By Bernard F. Dick

University Press of Mississippi. 282 pages. $65. ISBN 978-1-4968-0539-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It seems odd now to look back on a time when the phrase, “Share and share alike - that’s democracy,” could be seen as subversive and an attempt by a screenwriter to smuggle communist propaganda into a film.  But that’s what Lela Rogers claimed when she said that her daughter, Ginger, had to say it in the 1943 film, Tender Comrade. The screenwriter was Dalton Trumbo, an admitted communist and one of the Hollywood Ten, the mostly writers and directors who were imprisoned for refusing to testify to their Party membership when summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The film was about women learning to live communally while their men were in the armed forces, and Mrs Rogers seemed to be of the opinion that anything written by a communist must, by definition, be communist propaganda.

Hollywood wasn’t always as paranoid about alleged communists infiltrating into the studios. Between 1941 and 1945, when Russia was looked on as an ally to be supported and praised, it was permissible to produce films that perhaps didn’t exactly suggest that communism is a good thing, but did present a somewhat rosy picture of life in the Soviet Union. However, it might be useful to go back a little further than 1941 and consider a couple of films released in the 1930s that treated communism in a lighthearted way. Ninotchka (with Greta Garbo) and Comrade X (with Hedy Lamarr) both worked around a similar idea, that an idealistic communist woman could be won over to the delights of capitalism, and specifically the American version of it, by a smooth male and the promise of silk stockings and other luxuries. Neither film could be said to have given a positive view of Russia (in Comrade X Clark Gable is an American reporter trying to get reports critical of the Soviet system past the censor), so it was unlikely that those connected to the film would later be accused of pro-Russian sentiments.

The war years brought a different batch of films, at least once Russia had been invaded by Germany. Song of Russia, North Star, Mission to Moscow, Days of Glory. They all inclined towards seeing the Soviets in a friendly fashion, and were sometimes frankly ludicrous in their presentation of life in the Soviet Union. Happy, smiling workers on collective farms, determined patriots battling to the end by the side of beautiful women. And, in Mission to Moscow (described by Bernard F. Dick as “dumbed down history”), a benign, pipe-smoking “Uncle Joe”. The film also touched on the trials of Bukharin, Radek, and others, and had no hesitation in accepting the idea that they were guilty of treason and whatever other charges had been cooked up against them. Howard Koch, who wrote the screenplay for Mission to Moscow, wasn’t a member of the Communist Party, and may have been under a certain amount of pressure to tailor the script to order (it was based on a book by a former American Ambassador to Russia), but when the time came he found himself blacklisted.

Things quickly changed when the war ended. The first investigations into communist activities in the film industry began in 1947. And it wasn’t just writers who had worked on pro-Russian films who were summoned to appear before HUAC. There was, on the whole, very little evidence of what might be referred to as communist propaganda having crept into scripts. Was the line, “It’s one of ours!” spoken by an American sailor in Action in the North Atlantic when he sees a Russian plane, a piece of propaganda? It was written by John Howard Lawson, who was a communist. It has been suggested that what was really behind the purge of left-wing writers in Hollywood was an internal battle in the Screen Writers Guild (SWG) which originated in the 1930s, died down to a degree during the war years, and re-surfaced later in the 1940s. Management, after all, were happy to see the SWG weakened by having its more-militant members blacklisted and replaced by “moderates”, who wouldn’t want to rock the boat with incessant demands about pay, credits, and other matters. It suited their purpose to suggest that militants were automatically communists.

Dick isn’t too concerned to go into detail about blacklisted writers, directors, and actors. He wrote an earlier book, Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten (University Press of Kentucky, 1989) that is worth looking at for information in that line.  His concern in The Screen is Red is to survey the films coming from Hollywood that, in one way or another, reflected the mood and atmosphere of, roughly, the period between 1945 and 1960. Not all of them were directly aimed at exposing communist activities. There were a number of these – I Was a Communist for the FBI, The Woman on Pier 13, Big Jim Mclain, etc. – but perhaps more that played on fears about the atom bomb, though they sometimes still portrayed the threat as coming from Germany or Japan.

Dick singles out Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious, with its ex-Nazis hiding out in South America while building up a stock of uranium ore as they planned for the Fourth Reich, as an example of this short-lived tendency. Another film, Flight to Nowhere, a minor production of the “B” film type, had agents linked to an international cartel plotting to sell atomic secrets to Japan, presumably so that the Japanese could, in time, exact revenge for Hiroshima. But things began to change as relations between the USA and Russia cooled (some would argue that they’d never been warm and were just a matter of expediency until Germany was defeated) and the Cold War got underway. 1947 was the year that Churchill made his Iron Curtain speech and HUAC descended on Hollywood to start its investigations into communist activities in the studios.

The other threat from the atom bomb, or more precisely the radiation it released, was that of possible mutations. Nobody really knew what the likely effects of radiation were, other than what had been observed after bombs were dropped on Japan. And if scientists were unsure, what of the general public? Hollywood had always made films about monsters, and so they began to produce some which, if not necessarily directly, hinted that all kinds of dangerous and hideous creatures might be created, or perhaps, released from where they had been lurking, by atomic testing. Them had giant ants spreading through New Mexico, Attack of the Giant Leeches had them feeding on human blood in Florida. Dick indicates that the locations weren’t by chance. New Mexico was a site for atomic tests, and Florida was close to Cape Canaveral (later renamed Cape Kennedy) where rocket launches took place. These films, and others like them, may not have specified why giant ants and leeches were let loose, but radiation fallout was central to The Incredible Shrinking Man. And it was a much better-made film than the others and tried to do more than simply terrify audiences.

This whole period is fascinating, even if many of the films were less than good. They did raise questions of importance. Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Beast from 50,000 Fathoms both suggested that probing into certain areas might not always bring the best results, a theme that had relevance as scientists seemed to push further and further into not only atomic research but also germ warfare.  And there was Invasion of the Body Snatchers which had a degree of notoriety because of its seeming ambiguity. Were the giant pods which hijack the personalities of people a threat from another world? Or were they meant to represent the conformity associated with communism? Or the conformity that appeared to be overtaking America as McCarthyism spread its insidious influence? The viewer could take his or her pick, and it might depend on how politically aware they were which option they would choose. A scene near the end where the central character is desperately trying to tell people what is happening, and is looked on as mad while everyone goes about their daily routines, might have appealed to anyone who has ever attempted to speak out about something unpalatable to the general public. Environmental concerns, for example. 

If films like those mentioned above, and there were others like them (The Day The Earth Stood Still, Rocketship XM, written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo and highlighting a Mars devastated by nuclear  war, On the Beach), raised fears of alien invasions and such matters, the 1950s brought direct references to the threat of communism. The Berlin Airlift, a communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, the Korean War, and on the home front, the rampaging of Senator Joseph McCarthy. all combined to rack up fear of alleged subversives. My Son John was released in 1951, and established a precedent in that it depicted communists as close to gangsters and prepared to cheat and kill to gain their ends.

It wouldn’t have taken much rewriting of the scripts of films like I Married a Communist (the title was changed to The Woman on Pier 13, which gave it a noir-ish feel), and The Red Menace. to turn them into conventional crime films.  Dick says that the communists are shown as “crime bosses in suits.” And there was the ludicrous Shack Out on 101, with Lee Marvin as “Slob”, (he looks and behaves appropriately), a short-order cook in a greasy-spoon diner. Jim Thompson, the crime writer, used to claim that “there is only one plot – things are not as they seem,” and “Slob” is really the head of a communist spy ring trying to steal atomic secrets. Add a scientist who eats at the diner, and a pretty waitress with ambitions to enter the civil service and who inevitably falls into the arms of the scientist after being nearly raped by “Slob”, and one’s capacity to suspend disbelief was stretched to its limits.

There were, of course, real communist spies in American, and atomic secrets were passed to the Russians. The case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg hogged the headlines in the early-1950s, though it’s been disputed that what they handled was of any great importance. The real damage had been done by scientists like Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall who had worked at Los Alamos. Klaus was eventually tried and imprisoned in Britain, but Hall was never prosecuted and moved to Cambridge, England, where he worked as a scientist, though not with any links to security matters.

It’s a pity that very few good films were made that showed what communists were really like. I suppose the lives of many rank-and-file members of the Party were as ordinary as most other people’s, and they knew nothing about spies. They were, as communists liked to claim, “just like you and me”. And that wouldn’t have made for very exciting films. On the other hand, Hollywood seemed to want to persuade people that there were devious communists everywhere. Discussing Walk East on Beacon, Dick says that it was “a tissue of familiar givens. Anyone can be a communist – even a funeral director, a florist, a cab driver, a photographer, or a scientist’s wife in a tailored suit”. It was true, anyone could be a communist, though most weren’t (membership was never very high in relation to the size of the population generally), and Hollywood’s message seemed to be that you couldn’t trust anyone, and all communists were up to no good.

There’s a relevant passage in Robert Warshow’s commentary on My Son John (you can find it in his collection of essays, The Immediate Experience, Harvard University Press, 2001) where he says, when considering how the communists are portrayed: “Communists are not like gangsters; they are usually more complex and their live are much duller. In their own way, they are often the epitome of stodgy respectability (think of Alger Hiss, for instance).”      

Dick appears to have viewed just about every film ever made in America which touches, in one way or another, on aspects of the Cold War, the Communist Conspiracy, and related topics. Growing up in the 40s and 50s, and spending a lot of my young life in local cinemas, I inevitably saw some of them myself. And the advent of television and, later, videos and DVDs and YouTube, has meant that it’s possible to come across many of the films he mentions. Whether a lot of them are worth watching just for pleasure, rather than research, is another matter. There were interesting and well-made films, such as Pickup on South Street, though even in that the communists are portrayed as close to gangsters and not averse to killing a broken-down old woman who gets in their way. But the “hero,” if he can be called that, is a small-time pickpocket with a cynical view of patriotism, and an eye for the main chance. It made for some provocative clashes of opinions.

The Cold War films didn’t just focus on the fall-out from nuclear tests, or the misdeeds of communists. A spate of war films was triggered by events in Korea and, later, Vietnam, where at least the enemy was known to be foreign. It wasn’t suggested that he might be your next-door neighbour. But neither Korea nor Vietnam really inspired screenwriters to heights of inspiration in the messages about defending democracy, facing down communism, and generally saving civilisation, in the way that some World War 2 films had done with fascism. Korea was just a hard, bloody slog that the soldiers had to put up with and were glad to get out of. Vietnam was even less popular, either with the troops or large numbers of civilians back in the USA. John Wayne did his bit in The Green Berets, but films like Platoon and Hamburger Hill probably got closer to telling it how it was.

Some people in Hollywood did start to respond to what was happening in the 1950s, and in Storm Centre Bette Davis played the part of a prim, small-town librarian who refuses to remove a book called The Communist Dream from the library shelves. She pays the price for her principled intransigence in defence of free speech when most of the townspeople turn against her. And there have been suggestions that Davis herself may have experience some difficulties in obtaining more film work because she had dared to take on such a role in the 1950s. Much later, films such as The Way We Were, Guilty by Suspicion, The House on Carroll Street and The Front looked sympathetically at those who had suffered from blacklists and other forms of harassment.

Bernard Dick’s book has a filmography which lists over 130 films, and presumably he’s seen them all. As I said earlier, they’re extremely variable in quality. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is worth watching again, and so is High Noon, which works well as a gripping Western and, as some critics have suggested, as an allegory for HUAC and the failure of Hollywood to support the Hollywood Ten and those like them. On the other hand, would you really want to see Flight to Mars (“a Monogram quickie filmed in Cinecolour in about eleven days – and looked it sometimes.”) or The Whip Hand again, assuming you had seen them the first time around? The latter, backed by Howard Hughes, a vehement anti-communist, has a plot that involves ex-Nazis who have become communists and are carrying out experiments on local people. There may be some irony in the fact that there were quite a few ex-Nazis living in the USA, but they’d been brought over by the government because of their scientific and other knowledge. To be fair, Dick does say that it’s a “much under-rated film of escalating suspense and striking cinematography”, so perhaps there is a case for having a look should it crop upon TV or appear as a DVD.

The Screen is Red is an extremely useful and enjoyable book, if you like reading about Hollywood and its sometimes weird and wonderful productions. I suppose in some ways it’s the equivalent of reading about all those novels from years ago that you meant to read but didn’t. We’re saved the trouble of having to actually get hold of the books and open them. Likewise, Dick’s summaries of the plots and filming of what are now largely forgotten films do ease the burden of trying to track down and spend time actually watching them. I must admit that I do enjoy what some people might think of as “bad” films. Robert Warshow, one of the first to pay serious attention to forms of popular entertainment, once pointed out that he’d seen a lot of bad films, and he knew when a film was bad, but he was never bored at the cinema. I think I’m much the same in my attitude towards films, whereas a bad play strikes me as both bad and boring. And one thing is for sure, I was never bored when reading The Screen is Red.