriving in the shape of giant pods and gradually taking over humans, but might also be seen as a warning against conformity where a kind of spiritual and emotional transformation happens because people don’t care to question it. They rather like the way that they no longer have troublesome emotions. When one of the characters realises what is happening and says, “I don’t want a world without love or grief or beauty”, you wonder how typical she is, and how many other people might be prepared to settle for such a world, provided their material requirements are assured?

Away from sci-fi, comedies, and westerns, the films, as noted earlier, could border on the ludicrous, with Shack Out on 101(1955) being a classic example. Lee Marvin plays Slob, a short-order cook at a greasy spoon somewhere in California. A pretty waitress with aspirations to become a civil servant is on hand, and a nuclear scientist from a nearby laboratory often pops into the café to court her. What she doesn’t know is that Slob is head of the local communist cell and the scientist is supposedly selling secrets to him. Or pretending to. He’s actually working for the authorities in order to trap Slob and his confederates.

Chase Winstead, writing about Shack Out on 101, refers to it as a “dishevelled blend of Steinbeck and Odets”, which seems to me a bit insulting to both writers who, in my reading and play-going experiences, never came close to being as silly as the writers of the film. It makes one wonder what kind of circulation it had, and whether anyone took it seriously, even in the paranoid atmosphere of 1950s America? Winstead says that the film “lives, successfully, on the strength of its message: the interlopers are close to you, every day. You look at them and do not truly see them, but you have no choice but to see them now”. Whether many Americans looked at the cook in their local greasy-spoon, and wondered if he was a card-carrying communist with an eye out for atomic secrets, is debatable.

Bruce Dettman says that Walk a Crooked Mile is often placed in the film noir category, and that might bear out my earlier contention that communists in films were often shown to be little better than gangsters. Dettman raises an interesting point when he refers to the almost total absence of “characterisation and motivations” in the portrayals of the communists, and describes it as “a noticeable lack that leaves us searching for the political philosophy that drives their behaviour. They exist as simple, superficial creatures, ruthless and slavishly devoted to their tasks, with little if any regard for their victims”. Just like gangsters, in fact, and it’s possible to propose that, given a few amendments to the screenplay, Walk a Crooked Mile, could easily have become a film about tracking down “ordinary” (as opposed to political) criminals. It might be worth mentioning at this point that in another film, A Bullet for Joey, “an egregiously anti-social American hoodlum”, after dabbling initially in criminal behaviour that might benefit communists (he’ll be well paid), eventually does the right thing and turns against them, even though he dies by doing so.

It’s possible to carry on looking at individual films, and one of the strengths of the various essays in Invasion USA is that the writers do analyse in detail most of what they refer to. And there are little gems scattered among the curiosities like the Roy Rogers anti-communist films and the Three Stooges oddity. Split Second doesn’t really belong in the anti-communist camp, but it does have some relevance to the question of nuclear tests. In it, a criminal, played by the ever-reliable Stephen McNally, hides out with his gang and some hostages in an abandoned town, unaware that it’s located in an atomic testing ground. When the gangsters die at the end it’s because they’ve blundered into an explosion. As Americans, they’re killed by their own side. McNally crops up again in Violent Saturday, with a strong supporting cast including Lee Marvin and J.Carroll Naish, but the film has nothing to do with atom bombs, communist spies, or anything relating to those subjects. What is does, perhaps, suggest is that when hostile people arrive in town it might be necessary to use violence to suppress them. So, criminals and communists beware.

Invasion USA is a lively collection of essays which often avoid dealing with films that might have become well-known through other surveys of Cold War Hollywood. It even throws in a short consideration of a tight British thriller, Seven Days to Noon (1950), in which a scientist steals a portable atom bomb (did such things exist?) and threatens to destroy London unless the government agrees to stop making nuclear weapons. It was a change from communists trying to take over, stealing secrets, and otherwise making mischief. But it perhaps reflected a common worry about a nuclear threat.