Political tensions in post -war Hollywood cinema

Pinky was a 1949 American drama about a light-skinned African – American woman who could pass as white.

Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

Liberalism and less extreme political viewpoints did not cease to exist after the Second World War. The political tensions in Hollywood remained between liberals and conservatives. Many looked to cinema as a way to project progressive idea and views, yet Hollywood’s political vision in the immediate post-war period was in turmoil.  The caustic anti-communism was competing with a vision of liberal tolerance.  Overall it was the liberal films which were winning the Box Office, with Pinky being the second most popular film of 1949.[1]  Pinky was a 1949 American drama about a light-skinned African – American woman who could pass as white.

But the popularity of these films did not guarantee their production.  With the second and more extensive HUAC investigation in 1951, the political pendulum had swung so far to the right that liberalism was tainted with being soft on communism.  Some people argued that the State Department and the Truman administration had lost China to the communists.[2] 

The Red Scare period reached its anti-communist climax in 1950. After trials lasting two years, former State Department official Alger Hiss was convicted for perjury for his alleged involvement in a Soviet spy ring on 25 January 1950. The case brought former HUAC member Richard Nixon to national prominence – and would launch his political career. On 9 February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy declared at a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that there were 205 card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the State Department. Even though the senator was a late arrival on the anti-Communist scene, the sheer viciousness and near hysteria of his anti-Communist campaign would designate the period the McCarthyite era.1

            The political temperature was certainly on the rise in Hollywood. The Waldorf Statement, and even the imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten, did not end demands for stronger anti-Communist intervention. In May 1950 John Wayne, in his role as president of the Motion Picture Alliance, called for a complete delousing of the film industry. “Let us, in Hollywood, not be afraid to use the DDT,” he told newspapers. The blacklist created by the Waldorf Statement was only part of the equation. More corrosively, people could be put on a “graylist”—a list of those who were not Communists but were believed to have Communist sympathies. These people also could not obtain work.

On June 22, 1950, the American Business Consultants published a report titled Red Channels, listing 151 names of show business figures accused of Communist ties, including many in the film industry. The editors openly stated they were not interested in whether people actually were Communists, and the evidence presented was often fragmentary or simply incorrect. Even so, those who appeared in such a publication required a political clearance in order to return to work. The clearance process was haphazard, and people with no Communist connections could lose their livelihood. The Waldorf Statement had created within the film industry a toxic work environment, in which any self-styled patriotic organization could label any producer, actor, director, or writer a Communist and jeopardize his or her career. To heighten matters, on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea—the Cold War had become hot. his was idea so pervasive that it even strongly affected the Kennedy administration.  He was determined to be seen to be strong on communism as a Democrat President.  His determination led to events like the Bay of Pigs invasion and intervention in Vietnam.2

On June 22, 1950, the American Business Consultants published a report titled Red Channels, listing 151 names of show business figures accused of Communist ties, including many in the film industry.

While the studios were beginning to bring out anti-communist films, the right began to look for other targets.  Not content with driving communists out of Hollywood, the right turned its attention to films with liberal messages – and by implication the liberals who write and directed them.  Ayn Rand had written a Screen Guide for Americans in 1947 for the MPAPAI which said that free enterprise, industrialists, and the independent man shouldn’t be smeared; that failure and the collective shouldn’t be glorified; and that communist writers, directors and producers shouldn’t be hired.  The alliance did not see it as a ‘forced restriction’ on Motion Picture studios, rather that each man should do ‘his own thinking’ and for the guide to be adopted as a ‘voluntary action’.  Its impact has been overstated. Rand told her biographer that the guide had such a huge impact that it was printed in full on the front page of arts section of the New York Times; it was actually mentioned in summary in a column by Thomas F. Brady on page 5 of the arts section on 16 November 1947.  It was printed in full in an ultra-conservative newsletter Plain Talk in November 1947 which also featured articles on the influence of ‘communism on youth’. Rand  wrote that the guide aimed to keep the screen free from any ‘collective force or pressure.’[3]  The irony being that this was precisely what the alliance was doing.

The real point of Rand’s pamphlet was that only a conservative vision of America should be allowed on the screen.  The alliance wanted the present wave of films which attacked or criticised capitalism halted.  One of alliance’s supporters, Cecil B. DeMille was making similar speeches:

The American people know that with all its faults capitalism has given them the highest standard of living and the greatest personal freedom known in the world.  The communist cannot deny that.  But they can – and do – make a banker or a successful businessman their villain.  They can – and do – pick out the sordid and degraded parts of all America, leaving the audience – especially the foreign audience – to infer that all America is a vast Tobacco Road and successful people are all ‘little foxes’.[4]

The screenwriter of Little Foxes was Lilian Hellman who was a prominent leftist and who was called before the HUAC hearings. Tobacco Road was a film about poor white families being driven off their land in Georgia, directed by John Ford.  Little Foxes, directed William Wyler, dealt with an unscrupulous rich and powerful family, who exploited their workers, and who would stop at nothing to cheat, steal or kill each other.  DeMille’s reference to the banker was from another Wyler film Best Years of Our Lives (1946), where Fredric March played a banker who must overrule bank policy to give a returning GI a loan for a small farm.  Both Ford and Wyler would play key roles in having DeMille removed from the board of the Screen Directors Guild for his drive against liberal director Joseph Mankiewicz.[5]

Ayn Rand had been particularly upset about the 1947 HUAC hearings because she wanted to focus on films such as Best Years of Our Lives which she considered to be communist inspired.  Rand claimed the depiction of the banker undermined capitalism and promoted communism.  She told her biographer Barbara Branden that she later spoke to HUAC chairman Parnell Thomas and complained bitterly about her treatment before the committee.  She said that Song of Russia was an ‘unimportant movie’ and it was not the worst Hollywood had done.  For Rand, it was much more important to show the ‘really serious propaganda’.[6] The fact that Rand may have been able to approach the head of the committee to complain about the way she had been interviewed strongly indicated that the friendly witnesses were stage managed.  No unfriendly witness had such an opportunity.

Ayn Rand had been particularly upset about the 1947 HUAC hearings because she wanted to focus on films such as Best Years of Our Lives which she considered to be communist inspired. 

Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In their survey of films about the Second World War, Koppes and Black have shown that the underlying message of films about the home front was one of promise.  Sacrifices made during the war would bring security and prosperity in the post-war world.  They concluded that Hollywood helped foster the social myth that social problems were the result of individual flaws.  Problems could be easily identified and simply resolved.[7]  The success of The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 reflected an appetite for a more realistic approach by audiences and film makers after the Second World War to social problems.  The film contained muted, but well focused criticism, of the capitalist system and the hardships faced by returning servicemen.  Although the film was critical of American society, it was also optimistic, with all the characters adapting to their new lives.  In 1946, the film scooped the Oscars and was the most successful film of the year.  After the investigations of 1947, director William Wyler claimed that he wouldn’t be allowed to make films such as The Best Years of Our Lives anymore because of HUAC.  He warned that the committee was making decent people afraid to express their opinions by creating fear in Hollywood.  Wyler said fear would lead to self-censorship and eventually the screen would be paralysed.[8] These films were bitterly opposed by ultra-conservatives such as Ayn Rand because they criticised the aspects of the capitalist system.  According to Rand, Thomas said that because the press coverage had been so damning, that if an acclaimed film like Best Years of Our Lives was attacked, there would be a furor.[9] 

Wyler’s warnings about censorship seem unjustified.  Several films were made on sensitive topics such as racial prejudice from 1947 through to 1951.  These films included Crossfire (1947), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Pinky (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), Intruder in the Dust (1949), No Way Out (1950), and Storm Warning (1950).  Even westerns began taking a liberal turn with films such as Broken Arrow (1950) and Devil’s Doorway (1949) depicting Indians in a positive light.  To varying degrees these films showed that Hollywood could tackle social subjects well.  Capitalism was also the subject of allegorical attack.  Abraham Polonsky made two successful radical films in his short-lived film career as screenwriter and director in the 1940s.  Both Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948) have been read as Marxist critiques of capitalism.[10]  All My Sons (1948), based on Arthur Miller’s play, depicted an industrialist was willing to sell defective planes to the Airforce to stay in business.  After 1951, there was no such confusion in the political message from Hollywood.  The diet of films was straight anti-communism with no liberal trimmings. This brief flowering of liberal and radical films was cut short in 1951 at the time of the second HUAC investigation of Hollywood and the lead up to the 1952 Presidential election. The blacklist was now in full force and the content of films was effectively being censored.

[1] Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, Vintage, New York, 1982, p. 20.

[2] For a treatment of the fears of the liberals in the Kennedy administration see David Halberstam The Best and the Brightest, Fawcett crest, USA, 1973.

[3] Motion Picture Alliance For the Preservation of American Ideals, Screen Guide For Americans, 1947 p. 1. See also Branden, p.199

[4] ‘Spotlight on Hollywood’, 9 October 1947, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 212, Folder 1.  Tobacco Road was directed by John Ford and Little Foxes was directed by William Wyler. 

[5] For a full account see Kevin Brianton, Hollywood Divided. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2016.

[6] Branden, Ayn Rand, p. 201.

[7] Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes To War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies, Free Press, New York, 1987, pp. 143-184.

[8] Gordon Kahn, Hollywood on Trial, Boni and Caer, New York, 1948, p. 221.

[9] Ibid., p. 201. 

[10] Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy, The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair and Politics From The Depression to the Fifties, Midland, USA, 1981, p. 278.

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