The conservative backlash

The Bounty Hunter (1954) can be read as a pro-McCarthyite film and as rebuttal of High Noon.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

The themes raised in High Noon were also picked up by those who supported the investigations.  The Bounty Hunter (1954) can be read as a pro-McCarthyite film and as rebuttal of High Noon.  Randolph Scott played a bounty hunter who arrived in the frontier town of Twin Peaks on the trail of three armed robbers.  The townspeople resented his appearance and some with guilty secrets left town.  He had no idea who the culprits were and bided his time.  The townspeople want them to leave because they don’t like the past being dug up.  The people then tried to buy him off but he would not be deflected from his pursuit of the criminals.  The film can be read as a defence of HUAC investigators who had to burrow into the past of respectable people to uncover their dark secrets, no matter what the cost.  Some of the criminals occupied high positions.  One was even sheriff, but the criminals were only able to maintain their positions by blackmail and threats.  By rooting out these criminal elements, true peace was attained in the town.

Director and producer Howard Hawks and actor John Wayne were disgusted by Fred Zinneman’s High Noon and the cycle it created and set out to refute it.  Some of that anger can be seen in an interview with John Wayne in 1974 when asked about High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman:

Hawks was convinced that professional law enforcement officers would refuse help, even in a desperate situation.  In High Noon, Gary Cooper rejected the help of two men who offer assistance – a drunk and a kid.  The retired marshal refused to help Kane because he would be a burden.  In Rio Bravo, Chance chose a drunk, a kid and a retired marshal to help him against the gunfighters.  For Hawks and Wayne, authority was responsible and benign.  It defended the weak and attacked the guilty and the best people could do was to simply co-operate with it.  It was not to be questioned or assisted, it was simply to be obeyed.[4]

What about Carl Foreman?  I’ll tell you about Carl Foreman and his rotten High Noon.  Everybody says High Noon is a great picture because Tiomkin and Grace Kelly were in it … It’s the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  The last thing is old Coop putting the United States marshall’s badge under his feet and stepping on it.  I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of town … Here’s the church, supposed to be an American church and all the women are sitting on one side of the aisle, and all the men on the other.  What kind of American church is that?  And all those women are getting out there and fight those killers and all the men are afraid.  What kind of Western town is that?[1]

Wayne was mistaken about the film, Cooper never stands on the badge.  The church also has men and women sitting together on both sides.  These statements indicate that Wayne may have either never seen the film or not viewed it closely.  Nonetheless, having seen it or not, Wayne despised the film.  Hawks, on the other hand, wasn’t as violent in his denunciation of High Noon.  He said in an interview about his film:

Rio Bravo was made because I didn’t like a picture called High Noon … I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help and finally the Quaker wife had to save him.  That isn’t my idea of a good western sheriff.[2]

As a refutation of High Noon and its anti-HUAC sympathies, Rio Bravo was quite weak.  The film was made long after the issues raised by the HUAC investigations were gone.  If it was a rebuttal at all, it was a rebuttal on the weakest terms.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

But Wayne and Hawks were able to have their say in the Rio Bravo (1959).  In the film, John T. Chance, played by John Wayne, was the sheriff of Rio Bravo who arrested Joe, the brother of a ruthless rancher Nathan Burdette.  The rancher swore that he would get his brother out of jail and began to gather an army of hired guns to do the job.  In one scene Chances’ friend Pat Wheeler, played by Ward Bond, asks him if he needs help.

Suppose I got them.  What would I have.  Some well meaning amateurs.  Most of them worried about their wives and kids.  Burdette has got 30 to 40 men.  All professionals.  The only thing that worries them is seeing their pay … All it would be doing is making more targets to shoot at.  A lot of people would get hurt.  Joe Burdette isn’t worth it.  He isn’t worth one of whose who’d be killed.[3]

As a refutation of High Noon and its anti-HUAC sympathies, Rio Bravo was quite weak.  The film was made long after the issues raised by the HUAC investigations were gone.  If it was a rebuttal at all, it was a rebuttal on the weakest terms.  Its conservative message of the responsibility of authority fitted in with many films of the right.  Perhaps what made this film so popular was that these authority figures demanded that no freedoms be lost while the fight was on.  It was ranked 8th in the 1959 with rentals of $5.2 million.[5]

The persistence of the theme of the relationship between the lone sheriff figure, the violent thereat and townspeople in Westerns from 1952 until the end of the decade showed the relationship between authority and the people was an area of tremendous concern.  The answers given in the films were not consistent and came from all points of the political spectrum.  The films may not have provided the answers for the audience but their popularity showed that the questions about authority and dealing with threats were being asked.


[1] Playboy May 1974 interview by Mike Parkinson in Donald Shepherd, Robert Slatzer and Dave Grayson, Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, New York, 1983, p. 244.  A careful examination of the badge throwing scene shows a second badge from an earlier take buried behind his foot.  It appeared that Cooper was standing on the second badge from an earlier take.  Wayne may have heard about this flaw in the film second hand which could have distorted his perception.

[2] Joseph McBride, Hawks on Hawks, University of California Press, London, 1982, p. 136.

[3] Rio Bravo, (d) Howard Hawks, (w) Jules Furtham, Leigh Brackett.

[4] This point is remarkably close to the position put by Mankiewicz against DeMille about the role of authority.  Adding strength to Elia Kazan’s belief that it was the conservatives that defeated DeMille, rather than the left.  Elia Kazan A Life, Doubleday, New York, 1988, p. 393.

[5] Stenberg, Reel Facts, p. 22.

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.

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.

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.

Ninotchka – kidding the commissars

Kevin Brianton,

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University


A small cycle of films with anti-communist themes began with the most famous and popular of these films being Ninotchka, which was made in 1939.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Against the background of the Stalinist show trials and the Nazi-Soviet pact, there were strong anti-communist and anti-Russian sympathies in the United States.  A small cycle of films with anti-communist themes began with the most famous and popular of these films being Ninotchka, which was made in 1939.  Communist emissary Ninotchka was given some vicious lines by screenwriters Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch.  She spoke of the recent show trials in Russia.  ‘The last mass trials were a great success.  There are going to be fewer but better Russians’.[1]  Played by Greta Garbo, Ninotchka was a humorless Soviet emissary sent to Paris to check up on three bungling bureaucrats who were doing little to negotiate the return of the Russian Royal jewelry.  She found the bureaucrats were enjoying the high life and she fell for the charms of the American Melvyn Douglas.  After returning to Russia, she found that her mail was censored, and she was unhappy with the communist system.  She was later sent to Constantinople where she was reunited with Douglas and true love triumphed.

The depiction of Russian life in Ninotchka was hard and bitter.  In her small room, she talked to her friend Anna:

ANNA: Are you expecting someone?
NINOTCHKA: A few friends … just a little dinner party.
ANNA: What are you serving?
NINOTCHKA: An omelet.
ANNA (puzzled): An omelet!  Aren’t you living a little above your ration?
NINOTCHKA: Well, I have saved up two eggs and each of my friends is bringing his own so we’ll manage.
ANNA: It just goes to prove the theory of our State.  If you stand alone it means a boiled egg but if you’re true to the collective spirit and stick together you’ve got an omelet.  (Devilishly) That reminds me … have you heard that latest they’re telling about the Kremlin?
  At this moment a door to one of the adjourning rooms opens and GURGANOV, a middle-aged man with sour stool pigeon expression, walks quietly through the room to another door, talking in the girls with one sly glance and giving the impression that not only his eyes but ears are open.  ANNA breaks off her remark.
ANNA (whispering): I’ll tell you later.  (after GURGANOV has disappeared into the other room she continues)  That Gurganov, you never know whether he is on his way to the washroom or the Secret Police.[2]

Ninotchka was a gentle satire on the Russians and it was clear that they were not regarded as a serious threat.The cinema of the period reflected a society which was anti-communist but did not regard communism as more than a remote foreign tyranny.  Ninotchka kicked off a minor cycle of anti-communist films which included He Stayed For Breakfast (1940), Comrade X (1940), and Public Deb Number One (1940).  In Comrade X, directed by conservative King Vidor, a communist woman was forced to flee from Russia because she was too idealistic for the Stalinist powers.  The power game within the Russian administration was one police chief knocking off another police chief.  The Russians were depicted as nothing more than bumbling fools.  When Hollywood again targeted the Russians in the late 40s, the films would tell a far different story. When Studio head Louis B. Mayer was interviewed by HUAC, he used Ninotchka as an example of the fine anti-communist cinema produced by his studio.  He claimed that the film greatly annoyed communists by kidding them.


[1] Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch, Ninotchka, The MGM Library of Film Scripts, Viking, New York, 1972, p.24.

[2] Brackett, Ninotchka, p. 98.

Sergeant York and the ire of the isolationists

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University


Sergeant York (1941) was the film which finally raised the ire of the isolationists in Washington.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The 1930s were not an easy time for political players in the left or right. While Roosevelt remained a popular President, the economic carnage of the depression meant that political certainties began to fade. During the 1930s, both liberal and conservative political certainties started to crumble in the face of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. Communism seemed to offer a solution to many.The tone of films such as Gabriel Over the White House (1933) often verges on the hysterical. There was a faint desperation in the political solutions offered by both the left and the right, verging on despair. A political consensus did emerge in the United States after Pearl Harbor, when it was shaken out of its isolationist stupor and became a reluctant ally of the Soviet Union to fight Nazi Germany. While Fascism appeared rampant in Europe, American cinema was mute on the topic.

The political censorship of the production code meant for a long time almost no anti Nazi or fascist films were made in Hollywood during the 1930s. While fascism rose in Europe, isolationism was a strong and formidable force in the United States. The possibility of a war in Europe or Asia, redoubled the efforts of isolationists to stay out of the war. The isolationists were particularly strong in the Republican Party, which constantly goaded the Roosevelt administration that it was seeking an unnecessary war. The isolationists also had considerable support across the Untied States.

Sergeant York (1941) was the film which finally raised the ire of the isolationists in Washington. It was based on the life of First World War hero Alvin York and was launched with an amazing amount of fanfare, even by Hollywood standards.  The Astor theatre in New York was decorated with 15,000 flashing red, white and blue lights.  York was marched down Broadway with an escort of First World War soldiers to a premiere attended by Roosevelt, General John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing and other dignitaries.  Roosevelt enjoyed the film and welcomed Alvin York to the White House following the screening.  The army used the occasion to give out recruiting material.[1]

The film followed the transformation of a devout Christian pacifist in to a war hero.  York represented the dilemma of America in many ways.  It was a nation which clearly did not want to fight in Europe, but in the end, found it had to do so.  In a key scene, York wrestled with his conscience over the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.’  After failing to register as a conscientious objector, he went to boot camp where he was recognised as a crack shot.  After spending a day and a night debating the conflicting demands of country and God, he read the verse form the Bible about rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and decided to travel to France.[2]  The film was one of the most popular of the year.[3]

The success of this and other pro-interventionist films, finally sparked the isolationists into action.  On 1 August 1941 Senator Gerald Nye attacked Hollywood for plunging America into war fever.

When you go the movies, you go there to be entertained…And then the picture starts – goes to work on you, all done by trained actors, full of drama cunningly devised…Before you know where you are you have actually listened to a speech designed to make you believe that Hitler is going to get you.[4]

Nye reasoned that the Roosevelt administration wanted to glorify war and British actors and directors wanted to lure America into the war.  With Europe dominated by the Nazis, the major diplomatic issue of the time was whether America should intervene in the European war.  Roosevelt had committed America to the Lend Lease program and the isolationists feared that it would slowly drag the United States into the war.  Time pointed out the Senate investigative committee was ‘stuffed with die-hard isolationists.’  The committee was not even established by any Senatorial vote.[5]

If the isolationists had proven their case, it would have meant the introduction of federal legislation to control Hollywood’s film content.  The industry responded with a forthright defense headed by the former Republican party presidential aspirant Wendell Willkie who fired off a press release where he denounced Nye as un-American and questioned the legality of the hearings.  The committee demanded that Hollywood product films showing both sides of the dispute and Willkie responded:

This, I presume, means that since Chaplin made a laughable caricature of Hitler, the industry should be forced to employ Charles Laughton to do the same on Winston Churchill … the motion picture industry and its executives are opposed to the Hitler regime … we make no pretence of friendliness to Nazi Germany.[6]

Warner bothers studio head Harry Warner was even more blunt.  Sergeant York was: ‘a factual portrayal of one of the great heroes of the last war … If that is propaganda, we plead guilty.’[7]

A remarkable contrast exists between the Senate investigation of 1941 and the HUAC investigations six years later.  The Hollywood industry was vigorous in its defense.  Accusations were not taken lying down and were thrown back at the committee.  Under pressure, the committee bungled by not being thoroughly prepared for the investigation.  While facing tight questioning from Senator Ernest McFarland, Nye admitted that he had not seen some of the films.  Nye also confused the plots and titles of films and could only make weak attacks on the films he could remember.[8]  The hearings became a disaster for the isolationists who were forced to abandon the whole issue after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour on 8 December.


[1] Koppes, Hollywood, pp. 38 – 39.

[2] Ibid. p. 38.

[3] Steinberg, Reel Facts, Vintage, New York, 1982, p. 18.

[4] Gerald Nye, ‘War Propaganda’, Vital Speeches, 15 September 1941, p. 720 quoted in Koppes, p. 40.

[5] Time, 22 September 1941.

[6] Time, 22 September 1941.

[7] Koppes, Hollywood, p. 44.

[8] Koppes, Hollywood, p.45.