Hollywood’s hostility to conservatives is so unrelenting that at times it reaches comic levels. In the recent remake of The Three Stooges, the film’s producers tried to communicate the depth of scurrility of Sofía Vergara’s villainess by showing her reading this estimable magazine in bed.
That the character was played by the voluptuous Vergara no doubt lessened the impact of a blatant attempt to mock and condemn conservatism. Nevertheless, the fact that the filmmakers used this shorthand signal indicates both the endemic nature of modern liberalism in Hollywood and its propensity to indulge in open contempt of more than half of the American populace—specifically, those who do not share Hollywood’s ideological leanings.
None of this should come as any surprise to readers of The Weekly Standard, but what may not be known is that this was not always the case. There was a time when significant parts of Hollywood even leaned right, and that very history is the subject of this book. Here, Donald T. Critchlow surveys the period from when Hollywood first became interested in politics (the 1930s) until 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president. Critchlow argues that, during this period, conservatives in Hollywood were not only active and vocal but rather successful in their efforts, as well.
He begins with the campaign by studio heads, led by Louis B. Mayer, to oppose novelist Upton Sinclair’s radical 1934 bid for governor of California against Republican Frank Merriam. (Mayer even imposed a one-day tax on MGM employees to pay for his victorious efforts, something his employees understandably resented.) Critchlow also explores the powerful influence of Communists in Hollywood and the efforts by conservatives, and some anti-Communist liberals, to oppose them. He provides several interesting stories about how screenwriters, actors, and studio executives became informed and active. And he also notes the lamentable impact of World War II, as the conflict allowed “many anticommunist liberals to overlook the despotic nature of communism, the blindness of party followers, and the malleability of party principles.” Critchlow cites a letter by screenwriter James McGuinness to columnist Westbrook Pegler in order to show how relentless the Communists were in their efforts: “The Pinkos seem to have no social life other than cell meetings. They are bread, butter, liquor and sex to the Reds.”
Critchlow digs up no small number of uncomfortable truths. Those artists who joined the party were required to relinquish their artistic freedom, something that too few were reluctant to do. Budd Schulberg, author of the great Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run?, was told that he could not write his book without the approval of the party. Fortunately for us, Schulberg disregarded the directive and completed the book—although he found it necessary to run away to Vermont to escape from his overseers.
These tales of the humorless, dictatorial nature of Communist operatives fail to appear in the standard accounts of the battle against communism in Hollywood. Modern lore tends to romanticize the Hollywood Ten, who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Critchlow refuses to engage in such airbrushing. He charges that “the ten ‘unfriendly’ witnesses who followed presented the Hollywood Left at its worst—arrogant, intolerant, and out of touch with mainstream America.” He also cites Billy Wilder’s observation that “of the Unfriendly 10, only two had any talent; the other eight were just unfriendly.”
Critchlow goes beyond the production sets and screenplays. He shows how Hollywood actually aided the electoral prospects of Republican presidential candidates Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. We learn that Robert Montgomery helped Ike improve his performance in front of the camera, and, thanks in part to Montgomery’s counsel, Eisenhower made groundbreaking use of television, becoming the first president to give a televised press conference and the first to establish a White House camera room.
As for Nixon, he is generally remembered for his poor performance in his televised debate against John F. Kennedy (something Eisenhower advised him not to do). But Nixon had his own moments of success on TV, and he never would have become president without them. Television, of course, rescued Nixon’s career (with the Checkers speech) at a time when Ike was inclined to drop him from the ticket. And in 1968, Nixon, determined to do better on TV than he had in 1960, hired The Mike Douglas Show producer (and later Fox News president) Roger Ailes to serve as adviser. Critchlow notes: “Borrowing from Kennedy’s media-savvy 1960 campaign, Nixon’s successful use of television during the 1968 campaign helped win the election for him.”
Nixon’s campaign also understood the importance of using Hollywood stars on the campaign trail. As one aide observed:
If you appear by yourself, you’ll perhaps get 10,000 people to hear you speak. If you are introduced by John Wayne you can bet on 20,000. . . . It’s amazing how many Americans who are normally bored stiff by politics will turn up to rallies when they know there’s going to be a movie star there.
According to Critchlow, the greatest accomplishment of the Hollywood right was getting Ronald Reagan elected. Reagan used stars effectively in his 1966 campaign for governor against Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, father of California’s current governor. Buddy Ebsen, of Beverly Hillbillies and, later, Barnaby Jones fame, joked to a Reagan rally audience: “Better an actor than a clown in Sacramento.” Brown miscalculated in one retort: “You know I’m running against an actor. Remember this, you know who shot Abraham Lincoln, don’t you? An actor shot Lincoln.” This malicious—and illogical—slur “outraged Reagan’s Hollywood supporters,” Critchlow writes.
The era of Hollywood conservatism, however, drew to a close even as Reagan was elected. Hollywood may once have been a two-party town—three if you count the Communists—but those days are no more. Now, what stands for open-minded, tolerant liberalism is Sofía Vergara reading The Weekly Standard in bed—which sounds to me like a great idea for a pin-up poster.
Tevi Troy, a former White House aide, is the author of What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.