The Screen is Red – book review

Bernard F. Dick, The Screen Is Red: Hollywood, Communism, and the Cold War, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2016. 282 pp., illus. Hardcover: $65.

During the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities – or HUAC – investigations of Hollywood in 1947, chairman J. Parnell Thomas told journalists that he had a media bombshell. He would link the investigation of communism in the film industry to the leaking of atomic secrets to the Russians. Journalists were intrigued and showed up in droves to find it was a media stunt and Thomas had nothing. Hollywood, communism and nuclear fears proved to be an irresistible lure for journalists in the 1940s, and they remain a fascinating topic for film historians. The political cinema of this turbulent period and its impact is the focus of a new book by Bernard F. Dick, a prolific writer on the film industry. Professor Dick is a classical scholar who has produced critical accounts of the Hollywood Ten, as well as books on the playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, along with directors Billy Wilder and Joseph Mankiewicz. His Anatomy of Film is a standard text. He has also written a history of America cinema in World War II, Second World War: The Star-Spangled Screen, which has been highly influential. His ambitious aim with The Screen is Red is to tell “the story of the culture that formed a generation’s political conscience, and fuelled its suspicion of technology capable of world annihilation, as science fiction films of the period imply.” [4]

Many commentators writing on similar terrain start with the pro-Russian ally films of the Second World War. Dick takes a longer perspective and his chapter on Hollywood’s various approaches to communism in the run-up to the Second World War is impressive. It is a pity that Dick did not step even farther back and look at the anti-communist cinema produced after the First World War when the United States had its first red scare. Bolshevism on Trial (1919) was one of many films of the period to show that Hollywood’s anti-communism was part of its political DNA.

During the 1930s, both liberal and conservative political certainties started to crumble in the face of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. The tone of films such as Gabriel Over the White House (1933) often verges on the hysterical. Dick captures the faint desperation in the political solutions offered by both the left and the right. He concludes the section with an analysis of the more gentle anti-communist satires, Ninotchka (1939) and Comrade X (1940). In 1939, the Nazi-Soviet pact placed both left and right-wing assumptions under greater strain. A political consensus did emerge in the United States after Pearl Harbour, when it was shaken out of its isolationist stupor and became a reluctant ally of the Soviet Union. The seismic political and cinematic shifts of the period are covered well in The Screen is Red, particularly when it treats the films of the Second World War. In this section, Dick examines pro-Russian ally movies, including the infamous Mission to Moscow (1943), the closest film to Stalinist propaganda that Hollywood ever produced.

Dick focuses on Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952) in some detail. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Another profound dislocation occurred in Hollywood as the Soviet Union moved from ally to bitter opponent following the war. Reacting to the sharp rise in Cold War tensions, and the 1947 HUAC investigations, Hollywood produced a series of anticommunist films of varying quality over the next few decades. Dick provides an impressive examination of the anticommunist cinema of the 1950s. Films such as I was a Communist for the FBI (1951) and Walk East on Beacon (1952) were part of this group. Dick focuses on Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952) in some detail. My Son John is undoubtedly one of the more feverish films of the Red Scare period. The film’s production fell into a shambles with the death of lead actor Robert Walker, and an ending of sorts was created – with some unheralded assistance by Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock. The remaining film is uncomfortable to watch; it contains one disturbing scene in which an angry father attacks his communist son for laughing at his conservative jingoism. Despite the contrived conclusion, Dick describes McCarey as a master of plot resolution. He argues that McCarey gave viewers an ending that was “dramatic and reflective,” [117] providing an accurate description of America in the early years of the Cold War. His respectful analysis is at odds with both contemporary reviewers and later critics, who see it as a mixture of hysterical anti-communism tinctured with a vague homophobia – along with some disturbing ideas about motherhood. Most reviewers slammed the film, aside from Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, who praised some aspects of it; but even he had grave concerns about its political dogmatism. Dick rarely references contemporary media commentary and he fails to mention that My Son John also proved unpopular with audiences, along with other overtly anti-communist cinema.

Unlike most writers, Dick also covers the Korean War and its corresponding cinema. Again, he provides a solid summary of the films that centered on the engagement, concluding that Hollywood did not romanticize the conflict as it had done in the Second World War. Dick examines films such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), which present war as a thankless undertaking. Sometimes his selection of films is odd. He does not look at important films such as The Rack (1956) which offers many ideas about collaboration, brainwashing, informing, and the Korean War in general. Also absent is Strategic Air Command (1955), a box office success, which directly focuses on his central topic of nuclear annihilation in the post-Korean War period.

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is not examined in any great detail. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Where Dick is far more comprehensive is in the science fiction genre. The alien invasion and subversion films of the 1950s reveal many of the era’s fears about communism and nuclear war. Dick presents an extensive and energetic discussion of these films. However, in some cases, his analyses could be more thorough. For example, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) depicted the fight by a doctor (Kevin McCarthy) against aliens who can hijack a body when it falls asleep. The horror and suspicion gradually increase until, at the film’s conclusion, McCarthy’s character is (famously) shown running down a freeway yelling hysterically while being pursued by human-like aliens intent on stripping away his personality. Dick initially describes the film as containing a hidden anti-McCarthyite critique as well as dumbed-down communism but does not expand on these ideas. Critics remain sharply divided over whether the alien force represents McCarthyism, communism, or even suburban conformism. Dick presents his view with little evidence or consideration of these other possibilities and moves on to the next film. His only nod to audience reaction is to say that “politically astute audiences might have interpreted the film that way.” [74]

The focus on science fiction films also means that other genres receive little attention. Dick barely mentions westerns. Even High Noon (1952), considered one of the prominent anti-McCarthyite films of the era, is given only part of a paragraph. A more glaring omission is biblical epics. Dick remarks on The Robe (1953), but other films such as The Ten Commandments (1956) contain many ultra-conservative statements that refer indirectly to the strength of the monotheistic religions as a spiritual shield against the atheistic Soviet state. Contemporary media commentary on The Ten Commandments (1956) directly related it to both the Suez Crisis and the Russian invasion of Hungary. Dominating the box office, its ideas of American moral superiority over totalitarian regimes permeated or simply reflected political debate in the United States – indeed it still does.

At times, the book appears to be a loose collection of essays and ideas with an overly relaxed arrangement of thematic and chronological chapters. As the book draws to a close, the director Alfred Hitchcock and actor John Wayne are each allocated a chapter; both sit uncomfortably with the rest of the text. Despite these flaws, The Screen is Red offers an extensive survey of Hollywood from the 1930s through to the present, representing the nation’s central political obsessions of nuclear annihilation and communism. Professor Dick is excellent at describing the plots and contexts of his films, but he has his blind spots. Box office, contemporary film reviews, publicity campaigns, fan letters, and media commentary also play their part in how cinema contributes to shifting attitudes and there is little use of these sources. The Screen is Red is not an entirely successful book, but it is a valuable one.

Kevin Brianton, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Original citation at Brianton, Kevin Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2018, Vol.48(2), 64-67

Copyright Center for the Study of Film and History Winter 2018

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