Grapes of Wrath was a controversial film on its release, and the controversy grew after the Second World War.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.com.
Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University
Eric Johnston, President of the Motion Picture Association of America, supposedly remarked ‘we’ll have no more Grapes of Wrath’ in response to an investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities into communism in the American film industry in 1947. Many film historians have employed the quotation as evidence that the investigation had created strict controls that led to fewer politically and socially motivated films in the United States in the 1950s. It has also linked Johnston to the highly conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. However, the quotation was based on a suspect source and was possibly derived from material said or written by other people. Johnston may well have made this comment, but if so, the context of the comment has been ignored. A more nuanced interpretation is needed to assess Johnston’s views and actions.
Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University
A hideous monster armed with massive powers lies frozen in the earth for centuries. An accident or something else causes it to thaw allowing for the creature to awaken and wreak havoc. The idea has been a staple for several films, TV shows and books. The most recent example is The Tomorrow War (2021), released through the streaming service Amazon/Prime. Many centuries previously, an alien spaceship carrying genetically engineered killer beasts crashed into the frozen Russian north. The beasts are bred to kill everything in their path and are virtually unstoppable. Even though the alien spaceship smashed into earth hundreds of years ago, the creatures have remained frozen but still alive. The alien monsters are released as global warming melts the ground around their frozen spaceship. As temperatures increase, the alien beasts come to life and threaten to destroy all of humanity.
Due to the discovery of time travel in the near future, soldiers can return to the present day to warn that civilization has 30 years to deal with the creatures or humanity will be extinct. In response to the threat, a rag-tag group of soldiers are sent to the future to fight the ‘Tomorrow War.’ The underlying fear is that global warming will destroy us all in the future if we do not do something about it now.
It is surprising how long it has taken for filmmakers to address climate change. Given the amount of coverage and concern for global warming, it seems that Hollywood is reluctant to address climate change issues. In 2020, critic Nicholas Barber pointed out that Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) was one of few popular films to deal with the issue.  Barber is correct that few films contain the theme, but it could be that climate change is just too fearful a topic for filmmakers to tackle at the moment.
This reluctance for filmmakers to wrestle with pressing topics has certainly been the case in previous decades. In the 1950s, direct treatments of communism proved to be highly unpopular, but allegorical treatments in science fiction, biblical epics, and even westerns could deal with this pressing issue. The famous horror author Stephen King recalled seeing Earth versus Flying Saucers when the Sputnik scare was in full flight. King wrote that the monsters flying the alien craft were a depiction of the feared Russians. The destruction of the American Capital brought to the surface fears of nuclear oblivion. King saw the destruction of the flyers saucers as a mental respite for those self-same cold war tensions.
The Tomorrow War contains a nod to another science fiction film of the 1950s. The Thing from Another World (1951) has another monster being released from the frozen depths of the polar regions. The 1951 film depicted an Antarctic expedition discovering an alien frozen beneath the ice. The alien in The Thingfrom Another World (1951) was a popular depiction of communism controlling American society by stealth. The ‘thing’ was a mobile vegetable, and its seeds were planted in soil at the laboratory, and they quickly grew. If the alien escaped to more fertile ground, such as the United States – it could threaten the world. This alien must be contained and stopped from going any further. In other words, if the alien was not stopped at an early stage, then the threat would grow until it became impossible to resist. This argument contains the logic of Cold War containment, which would drive the United States into a myriad of proxy wars. To reinforce the point, after the alien had been destroyed, newspaperman Scotty warned people to remain vigilant: ‘Keep watching the skies. Keep watching the skies.’
Stephen King believed The Thing from Another World (1951) was the first movie of the 1950s to show the scientist in the role of the misguided appeaser. He wrote that for average America, the scientists were vilified in American cinema in the 1950s. This group had developed the atomic bomb and ushered in the nuclear age. According to King, when Dr Carrington faced the alien, the image that would have come into the minds of the American audience was Hitler and Chamberlain. Appeasement by the United Kingdom had led to a dreadful war with Nazi Germany, which had almost been lost. It was better to fight than to appease. When the alien pushed Carrington aside, an American audience could only see it in political terms. Enemies had to be dealt with using a firm hand from the military.
Of course, fears are not always political. The same message of thawed horror is contained in the first season of Fortitude (2012), a British TV show about a community living well within the arctic circle, but in this case, the horror is decidedly different. A frozen carcass of a long-dead animal is left to thaw, releasing some insects that could rip apart the small community. The insects turn people into psychopaths, and the community begins to disintegrate as blame shifts from one person to another. The fears raised in Fortitude deal with the idea that each individual can turn into a psychopath given the right circumstances. The Tomorrow War (2020), made in today’s environment, deals with another set of fears about global warming. For The Thing From Another Planet (1951), it was the threat of communism. These works have the same basic plot of a frozen terror being thawed and then released. The story has stayed the same, but the fears have changed.
Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia
Edited by Tatiana Prorokova-Konrad, University of Mississippi Press, 2020.
Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow
La Trobe University
By the time Joe Biden was elected President, diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia had deteriorated for more than a decade. The media repeatedly used the term ‘a new Cold War” to describe the relationship between the United States and Russia. The first Cold War was a term developed in 1947 by the American writer, journalist and political commentator Walter Lippman. The Cold War was the conflict between the USSR and the West from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union around 1990. The Cold War was depicted as the clear ideological conflict between communism and liberal democracies across the world – a claim open to debate. Of course, the current state of US – Russian relations has little or nothing to do with communism. This new “Cold War” appears to have been running from 2012 to today when Russia became more aggressive, particularly in the Ukraine. The iciness of world diplomacy has widespread implications, including a renewed interest in Russians as villains in American cinema. The editor of Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia, Tatiana Prorokova-Konrad, “examines the recent growth in Russia-related films as well as the effectiveness of understanding the current US-Russia political crisis; through the lens of recent Cold War films and T.V. shows.” (4) A clear influence to many of the writers in the book is Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, which maps out the recent menace of the re-emergence of Russian hostility. The book hopes to enrich the conventional understandings of the Cold War during both the Trump and Obama administrations.
This collection of articles does not have a uniform methodological or theoretical approach. Still, the editor Prorokova-Konrad attempts to draw the essays together with an introductory discussion about Hollywood’s previous cold war spasms in the late 1910s and 1950s. Prorokova-Konrad only makes a faint mention of silent films with anti-communist sympathies, and she dates anti-communist films as far back as Ninotchka (1939). However, anti-Soviet films have had a much longer pedigree than the late 1930s. A mention of the film A Bolshevism on Trial (1919) showed that anti-communism had a long lineage, dating back to the Russian Revolution. Some of the 1950s anti-communist films are referenced, but it is an incomplete listing. Even key films in the 1950s, such as Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952), are only mentioned in passing. If the book’s title is a “renewed obsession,” the reader might be expected to be introduced to what exactly Hollywood was revisiting more thoroughly.
The opening section, called “Enduring Clichés,” begins with the article: The Warm Glow of Cold War Nostalgia by Vesta Silva & Jon Wiebel. It is difficult to see how the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis could create a warm glow in any sensible person. Still, the authors argue that “the second decade of the twenty-first century has seen an explosion of Cold War stories in American films and television series that highlight a nostalgic desire for a return to the more certain.” Looking at the issue through the lens of The Bridge of Spies (2015) and Atomic Blonde (2017), they examine how the Cold War has been depicted through the actions of cinematic heroes. The films promote a sense of certainty that is lacking in the present-day War on Terror and the rise of Russia. The idea of nostalgia is also present in Big Rewards for the Small Screen by Helena Goscilo, and it is the best paper of the opening section. The essay looks at how The Man from U.N.C.L.E was depicted in TV series in the 1960s and a later film version directed by Guy Ritchie in 2015. As well as mentioning some films from the early stages of the Cold War, Grocilo uses the programs as an opportunity to look at the cultural responses within their cultural settings.
With any disparate collection of articles, some essays are better than others. There is a mixture of heavy-handed theoretical works, and others are free of such concerns. One of the more impressive articles is Ian Scott’s examination of the various films that have used Berlin as its setting, such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965). It is an interesting and perceptive survey of the topic, and it is refreshing to see a writer who sees this recent crop of films as part of a tradition. The same comment can be made about The Shape of Water and the Cold War Revisited by Cyndy Hendershot. This essay is a highly observant one looking at how The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was reworked in the 21st century. Another good essay is “Your Body Belongs to the State by Dan Ward, which concentrates on the depiction of heroines in Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow. Perhaps the most successful essay is Laughing at the Early Cold War by Lori Maguire, where she provides a good introduction to these films. Again, she shows that films such as Hail Caesar (2016) and Death of Stalin (2017) have many predecessors. By referencing films such as the British comedy Our Man in Havana (1959), Maguire demonstrates a sound grasp of cinema history and the long lineage of these films.
Yet in presenting a case for a ‘Hollywood obsession,’ some selections are quite dubious. Many of the films are not even American – and cannot be considered part of Hollywood’s cinema – for example, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) was a British, French and German co-production. The Death of Stalin (2017) was a British, French and Belgium co-production, and both films are repeatedly referenced. However, it is not just the film industry. To place TV shows as part of a ‘Hollywood obsession’ is stretching the boundaries a little. One of the essays: Of Mothers and Motherlands by David LaRocca, focuses on the American TV show The Americans (2013 – 2018). The Americans was a popular program that told the story of two agents who passed as the heads of an all-American family. LaRocca provides an excellent survey of the show. Astonishingly for an American program, audiences supported the two Russian spies as they killed and attempted to destroy American democracy. It is a complex program with multi-levels showing how spies had to balance their family lives with their intelligence work.
Each of the essays has various strengths and weaknesses, but what is generally missing from the book is any discussion of the long-running diplomatic rifts between the West and Russia. This group of papers barely looks beyond the Second World War. The end of the Cold War meant that the USSR was no longer a superpower, and Soviet Communism was a spent force in world affairs. Russia imploded but was always going to reassert itself in some form as a regional power. One exception was Lori Maguire, who connected Putin’s rule back to Stalin, but there are other possible historical resonances. Putin represented another version of Russian authoritarianism that has impacted the country’s history for centuries.
Indeed, since the rise of the nation-states in the nineteenth century, tensions and conflicts between countries have ebbed and flowed. Russia has always been a player in the world and European politics. Britain and Russia wrestled for control of Afghanistan for many decades. “Cold War II” is a great title for the marketing department, and it makes for racy headlines for newspapers – but it is just not the case. The world is simply facing the same geographical dilemmas that have faced diplomats for centuries – albeit with nuclear weapons. Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography certainly outlined the continuities of Russian history. The essayists could have also looked further afield at books such as Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of Red Czar, and Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, which links communism and Putin’s rule as back to the Romanovs. Of these writers, Myers is mentioned once and crudely dismissed. These books highlight that authoritarian rulers or Tsars have existed throughout Russian history, and both Stalin and Putin are part of that tradition – there is no new Cold War. The essayists could even have looked back to the reign of Catherine the Great for inspiration to explain some of the depictions. Interestingly, she was also the subject of two TV series: Catherine the Great (2019) and The Great (2020) and, but these were released after the book was written.
What is also missing is any discussion of the box office success of these films, which might indicate the acceptance or take-up rate of ideas contained in the film. Few of the films examined were highly successful, which raises the question of what impact, if any, they made. It is one thing to say the films contained these ideas, but if the films were not watched, their impact is minimal. Look for the term ‘box office,’ and it is confined to one footnote in an essay discussing representations of US – Russia foreign policy by Thomas J. Cobb as represented in the film Black Panther, which did resonate with United States audiences in a way that Red Sparrow did not. Yet, it is the less successful Red Sparrow that is the focus of several writers.
The timing of the book is also a little unfortunate. The Queen’s Gambit (2020) did not make the cut for these essays due to its launch after publication. It is a highly popular TV series with an interesting depiction of the Soviet Union. The central character Beth Harmon is based on Bobby Fischer, a United States chess genius who broke the Soviet Union’s stranglehold in a cold war showdown in 1972. The TV show cuts against the book’s central premise that most television and film depictions of Russia are menacing. While the Soviet Union is depicted as a harsh regime, the people in it are human. The American Beth Harmon goes up against Russians who are ruthlessly competitive, but they are also courteous and dignified. While her opponent Bogrov can destroy any opponent, he is polite, respectful in defeat and triumph, and appears to be a dedicated family man. He even seems genuinely happy at Harmon’s triumph. The show then depicts Harmon’s friends rallying to her assistance to meet the Soviet team on equal terms. They eventually adopt the Soviet collegiate system, where players support each other. If the book had been issued a little later, the success of The Queens Gambit (2020) might have made the book’s tone more optimistic. It is not the only example, as The Courier (2020) also highlighted a positive relationship between a London businessman and a Russian spy that may have helped defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Aside from a few exceptions, the papers have little or no optimism about the relationship. It is both an interesting and pessimistic book.
 Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. Rev. ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
 Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, London: Scribner, 2016
 Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin : The Court of the Red Tsar. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.
 Steven Lee, Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin. First Vintage Books ed. 2016.
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.
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.’ 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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.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. The audience responded to the film but it is
unclear to exactly what they were responding.
 Tom Milne (ed.). Losey on Losey, Secker & Warburg, London,
1968, p. 90.
 Rudy Behlmer, Behind the Scenes: The Making of, Samuel French, New York, 1990, p.
 Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of he Cold War, Dial, New York, 1982, p. 176.
Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
One of the most controversial aspects of the HUAC investigations was the insistence of the investigators for names. Those named by people testifying were usually already known to the committee and it served no purpose other than to show that the witness was fully co-operative. Those who informed were also the subject of many films during the 1950s. Stalag 17 (1954) was an interesting film from a political perspective. The film was about an informer within a prisoner of war camp. Director Billy Wilder had signaled his disgust with the HUAC style investigations through his support of Mankiewicz, along with his involvement in the Committee For The First Amendment and it comes through in this film.
The authorities were the detested Nazis, and in consequence the film could not be objected to on political grounds. An informer within the camp was foiling escape attempts and passing on secrets. It was in one fragment of dialogue that Wilder and co-writer Blum got their message across. It happened when the suspected traitor William Holden tells his assistant – who no longer trusts him – that there was a German spy in the barracks: ‘It’s hard to imagine an American informing on another American. But maybe they’re not an American, maybe …’ He is interrupted before he can complete the sentence but the implication was that to inform on another American was an unpatriotic act – perhaps an un-American act – and worthy only of people with the lowest form of morality such as the Nazis. When the German informer was finally uncovered, he was brutally thrown from the barracks with clattering tin cans tied round his legs to be mown down by machine guns. It was a violent ending to a film which gave no sympathy at all to the plight of the informer. Indeed, informers had never been popular in American cinema. From The Informer (1935) through to Stalag 17 (1954), it was difficult to identify any films where the informer was a hero. Informing was usually an act of cowardice. Kiss of Death (1947) was one example where an informer was the central hero for testifying against a gangster. The line is very close to the sentiments of Moe in Pick Up On South Street. In Brute Strength (1947) directed by Jules Dassin, a prisoner says to a sadistic warder played by Hume Cronyn who wants him to inform: ‘I’m a cheap thief, but I’m not an informer.’ Dassin was one of the Hollywood community who was driven out by the HUAC hearings and blacklisting’s. He was not able to work in America for many years because of his stand.
Stalag 17, (d) Billy Wilder, Billy Wilder, Edwin Blum.
 Quoted in Victor Navasky, Naming Names, Viking New York, 1980, page x.
 Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in
the Film Community 1930 – 1960, Doubleday, New York, 1980, p. 399.
Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
The failure of the anti-communist films from 1949 to 1952 to leave their mark was attributable to three main factors: the haste and clumsy way they were produced; the obvious studio pressure to put as much vitriol as possible in the films; and finally the endless digs within the films at former members of the Hollywood community. In the first phase, the films can be read as concerted attacks on the unfriendly witnesses and those who supported them. It is not surprising that the anti-communist films had no resonance with the wider American community because they were aimed at blacklisted communist or left-wing writers, actors or directors. The films failed to separate liberal and communist critics of society, they justified civil rights abuses, depicted communists as sexually perverted, drug dealing hypocrites and they slandered intellectuals. These films would have alienated those members of the audience with any liberal sympathies whatsoever. The films also attempted to blame all America’s problems on the communists. Union troubles, race riots and demonstrations were all linked back to communist agitators and an elaborate masterplot from Moscow. The films argued that the United States would be perfect apart from these communist agents. They were political nonsense with their delusions of world wide conspiracy and the films and their ideas were rejected by the American public.
By the mid-1950s, it was
clear that the real sting had gone from anti-communist films. Strategic Air Command (1955) also showed
the swing away from red-baiting to a more moderate approach to superpower
conflict. The communists were barely
even hinted at in the script, even though the entire film is about the work of
the Strategic Air Command. This group
was constantly in flight and prepared to attack Russia with its nuclear
weapons. It would have been a difficult
task for a writer to draw out any tension from a plane flying for hours on end
and instead the film focused on Rusty Castle played by Jimmy Stewart. Castle was a major league baseball player who
was recalled into the SAC because they needed good, steady leadership in the
Airforce to maintain their nuclear threat.
He was reluctant to join, after serving during the war, but on seeing
the benefits for America, he did so. It
was a simple film which reveled in the advanced technology available to the
United States Airforce. The film lacked
a climax which reflected its underlying philosophy which was put forward by
Castle: ‘There is a kind of war on –
we’ve got to stay ready to fight without fighting- that’s harder.’
This message of a fight
without fighting resonated with Americans.
Their belief in the effectiveness of the Strategic Air Command was to be
shattered when the Russians launched the Sputnik in 1957. However in 1955, the film reassured the
nuclear jitters of the American people.
Senator Thomas H. Kuchel of California said the cause of peace was well
served by the film.
It serves free people everywhere. To the extent that all people are made aware
of our great military strength, the likelihood of aggression by those who
oppose freedom diminishes. It brings
those who view it, a graphic and moving story of the power and might of our
Strategic Air Command.
The United States needed
its nuclear weapons to keep the communists at bay. The Strategic Air Command was expensive but
it did the job and the security of the American system was maintained. Subversion was hinted at with the film’s
insistence of security. This film was
definitely aimed at reassuring the American people that America’s nuclear
weapons were in safe hands and were more than a match for the Russians.
achieved great financial success with its message of quiet confidence in the
nuclear deterrence and the effectiveness of the American forces. The cold war message had moved right away
from subversion to deal with the actual reality of Russia’s nuclear and military
capacity. When films concentrated on the
inherent strength of the United States, they were far more successful. Strategic
Air Command added a note of reassurance which had been missing from the
anti-communist propaganda of the 1950s.
It earned $6.5 million and was the fourth highest earning film of 1955. Such a huge popular reaction to an
anti-communist film had simply not occurred before.
Not even the Korean War
could provide Hollywood with the impetus to make any popular propaganda
films. The Bridges at Toko Ri (1955), which was the most popular film on
the Korean war, avoided discussing any of the major issues involved in the conflict. There were odd references to the Russians,
but the film focused on the life of sailors and pilots in the navy. The war was a forgotten task undertaken by
soldiers who would rather be at home with their wives and girlfriends. This film was the exception as most Korean
War films were box office poison.
Yet the American public
remained implacably anti-communist throughout the late 40s and early 1950s and
it would be logical to assume that these films would have reflected their
concerns and fears about communism. The
films failed because they did not deal with the audience’s real fears about
communism. Other types of films did.
Strategic Air Command, (d) Anthony Mann, Valentine Davies,
Beirnie Lay Jnr.
 Paramount Studios press
release, 31 January 1955, Box 629, Folder 4, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham
Young University, Provo, Utah, USA>
As the Korean War petered out in 1953, and memories of the HUAC investigations began to fade, most of the real sting went out of anti-communist films. The new style of anti-communist film depicted Russia as a dangerous and determined enemy which had to be treated ruthlessly. In Night People (1954), Gregory Peck played an American colonel Stephen Van Dyke who was in charge of an operation to return a kidnapped American soldier called John Leatherby. The soldier had been kidnapped because the Russians wanted an anti-Nazi couple and hoped to swap the corporal for them. The film informed us that Himmler’s men now worked for the Russians, and they wanted their revenge on the couple. The central conflict of the story rested between Van Dyke and the father of the soldier, ad American businessman Charles Leatherby played by Broderick Crawford. Leatherby felt that the Russians could be negotiated with as if they were hard-headed businessmen. Van Dyke refuted his ideas.
This is not a cash and
carry business. You are not dealing with
A & P. These are cannibals. Head hunting, blood thirsty cannibals who
want to eat us up.
The conflict between civilians and the military in dealing with the Russians was one of the central themes in many anti-communist films. Originally called The Cannibals, the film plays out the emerging confidence of dealing with the Russians. Crawford was identified with the Eisenhower administration by the fact that he played golf and had heavy political connections. Peck was a soldier who was on the cutting edge of the cold war in Berlin.
Leatherby was a tough businessman who wanted results. He found that this attitude got him nowhere
in the cold war diplomacy of Berlin.
When he arrived at Berlin Airport, he asked State Department official
Frederick Hobart what the situation was:
It’s another big squeeze
apparently. We get them from time to
time. You know. Yesterday, they held up the autobans and
they cut phone lines into East Germany.
Anything they can think of to make nuisances of themselves.
What do you think they want
Well, for one thing they want us
out of here?
Alright so we get out?
Then they may take a fancy to
Are you trying to be funny?
… I’m only sure that whatever
happens is not isolated. They kidnap a
19 year old boy, your son, and we can’t tell if its just a local needle or
the end of the film, Leatherby had seen the error of his ways and realised that
the military had the answers for the cold war.
He told Van Dyke that he could not let two innocent people be exchanged
for his son. Van Dyke replied that
although it was a major decision for Leatherby, that his opinions had never
mattered in the first place. The military,
not the civilians, made the decisions about dealing with the Russians.
Dyke discovered that his mistress and contact with the Russians was a Soviet
spy and fooled the Russians by swapping her for the soldier. When it was needed, Van Dyke was ruthless. After strangling and punching his former
mistress, he had poisoned absinthe poured down her throat. Night
People showed a blend of the paranoia of the early anti-communist films
with the a return of an assurance that America had in its military. The opening sequence of marching soldiers,
tanks and helicopters was quite impressive as they moved across the wide
CinemaScope screen. Subversion still
existed, but it was not from within the American ranks. It is interesting that they spy had been carefully
replaced by Russians, rather than indoctrinated. The final scene had Van Dyke looking over the
skyline of Berlin confident that he could handle the Russians. The film added a note of reassurance to
anti-communist films that had been missing since The Big Lift. The more
positive tone appeared to helped it at the box office. Variety ranked it 51st, making
The McConnell Story (1955) directed
by Gordon Douglas, a General introduced the story of an American ace who shot
down more planes than any other person in Korea. He said that because of people like McConnell,
women were safe in their homes, children in their schools. People were free because ‘there are no chains
on your mind’. When McConnell arrived in Korea, he was told
that this was the communist testing ground.
‘If they succeed here, there’ll be no part of the world that’ll be
safe’. The role of the army was simply to slaughter
and make them think twice before trying anything again. There was no mention of subversion within the
American ranks. The threat was simply
external. The film was reasonably
popular and was ranked 27th by Variety
with rentals of $3.5 million.
 Linking the Soviet Union with the
German Nazis in the popular imagination to become a totalitarian blur is
discussed in Les K. Alder and Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Red Fascism: The Merger of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia
in the American Image of Totalitarianism, 1930s- 1950s,’ American Historical Review, April 1970, pp. 1046 – 1064.
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.
Government would not arm its soldiers with guns made by amateurs. Neither should it arm … (the State)
Department with films by amateurs.
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.
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
(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.
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.
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.
Detective: If you refuse to co-operate you’ll be as
guilty as those traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb
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’. 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.’
other anti-communist films defended the role of the informer. In Pickup
On South Street, the stance on informing was reversed.
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.
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”. 
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.
Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
The anti-communist crusade of the movie moguls began when they signed the Waldorf Declaration on 24 November 1947 which was the same day that Congress met to approve the HUAC contempt citations. The declaration was supported by the Motion Picture Association of America, the Association of Motion Picture Producers – the studio heads – and was signed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. They voted to sack any employee who would not say under oath that he or she was not a communist. This meant that the Hollywood 10 were sacked without compensation. The studio heads also voted to refuse to employ any person with communist beliefs.
Waldorf declaration was the action of men who were quite prepared to sacrifice
their political independence of financial gain.
Attacking the communists did not appear to be a high price to pay; after
all it was only a small group of writers who were being sacked. Moverover, the spirited resistance against
the HUAC-style investigation in 1941 was done at a time when Roosevelt was
firmly entrenched in power. The
political pendulum had swung to the right and the studios were attempting to
appease their new political masters.
Hollywood 10 soon lost most of its support when many in the Committee for the
First Amendment dropped their backing for the group. Some believed that they also could also lose
their jobs and others thought the Hollywood’s 10’s behavior before the
committee as unforgivable, and support for the group began to fade quickly in
the film industry. In subsequent HUAC investigations, there was
little or no effective organised opposition.
HUAC investigations were, in part, a reaction to the Roosevelt years and the
close relationship of the film industry with its administration. But there were other links between the HUAC
investigators and Hollywood. The film
industry had encouraged the myth that America was the unblemished ‘good guy’ of
world politics, it now had to reap some of the bitter fruits of that wartime
propaganda. The myth helped give
Americans a feeling of infallibility which assisted in their massive war
effort. In fostering the belief that to
fight America was to do wrong, the films of the Second World War helped create
the mental framework for the cold war.
The adjustment from Nazi Germany to communist Russia as the Untied States
central enemy was surprisingly swift. But it did raise some nagging problems. If America was always right, and Russia was
wrong, why was the United States allied to the country in the first place?
answer for the American right – and in particular the HUAC investigators – was
a vast conspiracy stretching from Russia, to the White House, onto communist
screenwriters in Hollywood. Historian
Richard Hofstadter has written about the attractiveness of the conspiracy
theory to Americans and its frequent explosions in American life. A common theme of these theorists was that
small groups with outside backing were seeking to control the United States by
nefarious means. Conspiracy theories
were a well established part of American political culture and they flourished
during the uncertain post-war period.
According to the conspiracy theorists, the Roosevelt administration had
a long term plan to undermine capitalism in order to bring the economy under
the control of the Federal Government and to pave the way for socialism or
communism. HUAC Investigator Robert E.
Stripling believed that Hollywood was in danger of falling under the control of
communists, just as other industries had already done.
scapegoats for the conspiracy theorists were the communist and left-wing
writers who worked on the ‘praise Russia’ films of the Second World War. Screenwriter Howard Koch had been ordered by
Warner to make Mission to Moscow and is efforts had been praised by Warner. Koch was subpoenaed but did not testify, he
placed full page ads in the Hollywood trade papers saying that he was not and
had never been a communist, but reserved the right not to say it to HUAC. Koch’s strong liberalism had shown out in
films such as In This Our Life (1942)
and his talent in Sergeant York
(1941) Casablanca (1943), and Letter From an Unknown Woman (1947). His efforts counted for nothing and his
refusal to answer HUAC’s questions, on the principle of his constitutional
rights meant that he did not work in Hollywood for another 12 years. The studio heads were not interested in
Justice, they were interested in scapegoats and Koch was one of those
blacklisted as a result.
other members of the Hollywood 10, there were more sinister motives for their
blacklisting. Action in the North
Atlantic screenwriter John Howard Lawson was a central figure in the formation
of the Screenwriters Guild. Eradicating
him would also relieve the studio heads of a radical and determined union
leader. Ring Lardner Jr had always been
a thorn in the side of the ultra-conservative Hollywood leaders. In November 1945, Lardner wrote a long,
highly critical and funny article for Screenwriter on the ultra-conservative
Cecil B. DeMille where he relentlessly attacked and satirized the director and
his politics. He focused sharply on the
Cecil B. DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom writing:
All policy and action
are determined by the self perpetuating board of directors, yet every rank and
file member is assured his political freedom to read and listen to whatever
pronouncement Mr DeMille is moved to make.
described the foundation as essentially a right-wing organisation which had
attacked the rights of unionists to make a united stand. The editor of Screenwriter was Dalton Trumbo and the managing editor was Gordon
Kahn. All three became member of the
Hollywood 19. The article was specially
transcribed the DeMille and left in his papers in a file on background
information on communists for his autobiography. DeMille was often accused by his political
opponents of providing names to HUAC and it seems clear that the selection of
Lardner, Trumbo and Kahn was no accident: Hollywood’s right-wing was exacting
have argued that it was the economic decline of Hollywood which forced the
studio heads to retreat so vigorously. However, he moguls had opposed intervention
strongly before the war. It was not
economic pressures which drove them to make the Waldorf declaration. The year 1947 was the second most successful
year for the cinema in its history. There was a slight dip from the figures for
1946 which had been a record year for the industry, but they were not under
savage pressure. Anti-trust legislation
and television were on the horizon, but in general the motion picture industry
was sound. The Waldorf declaration and
the consequent blacklisting was a personal failure of nerve by the studio heads
to fight the HUAC investigations.
studio heads did not realize that the declaration opened the way for constant
sackings and suspicion. In trying to get
a quick fix to a complex problem, the studios had allowed themselves to be held
hostage by any patriotic organisation which called any actor, director or
writer a communist and promised to picket a film carrying their name. These organisations were extremely demanding. When a person was named as a communist by a
patriotic organisation of some description, the studio heads either had to get
the person concerned cleared through certain channels or have them blacklisted. Red Channels was one example of the
publications circulating at the time which itemized the various offences of
actors and writers supposedly in communist from organisations. The evidence was often wafer thin, but as the
introduction to Red Channels showed the editors were not interested in
The information set
forth in the following report is taken for records available to the
public. The purpose of this
complications is threefold. One, to show
how communists have been able to carry out their plan of infiltration of the
radio and television industry. Two to
indicate the extent to which many prominent actors and artists have been
inveigled to lend their names, according
to these public records, to organisations espousing Communist causes. This, regardless of whether they actually
believe in, sympathize with, or even encourage actors or artists from naively
lending their names to Communist organizations or causes in the future.
Waldorf Declaration and the acquiescence of the studio heads to the HUAC
investigators opened the way for chaos in the filmmaking industry. Blacklisting could occur for being a member
of a political group, attending a meeting or signing a petition. The Blacklisting of an actor was not a one
way street. His or her name could be
cleared by approaches to the various agencies concerned. Certain shadowy figures during the blacklist
era made a living attempting to clear people so that they could return to
work. Indeed some groups would cast
aspersions on a person’s character and then offer to redress the balance. This led to a continuing round of clearances
of actors and writers through various organisations. Blacklisted writers could also still write
for the studios using fronts to submit their scripts. People were told to avoid blacklisted people
or at least not to meet them in public.
third phase of the crusade against communism was the release of a series of
anti-communist films. Actor Adolphe
Menjou, one of the friendly witnesses before the HUAC hearings, demanded that
the studios produce anti-communist films.
I believe it would be
an incredible success… I think it would be a very wonderful thing to see one
made. I would like to see a picture of
the Bulgarian situation; … I would like that shown to the American public to see
communism as it actually is. I would
like to see the brutal beatings, the stabbings and killings that go on through
Europe… We showed many anti-Nazi pictures.
I see no reason why we do not show anti-communist pictures.
studios responded quickly to Menjou’s call.
The first anti-communist film to roll out of the studios was Ninotchka which was re-released by MGM
in November 1947. Earlier the State
Department had been so impressed with the film’s anti-communist message that it
helped release it in Italy to help undermine the Italian communists in 1946
Ninotchka was quickly followed
by The Iron Curtain which was
released by RKO in May 1948. The title of the film was the image for
Churchill’s famous speech of an iron curtain descending across Europe which he
made on 5 March 1946. This film was similar in style to the
successful Confessions of a Nazi Spy
released before the war, and it also shared the same writer in Martin
Krims. The film concentrated on the
defection of a Russian clerk Igor Gouzenko, played by Dana Andrews, who
defected in Canada. Even with its
novelty value, and the huge publicity of the HUAC hearings, the film was ranked
64th in the year’s rentals.
 Otto Friedrich, City of Nets, Headline, London, 1986, p.
 Phillip French, The Movie Moguls, Penguin, Harmonsworth,
1969, p. 154. Producers Sam Goldwyn,
Walter Wagner and liberal Dore Schary opposed the declaration.
 Barry Norman, Talking Pictures: The Story of Hollywood,
Hooder and Stoughton, London, 1987, p. 205.
 Les K. Alder and Thomas G.
Paterson, ‘Red Fasciasm: The Merger of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the
American Image of Totalitarianism, 1930s-1950s, ‘American Historical Journal,
vol. 75, no. 4, April 1970, pp. 1059 – 1061. Alder and Paterson discuss how
easily the substitution from Germany to Russia occurred as a totalitarian
 Richard Hofstadter The Paranoid Style In American Politics and
Other Essays, Jonathan Cape, London, 1966, pp. 3 – 40.
 Robert E. Stripling, The Red Plot Against America, Bell,
 Jack Warner to Howard Koch,
November 24, 1942, Howard Koch Collection, Wisconsin Center for Film and
Theatre Research in David Culbert (ed.). Mission
to Moscow, Wisconsin Warner Bros Screenplay Series, University of Wisconsin
Press, Wisconsin, 1980, pp. 264 – 265.
 Ring Lardner Jr., ‘The Sign of the Boss’, The Screen Writer,
November 1945, pp. 1 – 12. Transcript in
Box 29, Folder 7, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo,
Utah, USA. The Cecil B. DeMille
Foundation for Political Freedom was formed to campaign for right-to-work laws
and against communist infiltration.
DeMille set up the foundation when he refused to pay one dollar to the
American Federation of Radio Artists to fight right-to-work legislation on the
California state ballot in 1944. The
foundation was closed soon after his death in 1959.
 Other names in the files include
writers Albert Maltz, Sidney Buchman, and John Howard Lawson who were all
blacklisted. Edward G. Robinson and
Elmer Bernstein were described as not communist. Actor Howard Da Silva was also described a
‘commie’ out to get DeMille. All
appeared before HUAC. Box 29, Folder 7, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.
 Dorothy Jones, ‘Communism and the Movies’ in John Cogley,
Report on Blacklisting, The Fund For The Republic, New York, 1956, p. 300.
 For a complete discussion of the
film see Daniel J Leab, ‘The Iron Curtain
(1948): Hollywood’s First Cold War Movie’,
Historical Journal of Film, Radio and
Television, Vol 8, No. 2, 1988, pp. 153 – 188.
 Rhode, Robert James (ed.), Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches
1879 – 1963, Chelsea, London, 1974, p. 7285.
Variety, 5 January 1950 estimated that the film made $2 million in
rentals. No other 1949 anti-communist
made the lists.