Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954) was also directed against HUAC in a different way to High Noon.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer Strategic Communication, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Johnny Guitar (1954) was also directed against HUAC in a different way to High Noon.  In the film, Johnny Guitar, played by Sterling Hayden, returned to this estranged lover Vienna, played by Joan Crawford, who owned a disreputable bar.  A stage robbery occurred in town, and a banker was killed.  The dead man’s sister Emma Small, played by Mercedes McCambridge, convinced a wealthy rancher John McIvers, played by Ward Bond, that the crime had been committed by the Dancin’ Kid, Corey ad Young Turkey, when they were innocent.  Small was jealous of the Dancin’ Kid’s attraction to Vienna.  The accused trio decided to rob a bank since they were being forced to flee the area anyway.  Small made the bank teller swear that Vienna was involved in the robbery.  In response, a posse rode to Vienna’s bar and burned it down.  The posse hanged the injured Turkey who was hiding there.  Eventually, the posse learned the truth about Emma and stood back while Emma and Vienna shoot it out.  Vienna killed Emma and rode off with Johnny.

The plot had all the elements of a standard western plot, even a final shootout, yet it can be read as a political film.  The outlaws can be seen as communists who were blamed for every wrongdoing in town.  Critic Michael Wilmington argued that former gun-man Johnny, represented an ex-Communist called before the HUAC.  Wilmington saw Vienna as a fellow traveller and Emma as a vindictive witness or a politician who used the investigations to destroy the careers of rivals.  McIvers represented big business or law enforcement authorities which, while basically good, had succumbed to the pressure of McCarthy’s tirades.  The townspeople were the American middle class.[1]

Lynching was a key theme in Johnny guitar. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Wilmington’s argument can be taken further, Turkey was promised that he could be saved when he was caught by the posse if he would point an accusatory figure at Vienna.  For Ray and writer Yordan, this was the dilemma of the witnesses before the HUAC investigators.  The fact that he was hung was a reminder that informing did not guarantee survival.  Critic Danny Peary contended that Emma’s attack on Vienna was similar to the techniques used by McCarthyite investigators who assumed that social deviance of any kind was an indication of communism.[2]

The personal political viewpoints of the actors were also interesting. Ward Bond, who was one of the leaders of the lynching party, was President for the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which helped HUAC weed out communists in Hollywood.  Sterling Hayden, who played Johnny Guitar, testified before the committee and regretted it all of his life.  Hayden wrote in his autobiography about his testimony that: ‘Not often does a man find himself eulogized for having behaved in a manner that he despises.  I subscribed to a press clipping service.  They sent me two thousand clips from papers, east and west, large and small, and from dozens of magazines.  Most had nothing but praise for my on-shot stoolie.  Only a handful – led by the New York Times – denounced this abrogation of constitutional freedom.’[3]  This casting may have been deliberate or accidental.  Yet the end result was to have actual participants acting out their roles in a political allegory.

Ina Lonely Place, also directed by Ray, did not discuss the political situation in Hollywood, but it was a commentary on the HUAC-inspired witch hunt, the blacklisting and the paranoia that affected the film industry.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Apart from Johnny Guitar, Ray had already attacked the investigations in In A Lonely Place (1950).  James W. Palmer, writes about in  ‘In a Lonely Place: Paranoia in the Dream Factory’, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 12, 1985, No. 3, pp. 202 – 210.  The film did not discuss the political situation in Hollywood, but it was a commentary on the HUAC-inspired witch hunt, the blacklisting and the paranoia that affected the film industry.  The film focused on a writer Dixon Steele, played by Humphrey Bogart, who had been rejected by the Hollywood community.  Since returning from the war, he had been unable to write and his drinking and aggressive behavior had led to him become an isolated figure in the Hollywood community.  At the beginning of the film, he invited a hatcheck girl back to his apartment for her to tell him the story of a book which he might turn into a movie.  Dixon sent the woman home and the next morning, her body was found brutally murdered.  Steele was considered to be a prime suspect by the police.  After being questioned and then released by the police, Steele was further isolated by the Hollywood community who saw him as guilty.  Bu the end of the film, Steele, who was a violent man, became a borderline psychotic.  After succumbing to the pressure, he attacked his fiancé and his life was ruined, even though he was eventually cleared of the murder charge.  Steele with his persecutions and paranoia can be read as a symbol of the Hollywood Ten.

This group were a part of the Hollywood community until accused of the ‘crime’ of communism.  Eventually they were abandoned by the community to their own fate.  Film critic James W. Palmer noted that everybody in the film was guilty of not supporting people in need.  He wrote that the real crime was the undermining of human trust through a process of social exclusion.

Ray’s allegorical attack against HUAC in Johnny Guitar probably would have gone over the heads of its audience of the time.  No evidence exists in any reviews of Johnny Guitar that anyone considered it anymore than an interesting western with strong performances from both Crawford and McCambridge.  Indeed Nora Sayre in her survey of cold war films, mentions it only in passing as a light entertainment.[4]  A member of the Hollywood 10, Ring Lardner Jr. had never heard of the film,[5] although Ray has insisted that contemporary audience got the message about the lynching party being a McCarthyite investigation.[6]

Previous version of this blog at:

https://kevinbrianton.com/westerns-huac-johnny-guitar-1954/


[1] Michael Wilmington, ‘Johnny Guitar’ Velvet Light Trap Spring 1974 in Danny Peary, Cult Movies, Vermillion, UK, 1982, pp. 171-172.

[2] Ibid, p. 172.

[3] Sterling Hayden, Wanderer, Knopf, New York, 1973, p. 366

[4] Nora Saryre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War, p. 173.

[5] Ring Lardner Jr. at a Public Seminar of the Australian Film Institute on 6 March 1991. (Notes taken by author).

[6] Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise, ‘Nicholas Ray: Rebel!’, Take One, Vol 5, No. 6, (January) p. 11.

High Noon for HUAC

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The Westerns hold pride of place in American cinema.  They retold the legends and myths of America’s frontier past and had been a feature of cinema virtually since its inception.  In the 1950s, hundreds of westerns were made which dealt with many aspects of American life.  It was perhaps inevitable, with the stifling of direct political criticism, and the pressing concerns of McCarthyism and communism, that westerns would take on a political dimension in the 1950s.

High Noon was one of the most important westerns of the 1950s and many films followed its pattern of a lone law officer facing a threat to the town.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The 1947 investigation proved to be only a testing of the waters for HUAC.  The Hollywood 10 went to prison in September 1950 and the committee re-gathered momentum to pounce on Hollywood again.  The Hollywood 10’s imprisonment had increased the power of HUAC to make it feared throughout the film industry.  Director Joseph Losey told an interviewer that ‘the most terrifying thing about the atmosphere was seeing people succumb, and seeing all protest disappear.  Because if you did protest, you’d had it.’[1]  The second HUAC investigations were to be larger and more systematic and they destroyed the remnants of the liberal-left in Hollywood without any effective opposition.  In the middle of these rising fears about HUAC’s return, Carl Foremen was writing the screenplay for a western called High Noon.

The film was about the desperate efforts of the Sheriff Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, to get help from the townspeople to fight Frank Miller and his gang, who were being released from jail that day, and who had promised revenge on the town and Kane.  Miller, who Kane put in prison for murder, had been pardoned, and his gang were gathering at train station to meet when the train arrived at noon.  Kane approached all the town leaders for assistance to fight Miller but they all abandoned him.  The town and church leaders demanded that he leave town, claiming that the gang would leave the town alone if he was not there.  Kane failed in his attempts and faced the gunmen alone.  After defeating the four outlaws, Kane threw his badge onto the street in disgust at the town and left.  The screenwriter wanted the audience to equate the people of Cooper’s town with those who suddenly deserted their blacklisted friends in Hollywood.

Kane’s disgust equaled Foreman’s as friends humbled themselves and begged for help from the Hollywood community without success.  Foreman had been called to testify in front of HUAC and intended to be an un-co-operative witness. He said his friends began turning their backs on him even though he was not a communist:

My associates were afraid for themselves – I don’t believe them – and tried to get off the film, unsuccessfully.  They went to Gary Cooper and he refused (to go along with them).  Fred Zimmerman, too, was very staunch and very loyal, so was out backer, Bruce Church.

There are scenes in the film that are taken from life.  The scene in the church is a distillation of meetings I had with partners, associates and lawyers.  And there’s the scene with the man who offers to help and come back with his gun and asks, where are the others?  Cooper says there no others … I became the Gary Cooper character.[2]

Foreman depicted Hollywood society in a poor light as the threat of McCarthyism approached.  The pillars of the community were afraid that a gunfight would jeopardise business and possible future investment in the town and urged Kane to leave.  Their attitude was similar to the studio heads who abandoned their employees on the slightest of pretexts to avoid bad publicity and poor box office returns.  The religious leaders also pulled back from Kane because they cannot sanction violence.  He was only offered help by only a 14 year old boy and the town drunk and he turned down both.  The retired marshal wanted to help but could not because of his arthritis.

The point of the film was that the town united could have easily defeated the threat.  Instead the Hollywood community pursued their own individual selfish ends and were torn apart.  The point was not lost after the film’s release and Foreman was blacklisted for his efforts for many years.  He was ‘morosely pleased’ when the message of the film was understood by the conservatives.[3]

Grace Kelly supports her husband in High Noon Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

High Noon was one of the most important westerns of the 1950s and many films followed its pattern of a lone law officer facing a threat to the town.  Foreman certainly had no doubts when he wrote the screenplay that the town was Hollywood and the four men approaching represented HUAC and when the film was released The New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote:

It is a story that bears a close resemblance to things that are happening today where people are traumatised by bullies and surrendering their freedoms … (Kane) is a man with the sense to meet a challenge, not duck and hope it will go away … The marshal can give a few lessons to the people of Hollywood today.[4]

However, it is doubtful whether the audience of the time saw it in that light.  One of the Hollywood 10, Ring Lardner Jr, who knew Carl Foreman, said he could see no anti-HUAC message in the film beyond the general theme of standing up for oneself.[5]  If members of the Hollywood 10, who were more sensitive on the topic did not get the message, and knew the screenwriter, what hope was there for the general audience.  The film had an anti-HUAC message but it is uncertain whether that message got across to the audience.  Director Zinnemann said he did not make films to prove anything.[6]

The film can also be read as a defence of McCarthy with a lone figure standing  up against the communist threat.  The heroic figure of Kane could be seen as McCarthy desperately trying to awaken the community to the impending threat of communism.  Critic Phillip French has also suggested that the film was about the United States reluctantly renewing its role in world affairs.[7]  High Noon started a cycle of movies with the lone or aloof law official figure, struggling with both the town and some form of menace on the horizon.  Something in that formula clicked with the audience and the film finished eighth in the box office for 1952.[8]  The audience responded to the film but it is unclear to exactly what they were responding.


[1] Tom Milne (ed.). Losey on Losey, Secker & Warburg, London, 1968, p. 90.

[2] Rudy Behlmer, Behind the Scenes: The Making of, Samuel French, New York, 1990, p. 276.

[3] Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of he Cold War, Dial, New York, 1982, p. 176.

[4] New York Times, 3 August 1952.

[5] Ring Lardner Jr. at an Australian Film Institute Seminar on 26 March 1991.  (Notes taken by author).

[6] Behimer, Behind p. 277.

[7] Phillip French, Westerns: Aspects of a Genre, Secker and Warburg, London, 1977, p. 35

[8] Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, Vintage, New York, p. 21.

The failure of anti-communist films and Pickup on South Street (1953)

One film which broke the anti-communist mould was Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

In the early 1950s, conservative forces in Hollywood began to see that their anti-communist cinematic efforts had been failures.  The films were not popular at the box office and the critical responses were poor or weak. During the Second World War, the reverse was true. Hollywood had made many popular anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese films during the Second World War at a furious pace.  There were no anti-communist equivalents of Casablanca or Mrs Miniver. Somehow these anti-communist films did not work.  My Son John had an established and acclaimed director in Leo McCarey working from his own script, its main star Robert Walker was still basking in his triumph of Strangers On A Train, the celebrated stage actress Helen Hayes had returned to the screen to play John’s mother and Dean Jagger had recently won an academy award for Twelve O’Clock High (1950), yet the film was a complete disaster.  Accoldades were in short supply. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did nominate McCarey for an Oscar for Writing (Motion Picture Story). Even with the star power of John Wayne, Big Jim McLain, was the twenty-seventh most successful film of 1952, grossing $2,600,000. 

The reasons for their failure lay elsewhere. When Cecil B. DeMille was appointed to the State Department’s International Motion Picture Unit as a consultant to make cold war films in 1953, he decried the lack of support for anti-communist pictures.

The American Government would not arm its soldiers with guns made by amateurs.  Neither should it arm … (the State) Department with films by amateurs.[1]

DeMille claimed that the Soviet Union had spent $14 billion on propaganda while the United States spent $75 million.  The Soviet Union was producing better propaganda than the United States.  He argued that more resources were needed to win the propaganda cold war.  Yet the studios had poured in considerable resources for anti-communist films and none had worked.  The films were not allocated second rate talent.  Directors William Wellman, Gordon Douglas, Leo McCarey, William Dietrele, William Cameron Menzies, Elia Kazan, Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, and Josef von Sternberg and others represent a group of highly talented people.  It was not the lack of talent which caused their failure or the pace at which they were cranked out by the studios. 

After the release of Walk East on Beacon and other anti-communist efforts, the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther lashed out at Hollywood for its failure to make effective anti-communist films.  He argued that the United States was in a state of confusion and anxiety over the threat of communism and he wanted Hollywood to ‘clarify the realities of the situation and the true extent of domestic peril.’  Crowther thought that the plots of the film were reworkings of old ideas and reflected a deeper problem in the film industry.

(In Hollywood) no one, resenting aspersions, dares raise a clear contentious voice.  Caution is king.  Intellectually Hollywood is paralyzed.

In this grave state of apprehension, it isn’t likely that the people out there are going to come through with any … literal dramatization of the actual shape of the Communist peril.  Indeed it is not very likely that anyone will henceforth want to touch the subject of communism with a ten foot pole.  Not only is it ticklish as a topic, but pictures about it have proved conspicuously unbefitting as far as the paying public is concerned.[2]

One film which broke the anti-communist mould was Samuel Fuller’s Pick Up on South Street (1953).  It was not an easy film to make. According to Lisa Dombrowsi, in her book The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill you, the script ran afoul of the the PCA, for “excessive brutality and sadistic beatings, of both men and women”. Although a revised script was accepted soon after, the studio was forced to shoot multiple takes of a particular scene in which the manner of Jean Peters and Richard Kiley frisk each other for loot was considered too risqué.

The film begins when a pickpocket Skip McCoy, played by Richard Widmark, stole some microfilm from the purse of Candy, the former mistress of communist Joey. The film contained a secret chemical formulae and Candy attempted to get the film back from McCoy for the psychopathic Joey.  She falls in love with McCoy whole doing so, but McCoy was not interested and wanted to sell the microfilm back to the communists for $25,000.  He eventually also falls in love with Candy, but only after he found out that she would not betray him to the communists.  He was enraged when Candy was beaten and shot by Joey.  He followed Joey and dealt out a savage beating in revenge.

McCoy was not interested in seeking revenge until he has his own personal motives to do so.  When an FBI agent asked him, ‘Do you know what Communism is?’ Skip replies ‘Who cares?’  They press him to act out of patriotic motives and he refused.

McCoy was not interested in seeking revenge until he has his own personal motives to do so. It is his love for Candy – not his political interests – that drive his revenge.

Detective:  If you refuse to co-operate you’ll be as guilty as those traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb

McCoy:  Are you waving the flag at me?[3]

Fuller later argued that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had lunch with him and studio head Zanuck, and was told that he detested Fuller’s work and especially Pickup on South Street. Hoover particuarly did not like Widmark’s character saying “Are you waving the flag at me?”, He did not approve of the the scene of a Federal agent bribing an informer and other things. “Zanuck backed Fuller up, telling Hoover he knew nothing about making movies, but removed references to the FBI in the film’s advertising.” It is simple to identify Hoover’s annoyance. McCoy was only interested in money.  He said to Candy: ‘So you are Red.  Who cares?  Your money is as good as anybody’s.’  The film was a clear break from any other anti-communist film of the time.  Indeed it turned everything on its head.  The criminal world looked down on communism.  Moe, who informed on Skip for $50 to the police, refused to give Skip’s address to the communists because ‘even in our crumby kind of business, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere’.[4]  Moe doesn’t even know why she doesn’t like communism.  She says ‘What do I know about commies? Nothing? I know I just don’t like them.’[5]

Most other anti-communist films defended the role of the informer.  In Pickup On South Street, the stance on informing was reversed.

Director Sam Fuller was laughing at the seriousness of patriotic films and in doing so produced one of the most eccentric and individual anti-communist films of the 1950s.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster
Moe: Some people peddle apples, lamb chops, lumber.  I peddle information.  Skip ain’t sore.  He understands.  We live in a different kind of world.  Once in while he gets how under the collar if I sell him short.
Candy: But you wouldn’t sell him to a commie.
Moe: What do you think I am?  An informer?[6]

Moe was in informer to the police and yet despised informers to communists.  The hero of this film was a unrepentant and unpatriotic criminal.  The law enforcement agencies appeared to be flat-footed and easily misled by the criminals.  The police even needed informers like Moe to round up suspects.  Fuller was laughing at the seriousness of patriotic films and in doing so produced one of the most eccentric and individual anti-communist films of the 1950s. The communism angle is so slight that when the movie was released in France, the dubbed soundtrack changed the villains from communist spys to drug dealers. The French title “Le port de la drogue” can be translated as “Pier of Drugs”. [7] 

Fuller repeated the formula of personal, rather than political revenge, with Richard Widmark leading a submarine in Chinese controlled waters, in Hell And High Water (1954).  Widmark was a mercenary who would sell his services to the highest bidder.  The submarine crew uncovered a plot by the Chinese to have a disguised B29 drop atomic bombs on Manchuria to blame the United States for starting a nuclear war.  Widmark couldn’t care less until his most loyal crew member was killed by a communist prisoner.  Only after his friend’s, did he become committed to stopping the communist plot.  Critic Nicholas Garnham argued that ‘the Fuller protagonist is always caught in a crossfire between warring totalitarian organizations.’  Pickup on South Street finished 62nd in the Variety rankings for 1953.[8]


[1] Hollywood Reporter, 6 October 1953.

[2] New York Times, 8 June 1952.

[3] Pick-Up On South Street, (d) Samuel Fuller, (w) Samuel Fuller.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] For a discussion of Fuller’s anti-communism and his views on national identity see Nicholas Garham, Fuller, Secker and Warburg in association with the British Film Institute, 1971, pp. 106 – 133.

[8] Variety, 6 January 1954.

My Son John ( 1952)

My Son John was a serious attempt to alert America to, what director Keo McCarey considered, a dangerous and pressing threat.  The film seemed to have absorbed the political tensions of Hollywood during that strained time.  From its opening scenes, it was a gloomy tense depiction of strangling the American family.
Image from eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

The links between sexuality and communism were seen in other films, but none more pointed than My Son John (1952) which linked political subversion to sexual activity. Producer, writer and director Leo McCarey was one of the leading anti-communist campaigners in Hollywood,[1] and his film My Son John was a serious attempt to alert America to, what he considered, a dangerous and pressing threat.  McCarey was a staunch anti-Communist and had joined Wood in testifying to HUAC in October 1947. He had directed Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Marys (1945), which were very popular films with Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley. McCarey told HUAC his films were not successful in Russia because they contained God. He wanted Hollywood to produce anti-Communist films as it had done in the Second World War against fascism. In 1952, McCarey would do just that and direct one of the more feverish anti-Communist films in My Son John – the final political messages of which were fashioned by DeMille. The film seemed to have absorbed the political tensions of Hollywood during that strained time.  From its opening scenes, it was a gloomy tense depiction of strangling the American family.

The story began as Ben and Chuck Jefferson, played by James Young and Richard Jaeckel, went off to fight in the Korean War.  They were blonde clean-cut American boys who played football.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The film witnessed the return of Helen Hayes – the first lady of american Theatre – after 18 years away from the screen. The story began as Ben and Chuck Jefferson, played by James Young and Richard Jaeckel, went off to fight in the Korean War.  They were blonde clean-cut American boys who played football, while their brother John, played by Robert Walker, was dark haired and read books.  John worked at some mysterious job in Washington.  Their mother, played by Helen Hayes, was distressed that he did not return for their farewell party.  When he did return, Hayes was shocked to learn that he scoffed at his father’s membership of the American Legion.  Suspicious increased when he told his parents that he believed that Bible stories should be taken on a symbolic rather than literal level.

With the evidence mounting fast, his mother Lucille, played by Helen Hayes, made John swear on the Bible that he was not a communist.  He was quite happy to oblige because he was an atheist and was not afraid of eternal damnation by making such an oath.  The Bible was also used in a scene where John’s father Dan sang John a song he composed for his American Legion Friends.

            If you don’t like you’re Uncle Sammy;

Then go back to the your home o’er the sea;

To the land from where you came;

Whatever its’ name;

But don’t be ungrateful to me;

If you don’t like the stars in Old Glory;

If you don’t like the red, white and blue;

Then don’t act like he cur in the story;

Don’t bite the hand that’s feeding you.[2]

He then bashed John over the head with the bible when he laughed.  The scene appeared to be strongly influenced by a similar scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, where a mother read the story of Exodus from the bible to her two sons.  One son also scoffed at the reading and was struck over the head by the other son with a newspaper.  In an earlier draft of the screenplay of My Son John, the father struck John when he scoffed at the commandment about honoring your parents.  The similarity was no accident as DeMille’s political speech writer Donald Hayne wrote the original drafts for the final speech by John Jefferson.[3]  To scoff at the ten commandments was the equivalent of extolling communism for DeMille who saw them as the moral basis to fight communism.[4]  Furthermore, to scoff was direct proof of communist tendencies, hence the father’s righteous and violent reaction.

Director Leo McCarey watches Robert Walker and Heleln Hayes. The relationship between Mother and Son was a bizarre subtext to this anti-Communist film.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

DeMille exercised absolute control over his staff and it would be impossible to believe that Hayne wrote the speech without DeMille’s direction, approval and consent.  DeMille’s writers considered themselves to be ‘trained seals’ who merely translated the director’s thoughts onto paper.[5]  Even though he has not listed in the credits, it is clear that DeMille had a great deal of power within Hollywood’s anti-communist community and that power extended to influencing the anti-communist content of films of other directors.

John’s father Dan, played by Dean Jagger, swore that if he even thought his son was a communist, he would take him into the back yard and shoot with a double-barrel shotgun.  McCarey’s depiction of the all-American father was drunk, violent, and stupid.  Throughout the film, the father was extremely hostile to John’s intellectual achievements, and yet the mother’s character was even worse.  She hovered on the edge of a nervous breakdown and there were several hints to her being menopausal.  In an earlier draft of the film, the message was clear that she was going through a ‘stage of life’ and needed to constantly take pills.[6]  When the mother heard that John was being investigated by the FBI for being communist, she regarded it as solid evidence that he was guilty. In the draft script, she actually collapsed before testifying that her son was a communist.  The audience was meant to conclude that her communist son was undermining her mental and physical health.  It would be easier to believe that these demented parents led their children into communism.

Like I Married a Communist, My Son John linked intellectual activity to communism.  John was constantly compared with his blonde brothers.  They played football and were doing their patriotic duty in Korea while John was an intellectual and a traitor.  T seemed failure to play football was one of the key elements of becoming a political subversive.  The mother recalled going to a football game to see Ben and Chuck play.  As she supported their football team, she would turn to John and barrack for him in his own personal football game.  The audience was told that John’s brothers were pulled out of school to pay for John’s education.  These ideas neatly fitted with the anti-intellectual atmosphere of the McCarthyite investigators.  It was a time when the word ‘egghead’ became a pejorative term for intellectuals.[7]  While making the film, McCarey told The New York Times:

(My Son John) is about a mother and father who struggle and slaved.  They had no education.  They put all their money into higher education for their sons.  But on of the kids gets too bright.  It poses the problem – how bright can you get?

He takes up a lot of things including atheism… The mother only knew two books – her Bible and her cookbook.  But who’s the brighter in the end – the mother or the son.[8]

But there was something more sinister than intellectual curiosity which led to communism.  In his review of the film Bosley Crowthey in the New York Times wrote that intellectuals were seen as ‘dangerous perverters of youth.’[9]  It was not only in the field of ideas that he was corrupt.  John’s twisted relationship with his mother indicated murkier reasons for the descent into the abyss.  Nora Sayre noted that John was deceitful and charming toward her and there was an undisguised hostility towards his father.  His performance was as close as Hollywood would dare come to that of a homosexual.[10]  The father looked on in disgust when he met his professor from his old University.  In the early draft of the screenplay, Dan says to his wife:  ‘Did you see that greeting?  I thought they were going to kiss each other.’[11]  John’s communism was the result of a combination of anti-athletic, intellectual and homosexual tendencies.

In the original screenplay, John’s mother was in a position to put John in prison for his communist activities.  She could not bring herself to testify against John to the FBI and collapsed and was then put into a hospital.  The draft screenplay was incomplete, but it did include notes of a speech where John renounced his communist past while making a speech to a high school.  The speech, which incriminated him, was made even though the FBI was unable to convict him.  John was arrested and taken to prison.  In the final scene, he visited his mother in hospital and told her of his return to the ‘side of the angels’.[12]

The film required a different ending as Walker died before the end of My Son John.  Some hasty rewriting was needed, and McCarey used some outtakes from Strangers On A Train given to him by director Alfred Hitchcock to spin out an ending.[13]  To complete the film.  John went through a remarkable conversion to capitalism at the end of the film and was immediately gunned down by his fellow communists beneath the Lincoln Memorial.

In the film from the 1930s through to the 1950s, the figure of Lincoln was used to bolster the political viewpoints of the filmmakers.  Abraham Lincoln was the most deified on the Presidents in the American popular imagination.  In Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), the dejected Smith returned to fight the corrupt politicians in the Senate after seeing a small child in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  Director John Ford repeatedly used Lincoln as an icon of fundamental American wisdom in films such as The Iron Horse (1924) and Young Mr Linclon (1939).  In Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the Secretary of State, played by Edward G. Robinson, looked at a picture of Lincoln, while pondering the fate of the Cheyenne Indians, and said ‘What would he do?’ and the problems of Cheyenne Indians were soon resolved.  Lincoln was also used to support the closing anti-communist message in I Was a Communist for the FBI and The FBI Story (1958).

Lincoln was once again the icon of traditional American values.  John’s death at the feet of the memorial showed that his political conversion and redemption was complete.  He had paid his price for becoming a communist.  In the original script he cried out:  ‘I am a native American communist spy – and may God have mercy on my soul!’[14]  The final film made John pay for his communism with his death.  At the conclusion, a tape recording of his planned speech was played to a graduating class.

I was going to help to make a better world.  I was flattered when I was immediately recognized as an intellect.  I was invited to homes where only superior minds commuted.  It excited my freshman fancy to hear daring thoughts … A bold defiance of the only authorities I’d ever known: my church and my father and my mother.  I know that many of you have experienced that stimulation.  But stimulants lead to narcotics.  As the seller of habit-forming dope gives the innocent their first inoculation, with a cunning worthy of a serpent, there are other snakes waiting lying to satisfy the desire of the young to give themselves something positive…[15]

The concluding speech described communism as an addictive drug.  This did not explain why John was able to break his addiction so easily.  During his final speech a ray of light shines down on the stage indicating God’s approval, when John asked for God’s mercy, it was surely given.

The final speech was quite different form Hayne’s original script.[16]  Hayne wanted to emphasise that the laws against communist agents were weak and the FBI could not have convicted John.  He gave up any chance of escape and confessed that he had been passing secrets to the Russians.[17]  McCarey, however wanted to drive home the inherent evil of communism.  McCarey’s draft for John’s final speech was extremely close to the final film and it seemed that Walker’s death did little to change its direction.

Once again, communism was expunged by a severe act of contrition.  Both Robert Ryan in I Married A Communist and Robert Walker in My Son John had to perform this painful act to clear themselves of communism, just as those in Hollywood had to name names before the HUAC investigations in order to clear themselves.  McCarey’s depiction of communism was the blackest of the 1950s.  It was as an addictive drug peddled by intellectuals with homosexual tendencies to young impressionable minds.  The thin academic air of college was a breeding ground for these delusions.  Young people who wanted to do something positive may fall victim to its clutches.  Yet the alternative in McCarey’s world was not much better.  Violent and threatening, verging on psychotic, fathers and neurotic mothers were the all-American couple.  These parents would sacrifice their children to the authorities through guilt by association.  He film rationalized that the techniques used throughout America and Hollywood were necessary and desirable.  It argued that being investigated was the same as being guilty; that authorities were impeccable in their research and pursuit of enemies and never made mistakes.  John’s confession at the end of the film justified the physical and mental battering he had received from his mother, his father and the authorities.  The confession was a justification of HUAC’s investigations and the stance taken by the studio heads.  When the film was released, it was not surprising that DeMille said it was a great film and showed that McCarey was a great American.[18]  The film was, however, universally condemned by film reviewers.  My Son John represented the low water mark of Hollywood’s dealing with communism and the film did not make Variety’s list for the year despite some heavy advertising.[19] 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.

Bernard Dick focuses on Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952) in some detail in his book The Screen is Red. 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.


[1] Ceplair and Englund, Inquisition, p. 259.

[2] My Son John, (d) Leo McCarey, (w) Leo McCarey.

[3] Draft of final speech of My Son John, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[4] A full discussion will be in the chapter on biblical epics.

[5] Quote from unnamed writer in Motion Picture Daily, 16 December 1949.  Accounts of DeMille’s legendary treatment of writers can be found in Ring Lardner Jr., ‘The Sign of the Boss’, Screenwriter, November 1945, and Phil Koury, Yes, Mr DeMille, G.P.Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1976.

[6] Undated draft script of My Son John, Box 439, Folder 10, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Brighan Young University, Provo, Utah.

[7] William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream A Narrative History of America 1932 – 1972, Bantam, New York, 1975, pp. 625 – 626.

[8] New York Times, 18 March 1952.  At the end of the original script, John asks his mother to bake cookies for him in prison.

[9] New York Times, 9 April 1952.

[10] Sayre, Running Time, p.96.  Walker’s performance is close to his acclaimed role of Bruno in Strangers On A Train where again his performance had strong homosexual overtones.  See Donald Spoto, Art Of Alfred Hitchcock, Dolphin, New York, 1976, p. 212 and for a differing view see Robin Wood, Hitchcock Film’s Revisited, Columbia University Press, New York, 1960, pp. 347 – 348.  McCarey did claim that Hitchcock was a strong influence for the film, New York Times, 9 April 1952.

[11] Draft script of My Son John, p. 11 Box 439, Folder 10, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Walker died after being prescribed some sedatives by doctors after emotional outbursts on the set of My Son John.  He had a history of problems with alcohol and had suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1940s.  David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, Secker and Warburg, London, 1975, p. 595.

[14] Hayne, Donald John’s Speech, 2 June 1951, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[15] My Son John, (d) Leo McCarey, (w) Leo McCarey.

[16] Hayne, Donald John’s Speech, 2 June 1951, and Leo McCarey, Leo John’s Speech, 10 August 1951.  Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[17]Undated draft script of My Son John, Ibid.

[18] Cecil B. DeMille to Leo McCarey, 3 April 1952.  Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 439, Folder 10, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[19] The film’s advertising focused on a non-existent sex scene.  The film was condemned by most film reviewers at the time.  One belated defence of the film is in Leland A. Poague, The Hollywood Professionals: Wilder and McCarey, London, Tantry Press, 1980.

HUAC hearings and the end of liberal Hollywood

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

Conservative ideologue Ayn Rand was angry about the focus of the 1947 HUAC hearings, as she had wanted to examine The Best Years of Our Lives. Committee head J. Parnell Thomas argued with her saying that if the film was attacked, there would be a furor. 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. [1]   It also demonstrated the obsession of the committee with publicity. He would later 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.

The Best Years of Our Lives dominated the box office and scooped the Oscars, becoming the most successful film of the year.  After the HUAC 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 political opinions by creating fear in Hollywood.  Wyler said fear would lead to self-censorship and eventually the screen would be paralysed.[2]


Crossfire is a 1947 film noir which deals with antisemitism.
It was part of a liberal flowering of films in post war period. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

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.[3]  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.  But 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.

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 won the popularity stakes, with Pinky being the second most popular film of 1949.[4]  But their popularity 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. This 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.  [5]  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.

Big Jim McLain (1951), was more of a public relations exercise for the HUAC investigators, than a film.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Big Jim McLain (1951), was more of a public relations exercise for the HUAC investigators, than a film.  It was produced by the ultra-conservative actor John Wayne and was based on the experiences of HUAC investigator William Wheeler and it claimed to be made with the full co-operation of the committee with access to cases from HUAC files.  The film linked HUAC to American icons. After the opening credits, the narrator quotes from the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet. It then immediately praises the House Committee on Un-American Activities for its attack on communism despite “undaunted by the vicious campaign of slander launched against them.” Wayne was targeting HUAC’s opponents in Hollywood.The film began with the assumption that anybody who was a communist after 1945 was a traitor or spy or both – a few clearly stated by J. Edgar Hoover.  HUAC investigators were able to track down communist subversives but the committee could do little with them once they had took the fifth amendment.  The investigators taped several conversations about a far-fetched plot to tie up the wharfs by infecting them with some kind of bacteria.  The infestation would be the basis for long industrial dispute which would be prolonged by communist agents in management and unions.  Once again it was a waterfront union as in I Married A Communist.  This effort would be the same as putting ‘another division in the field’ in Asia. European distributors were not so impressed with the plot. According to Wikipedia, “In some European markets the film was retitled as Marijuana and dispensed with the communist angle, making the villains drug dealers instead. This was achieved entirely through script changes and dubbing. ” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Jim_McLain

Jim McLain, played by John Wayne, and the Hawaiian police force uncovered the plot, but only arrested those responsible for the accidental death of a communist stooge.  The audience were left wondering why the communists were not behind bars for murder of McLain’s partner.  The film’s aim, however, was to reinforce Wayne’s view that the constitution was designed to protect good citizens, not those who would tear it apart.  The communists were straight out criminals and thugs, who betrayed each other and murdered Wayne’s partner.  At one stage, McLain fought the entire gang single handedly and was so honorable that he would not punch out one communist because he was too short.  McLain said: ‘We don’t hit the little guy.  That’s the difference between us and you.’[6]  The communists take a fifth amendment and go free at the end of the film.

The real objects of Wayne’s attack, however, were those who refused to testify before HUAC, while informers on communists were greatly praised.  At one point, McLain and his partner visited an old couple who told them that their estranged son was a communist.  This evidence provided the vital clue which broke a communist cell in Hawaii.  Informing was a selfless act of patriotism, even if it meant naming your own son.  Big Jim McLain was ranked 27th by Variety making $2.6 million in rentals.[7]  It was the most successful of the anti-communist films of the early 1950s possibly because of the immense popularity of John Wayne.


According to the film’s Wikipedia entry “Nancy Olson (pictured left) hated the script but figured that six weeks in Hawaii and a chance to work with a star like John Wayne seemed a good enough reason to accept. She thought the film would flop and nobody would see it. She was right to a degree – it wasn’t one of Wayne’s more successful pictures – but she didn’t count on how often it would appear on television. She later said people stopped her all the time to mention it. Olson, a staunch liberal Democrat, said she and Wayne would often have political arguments but she would always let Wayne have the last word. ” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Jim_McLain
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] Branden, p. 201. 

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

[3] 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.

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

[5] 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.

[6] Big Jim McLain (d) Edward Ludwig, (w) James Edward Grant.

[7] Variety, 7 January 1953.

The Fountainhead (1949)

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

One of the oddest anti-communist films to come out of Hollywood in the period between the first and second HUAC investigations was the The Fountainhead (1949).  Based on Ayn Rand’s bestselling book, and directed by MPAPAI founding executive committee member King Vidor, the film was a defence of the creative individual against the deadening collective.  The film should be seen as Rand’s own personal vision rather than Vidor’s.  Rand had such power in Hollywood at the time that when Vidor wanted some scenes cut from the film, Rand made Warner restore them.[1]

One of the oddest anti-communist films to come out of Hollywood in the period between the first and second HUAC investigations was the The Fountainhead (1949). Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Gary Cooper played visionary architect Howard Roark who the public hated because of his individualism.  He was expelled from school because his ideas were too original.  His architecture was criticised by Ellsworth Touhy through his column in the populist The New York Banner, arguing that ‘artistic value is achieved collectively, by each man subordinating himself to the standards of the majority.[2]  Touhy doesn’t like genius as he believed it to be ‘dangerous’.  He explained his reasons to be compromised architect John Keating.

            KEATING: What are you after?

TOUHY: Power!  What do think is power?  Whips, guns, money.  You can’t turn men into slaves unless you break their spirit.  Kill their capacity to think and act on their own.  Tie them together.  Teach them to conform.  Untie to agree to oblige.  That makes one neck for the leash.[3]

Roark agreed to design a housing development for the poor using Keating as a front, provided his designs were exactly followed.  When they were not, Roark destroyed the building with dynamite.  Before the trial, Touhy began a storm of protest against Roark.  The owner of the New York Banner, Gail Wynand, played by Raymond Massey, wanted to support Roark and sacked Touhy.  Touhy virtually closed down the paper as the entire office walked off in support.  Touhy explained his strategy to Wynand and his assistant.

ASSISTANT:    I can’t understand how Ellsworth got so much power.  I never noticed it.  But he got his gang in little by little.  And now he owns them.

WYNAND:  And I own the Banner.

TOUHY:  (entering the room)  Do you Mr Wynand?  So you were after power, Mr Wynand and you thought you were a practical man, you left to impractical intellectuals the whole field of ideas to corrupt as we please as you were making money.  You thought money was power.  Is it Mr Wynand?  You poor amateur.[4]

Touhy represented the communist – with a liberal façade – who was destroying the system from within.  Just as Rand believed that the communists were inserting corrupt ideas into films to undermine capitalism, the character of Touhy reflected her concern.[5]  It was he, not the capitalists, who had the real power.  Eventually Touhy reasserted his control over the paper after a popular boycott.  He was quite open about his aims in a public attack on Roark.

We don’t have to wait for the trial to convict him.  Howard Roark is guilty by his very nature.  It is his work that designed Courtland.  What if he did?  Society needed a housing project.  It was his duty to sacrifice his own desires and contribute any ideas we demanded of him on any terms we chose.  Who is society? We are.  Man can only be permitted to exist in order to serve others.  He must be a tool for the satisfaction of others.  Self sacrifice is the law of our age.  The man who refuses to submit and to serve is a man who must be destroyed.[6]

At his trial, Roark argued for the role of the individual against the collective.  He made no pretense at innocence and defended his actions by conjuring up a vision of an ancient struggle between the evil collective and the vision of the individual.

Man cannot survive except through his mind.  He comes on earth unarmed.  His brain is his only weapon.  But the mind is an attribute of the individual.  There is no such thing as a collective brain.  The man who thinks must think and act on his own.  The reasoning mind cannot be subordinated to the needs, wishes or opinions of others … Look at history.  Everything we have.  Every great achievement has come from the independent work from some independent mind.  Every horror and destruction from attempts to force men into a level of brainless, soulless, robots without personality, without rights without will or hope or dignity.  It is an ancient conflict.  The individual against the collective.[7]

Despite his obvious guilt, Roark was acquitted by the jury to pursue his own career.  The decision was nonsense.  In dynamiting the building, he was guilty of a range of crimes and should have been sent to prison.  But it was a political trial and Roark was set free.  The individual had triumphed over the collective.

The Fountainhead hinted at the existence of an blacklist of anti-communists in Hollywood.  Roark could not find work while he fought with Touhy and his associates.  This suggestion was a calculated insult to those who had been blacklisted by the studios.  Rand argued that talented individuals like Roark could lose their jobs because of their beliefs.  She later told her biographer that there was a blacklist of anti-communists in force in the HUAC years.  She said almost everybody who testified for the committee who were considered dispensable, such as freelancers or writers or actors without a contract to a major studio lost their jobs.  ‘Morrie Ryskind had more work than he could handle; he never worked again in Hollywood’ while ‘Adolphe Menjou got fewer and fewer jobs’ and soon could ‘find no work at all’.[8] 

No evidence exists of a blacklist of anti-communists and Rand’s statements are not supported by an available evidence. Screenwriter Morrie Ryskind had many screen credits in the 1930s.  In the 1940s he received one for Penny Serenade in 1941, Where Do We Go From Here? In 1945 and Heartbeat in 1946.  After this his film career began to slow down.  But three credits in six years is not more work than you can handle.  It seems clear that his career was already in decline when he testified to HUAC.  When conservative critic William F. Buckley Jr. made similar claims in 1963 about Morrie Ryskind, screenwriter Phillip Dunne, one of the co-founders of the Committee for the First Amendment, told Buckley that Ryskind could have a job by turning up at 20th Century Fox Studios.  According to Dunne, Ryskind failed to show. After Hollywood, Ryskind worked as a columnist for the Hearst Press.  He also secured a position from the government in writing anti-communist films for the United States Information Agency. Menjou made three films in 1947, one in 1948, two in 1949, one in 1950, two in 1951, one in 1952 and continued to make films up to 1960.  This was about the rate before the HUAC hearings.  He also had two television series in 1951 and 1953.  See Halliwell, Leslie.  Filmgoer’s Companion seventh edition, Paladin, London, 1980, p. 546.  Kazan also claimed that Menjou was on a left wing blacklist in his autobiography and he broke the blacklist by employing Menjou for Man on a Tightrope (1952).  The facts are that Menjou enjoyed regular employment in Hollywood.    [9]

Publicity for the film was firmly based on Ayn Rand’s novel.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

DeMille was clearly an influence on the production of The Fountainhead.  The closing scene of the film showed a woman rising in an open elevator and looking up at the make figure of Roark on top of the building and which then cut to look across at the city skyline.  The scene was almost identical to one in DeMille’s 1932 version of The Ten Commandments.  Vidor was either strongly influenced by the scene and incorporated it into the film or DeMille was playing a advisory role.  In either event, DeMille certainly agreed with the politics of the film.  After the launch of the film, Rand wrote to DeMille saying The Fountainhead was doing extremely well at the box office, particularly at the neighborhood houses, where ‘audiences everywhere break into applause at the end of Roark’s speech’.  Rand wrote that this made her happy, because it showed that ‘the political sympathy of the country is with us’.[10]

The reality was quite different and the film was not well received.  Bosley Crowther in the New York Times wrote:

If Miss Rand intended this drama to be a warning against the present threat of Communism muscling in on our fair democracy, then she might have shown more confidence in the good old body politic and less growing admiration for the genius who is a law unto himself… For it is out of such deadly cynicism and reckless reverence as are shown in this film that emerges a form of fanaticism which is a peril to democracy.[11]

Rand wrote back on July 24 and accused Crowther of being an Ellsworth Toohey and ignoring the real issues of the film.  She also claimed that because of her stance, approved screenplays would reach the screen unaltered at Warner Brothers.  The studio later claimed on July 31 that she had been mistaken and that actors were no longer permitted to improvise with scripts. As a novel, The Fountainhead was a bestseller, but this did not translate to the box office:  The film was ranked 38th by Variety, making $2.1 million.[12]

The initial stage of the anti-communist crusade was an attempt to exonerate the moguls for their actions in dealing with HUAC.  The political never-never land of I Married A Communist and The Fountainhead contained calculate insults aimed at Hollywood’s liberal and radical community.  The Fountainhead was perhaps the more insulting as it inverted the political order to make it appear that the communists were in control and were attempting to crush the work of talented individuals.


[1] Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, King Vidor, American, Universtiy of California Press, Berkeley, 1988, p. 263.

[2]The Fountainhead, (d) King Vidor, (w) Ayn Rand

[3]Ibid.

[4] The Fountainhead op cit.

[5] Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Doubleday, New York, 1986, p. 201.

[6] The Fountainhead op cit.

[7] ibid.

[8] Branden, Ayn Rand, p. 203.

[9] See Phillip Dunne, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1980, p. 217.  as reported in Hollywood Reporter, 18 March 1954. 

See Elia Kazan, A Life, Doubleday, New York, 1988, p. 478 – 480.

No doubts exist about the effectiveness of the blacklist which ended many careers.  See John Cogley Report on Blacklisting, 2 vols, The Fund for the Republic, New York, 1956.  Rand’s claim of a blacklist for friendly witnesses are also dubious because of her own career in Hollywood began after testifying.

[10] Ayn Rand to Cecil B. DeMille, 29 April 1949, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 418, Folder 3, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[11] New York Times, 17 July 1949. 

[12] Variety, 4 January 1950.

Based on original blog at https://kevinbrianton.com/the-fountainhead-1949/

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.

Failure of early post-war anti-communist films

Dr Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

In Jet Pilot, John Wayne played an American pilot who takes the Russian defector on a tour of American military bases and demonstrated the United States military prowess. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

While the mood of the United States was anti-communist, cinema depicting the politics was not popular. Perhaps one of the main reasons for the failure of the anti-communist message in American cinema was the amount of studio interference in these films. There were often trivial reasons for the failure of the films.

Director Joseph Von Sternberg was listed as the director of Jet Pilot, which begun production in 1950, and was finally released in 1957, and was produced by Howard Hughes.  Von Sternberg had been Hollywood directorial royalty in the 1930s, but his fortunes had declined by the early 1950s. RKO had already flopped with I Married A Communist and The Whip Hand, and its third attempt at anti-communist propaganda almost failed to get a release.  The plot was about a Russian pilot, played by Janet Leigh, who defected to the United States.  John Wayne played an American pilot who takes the Russian defector on a tour of American military bases and demonstrated the United States military prowess.  He then faked a defection to feed false information to the Russians.  The pair fell in love and she helped him escape back to America.  Von Sternberg loathed the picture and resented the amount of studio interference. 

“I was told, step by step, day by day, movement for movement, word for word, precisely what I was to direct … My name is on the film as director, and there are other names also to which are given credit are just as shadowy, but the names of all those who had a finger in the celluloid pie are mercifully omitted.”[1] Studio interference played a key role in the poor quality of these films particularly at RKO.

The Big Lift (1950) was one of the few anti-communist films with a liberal view of the world. 

Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Not all anti-communist films were unbalanced in their approach.  The Big Lift (1950) was one of the few anti-communist films with a liberal view of the world.  It focused on the story of the Berlin Airlift in 1949 when the Russians blockaded the city and the western allies began supplying Berlin with all its needs from the air.  It was depicted as dangerous work and the film showed a quiet confidence in America in dealing with the communists.  The airlift was physically and mentally demanding on aircrews who were forced to work long hours to supply the city with food and coal.

One of the airmen, Danny MacCullough, played by Montgomery Clift, spent a day in Berlin and travelled through the Russian sector to see the life of ordinary Berliners.  Russian soldiers searched a railway carriage for smugglers and one man informed on a women for smuggling coffee.  The coffee was confiscated and the Russians left.  The crowd in the train was about to vent its anger on the man, when he revealed that he was a carrying a huge parcel of coffee and gave the woman, twice the amount she was smuggling.  The Russians were shown as strong but think-headed and easy to deceive.

In a separate incident another American airman Hank, played by Paul Douglas, debated the merits of the American system with a critical communist.  She said that American democracy was a farce as the results were determined by big business.  Hank argued that in the 1948 election, President Truman was written off by the newspapers and just about everyone else.  But in the end, Truman was elected by the people, despite what a big business and the papers were saying.  This was an interesting scene as it was one of the few where the merits of communism and capitalism were actually debated.  The debate was slanted against the communists, but it was clear that writer and director George Seaton was not afraid of communism and felt it could be dealt with through intelligent debate and, if necessary, through the sensible use of force.  At a later time, he spoke about his research for this film, and of being held by the Communists for 56 hours on a dirty train with his wife and daughter after attempting to enter Berlin. Seaton quoted the organizer of the airlift General Lucius D. Clay, who said that if we “resort to totalitarianism to defeat totalitarianism we have lost our democratic soul by doing it.” Seaton’s film even contains some comedy which was lacking in other anti-communist films of the period.  Seaton’s effort would be the final liberal statement from Hollywood on communism for some time.  The film was ranked at 91st by Variety for 1951.[2]

The anti- communist plots of some films were often absurd.  In Tokyo Joe (1949), a plot to return Japanese militarists was described as ‘communist inspired and communist directed’.  This ludicrous idea was either a last minute rewrite of the script or a dubbing of the original soundtrack.  From internal evidence I the film, it appeared as though the words were dubbed at some late stage.  The voice of the General talking to Humphrey Bogart goes oddly deep while this was being said.  The words were also spoken when the camera was focused on Bogart.  This suggests dubbing as it would be difficult to synchronise the General’s mouth movements with his speech.  In either event, the communist element plays no logical part in the film at all.  Communism was not mentioned again.


[1] Joseph von Sternberg, Fun In A Chinese Laundry, Secker & Warburg, London, 1965, p. 282.

[2] Variety, 3 January 1951.  A film called Destination Moscow is listed at 88th.  The film is not listed in Halliwell’s Film Guide, 5th edn, Paladin, London, 1986, but it would be reasonable to conclude that it was an anti-communist film.

The Red Menace (1949)

The Red Menace looked at the links between illicit sex and communism.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

The apparent links between illicit sex and political subversion were a central theme of many anti-communist films. In The Red Menace (1949) directed by R.G. Stringsteen, an ‘impressionable young man’ called Bill Jones was seduced and indoctrinated by a communist agent.  He was angry about being cheated in a land deal.  He was then taken to a demonstration against a local real estate agent which was orchestrated by communist agitators to become violent.  As the crowd attacked the real estate office, the violent demonstration was broken up by the police.  The narrator said:

The introduction of Bill Jones to communist strategy; a misguided young man fallen under the spell of Marxian hatred and revenge.  Unaware of that he is only the tool of men who would destroy his country.  The signs [of the demonstrators] don’t tell of a whole wide Marist racket intent on spreading dissension and treason.[1]

Two days later, Bill Jones was taken along with other recruits to introductory classes at workers school where he was taught Marxist principles, strategy and tactics.  The narrator said the classes explain the basis of communism.

It teaches that man is the product of natural forces which are constantly changing.  There are no positive values, no external principles of right and wrong.  Actually it is the old doctrine of atheism sugar-coated with highbrow terms.  It says that men cannot be responsible to anyone except the totalitarian socialist state and yet the American communist party claim that they do not wasn’t to overthrow the government by force.[2]

Towards the end of the film, Bill Jones comes to his senses and decides to quit the party, but his communist girlfriend Anna Petrovka cannot because she had signed in her immigration papers that she was not a communist. The Party need only send her card to the immigration department and she would be deported back to Eastern Europe.  The studios were once again sending out the message that those who are involved in the communist party could never leave.

Yet the irony was that the communist party in Red Menace seemed to be more interested in stomping on any deviation than in subverting the United States.  One member was murdered after leaving the party, another committed suicide when forced to recant that Marxism was based on Hegel’s writing, and another broke down and confessed to murder after almost three minutes of mild questioning by immigration officials about illegally entering the country.  One member refused to attack an ex-member in their newspaper and then left the party.  Another was influenced by the speech of her priest and returned to her family.  The two remaining communists that we see were about to be arrested by the police.  The communist party appeared to be absolutely useless.

Despite these major organisational flaws, social problems were worsened by the communists.  The audience was told that the greedy real estate agent would be dealt with, but that it ‘takes time’.  The communists promised a speedier solution, but it was merely a trap to recruit people to the party.  They also claimed to be against racism, but call Italians “Mussolini spawned dago’s’ and Blacks ‘African Ingrates’.  The communists admitted that they were merely using people’s suffering to further their own cause.

The only real solution to the communist threat was religion, as one priest in the film said:

God isn’t very popular in some countries, just as he wasn’t in a lot of countries which are now dead.  The atheistic systems are always based on hatred.  Race hatred when they are Nazi, class hatred when they are communist.[3]

According to the priest, ‘the best way to defeat communism is to live Christianity and American democracy everyday.’[4]  These ideas woudl re-emerge with the biblical epics, whihc wer far more popualr than the overt anti-communist films..


[1] The Red Menace, (d) R.G. Springsteen, (w) Albert LeMond, Gerald Gerharty.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Red Menace op cit.

[4] ibid.

Mission to Moscow: Hollywood goes Stalinist

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University


Mission to Moscow glorified Stalin at a time when the United States desperately wanted to maintain the alliance with the Soviet Union. It was despised by J. Edgar Hoover.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

While popular films showed there was deeply felt anti-communism in the United States in the 1930s , there was no expressed desire to lurch to fascism.  Perhaps the sentiments of the American people were best summed up in the popular Frank Capra film You Can’t Take It With You which was released in 1938.  In the film, a fatherly figure commented on the latest developments in politics.

Communism fascism, voodooism … Everybody got isms these days… When things go badly, you go and get yourself an ism… Nowadays they say, ‘Think the way I do or I’ll bomb the hell out of you.’[1]

When the United States entered the war, Hollywood’s film output changed tack.  Many films were made which praised the effort of the Russian armies.  The scripts for these films were often written by communist or leftist writers such as John Howard Lawson, Lillian Hellman, Howard Koch or Paul Jarrico.  These films were filled with praise for the heroic efforts of the Soviet army and people.  The presence of left leaning and communist writers involved in pro-Russian footage, in American cinema was to provide the fuel for the conspiracy theorists of the right after the cold war had set in.

The most controversial of these films was Mission to Moscow (1943) which was based on the autobiography of the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies.  The film glorified Stalin at a time when the United States desperately wanted to maintain the alliance with the Soviet Union.[2]  The film glossed over Stalin’s disastrous collectivization of peasants and it also accepted the Stalinist line on the show trials of the 1930s.  Adjusting and simplifying history was a time-honored Hollywood tradition, but Mission presented a gross distortion.[3]  As film historian David Culbert has observed the Soviet purge trials asked people to believe that the Soviet equivalents of the American Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had all plotted against their country.[4]  Mission to Moscow showed only one trial, that of Nikolai Bukharin, who was a strong ally of Lenin in the Russian revolution and supported Stalin against Trotsky after Lenin’s death.  He broke with Stalin after opposing the collectivization of the Kulaks and attempted to overthrow Stalin through the Central Committee of the Party.  In March 1938, Bukharin was put on trial in Moscow with other prominent Bolsheviks and subsequently shot.[5]

All of Hollywood’s skills were needed to sell the message of a benign Russia to the American public.  Warner Bothers allocated the top talents of director Michael Curtiz and screenwriter Howard Koch, who were riding high on their success of Casablanca.  In the trial scene, Nikolai Bukharin made his final speech at his trial in Mission to Moscow where he admitted collusion with the fascists:

CLOSE SHOT BUKHARIN
  As he speaks to the courtroom with deep feeling and sincerity.
BUKHARIN:  
For three months I refused to testify – then I decided to tell everything.  Why?  Because while in prison I made an entire re-evaluation of my past.  For when you ask yourself, ‘If you must die, what are you dying for?’ an absolutely black vacuity rises before you with startling vividness… My hope is that this trial may be the last severe lesion in proving to the world the growing menace of Fascist aggression and the awareness and united strength of Russia.  It is in the consciousness of this that I await the verdict.  What matters is not the personal feelings of a repentant enemy, but the welfare and progress of our country.[6]

Film producer Robert Bruker later claimed that he wanted some ambiguity in the trial scenes but Davies insisted that the accused be depicted as guilty traitors and Trotskyists.[7]  Davies’ own book contains some concerns about the trials which the film entirely lacked. 

Off the record, one is admitted, to wit: that the occasion was dramatized for propaganda purposes.  It was designed: first, as a warning to all existing and potential plotters and conspirators within the Soviet Union; second, to discredit Trotsky abroad; and third, to solidify popular national feeling in support of the government against foreign enemies Germany and Japan.  During the trial every means of propaganda was employed to carry to all parts of the country the horrors of these confessions.[8]

Davies’ more balanced assessment was disregarded during the film.  Extremely wild assertions were made about the role of Stalin’s exiled rival Leon Trotsky who was linked to both Hirohito and Hitler in their plans to invade Russia.  Immediately after the scene with Bukharin, the action crossed to the German embassy in Oslo where Leon Trotsky was plotting with German Minister of Norway.  The Nazis abandoned Trotsky because of the bungling of his plot against Russia.  The film managed to turn one of the fiercest and most persistent critics of fascism, Leon Trotsky, into a Nazi pawn.  But the scene had actually been toned down from an earlier version of the script by novelist Erskine Caldwell where after the trials of Bukharin, Hitler met with Trotsky.

HITLER:         We are not ready for this turn of affairs.  You have completely bungled the work you were supposedly directing with judicious ability.  That forces us to withdraw our hand completely for the minute.  That means Russia will be able to buildup its army and augment its supplies of war materials.  You are trying to force us to act in Russia before we are ready!

TROTSKY:      No, no, Herr Hitler.  This is all an unfortunate accident.  You know I am in perfect accord with your plans.[9]

The Office of War Information was ecstatic in its praise of the film.  They described it as a ‘magnificent contribution to the Government’s motion picture program as a means of communicating historical and political material in a dramatic way.’  It said that the presentation of the Moscow trials was a high point and:

Should bring understanding of Soviet international policy in the past years and dispel the fears which many honest persons have felt with regard to our alliance with Russia.  The clarity and conviction with which this difficult material is presented is a remarkable achievement for the screen and should do much to lay the ‘ghosts of fascist propaganda’ which still haunt us and delay the forgoing of that international unity which is essential to the winning of the war and the peace.[10]

The OWI said the film would help create a friendly relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States.  The Office gave the film immediate release for domestic and international markets.

The film was disturbing because it was not only historical drivel but contradicted Davies’ own reports form the time as well as his own book.  At the time, he described the trials with terms like ‘horror’ and ‘terror’ and it was clear that he had not been hoodwinked.[11]  Davies was not a fool and had previously had a career as a Wisconsin lawyer who had made his fortune representing Standard Oil.  Yet when he introduced the film, he must have been aware of the misrepresentations, and distortions contained within it.  Davies even had the nerve to call upon his ‘sainted mother as an ordained minister of the gospel’[12] to add weight to his claims that it was historical truth.  He also claimed that:

No leaders of a nation have been so misrepresented and misunderstood as those in the soviet government during those critical years between the two world wars.  I hope that my book will help correct that misunderstanding in presenting Russia and its people in their gallant struggle to preserve the peace until ruthless aggression made war inevitable.[13]

Davies accepted the distortions of his own book and had a fair amount of say in the production of the film.[14]  Screenwriter Howard Koch later wrote that Davies was annoyed by the fact that actor Walter Huston did not look like him.  He told this to director Michael Curtiz who replied that Roosevelt, Kalinin, Churchill and Litinov were famous men while Davies was not.  After a stony silence, Davies told Curtiz that he was well known, with thousands of friends.  To cool down the situation, Davies was permitted to personally introduce the film.[15]  The incident showed that Davies had a fair amount of his own self-image tied up in the film and wanted it to depict film as a hero mixing with the ‘Great Men’ of the day.

United States diplomats were embarrassed by the film when it was shown to Stalin and other Soviet officials on 24 May 1943.  Ambassador William Standley reported to the Secretary of State that Stalin had sat silently through its presentation and grunted once or twice.  He wrote that the glaring historical discrepancies provoked resentment from the Soviet officials and that its depiction of the 1930s trials meant that it would not be released in the USSR.  He felt that the film would not contribute to a better understanding between the countries.[16]  Davies, by contrast, thought that the picture was well received by both Stalin and Molotov.[17]

When it was released in the United States, the film was heavily criticised in many quarters.  In a massive letter, published on the editorial page of the New York Times professor John Dewey from Columbia University, who headed a commission into the Russian trials of the 1930s, wrote that Mission to Moscow was the first instance of ‘totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption’ in the United States.  Dewey described the film as propaganda which falsified history through distortion, omission or pure invention of fact.[18]  He claimed that the film falsified not only the trials, but Davies’ own reports to the State Department and his comments in letters of the time.[19]

A small group of academics and writers also condemned the picture.[20]  The group argued that the film falsified history, distorted Davies’ own book, glorified Stalin’s dictatorship and had serious implications for American democracy.  The group said that:

(Mission to Moscow) corresponds in every detail with what the Kremlin would like the American people to think about its domestic and foreign policies.  It denounces British appeasement of Hitler, but the appeasement of the Stalin-Hitler pact is glossed over as… realism!  It shows half the map of Poland in flames when Hitler attacks but the other half, invaded by the Red Army appears unaffected.  The invasion of Finland is presented as anti-fascist action.[21]

Many film critics were even less impressed.  Writing for Nation, influential critic James Agee said the film was almost ‘the first Soviet production to come from a major American studio.’  He described the film as a:

Mishmash; of Stalinism with New Dealism with Hollywoodism with journalism with opportunism with shaky experimentalism with mesmerism with onanism, all mosaicked into a remarkable portrait of what the makers of the film think the American public think the Soviet Union is like – a great glad two-million bowl of canned borscht, eminently approved by the Institute of Good Housekeeping.[22]

While the film was made to simply serve the war needs of the United States in 1943, it did raise some disturbing questions about the propaganda of the Second World War.  Many people colored their world view by what they saw on the screen and Hollywood had to at least take some critical distance.  The film recorded a modest return of $1.2 million in rentals according to Variety.  This was much lower than other pro-Russian films such as Action in the North Atlantic which made $2.6 million and North Star which made $2.8 million in the same year.[23]

The FBI director J Edgar Hoover was deeply concerned about communism, but felt constrained during the war, as the Soviet Union was an ally against Germany and later against Japan. The release of Mission to Moscow, with its pro-Stalin message,caused uproar, with the Republicans attacking the film industry for doing the bidding of the Roosevelt administration.[24] The FBI reacted to the release of the film by beginning a comprehensive surveillance of the film industry, ranging from scrutiny of industrial issues, the political activities of directors, actor and writers, through to the content of films.  At one point in 1944, Hoover demanded a report by the 15th of each month on the infiltration of Hollywood by communist agents and ideas.[25]  


[1] You Can’t Take It With You, (d) Frank Capra, (w) Robert Riskin.

[2] The publication of Mission to Moscow in 1943 became part of an internal wrangle within the State Department between those who were suspicious of Stalin’s motives and those like Davies who felt he could be negotiated with in the post war world.  See Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1977.

[3] George MacDonald Fraser argues that, as a rule, Hollywood was very accurate in its presentation of the past.  See George MacDonald Fraser, The Hollywood History of the World, Michael Joseph, London, 1988.

[4] David Culbert, Our Awkard Ally: Mission to Moscow printed in O’Connor, John E., Jackson, Martin A. (eds) American History/American Film: Interpreting the American Image, new exp edn, Continuum, New York, 1988, p. 124.

[5] Alan Palmer (ed.), The Penguin Dictionary of Twentieth Century History 1900 – 1978, Penguin, Harmindsworth, 1962, pp. 63 – 64.

[6] David Culbert, (ed.). Mission to Moscow, Wisonsin/Warner Bros Screenplay Series, University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 1980, pp 159 – 160.

[7] Ibid., p. 253.

[8] Joseph E. Davies, Mission to Moscow, rev edn, Pocket Books, USA, February 1943, p. 37.

[9] Culbert, Mission, p. 237.

[10] Report, Hollywood Office, Bureau of Motion Pictures, Office of War Information, April 29, 1943, Box 1434, Entry 264, Record Group 208, Office of War Information Records, Archives Branch, Washington National Records Center, Suitland, Md in Culbert, Mission, p. 257.

[11] Yergin, Shattered, pp.30 – 32.

[12] Culbert, Mission, p. 225.

[13] Ibid, p. 58.

[14] Culbert, Mission, p. 253.

[15] Howard Koch, As Time Goes By, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1979, pp. 125 – 126.

[16] Telegram form Ambassador William Standley to Secretary of State, May 25, 1943, Box 68, President’s Secretary’s file, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY. In Culbert, Mission, p. 262.

[17] Letter from Joseph Davies to Harry M. Warner, May 24, 1942, box 13, Joseph E. Davies Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of congress, Washington DC in ibid p. 261.

[18] New York Times, 9 May 1943.  Letter signed by John Dewey and Suzanne La Folette.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Form letter, Dwight MacDonald et al. to ‘Dear Friend,’ May 12, 1943, NAACP MSS, Manuscript division, Library of Congress, Washington DC in Culbert, Mission pp. 257 – 259.

[21] Form letter, op cit, in Culbert, Mission, p. 259.

[22] Nation May 22, 1943 in Agee, Agee on Film, Grosset & Dunlop, New York, 1969, p. 37.

[23] Variety 4 January 1944.

[24] Hollywood Reporter, 15 April 1943. The publication of the book Mission to Moscow in 1943 had become part of an internal wrangle within the State Department between those who were suspicious of Stalin’s motives and those such as the author Soviet Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, who believed the Soviet could take its place in the world community. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover remained on the side of those who distrusted Stalin and his motives. J Edgar Hoover to SAC Los Angeles – 21 June 1943, Volume 1, COMPIC 100 -138784. For a full account of the politics of Mission to Moscow see David Cuthbert, “Our Awkward Ally: Mission to Moscow,” 1988, printed in John E. O’Connor, and Martin A Jackson, (eds) American History/American Film: Interpreting the American Image, New expanded edition, Continuum, New York, 1988. See Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1977.

[25] Variety 4 January 1944. Hollywood Reporter, 15 April 1943. The publication of the book Mission to Moscow in 1943 had become part of an internal wrangle within the State Department between those who were suspicious of Stalin’s motives and those such as the author Soviet Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, who believed the Soviet could take its place in the world community. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover remained on the side of those who distrusted Stalin and his motives. J Edgar Hoover to SAC Los Angeles – 21 June 1943, Volume 1, COMPIC 100 -138784. For a full account of the politics of Mission to Moscow see David Cuthbert, “Our Awkward Ally: Mission to Moscow,” 1988, printed in John E. O’Connor, and Martin A Jackson, (eds) American History/American Film: Interpreting the American Image, New expanded edition, Continuum, New York, 1988. See Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1977. FBI report, 29 April 1944, COMPIC – PSM.