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Published by EH.NET (February 1999)

Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the

American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s, Forum: Rocklin, Cal., 1998.

xviii + 365 pp. Illustrations, appendices, notes, and index. $25.00 (cloth

),

ISBN 0-7615-1376-0.

Reviewed for H-Business by D. Jonathan Snyder, Department of History,

Southern Illinois University (Carbondale).

1997 saw a surge of articles and op-ed pieces commemorating, rehashing and

otherwise dissecting the fiftieth anniversary of the “Hollywood Ten” and the

blacklist in the film industry. Predictably, Hollywood itself staged a gala

event, a memorial and tribute to itself, complete with the glitz, star power

and dramatic pyrotechnics routinely available to

the movie capital. Through vignettes, clips, reenactments and the ineffable

luster of stardom, the production, Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist,

reminded its audience of an old story, of the days when dark forces of

political repression came for a time to dominate the film industry, despite

the heroic non-cooperation of a few idealistic martyrs.

For Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist, like

most of Hollywood’s product, was slanted history that substituted glamour for

facts and dressed political self-righteousness in the vapid solemnity of

liberal celebrity; it was a “stage play, with easily identifiable victims and

heroes in a simple to follow plot” (p. 7). In Hollywood Party: How Communism

Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s,

Billingsley, Editorial Director for the libertarian think-tank Pacific Research

Institute, proposes that there is more here than the persecution of innocents

by reactionary politicians. He aims to expose the dirty secret that

Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist failed to stage: that Hollywood’s

political nescience permitted the Communist Party to manipulate screen content,

whitewash the truth about Communism through decades of commiserating films, and

thereby warp the popular memory of Communism. By leaving out actual

Communists, avers Billingsley, Hollywood has failed to tell “how the central

conflict of this century affected the American movie industry, and ultimately,

decisions about who controlled Hollywood” (p. 10).

Promising a “political and cultural thriller” (p. 10), Billingsley even

provides us with a handy “Partial Cast of Characters” to help separate the good

guys from the bad. Unfortunately, Billingsley too eagerly chases narrative

pacing at the expense of historical accuracy. Thus his book is filled with

errors and distortion, such as the details surrounding Charlie Chaplin’s

political reclamation. Billingsley correctly dates Chaplin’s honorary Oscar

three years prior to his knighthood, but he is three years off in the

chronology: Chaplin’s Oscar was in 1972, not 1975; his knighthood came in 1975,

not 1978, by which time the Little Tramp was one year dead. Likewise

Billingsley lists the birth date of John Howard Lawson, doyen of

Hollywood Communists, as 189 3, rather than the correct 1894. Such errors by

themselves amount to little more than annoyances, but in a book with

aggravatingly few footnotes and sparse (and shopworn) references, one begins to

doubt whether this author has done his homework.

Billingsley claims that his narrative will finally tell “the entire story of

why the Communist Party came to Hollywood, and what it accomplished there”

(p. 10). Rather, we get truncated historical causation reminiscent of

Hollywood’s liberties with adapted novels.

For example, purporting to argue that the Communist Party had expropriated the

radical New York theater for propaganda purposes, Billingsley describes the

aforementioned Lawson’s play,

Processional: A Jazz Symphony of American Life, as a “slugfest of

fevered rhetoric that became the pattern on the radical stage.” (p. 48). Two

sentences previously he had quoted Lawson (accurately) writing, “it is my aim

to present the Communist position…in the most specific manner,” thus seeming

to indicate that Processional was an example of Communist propaganda.

Unfortunately for Billingsley, Lawson uttered those words some nine years after

Processional (1925) and still more than a year before he actually joined

the Communist Party. Processional’s inchoate

(and burlesqued) politics was incidental to its avowedly radical aesthetic;

the play is more properly compared to the avant-gardism of Eugene O’Neill in

the 1920s than the didacticism of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. By

no standard, least of all

historical, can Processional be considered agit-prop. Billingsley then

proceeds to claim that “by 1936…the Party had enjoyed virtual domination of

the radical theater scene in New York [i.e.,

the radicals controlled the radical theater], and that control became the

model for what they sought in Hollywood, when John Howard Lawson and many

others headed west” (p. 50) Again, he gets the facts wrong: Lawson went to

Hollywood in 1928 as one of the first writers for the new talkies. By the time

he formally joined the Party in 1935, Lawson was already a studio veteran, one

of the highest paid screenwriters, and the first president of the Screen

Writers Guild.

Such narrative compression surfaces throughout Hollywood Party as

Billingsley labors to cram

a complicated history into the confines of his predetermined narrative

structure. For it is the story that is most important to Billingsley, a

Manichean narrative of sinister Communists

(whose villainy is always unmotivated save that the label ? Communis t? makes

them direct conduits for Stalin) on the one hand and the reluctant

anti-Communists in the white hats on the other. It is the structure of a

Hollywood Western, one notices, reminiscent of Whitaker Chambers’

self-portrayal as a reluctant sod-tiller martyring himself to save

civilization, and echoed in Billingsley’s portrayal of anti-Communist union

boss, Roy Brewer, as “the hick projectionist from Nebraska” (p. 286).

Readers are treated to the cloak-and-dagger escapades of union spies, secret

investigators, unwary producers, Communist provocateurs and the sinister

Comintern overlords. At times, the story borders on melodrama, with clandestine

documents establishing Communist subterfuge, and farce, as when nearly fifty

characters, some accessorized

with aliases, romp through the sixteen pages of Chapter Three; a screenwriter

should be so proud. This is such a blinkered narrative that, with no trace of

irony, Billingsley refers to the anti-Communist Walt Disney as “avuncular” (p.

38). Disney, of course,

was as ruthless an empire builder as any robber baron, the affable mouse

notwithstanding. Needless to say, Lawson and the rest of the Hollywood

Communists are held accountable for Soviet terror in repeated recitations of

Stalin’s gruesome bloodletting.

Despite Billingsley’s claim that this is a new telling, it is not. It is the

same story that the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the Motion

Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, and Joseph McCarthy

told. It is the story

of Communists poisoning Hollywood with foreign ideology. And it is still wrong.

Billingsley provides no linkage between the Kremlin and Hollywood to prove that

“in the area of film content, the Party won” (p. 282), other than to recite a

list of anti-anti

-Communist pictures. Billingsley is so intent on Red-baiting Hollywood (one

suspects that the film colony itself, rather than simply

Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist, is his real target) that he wholly

ignores actual influences on screen content such

as commercial appeal, the Production Code, the Legion of Decency, local

censorship, the Supreme Court,

and the requirements of national ideology.[1] The standard history on Communism

and politics in the film industry is still Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund’s

The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960

(1980), a meticulously researched and reasoned assessment that never forgets

the larger economic and social contexts and which Billingsley unwisely

dismisses as “revisionist” (p. 279).

For Billingsley, the Red legacy continues to influence Hollywood, which

habitually peddles movies sympathetic to Communism; pictures like The

Front and Guilty by Suspicion, prove the success of the conspiracy.

This is patent nonsense. During the height of the Cold War, dozens of overtly

anti-Communist movies, like My Son John and Big Jim McLain

were produced, most big money losers. Though he desperately tries to argue that

“the legacy of Hollywood Stalinism explains the dear th of movies about

Communism,” (p. 282; Jane Fonda is gratuitously mentioned in this context)

films like Ninotchka, The Manchurian Candidate, most science

fiction of the 1950s, Dr. Zhivago, the James Bond series, Red

Dawn, White Nights

and countless others suggests that Billingsley’s own politics has occluded his

judgment.

The historical truth about American Communism is difficult to write, but not

because either the Party or the McCarthyites have succeeded in suppressing

adversarial

voices. Despite the persistent underdoggism of authors writing about Communism,

the more pressing impediment to understanding American Communism is the

straitened narratives into which authors have poured their political morality

tales. If nothing else, Billingsley reminds that we need new narratives for

American Communism. Recently, a few authors have begun to break away from this

trap. For instance, Ronald Radosh, no friend of the Communist Party, insists

that we discern between the cynical McCarthyites

and the sincere anti-Communists, a useful distinction Billingsley refrains

from making. Likewise, Ellen Schrecker urges us to recognize the fact that

whatever the indisputable errors of the American Communist Party, there existed

a broader Communist movement that spearheaded legitimate social reforms, such

as fighting race prejudice and organizing labor. This is a start, but we must

go farther. Radosh still insists that the chicanery of the official Communist

Party U.S.A. more or less describes the historical totality of American

Communism, while Schrecker seems content to tar all anti-Communists with the

black legacy of McCarthy.[2] We need a new narrative, one that allows for

sincere anti-Communists and sincere Communists, each untainted by the excesses

of their putative leadership.

Hollywood Party is not good history, it is the collapse of history into

political propaganda. It is the calcification of character and motivation to

simple moral determinants certified by an omniscient narrator. It confuses

individuals with the labels their political opponents stuck to them. By blowing

out of all proportion the meaning and role of Communism in Hollywood,

Billingsley perpetuates, finally, the same old story. It’s a two-for-one thesis

that bashes American Communism, then bloodies an imagined liberal Hollywood

for once loudly (but never exclusively) sticking up for some of its own. In the

end, I submit, these narratives are not about the follies of a small sect of

radical dreamers, nor even so much about

the reactionaries who briefly convinced a large segment of the population to

table the First Amendment. They are, after all, political broadsides, used by

partisans to thrash the moderates on the other side of the aisle. They attempt

to capture the vital

center not through wise and able leadership,

but through recrimination and gamesmanship. That is why Billingsley got so

worked up by those pesky showbiz liberals who staged Hollywood Remembers the

Blacklist.

[1] On this last point, see Robert B. Ray’s

excellent A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980,

Princeton: Princeton University Press,

1985.

[2] Ronald Radosh, “The Two Evils: Communism, McCarthyism, and the truth,”

The New Republic, 11 May 1998, pp. 38-49. Radosh conflates the

Party with what Schrecker understands as the broader Communist movement,

thereby discrediting the latter through association with the former; Ellen

Schrecker, Many Are The Crimes: McCarthyism in America, Boston: Little,

Brown and Co., 1998.