Tales of the Left Coast
When the silver screen was red.
May 23, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 34 • By RON CAPSHAW
Red Star Over Hollywood
WHEN SOME DILIGENT RESEARCHER STUDIES the history of American political wars in the 20th century, he or she will discover that, despite the differing stances, the charges and countercharges (both left and right) achieve a rough consensus by practicing a politicized version of "not in front of the goyim." This command, whispered today by party loyalists like Karl Rove and Paul Begala, goes something like this: Keep all criticisms and doubts about the party within it; display only unity in public, otherwise you are aiding the other side.
It is only fitting that this form of political theater--doubts in the wings camouflaged by handshakes on stage--was performed in Hollywood, and by that most theatrical of political organizations, the American Communist party of the 1930s and '40s. The goyim in their minds was quite large, ranging from Leon Trotsky to (depending on the needs of Moscow) Franklin D. Roosevelt to Robert Taft. Throughout Ronald and Allis Radosh's new book, Red Star Over Hollywood, the Hollywood Reds speak of a paralyzing fear--not the fear of losing their studio contracts, or being wrong (or right) about Stalin, but the fear that their doubts and criticisms about communism will filter out of party doors and into the propaganda coffers of their gargantuan enemy.
Such a bunker mentality necessitates a variety of roles. Take Dalton Trumbo, a Stalinist screenwriter. By day, he acted the part of the dutiful party member, helping prevent reactionary--read Trotskyite--works from making it to the screen, editorially rejecting anti-Communist submissions to the party-dominated Screenwriter magazine (arguing that the free airing of ideas leads to fascism), taking to the podium to deny every purge, defend every twist and turn of Soviet policy. But at night, offstage, he read the works he censored (Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, even the hated Leon Trotsky himself) and sensed the carnage of Stalin.
Radosh skillfully shows the behind-the-scenes sentiments of Trumbo and the rest of the Hollywood Ten during the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations in 1947. Before congressional microphones and newsreel cameras, they played the part of civil libertarians defending the Bill of Rights. Off camera, in segregated legal sessions with party lawyers (two of the ten were no longer members and, hence, denied admission), they affirmed the notion that "fascists," a label that covered a large group in the 1947 party dictionary, were ineligible for free speech protections. Even when Trumbo abandoned communism, he still carried the party's fears with him. His 1958 second-thoughts essay was submitted not to the New Republic or even the Nation but to the safe confines of Masses and Mainstream.
Like any good history book, the Radoshes' settles controversies while generating new ones. With new, and old, evidence, they show that Hollywood Reds were not merely impatient New Dealers--the portrait of Lillian Hellman in Julia--but were Stalinists who regarded the Bill of Rights as selectively applied, and the Soviet Union as the imported model for America. But more than an exposé of the political theater of Hollywood Reds, Red Star is an exposé of the political theater that has crossed generations.
Although available, none of the histories of the blacklist penned by Larry Ceplair or Victor Navasky, under the advertisement of fair-minded journalism seeking the truth, have mentioned John Garfield's documented disgust with the party. Instead, he has been portrayed as an unfriendly witness, risking both health and career to associate with "progressives." Nor have they mentioned that Howard Koch, the screenwriter of the pro-purge Mission to Moscow, was hardly a "non-communist" (Navasky's words) but a fervent Stalinist who used a technical adviser on the film who was being monitored by American intelligence.
Nor has Christopher Trumbo, who minutely combed his father's papers to script the current Broadway play Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, remembered to include the second-thoughts essay. The actors lining up to play the part (Paul Newman, Tim Robbins) have colluded by not honoring the cardinal rule of method acting: research the part.
The question for future scholars that arises from this book is the same as the one applied to the Hollywood Reds: When did they know? Specifically, when did today's left know about Trumbo's second thoughts, Koch's Stalinism, Garfield's disenchantment with the party? We may know why they didn't air such uncomfortable facts: It would have aided the other side.